ca. 524-459 B.C.

Athenian statesman and military leader

Themistocles was a Greek statesman and naval commander who organized Athenian forces during the Persian Wars and played a key role in the defeat of the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. He later fell out of favor, was banished from Athens, and fled to Persia after being condemned to death.

Elected archon* in 493 B.C., Themistocles made decisions that helped shape the future of Athens. He convinced the Athenians to build and fortify the harbor of Piraeus. He also persuaded them to expand the Athenian navy from 70 to 200 ships. This decision proved to be crucial years later.

Themistocles achieved his greatest fame as a military leader against the invading Persian forces of Xerxes in 480 B.C. He led a Greek army against the Persians in Thessaly, a region in northern Greece, and then commanded the Athenian navy against the Persian fleet at Salamis. His strategy at Salamis— tricking the Persians into entering a strait* * where they were more easily defeated—led to a decisive victory that forced Xerxes to retreat to Asia Minor.

* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state

After the Persian retreat from Greece, Themistocles convinced the Athenians to rebuild the city and construct long walls to protect the road to Piraeus. His opposition to Sparta made him increasingly unpopular. Subjected to ostracism* from Athens in about 471 B.C., he was condemned to death for treason several years later. Themistocles fled to Persia, where he gained favor with King Artaxerxes, who gave him gifts of land. He lived in Persia for the rest of his life. The Greek historian Thucydides considered Themistocles one of the greatest men of his age. (See also Greece, History of; Naval Power, Greek; Ostracism.)

* strait narrow channel that connects two bodies of water

* ostracism banishment or temporary exclusion from one’s community

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