How Did Themistocles Fall from Grace?

Bust of Themistocles

The epic series of battles between the Greeks and the Persians in the fifth century BC known as the Persian Wars, or Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BC), in many ways solidified the Greeks’ place in world history and established many attributes of Hellenic civilization that were carried on for centuries until the collapse of the Roman Empire. The events were written about by a number of Greek and Roman historians and geographers including Herodotus, Plutarch, and Pausanias, whose often well-embellished narratives still come to life because of vivid descriptions of the many Greek heroes.

Among the most interesting of the many heroes was the Athenian general and politician Themistocles (ca. 524-459 BC), who was responsible for building Athens’ large naval fleet and for leading the Greeks to victory at Salamis, which proved to be the beginning of the end for the Persians in Greece. For his role in the victory, Themistocles was given awards and accolades and celebrated as a hero in both Athens and its rival city-state of Sparta. But after the conclusion of the Persian Wars, Themistocles’ fame soon turned to infamy. He was eventually accused of collaborating with the Persians, which led to his ostracism and eventual forced exile from not just Athens, but all of Greece. Themistocles’ life ended thousands of miles away from his beloved land and his reputation was ruined for centuries. The evidence shows, though, that Themistocles’ fall from grace was probably related to Machiavellian machinations by his opponents, which ultimately made him the victim of a real-life Greek tragedy.

Themistocles and the Persian Wars

Model of a Greek Trireme

The first major battles in the Persian Wars were initiated by the Achaemenid Persian King Darius I (ruled 522-486 BC), but it was his son and successor Xerxes I (reigned 486-465 BC) who was responsible for taking most of the fight to the Greeks. In an effort to avenge his father’s loss at the Battle of Marathon and the bring all of Greece under his heel, Xerxes I personally led his army by land from Anatolia (modern day Turkey) into Greece in 480 BC. According to the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, who wrote the most detailed primary account of the wars, the Persian army – which included soldiers, sailors, marines, and various support personnel – numbered 1,700,000 men. [1]

Although many modern historians dispute the large number, nearly all believe that the Persian army vastly outnumbered anything the Greeks could muster and to make matters worse, the Greeks were often divided and warring amongst themselves. Although Xerxes I wanted to subdue all of Greece, most of his vitriol was directed at the Athenians because they were viewed as responsible for instigating the Ionian Greeks to rebel against Persian rule in 499 BC, which effectively started the Persian Wars. During the Ionian Revolt, the Athenians attacked the ancient Lydian city of Sardis, burning most of it to the ground, including its temple. According to Herodotus, Xerxes I told his commanders that he would “not rest until I have taken Athens and burnt it to the ground” because the Athenians “came to Sardis with Aristagoras the Milesian, a slave of ours, and burnt the temples and sacred groves.” [2]

As divided as the Greeks were, there were just as many divisions within the various city-states at the advent of the Persian invasion in 480 BC. Many Greeks wanted to remain neutral and some, such as the Macedonians, even aligned with the Persians. The Athenians, though, knew that they had little choice; it was just a matter of how they would fight the Persians. The Athenians needed a bright, strong leader with foresight, which they received when Themistocles was elected archon in 493 BC. Themistocles rose to the position, which was essentially commander in chief, through a combination of charisma, guile, intelligence, and sheer will power. For Themistocles, though, obtaining the position was only half of the battle, he needed to convince his fellow Athenians to choose the best course for victory.

Any study of the great minds of history reveals that well most of these people were imbued with the qualities that Themistocles possessed, they were also recipients of some well-timed fortune as well. Themistocles’ fortune came when a large silver deposit was discovered in 483 BC about twenty-five miles southeast of Athens in a place that would later be named Laurium. [3] The large surplus of silver was certainly an economic boon for the Athenians, but in a democracy, even an ancient nascent one such as theirs, how the newly acquired funds would be spent required a debate. One faction thought the silver should be placed in a public dole fund, while the ever forward thinking Themistocles argued it should be invested in the creation of a modern navy of triremes. According to the first century AD Greek-Roman historian, Plutarch, Themistocles used his intelligence, oratory skills, and familiarity with Greek pettiness to convince the Athenians to follow his plan.

“And so, in the first place, whereas the Athenians were wont to divide up among themselves the revenue coming from the silver mines at Laureium, he, and he alone, dared to come before the people with a motion that this division be given up, and that these moneys triremes be constructed for the war against Aegina. This was the fiercest war then troubling Hellas, and the islanders controlled the sea, owing to the number of their ships. Wherefore all the more easily did Themistocles carry his point, not by trying to terrify the citizens with dreadful pictures of Darius or the Persians – these were too far away and inspired no very serious fear of their coming, but by making opportune use of the bitter jealousy which they cherished toward Aegina in order to secure armament he desired. The result was that with these moneys they built a hundred triremes, with which they actually fought at Salamis against Xerxes.” [4]

Once Themistocles convinced the Athenians to invest their resources into building a navy, it was up to him to decide what that fleet would look like. Instead of building large ships that could carry more soldiers and marines to do ship to ship fighting, Themistocles focused the Athenian efforts on building fast triremes that could out maneuver the enemy and ram their hauls, causing them to sink. [5] Themistocles also used a portion of the silver to modernize the harbor of Piraeus, which was landlocked Athens’ only access to the sea. By the time Xerxes I and his army had marched south into Attica, the Athenians had a navy of 200 fast ramming triremes ready for war. [6]

