To What Extent Was Themistocles Responsible for Greek Victory in the Persian Wars?

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To what extent was Themistocles responsible for the Greek victory in the Persian Wars? Daniel Ashby

Themistocles was responsible for the Greek victory in the Persian wars to a considerable extent. The key to Athens' strength in the 5th Century BC was in this general and statesman and therefore, as Greek victory relied so heavily on Athens, Themistocles vitally contributed to the outcome of the Persian king’s invasion of 480-479 BC. His early life reflects the character and skills developed that were responsible for these contributions. Five pivotal roles he undertook were of varying degrees responsible for Greece’s success against Xerxes. Themistocles possessed an incredible foresight and began to prepare against the inevitable Persian invasion early on, his political leadership to a domestic level in Athens contributed to the state’s naval strength, and similarly, his political leadership in the conception of a united Greek defence was a significant achievement. As well as this, Themistocles’ strategy in key battle such as Thermopylae, Artemisium and Salamis were vital to to war effort.


To be able to understand to what extent Themistocles was responsible for Greek victory in the Persian Wars it first needs to be discussed how he rose to the position of authority and developed the skills that were required of him to make such a substantial impact on the war effort. For as Aristotle said many years later, ‘If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.’ It is evident that Themistocles’ early life reflects his character and his decisive actions seen later in his life. Themistocles began removing class distinction at a very young age, something that would aid his political career and influence the war effort in the future considerably. In about 520 BC Themistocles is born of the merchant Neocles of Phrearrhioi and his Thracian wife Abrotonon. Phanius, a ‘philosopher well read in history’ as Plutarch puts it, contrarily believes his mother to be a Carian woman from Halicarnassus called Euterpe. In either case they were foreign to Athens and living in the immigrant district, though still a respectable and wealthy family. Neocles remained outside the political life of the city which left Themistocles with little hope of amounting to any political importance as family status held a bearing on one’s post in government. Though without the rise of democracy and the ostracism of the Greek tyrants, Themistocles was likely never to be able to shed the confines of this class status and become the statesman and military leader he became to be. The democratic revolution led to many social changes in Athens. Nonetheless, there was still a very irrepressible separation between the distinctions of society. Themistocles’ famous persuasive capabilities are seen in creating a bridge between himself and the aristocratic above him as a young boy. Plutarch describes him as cunningly removing the ‘distinction between aliens and legitimates’ by convincing well-born boys to go to the Cynosarges, the public gymnasium just outside Athens’ city walls, and exercise with him. In this we can already see that he would be a politician of the people, breaking down the barriers between the aristocratic and the regular citizen. This would later win him the support required to carry out his important policies and strategies vital to Greek victory in the Persian wars. As a youth Themistocles was prone to standing against authority, affecting his determination to achieve his own ends by whatever means in Xerxes invasion, the reasoning behind many Greek successes during 480-479 BC. He was said to be a very troublesome youth, impulsive and prone to public life; a dangerous combination. Themistocles illustrates this as he states that, ‘Even the wildest colts made very good horses, if only they got the proper breaking and training.’ Plutarch infers that the ‘story-makers’...
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