T HEMISTOCLES was born in Athens in the year 514 b.c. His father was an Athenian but his mother was a foreign woman. As he grew up the boy was very stubborn and hard to manage. His own way was the only way he would have.
He was very fond of composing and delivering speeches. He liked to play that he was a lawyer in the courts, and that his young companions were bad men against whom he must speak, or good men whom he must defend from false charges.
His schoolmaster used to say with a shake of the head, "Boy, you will live to be either a great blessing or a great curse."
When he became a man he went into politics, and became the leader of the party of the people, of the poor rather than of the rich. He had a rival, Aristides, whom he caused to be banished from the state as a dangerous citizen. There was no danger except to Themistocles himself. He was afraid that Aristides would be stronger than he, so he had him sent away by "ostracism."
This was a plan to get rid of citizens before they could become too powerful.
The men of a city met together in a public place, and each one might write upon a shell, or upon an earthen tablet which was called "ostracon," the name of the person whom he wished to have banished, or "ostracised." These votes were collected and counted. If there were six thousand or more the names were read over, and the man against whom the most votes had been given was sent away from the city for ten years. His property was not taken from him and at the end of that time he could come back to his home.
When the vote was taken against Aristides he met an ignorant man who said, "I cannot write. Put down upon my shell the name of Aristides."
"Has he ever injured you?" was asked. The man answered, "No. I do not even know him." "Why, then, do you vote to have him sent away?"
"Because I am tired of hearing everybody call him 'the Just.' "
Aristides wrote his own name upon the shell and gave it to this man, who did not like him because he was just and honorable. He was sent away and Themistocles had no longer reason to fear him.
At the battle of Marathon Themistocles was in great danger and fought bravely and well. But he was not pleased because he was not the chief general and so could not claim the victory as his own. He said, "I cannot sleep for thinking of the glory gained by Miltiades."
He was strongly in favor of a large navy. A great deal of money had been gained from the silver mines at Laurium. A law was about to be passed giving two dollars to every citizen, but Themistocles said it would be far better to use that money to build ships for the war then going on.
This was done and before that war was over word was brought that Xerxes, the Persian king, was getting ready to attack Greece both by land and by sea. Themistocles said, "Men of Athens, there is only one way to conquer this king; that is, by building more ships, and using them in fighting against him."
This advice was taken and in a battle at sea Xerxes was defeated. But he marched through Northern Greece burning every town he reached always coming nearer to Athens.
The people asked, "What shall we do? We are not strong enough to meet this great enemy."
Themistocles said, "Leave the city. Go on board the ships and trust in them."
They were not willing to do that, so Themistocles went to the oracle at Delphi and brought back this answer: "To you and your children only wooden walls shall remain unconquered."
The people inquired, "Where are the wooden walls?"
Themistocles replied, "They are your ships. They alone can never be conquered."
The women and children and old men left Athens and went for safety to another city. Some, however, took refuge behind the wooden walls upon the Acropolis. The young and brave men went on board the ships to sail for Salamis.
A Spartan general had command of all the ships. He wished to take the fleet into the gulf of Corinth to be near the land army, so that they might help him or he might aid them. Themistocles declared that it would be far better to keep the vessels in the Straits of Salamis.
The Spartan general was so angry that he lifted his hand to strike Themistocles, who said, "Strike, if you will, but hear me." Then he showed how much better it would be to go to the Straits of Salamis, and all who heard him called out, "To Salamis! To Salamis!"
Xerxes ordered his ships to close both ends of the Straits that he might catch the Greeks in a trap. Aristides was then at Ægina. He went on board a small boat and in the night was rowed through the Persian fleet to the place where Themistocles had his tent on shore. He went into the tent and said, "Let us still be rivals, but let us try which can do most to save our country."
Themistocles answered, "I will try and we shall see which is the better friend to Athens."
He had ordered that every galley should have a strong iron prow, or beak, and that with these they should try to strike the enemy's vessels on the side so as to break the oars and sink the ships. His fleet numbered three hundred and seventy-eight while Xerxes had a thousand sail. Victory rested with the few, and Themistocles conquered in the famous battle of Salamis.
He received great honor. The Spartans took him to their city, crowned him with olive, gave him a fine chariot, and, with three hundred soldiers on horses, escorted him to the borders of the state. When he went to the Olympic games all the people rose to show him respect and honor. He was for a time the glory and pride of Athens.
But after a while the people turned against him. They said he was a traitor and the courts condemned him to death. He left Athens and wandered from country to country until at last he reached the palace of Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes and king of Persia.
He promised to show that king a way to crush Athens but asked for one year to think it over. Artaxerxes made him ruler over four cities, and he lived in comfort with his family.
His promise to Artaxerxes was never kept. Before the year was ended Themistocles died, being sixty-five years old.