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"The shores and the cliffs awash with corpses"

When the Athenian Themistocles (ca.

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"The shores and the cliffs awash with corpses"

When the Athenian Themistocles (ca. 524–459) was still a young man, few would have believed that his native city would put its destiny in his hands and owe him not only its existence but also its rise to become a great power. An ancient biographer writes that his "dissolute life and waste of money caused his parents' displeasure," so much so that his father even disinherited him. "However, this disgrace did not break him, but woke him up."

A historical upheaval in Athens came to his aid. As a member of the Lycomides clan, Themistocles belonged to the aristocratic upper class of the city-state. But since his mother had been a Metökin, that is, not from Athens and therefore had only limited civil rights, her son could hardly have made his meteoric career. But the democratic reforms undertaken after the fall of the Peisistratid tyranny changed the situation. Soon Themistocles was one of the key politicians in the popular assembly. In 493/92 he held one of the most important offices in the state as archon.

Even then he demonstrated an ability that the great historian Thucydides put into words: "Through his own cleverness alone, neither pre-taught nor post-taught, he was an infallible recognizer of the moment with the shortest consideration and the best calculator of the future in the longest view .” This also applied to the proposal that he pushed through during his archonship: Athens should lay a fleet of 100 war galleys in Kiel.

Many historians have interpreted this as a far-sighted strategy against the Persian Empire, which ended in 500 BC. After six years, the Greek city-states in western Asia Minor rebelled. At that time, Athens supported the rebels. More recent approaches, on the other hand, place Themistocles' proposal in a series of similar armors with which the larger Greek states sought to underline their claims to power. In addition, at the gates of Athens, Aegina was a sea-powered commercial competitor that could only be defeated with a fleet.

As 490 BC When a Persian expeditionary force actually landed in Attica, the fleet played no role. The most influential politician meanwhile was Miltiades, under whose leadership the Athenian civil army threw back the invaders at Marathon. However, Themistocles probably belonged to the circle of strategists, the military leaders. From this position he was able to take the place of Miltiades after he had been overthrown by his domestic opponents.

Again the times were favorable to Themistocles. In 483/82 rich silver deposits were discovered on the southeast coast of Attica. Themistocles proposed in the popular assembly that the surplus of about 50 talents should not be paid out to the 30,000 full citizens, but should be invested in the construction of 200 galleys. Here, too, the Persian threat probably did not play the decisive role, but rather the current conflict with Aegina.

At the same time, the project had the effect of a state economic program that gave work to numerous people. Added to this was a revolutionary political turn. The galleys were triremes. They were 35 to 37 meters long, five to six meters wide and were propelled by about 170 oarsmen in three tiers, along with about 30 heavily armed men, archers and nautical personnel.

The trireme's most important weapon was the bronze spur in the bow, which could be used to ram enemy ships or destroy their rudders. Speed ​​and agility were key. This required a trained and highly motivated crew, which was provided in Athens by members of the fourth wealth class, the thetes.

These were day laborers who could not afford expensive armaments and therefore could not fight in the citizen phalanx of armored hoplites. Now they were taken into service as salaried rowers and thus received access to the People's Assembly and other rights of political participation. Naval armament became a crucial building block of Attic democracy.

Alarming news accelerated the work. The new Persian king Xerxes assembled a huge army to make the defeat of 490 forgotten. The canal that was dug through the Athos peninsula in Chalkidiki, in order to make the dangerous bypass unnecessary, showed the Greeks the dimensions in which the empire was planning. Most Greeks were impressed by the show of force and submitted. Only 30 states formed a confederation under the leadership of Sparta, which resisted the invasion.

The attempt of the Spartan king Leonidas to prevent the Persians from advancing at the Thermopylae pass in central Greece ended in catastrophe. The Greek fleet, in which the Athenians formed the largest contingent, was forced to retreat. Thanks to the authority of Themistocles and a pleasant oracle from Delphi, Athens was evacuated. The god Apollo had prophesied that his citizens should defend their city with “walls of wood”, which could easily be applied to ships. On the island of Salamis, the Athenians saw the columns of smoke from the fires with which the Persians burned the city.

Given the superiority of the Persians, the Greek fleet threatened to disperse. Thereupon Themistokles is said to have sent a messenger to Xerxes, who reported the retreat of the Greeks and thus the loss of the chance to eliminate them in one fell swoop. Whether the Great King needed this supposed betrayal to give the order to attack is an open question. The difficult supply of his fleet and the approaching autumn with its storms must have prompted him to strike quickly.

Around September 29, 480 BC the attack began. The Persian fleet could not develop its superiority in the narrow sea arms. Themistocles had also ensured that the Greeks awaited the enemy in battle formation. The better maneuverability of the triremes was the deciding factor. The large Phoenician and Ionian ships were attacked from all sides and hindered each other. They were rammed or boarded.

The poet Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon and probably also at Salamis, has a messenger to the Persian royal court describe the defeat in detail in his tragedy “The Persians”: “The Greeks led their thrusts very skilfully / from all sides, and they capsized Ships; / soon the surface of the sea could no longer be seen / before debris and before blood-covered human bodies. / The shores and cliffs were awash with corpses. / In a confused flight tried to row away / Every ship of the Persian fleet tried to escape.

When 479 BC When the Persian land army suffered heavy defeats at Plataia and the fleet off Samos, the invasion had failed. As a result, Themistokles was able to advance the reconstruction of Athens and its fortifications. But in 471 he finally became too powerful for his fellow citizens. With the ostracism, they voted for his exile and even condemned him as a traitor in his absence.

Ironically, the man who had made a decisive contribution to repelling the Persians and establishing Athens' naval power and great power had to seek refuge in the Persian Empire. Great King Artaxerxes I received him with honor and even made him governor. According to Thucydides, he is said to have succumbed to an illness around 459 in Magnesia on the Meander.

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