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date: 05 December 2022


, Athenian politician, c. 524–459 bce


, Athenian politician, c. 524–459 bce
  • Andrew Robert Burn
  •  and P. J. Rhodes


  • Greek History and Historiography

Themistocles (c. 524–459 bce), Athenian politician, was a member of the ancient Lycomid family but by a non-Athenian mother. Herodotus(1)'s informants accused him of corruption and said that in 480 he had ‘recently come to the fore’, though he was archon in 493/2; but Thucydides (2) admired him for his far-sightedness and considered him one of the greatest men of his generation.

As archon, Themistocles began the development of the Piraeus as Athens' harbour; it may be that Phrynichus (1)'s Capture of Miletus and subsequent trial, and Miltiades' return to Athens from the Chersonesus (1) and his subsequent trial, belong to 493/2 and that Themistocles was involved in these episodes. In the ostracisms of the 480s he regularly attracted votes but was not himself ostracized (altogether, over 2,175 ostraca against him are known, including a set of 190 prepared by fourteen hands): the expulsion of Xanthippus(1) in 484 and Aristides(1) in 482 may represent a three-cornered battle in which Themistocles was the winner. Attempts to connect him with a change from direct election to partial sortition in the appointment of the archontes, in 487/6, have no foundation in the sources; but he was behind the decision in 483/2 to spend a surplus from the silver mines (see laurium) on enlarging Athens' navy from 70 to 200 ships—allegedly for use against Aegina, but these ships played a crucial part in the defeat of the Persian navy in 480 (see persian wars).

In 480 he was the general who commanded Athens' contingents in the Greek forces against the invading Persians: on land in Thessaly, and then on sea at Artemisium and at Salamis (see artemisium, battle of; salamis, battle of); he interpreted an oracle to predict victory at Salamis, argued for staying at Salamis rather than retiring beyond the isthmus of Corinth, and tricked the Persians into throwing away their advantage by entering the straits. The Decree of Themistocles inscribed at Troezen in the 3rd cent. probably contains authentic material but has at least undergone substantial editing. In the winter of 480/79 he received unprecedented honours at Sparta, but in 479 we hear nothing of him and Athens' forces were commanded by Aristides and Xanthippus.

After the Persian War there are various stories of his coming into conflict with Sparta (in the best attested he took delaying action at Sparta while the Athenians rebuilt their city walls), while the Delian League was built up by the pro-Spartan Cimon. In the main tradition the cunning, democratic Themistocles is opposed to the upright, aristocratic Aristides, but there are indications that Aristides was now a supporter rather than an opponent of Themistocles. About the end of the 470s Themistocles was ostracized (see ostracism), went to live at Argos (1), and ‘visited other places in the Peloponnese’ (Thuc. 1. 135. 3), where an anti-Spartan alliance was growing. When Sparta became alarmed, and claimed to have evidence that he was involved with Pausanias(1) in intrigues with Persia, he fled, first westwards to Corcyra and Epirus but then via Macedonia and the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor. The Athenians condemned him to death in his absence; after 465 the new king, Artaxerxes I, made him governor of Magnesia(1) on the Maeander, where coins bearing his name, and later his son's, were issued. He probably died a natural death, though there was a legend that he committed suicide; after his death, his family returned to Athens. Democracy did not become an issue while he was in Athens (see democracy, athenian), but there are links between him and the democratic, anti-Spartan politicians who came to power at the end of the 460s.


  • J. Kirchner, Prosopographia Attica (1901–3), 6669.
  • J. K. Davies, Athenian Propertied Families 600–300 bc (1971), 211–218.
  • Herodotus 7–8.
  • Thucydides 1. 74, 93, 135–8.
  • Athenaion politeia 22.
  • Plutarch, Themistocles.

R. Meiggs and D. Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC, 23Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat, reprinted in C. W. Fornara (ed.), Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War, 2nd edn.: Translated Documents of Greece and Rome 1 (1983), 55 (Decree of Themistocles).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

  • A. J. Podlecki, The Life of Themistocles (1975).
  • R. J. Lenardon, The Saga of Themistocles (1978).
  • Archonship: D. M. Lewis and W. W. Dickie, Historia, Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 1973, 757–759.
  • Ostraca: O. Broneer, Hesperia: Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 1938, 228–243.
  • D. M. Lewis, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 14 (1974), 1–4.
  • D. M. Lewis, Athenian Agora 1990, 142–161.
  • Peloponnese: W. G. Forrest, Classical Quarterly 1960, 221–241.
  • M. Osborne and S. Byrne (eds.), A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names 2 (1994), Themistokles no. 39.
  • Coins: J. Nollé and A. Wenninger, Jahrbuch für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte 1998–9, 29–70.