Themistocles

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Themistocles (523BC-464BC) Athenian statesman, is credited as the leading force in the growth of Athens as a political and military power during the first half of the 5th century BC.

Of somewhat humble birth (his mother was not even Athenian) he was chosen archon at the relatively young age of thirty, and strategus 3 years later. Even then, before the Persian Wars, he realised the importance to his city of a powerful fleet and began work on the port of Piraeus to replace the undeveloped sea-roads at Phalarem where ships were hauled up onto a beach. It was under his watch that the trireme was developed, and the proceeds of the newly expanded silver mine at Laurium were allocated to the development and maintenance of the navy.

After the Greek land-victory at Marathon Themistocles persuaded the Spartans not to isolate themselves in the Peloponnese but join the Athenians and this led to the great naval victory at Salamis which freed Hellas from the Persian threat.

Upon the successful conclusion of the Persian Wars he immediately began the fortification of Athens and Piraeus, including the “long walls” between the city and the coast and, by a series of political stratagems, managed to hold off Spartan opposition long enough for their construction to be a fait d’accompli.

By 477 the fleet was the most powerful in the Greek world, causing many of the states in the Aegean and the Greek mainland to put their own fleets under Athenian control – the Delian League; in effect an Athenian empire.

As was often the case in the turbulence of ancient Greek city politics he faced considerable opposition at home. He was forced out of power and then, in 472, ostracised – in effect sent into exile. From overseas he continued to intrigue against Sparta, and died in 464BC still prevented from returning to his city.

Thucydides wrote that he was "able to distinguish in advance and in the middle of events between what was advantageous and what was harmful." Thucydides also claimed that it was Sparta's fear of the ascendency of Athens during the post-Persian Wars period that made the Peloponnesian War "inevitable".

  • References: "A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Civilization."| Thucydides; "The Peloponnesian War."
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