Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Themistocles

THEMISTOCLES was born in the latter part of the 6th century B.C., some time during the rule of the Pisistratidse at Athens, the son of an Athenian father, Neocles, by a foreign woman from Thrace or Caria. A wayward, ambitious, aspiring boy, out of sympathy alike with ordinary boyish amusements and with the learning and culture of the age, he was told, it is said, by his schoolmaster "that he would certainly be something great, whether good or bad." The victory of Marathon in 490 stirred the young man's soul, and he seems to have foreseen that it was but the beginning of a yet greater conflict. He resolved from that time to make his country great, that he might be great and famous himself. As he was rising to political distinc tion, he had for his rival the Greek "Cato," the incorrupt ible Aristides, a purer patriot, a better citizen, but a less sagacious and far-seeing statesman. The two men were in sharp antagonism as to what their country's policy should be, and it ended in a vote of ostracism which sent Aristides into temporary banishment in 483. The main question between them probably was whether Athens should seek greatness by sea or by land (see vol. xi. p. 99), and the victory of the policy of Themistocles led on to the most brilliant era in Greek history, the maritime supremacy of Athens. Persia, he felt sure, was meditating a great revenge, and Athens must make herself a naval power to avert the blow. Already a small war with the ^Eginetan islanders, close to her own shores, had roused her energies, and at the prompting of Themistocles she had built 200 ships and trained a number of seamen. In 480 the storm which Themistocles had clearly foreseen burst; the great king, as he was called, was covering the land with his troops and the sea with his ships. Greece was divided and panicstricken; Thessaly and all to the north of Boeotia had joined the enemy, and the despair of the remainder of the Greek world was echoed by the oracle of Delphi. There was, however, a word of hope in the memorable phrase of the " wooden wall,"[1] which, it was generally felt, must point to the fleet, more, however, with a view to flight than to resistance. Salamis, too, was named in the oracle, coupled with the epithet "divine," which Themistocles cleverly argued portended disaster to the enemies of the Greeks rather than to the Greeks themselves. It was a great achievement when he finally prevailed on his fellow-citizens to quit their city and their homes it seemed for ever and to trust themselves to their ships. There had been some sea-fights off the northern shores of Euboea; the Spartans had fallen at Thermopylae, and Xerxes and his host were now laying waste Attica, not, however, before its inhabitants had conveyed their families to the adjacent island of Salamis, where also the Greek fleet had taken up its station, the Persian armada of 1200 vessels being in harbour at Phalerum. The Athenians from their ships saw the flames in which their city, its acropolis and its temples, were perishing, but their spirits rose with calamity, and with one heart, at the bidding of Themis tocles, they called back all of their brethren who were in temporary banishment, Aristides among them. Nearly twothirds of the entire fleet was theirs, but for the sake of unity among the allies, who would follow only the lead of Sparta, they acquiesced in its being under the command of a Spartan admiral. It was clear, however, that the fate of Greece now depended on the action of the Athenians and on the prudence and ability of Themistocles, by whom they were guided. The Greeks of the Peloponnese, more particularly the Corinthians, were for moving the fleet from Salamis to the isthmus, as the enemy's land forces were already in possession of the neighbouring shores of Attica. Seeing the danger of yet further disunion, with the probable result of the breaking up and dispersion of the fleet, and having in vain protested against quitting their present station, Themistocles went straight to the Spartan admiral, Eurybiades, and induced him to call another council. There was much angry debating, till at last the Spartan felt he must yield to the threat of Themistocles that the Athenians would either fight at Salamis or sail away as they were to Italy. But the Peloponuesian Greeks were still dissatisfied, and insisted that they ought to be at the isthmus for the defence of what yet remained

  1. "The wooden wall shall alone remain unconquered to defend you and your children."