The Hero of Salamis

A Trireme Battering Ram

Before the Athenian fleet could engage the Persians, they had to consult the Oracle of Delphi. When the leaders of Athens asked the oracle about their eminent battle and what their prospects were, it replied that “the wooden wall only shall not fall, but help you and your children.” [7] Although the reading sounded like a propitious sign, the Athenians knew that they still had to interpret it correctly. Again, the Athenians were divided with part of them believing the wooden wall referred to a palisade that they should build around the city while another group led by Themistocles thought that it referred to their new trireme fleet. After a second reading by the oracle, Themistocles used his intelligence and oratory skills once more to convince his kinsmen that the prophecy indeed referred to their navy. [8]

Once the Athenian fleet and the other Greek city-states that supplied ships arrived at the Strait of Salamis, which is between the Attic Peninsula and the island of Salamis, they were faced with the stark reality that they were heavily outnumbered. Modern estimates place the total of Persian vessels at over 1,400 and the Athenians and their Greek allies at only 380, which included some Greek defectors who came over to join their countrymen after the Battle of Artemisium. [9]

Knowing that his fleet was at a tactical disadvantage, Themistocles evened the odds by picking the location of the battle and using spies to spread misinformation among the enemy ranks. He picked the Strait of Salamis because it was essentially a bottleneck where only a limited number of vessels could engage in combat at a time, similar to what had just happened in the north at the Thermopylae pass. According to Herodotus, Themistocles said to the other Greek commanders:

“Now for my plan: it will bring, if you adopt it, the following advantages: first, we shall be fighting in narrow waters, and there, with our inferior numbers, we shall win, provided things go as we may reasonably expect. Fighting in a confined space favours us but the open sea favours the enemy.” [10]

Themistocles next sent a spy to the Persian camp with the false report that many of the Greeks were about to surrender. The news caused the Persians to block the only exit to the Peloponnesian Peninsula and to rush into battle without a real plan. The Spartans and other Peloponnesian Greeks were forced to fight and to follow Themistocles’ plan. [11] Once the battle began, everything went according to Themistocles’ plan. The Persians were over anxious and sloppy and when faced with the disciplined Greek ranks they quickly broke formation, leaving them susceptible to the Greek trireme rams. [12] Salamis was a complete victory for the Greeks and marked the beginning of the end for Xerxes I and the Persians.

A True Greek Tragedy

Modern Depiction of Themistocles in Obeisance before Artaxerxes I

In the days following the Greek victory at Salamis, there was no Greek more revered and honored than Themistocles. In their awards ceremony for the victors, the Spartans gave Themistocles second prize for the guile and cunning he employed at Salamis and the only reason he did not win the first prize was because he was not a Spartan. [13] Unfortunately for Themistocles, though, the honeymoon did not last long.

Once the Persian threat was eliminated, the Greeks returned to their internecine squabbling, which began to focus more on the struggle between Athens and Sparta for control of the Hellenic League. Politicians from both cities accused their enemies of “medizing,” or collaborating with the Persians, which usually did not have to be proven to destroy one’s career and possibly life. Themistocles became the prime target of Spartan vitriol after he had Athens’ walls rebuilt, but factions within Athens also viewed him as a threat and ostracized him. [14]

Seeing no other options, Themistocles finally fled to the protection of his old enemies in Persia. King Artaxerxes I (ruled 465-424 BC) received the former Athenian general and allowed him to live out his last few years in exile. The manner of Themistocles’ death is disputed by the ancient sources, though, with Thucydides claiming that he died of an illness, [15] while Plutarch stated that he took his own life by drinking bull’s blood. [16] However he died, there is no doubt that Themistocles’ demise was one of the most precipitous declines of a former leader in world history.


Themistocles of Athens is one of the most intriguing figures of the ancient world. He rose to prominence in Athens through a combination of skills and fortune and helped saved the Greeks from the Persian invasion. Despite his hero status, it was not enough to save him from the often cruel world of Greek politics, which ultimately made his life a true Greek tragedy.


  1. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin Books, 2003), Book III, 90
  2. Herodotus, Book VII, 8
  3. Hale, John R. Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. ( London: Penguin, 2009), p. 7
  4. Plutarch. Lives. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968), Themistocles, IV, 1-2
  5. Hale, p. 20
  6. Forrest, George. “Greece: The History of the Archaic Period.” In The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 40
  7. Herodotus, Book VII, 141
  8. Herodotus, Book VII, 143
  9. Hammond, N.G.L. “The Battle of Salamis.” Journal of Hellenic Studies. 76 (1956) p. 40
  10. Herodotus, Book VIII, 60
  11. Herodotus, Book VIII, 75
  12. Hale, p. 67
  13. Jordan, Borimir. “The Honors for Themistocles after Salamis.” American Journal of Philology. 109 (1988) pgs. 551-53
  14. Hornblower, Simon. “Greece: The History of the Classical Period.” In The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. (Oxford, Oxford University Press), p. 146-7
  15. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Translated by Steven Lattimore. (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 1998), I, 138
  16. Plutarch, Themistocles, XXXI, 5


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