Born in obscuraty, to an Athenian father and a mother who was alien to Athens, he grew up always on the outter.
Still, however humble his birth, as a boy he was impetuous, naturally clever, and stongly drawn to a life of action and public service. When he could he would endeavour to socialise with the young men of good families, even though he was of mixed decent. His father tried to deter him from climbing up the social ladder, by pointing out to him the hulks of some old triremes lying abandoned on the sea-shore, and reminding him that this was how the people treated their leaders when they had no further use for them.
In spite of this, no-one was more ambitious than Themistocles, there seems to be no doubt that his longing for fame laid an irresistible hold on him, and that he was swiftly drawn into public affairs while he was still in his youth. Looking for any leverage to continue higher up the political ladder, his recklessness in his politics brought him on a collision course with the Athenian statesman Aristides.
Aristides, gentle in nature and a conservative temperament, and as a politician he did not care for popularity or reputation, but with safety, justice and what was best for Athens. It would be Aristides and his no-nonsence character that would prove to be Themistocles greatest adversary in the Athenian political arena.
The clearest way to be able to describe Themistocles' character was that after the Battle of Marathon (to which he partook, but his involvment is unknown) he became extremely jealous of General Miltiades and his success, even admitting that he could not sleep due to thinking of his popularity. Themistocles wanted to be needed, he wanted to be popular, he wanted the city to rally around him and talk about how great he was; in short he had all the hallmarks of a political animal.
Pressing forward with his political agenda he became Archon of Athens in 493 B.C. It is entirely to his credit that after the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., when the rest of Athenians supposed that the war with the Medes was over, he realised that the battle only marked an early stage in the conflict.
With the discovery of silver in the mines of Laurium 484 B.C., the first real standout mark of what kind of politician Themistocles was, came to the forefront. It was expected at that time that the profits from the mine were to be divided between the citizens of Athens. Brave would be anyone who would vote against that or try to divert the money from them.
Themistocles knew this. He understood the greed factor that was inherent in all people. Still believing that the war with Persia had not gone away, he would have been a very brave man indeed to stand up in the council and suggest that the funds should go towards a war against Persia, that seemed at that time non-existant.
Themistocles stood infront of the Athenian citizens and spoke of the current war with the little island of Aegina just south of Athens and at that time, the most important war in all Greece, was at its height and the islanders, thanks to the size of their fleet, were masters of the sea. This made it all the more easier for Themistocles to carry his point. There was no need to terrify the Athenians with the threat of Darius and the Persians, who were far away and whom few people seriously imagined would come and attack them; he had only to play upon the enmity and jealousy the people felt towards the Aeginetans to make them agree to the outlay. When it was time for the vote the result was that the Athenians used the silver over the coming years to build 100 triremes with the thought of them being used against Aegina, but by the time they were finished building the fleet, the war with Aegina was already over.
In every way he pushed forward the thought that Athens should turn to the sea now that it had such a vast fleet. It was said that he was credited with depriving Athens from their spear and shield to degrade them to the rowing bench and oar. He told them that their army was no match to even their nearest neighbours the Boeotians but with the power that they commanded of the sea they would be leaders of all Greece. This was a considerable gamble to play. The upper class of Athens would have had horses and their schooling of most Athenians would have taught them the glorious aspect of hoplite warfare, only the rabble and the low class were sailors.
All the while he continued to build up his power and increase his popularity with the Athenians, until he finally secured the triumph of the party he lead and got Aristides banished by ostracism around 483-482 B.C. This was really a master stroke to be able to rid himself or his greatest nemesis in a period of intense political warfare.
He stood in high affections of the people, for he knew every one of the citizens by name and he showed himself a reliable arbitrator in private lawsuits which were settled out of court.
The Persian king had already started his descent on Greece while the Athenians were still debating whom they should appoint as their commander. All the other candidates, were so alarmed at the danger that they declined to be considered, with the sole exception of Epicydes, one of the popular leaders. Themistocles was afraid that if the leadership fell into such hands it would mean utter disaster for Athens, so he arranged to bribe Epicydes and brought off his ambitions.
With the Athenian leadership clearly in his hands he had the Persian interpreter arrested and put to death by special decree of the people, because he had dared to make use of the Greek language to transmit the commands of a barbarian. Which were for the Athenians to submit to the King of Persia with the offerings of earth and water. Themistocles also had familes outlawed for having brought Persian gold into the city.
But his truely greatest ever achievement was to put an end to the fighting within Greece, to reconcile the various cities with one another and persuade them to lay aside their differences and to join forces against the Persian advance.
He put forward the idea that the Athenians should man the triremes and urge them to leave the city and meet the barbarians at sea as far away from Greece as possible. But this plan was strongly opposed and denied, and so he joined forces with the Spartans and led out a large army to the vale of Tempe, which they intended to make the first line of defence, since at that time nobody knew that Thessaly was about to declare for Xerxes. After a short while the army withdrew from their position without accomplishing anything, as the pass was untenable.
