Our Debt to Themistocles

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We know nothing of his early life. Themistocles (thuh MISS tuh kleez) was born between 510 and 520 BC and stepped onto the world stage in 490 BC. At that time, the lives of the Greeks were entwined with the imperial ambitions of the Persians, the greatest military power in the world, who had just retreated to Persia from their loss by outnumbered Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. All serious statesmen and military leaders fully expected the Persians to return. In 482, Themistocles challenged Aristides for leadership of Athens, believing that Athens could only defeat Persia, ultimately, on the sea, Aristides placing his hope on another victory on land. Themistocles won the challenge, and immediately turned the Athenian wealth into naval expansion.

Two years later, the Persians returned with an enormous* army under Xerxes (ZURK-sees), first being delayed by, but then annihilating, the Spartans at Thermopylae, then turning toward Athens. Themistocles deliberately abandoned Athens (the Persians burned the Acropolis), moving the population west to the island of Salamis, where they were joined by remaining Spartans. Seeing a cock fight Themistocles said: "Behold soldiers, they do not fight for their nation, nor for their Gods, nor for their idols, nor their liberty; only pride animates them to fight, so far as neither would like to suffer defeat, and you - compelled to defend so much - would you not do likewise?"

On a day in late September, the Persian fleet, reduced by storms but still outnumbering the Greek, divided their force so as to encircle Salamis and trap what they thought was a retreating Greek navy. To their immediate doom, for Themistocles had planned the naval battle well (**), and the Persian fleet was destroyed. Xerxes, watching this loss from a safe place on land, decided to return to Asia Minor while the getting was good. A remaining Persian land force was destroyed the following year.

To the Athenians, as it would be for the English after...
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