The Athenians, who had saved all Greece at Marathon, were for the moment, and very understandably, imbued with optimism. They, and they alone (although they never forgot the heroic contribution of the little city of Plataea), had been successful in routing the awesome Persians; the conquerors of Ionian Greece and most of the Aegean islands; the army and the navy which had hitherto been considered invincible. This heady triumph was to prove of immense value to their morale when, in due course, the Persian Empire under the direction of Xerxes returned for the second round. To Athenians their triumph seemed all the greater because it had been achieved on land rather than their familiar environment, the sea. It was Attic hoplites who had defeated the Persians without any help from Sparta - normally considered the masters of land warfare.
The hero of the hour was inevitably Miltiades, whose policy of marching out from the city and engaging the enemy at Marathon had been amply justified. It was natural under the circumstances that considerable attention should be paid to his advice as to the further conduct of Athenian policy. The islands of the Cyclades lying like a circling shield to the south were, he pointed out, essential to the defence of Athens. All of them were now under Persian control, representing a dangerous threat to the Greek mainland and, above all, to the shipping routes of the Aegean. ‘Attack at once!’ was his advice, to reinforce the security which Marathon had, for the moment, given them. This was strategically very sensible but there were many who did not approve of the venture, not least because they sensed in Miltiades a potential tyrant. The cost of such an expedition was also a deterrent, but this objection was overruled when Miltiades more or less guaranteed that he would make it pay its way by exacting indemnities from the islands which had medised. Herodotus casts a bad reflection on the motives of Miltiades, implying that it was no more than personal ambition which drove him to propose the Cycladic expedition. This seems highly unlikely, and the judgement of the historian stems most probably from hindsight - from the fact that the whole affair proved a costly failure. In the siege of Paros, the primary objective (for it was felt that if Paros, one of the richest and most important islands, was captured, then most of the others would automatically yield to Athens), Miltiades himself was seriously wounded. The fleet returned to Athens and the enemies of Miltiades seized their opportunity. He was accused of ‘deceiving the people’, and the death sentence was demanded. Marathon, however, and the part that Miltiades had played in that brilliant campaign, could not easily be forgotten. Miltiades himself died from gangrene, but not before he was sentenced to pay the large sum of fifty talents - a fine which left his son financially ruined. Athenian politics was always ruthless.
Ultimately they were to prove no less harsh in the career of the man who became Miltiades’ successor - perhaps the greatest Greek politician who ever lived, and the man who was destined to save Greece from the far greater threat that was posed by Xerxes. This was Themistocles, who was to become the most prominent figure in Athenian political affairs during the years in which the fate of Europe was decided. He was unpopular with many of his fellow citizens, particularly those of the conservative caste of mind, for he was a radical, who saw far in advance of his other educated contemporaries that the future of a city-seaport like Athens lay in her navy and, therefore, in the men who commanded and manned her ships. This was a policy that was unlikely to prove palatable to the richer, land-owning classes, for it was they who would have to foot a large part of the bill for the ship-building, victualling, and maintenance. The armoured knight, or hoplite, who had seen the victory of his class at Marathon, was hardly likely to be sympathetic towards a policy that favoured sailors and oarsmen who, even though they might indeed be free citizens of Athens, were a long remove from the great families like the Alcmaeonids and the Peisistradids.
The picture that one gains of Themistocles from most Greek historians, including Herodotus and Plutarch, is of a conniving and self-seeking man who was always concerned with his own interests and was even ready to do a deal with the Persians at the moment of Greece’s greatest peril. As a Greek and an Athenian, it was unlikely that Themistocles did not have some degree of self-interest at heart: he would have been totally unlike his race if he had not. But even Plutarch, who accused him of ‘malignity’, and in any case was writing long after the events, was forced to admit that a bust-portrait which he had seen of him showed a man who appeared to be noble and heroic. (A copy of this portrait made in Roman times shows a thick-necked, rather flat-faced man, with a large sensitive mouth and an open-eyed ‘bulldog’ appearance. Except for the beard and the moustache, Themistocles has a Churchillian aspect.) Thucydides, one of the greatest and most impartial historians of all times, described him in the following terms:
Themistocles was a man who most clearly presents the phenomenon of natural genius … to a quite extraordinary and exceptional degree. By sheer personal intelligence, without either previous study or special briefing, he showed both the best grasp of an emergency situation at the shortest notice, and the most far-reaching appreciation of probable further developments. He was good at explaining what he had in hand; and even of things outside his previous experience he did not fail to form a shrewd judgement. No man so well foresaw the advantages and disadvantages of a course in the still uncertain future. In short, by natural power and speed in reflection, he was the best of all men at determining promptly what had to be done.
Had he lived in the twentieth century he might have been a Greek guerilla-leader in the Second World War, a ship-owner subsequently, and then - possibly - Prime Minister. In any case, he would finally have been banished, exiled, or assassinated. The Greeks, the only people in history who have made four major contributions to human culture and civilisation (the spring of Minoan Crete, the summer of fifth-century Athens, the golden autumn of the Alexandrian empire, and the wintry splendour of Byzantium), have so competitive a spirit that they cannot tolerate for long the exceptional brilliance of one man. Nevertheless, it was Themistocles above all others who was to give the lead to his people and to other Greeks in the struggle that was soon to be renewed against Europe by Persia.
Themistocles was not slow to see (like the maligned Miltiades before him) that a powerful navy was essential for the salvation of Greece. Fine though the Attic hoplites had proved to be at Marathon, outstanding the warriors of Sparta, the strange and rocky land of Greece with its small population could never compete in the long run with the immense manpower of the Persian Empire. Bravery, superior technology, the ‘last ditch’ attitude of men who are defending their homeland against a foreign invader - these were qualities that the Greeks possessed in plenty. But their enemy was numbered ‘as the sands of the sea’. Furthermore, the Phoenician and Egyptian navies, as well as the ships of Cyprus, Ionia, and most of the Aegean islands, far outnumbered the Athenian navy and its allies. It seemed that Greece, and Athens in particular, could only be saved by a miracle: something in which the pragmatic Greeks, unlike the Hebrews, found it difficult to believe.
The miracle occurred, although in no spiritual form, but in the discovery of a rich vein of silver in the mining area of Laurium near Cape Sunium in 483. The mines were all state-owned and, under normal conditions, the profits from them were shared out among the citizens. The unexpected windfall of the new seam, which would have given every citizen about ten drachmas (a small sum), was diverted by the persuasive powers of Themistocles into building one hundred triremes - a new type of three-banked warship which would for some years give the Greeks command of most of the Mediterranean. It is evidence that the hard-headed Assembly whom Themistocles had to convince were sensible enough of the impending threat to Greece to be prepared to divert the ‘silver windfall’ from their own pockets and those of their fellow citizens into such a vast expenditure on defence.
Since the name of Athens herself, as well as of the far-sighted Themistocles, will always be associated with the word ‘trireme’, and its importance in the forthcoming Persian invasion would affect the whole issue, the vessel and its crew are dealt with separately. For the moment, however, what mattered was that the brilliance of Themistocles and the intelligence of the Athenian Assembly led to the construction of a great new fleet. Themistocles had an additional argument with which to convince those in the
Assembly who were sceptical of a further Persian invasion, and therefore demurred at such an expenditure of money. He could point across the water at Athens’ ancient enemy, the island of Aegina, and remind them that the Aeginetans were hostile as ever to Athens and that their navy was even larger.