Even though the Athenians greatly had the most amount of ships in the fleet after a long hard discussion Themistocles relented his command of the fleet to the Spartan
This would have been the hardest decision that Themistocles ever had to make, the rest of the Athenians were very much against handing over the fleet command to a Spartan. Sparta was a hoplite nation, with little or no knowledge of a navy, his fellow comrades at the meeting no doubt gave him plenty of verbal abuse about putting the pride of Athens in the hands of a city that was once at war with them. But in hindsight, his wisdom proved more than justified. Themistocles understood the nature of men and the tactics of war far better than those around him. The Spartans would not venture out past the Corinthian Isthmus without naval reliance, without them leading , the rest of the Peloponnese would stay put too. With Thessaly and Boetia already succuming to the Persians and Thebes making it well known that they shortly would as well, the Athenians had to have the Peloponnese's help at all costs. As for being the Admiral of the navy, Themistocles knew that it wasn't much of a title, when the time came for a naval battle, Eurybiades would naturally seek assitance from Themistocles, and once the battle began the Athenians would take over command on the sea during the battle.
At some point around this time the Themistocles Decree was made.
At the Battle of Artemisium we first see Themistocles the strategos in action. With the Persian fleet decending down upon them it was Themistocles who steped forward and pushed hard for the Greek fleet to leave their protective harbour and to hit the Persian fleet while it was still scattered after a violent storm. Even though the allied Greek fleet was outnumbered some say 3 to 1, Themistocles' agrument won the day and again on the following day after another night of violent storms he got the Greek fleet to risk it all in another sea action with similar results gamberling that as the Persian fleet didnt have a harbour to weather out the storm they must have been suffering, which they were. On neither day had they recovered enough to line up against the Greek fleet that quickly striked out to hit them hard then return back to the protection of their harbour before they had a chance to organise their fleet.
Even though the Spartan Eurybiades was technically in charge of the whole fleet, Themistocles used all his natural charms to get his way, talking over those who would listen to him, bribing those who wouldn't and threatning the rest, these were all tools of the trade and Themistocles used everyone of them in a very stressful enviroment. He was a shrewed politician, and this was war, and he had to get his way, the fate of his city depended on it.
With the realisation that Leonidas and his 300 had finally succumbed at the Battle of Themopylae, it proved to be no longer tenable for the naval defence of Artemisium.and the navy organised themselves to withdraw.
But here with the first defensive line lost, Themistocles proved again to be a shrewed politician, a brilliant commander and a great forward thinker.
Before leaving Artemisium he ordered the animals that could not be loaded onto the ships to be burnt in a pyre (or as it is called today a scorced earth policy) . The large fire would make the Persians believe that the Greeks were still in Artemisium all night and when they advanced the following day they did not come across any easy meals. Also, on the way down the straight Themistocles put into where ever there was a water source and had cut into the nearby rocks, written that being Greek the Lydians should not fight against the Greeks but should try to fall back if ever they came into contact with them. This was great way of using propergander as the Persians had all the Greek cities from Asia Minor in their ranks. The message had a two forked intention, the Greeks would no doubt read it and fully understand the message but even to greater effect the Persians would no doubt have the message translated to them and would not be able to trust the Greek contingent in their army, a delimma for the king, distrust in the ranks would follow.
But on the way back home Themistocles' was realising one of his worst fears was becoming a reality, he did have an ace to play against it, but brilliantly, he was going to hold off playing it. Eurybiades and the rest of the Peloponnesian naval forces (lead by Cornith), had received very clear orders before enbarking their forces to Artemisiam. Hold off the Persian naval forces from enveloping Leonidas at Themopylae and if that was to fail, to head back to the Isthmus as quickly as possible and to join up with the rest of the Peloponnesians. This now didn't work well for the Athenians who were still abandoning their city for the island of Salamis, even as the Persians were decending towards a now empty Athens.
Themistocles wanted to fight the Persians at sea in the straights of Salamis, he did not fear a land battle, but he thought the Greeks would have the best chance of beating the Persians at sea, but without the Peloponnesian ships to help, the Athenian contingent would not have enough to hold up against the Persian fleet. How would Themistocles handle this situation? Time was becoming an issue and if the Peloponnesians didn't stay at Salamis, but continue on to the Isthmus, all was as good as lost.
As the fleet had to round Salamis before continuing on towards the Isthmus, Themistocles somehow got them to put in at Salamis first. In the ensuring meeting that took place on the island, heated arguments took place, by just about everybody, all against Themistocles.
One of the Peloponnesian commanders shouted Themistocles down by saying 'a person who no longer has a country shouldn't be allowed to speak'.
Themistocles was desperate, literally every body in the meeting was for abandoning Salamis and heading back to the defensive line at the Isthmus, even the other Athenian commanders could no longer see any other way.
