How many of you remember the name Themistocles? He was one of the true heroes of European history, but I venture to surmise that few of you can recall the name and his claim to fame. Nevertheless, his accomplishments were quite remarkable, and he should be honored by all who appreciate genius and courage.
In the 490s BC the Persian King Darius was determined to extend his reign over Greece. Persia was the dominant power of the age, an empire of great geographic extent and rich in material wealth and manpower; and an observer would have thought that the Greeks had little chance to preserve their independence. Contributing to the Greeks’ disadvantage, their power was divided among a number of city states, and each city maintained its own army. Internecine conflict was not uncommon, but the Greeks began to band together to face the Persian threat. But all the Greek armies together were comparatively small when compared to the Persian hosts.
In 490 BC, much to the surprise of Darius and his generals, a Persian army was defeated by a predominately Athenian force at Marathon. Afterwards the Persians retreated to their homeland to lick their wounds and begin organizing for a second attempt. Themistocles fought in the Battle of Marathon and may have been one of the Athenian leaders in that combat.
The Greeks knew that the Persians would be back, and in the years that followed Marathon the Greeks began to prepare their defense. Themistocles was convinced that naval power would play an important role in the coming conflict, and he persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of 200 warships.
In 480 BC, after extensive preparations, the Persians struck again. Xerxes has succeeded Darius as emperor, and he was determined to complete the conquest. Crossing the Hellespont (the Dardanelles), the massive Persian army moved into Greece from the north. The Persians were temporarily checked at Thermopylae, and the Greek naval ships under the command of Themistocles fought a delaying battle against the Persian fleet at Artemisium. When the Greeks were finally overwhelmed at Thermopylae, Greek naval forces retreated to the south and took up positions near the island of Salamis. The Greek armies also retreated, and all of northern Greece, including Athens, was occupied by the Persians.
With naval support from their fleet, the Persians were now poised to invade the Peloponnesus ( the peninsula forming the southern of the Greek homeland). In order to stop them, the Greeks decided to draw the Persian fleet into a naval battle. By stratagem, Themistocles persuaded the Persians that the Greeks were about to flee the gulf of Salamis, so the Persians rushed in to destroy the retreating Greek ships. But it was a ruse, and it was exactly what Themistocles wanted the enemy to do. Although seriously outnumbered, Themistocles led his combined forces to an overwhelming victory over the Persian fleet.
The following year Greek land forces thoroughly defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. The Persian threat was over and the golden age of Greece began.
Themistocles was a brilliant man, an able strategist, and a fearless warrior. Western civilization owes him an everlasting debt of gratitude.
(One final note: In 1967 I attended a management course at my government agency. During the course the class was divided into four or five teams, and we competed against each other in various exercises. As the competition ended, a vote was taken to determine which team had performed best. Each team was given two votes. Naturally, each team voted for themselves first, the second vote had to go for another team. That way the true winner was determined. The people running the management course bragged about how clever they had been to develop the two vote stratagem. It deflated them a bit when I pointed out the the Greeks had used the same two vote technique in 480 B.C. when they met to determine who should receive the laurels for victory at Salamis. Naturally, each Greek commander voted for himself first, but Themistocles was every other commander’s second choice. There is very little new under the sun. )