But Themistocles refused to be beaten, the meeting was ajourned and the master politician set into motion one of the greatest political/military achievents in recorded history. Staring down the face of his city lost, mistrust by his own citizens, utter dispisal of his military partners and utter defeat by his opponet, literally being beaten on all sides, it was time for Themistocles to show his hand and pull out his ace.
He instructed his trusted slave to boat over the straight to the now burning city of Athens and to pass on a message to Xerxes while he would go to the tent of the Spartan in charge of the naval forces; Eurybiades.
The message the slave passed on that was to reach Xerxes ear was that 'Themistocles was a friend of Xerxes and he would do all in his power to help the Persian King. The Greeks argue and will not last the night, they gather whatever belongings they have and will abandon the island before sunrise. If Xerxes is quick he can catch the fleeing fleet. Themistocles wants Xerxes to remember that when he captures Themistocles to remember that it was he who helped the Great King win the battle.'
Meanwhile, Themistocles now entered Eurybiades tent and showed him the ace he had kept well hidden from before the Battle of Artemisian. Themistocles told Eurybiades that if the Peloponnesian fleet abandoned Salamis and gave up any thought of defending Athens that the Athenians would gather in their ships and would not head towards the Isthmus but onwards towards Italy. Abandoning the Peloponnesians to the Persians and without the Athenian navy the Peloponnesians might if luck went their way be able to hold off the Perisans at the Isthmus but would have no chance of stopping the Persians from sailing around the Peloponnese and landing wherever they wanted and defeating them that way.
Here we must appreciate what Themistocles has done. From being the condemed he has now put himself in the pre-eminet position. Either way he wins, either the Peloponnese abandon Salamis and the Athenians might make it to Italy, or Xerxes captures the fleet and he (hopefully) would be rewarded, or the Peloponnesians will stay and fight. In all case senarious it is the Peloponnesians that loose.
The ball was in motion and after a short while Xerxes believed in the message he received from Themistocles. He ordered the Egyptian part of his fleet to sail around the island and cut off the back side so that nobody would be able to escape the straight. And the rest of the fleet was to wait in open water all night for the escaping fleet to fall into the trap. The actions of a Greek betraying his countrymen wasn't unusual for the Persian king, he had dealt with the Greek Ephialtes who betrayed the Spartan King Leonidas to him just a few days before, this now was nothing new, just another Greek betraying his country. The Egyptian fleet were the second best sailors Xerxes had, the Phoenicians being the best. So, inadvertintley Xerxes weakened his main force by sailing way the Egyptians in responce to Themistocles message.
In the confinds of the tent Themistocles won over Eurybiades, the Peloponnese had no chance of holding back the naval force of the Persians if the Athenian navy abandoned them. Themistocles had tryed ealier on to win over the whole Greek naval force but failed, but he understood that all he really needed to accomplish was to convince the Spartan naval commander to be won over, the rest would have to obey his commands.
Another meeting was held with the Greek naval commanders and they were told of their orders, come daybreak they would have to fight the Perisan fleet, there would be no falling back to the Isthmus. We can only image the stares and abuse under their breaths in that meeting that were directed at Themistocles.
All that night, while the Greeks got their ships ready for action and slepted as best as they could, the Persian fleet waited outside the straight in battle formation waiting on their oars waiting for the first sign of the fleeing Greeks.
Finally at daybreak, the Greek fleet did the retreating manouver, they sailed out of the straight with some ships and then when they were close enough for the Persian fleet to notice them they retreated back into the straight.
What else could a good Persian naval commander do? They knew the Great King was watching them, the Greeks were obviously trying to run away got frightened and now huddled together in some disorganised manner in the straight. The Persian fleet followed the retreating Greek fleet into the straights of Salamis.
The Battle of Salamis took place. A Persian fleet less their Egyptian continent who were still partrolling the far side of the straight, a fleet who had been up all night waiting for fleeing Greeks to be cut down, a fleet with larger ships than the Greeks who now found themselves fighting a battle in a confined space against smaller, stronger, faster Greek ships. The Persian fleet, in full view of the Great King were defeated, about two thirds destroyed.
Peter Green in 'The Greco-Persian Wars' says of him '...to judge from his portrait he did not look at all like a horsebreeding Athenian gentleman; ...and he seldom behaved like one. All the anecdots we have about him point in the same direction. They show us a plain, blunt, practical man, with a marvellous flair for strategy and political in-fighting, indifferent to art or culture, immensely ambitious, and far better acquainted with the hard facts of trade and commerce than most of his aristocratic opponents, who thought such things beneath them.'
With the encroachment of the Greeks into Asia Minor, under the leadership of Kimon, the Persian king recalled Themistocles to help as an envoy against the impeding danger. Under the threat of the dangeous times, Themistocles died while still in Magnesia (home of the sculptor Bathycles). Plutarch recalls that he heard two stories regarding his death. That he died of natural causes and the other was that he committed suicide while holding a dinner with his close friends, the idea of campaging against his old comrades and tarnishing his past achievements being too much for him to bare.