The closest modern-day historical figure to Themistocles is Winston Churchill, and the similarities are striking. Both men saw what many of their countrymen thought to be final wars (World War I for Britain, Marathon for Athens) as preludes to a larger conflict. Both men saw the rising danger of powerful enemies hungry to avenge previous defeats. And despite being labeled “alarmist” both sought to galvanize their nations by ramping up war production in preparation for the cataclysmic battle they were sure lay before them, given the diabolical nature of the foe on the other side of the water. Both were outspoken, sometimes abrasive, and highly persuasive. And both had keen military minds.
Although all the odds of any future engagements seemed at a glance to be in Xerxes’ favor, Themistocles saw realistic opportunity where others saw doom. The Persian army had been on the march, out in the open, for the better part of six months and autumn was closing in. They were some 500 miles overland from their home base. The logistical nightmare of feeding an army of 250,000 not to mention another 200,000 seaman manning the king’s triremes, meant that soon the invaders had stripped the now harvested land bare. It is estimated that over one hundred ships a day crossing an Aegean Sea that would grow more treacherous as gale season approached were required to feed the Persian horde. And as they conquered more territory, more troops would have to be peeled away to manage and subjugate the new conquests. Plus, the invading army and navy was a polyglot of squabbling nations with different customs, modes of fighting, histories and languages. And many of the newly conquered Greeks would fight for Xerxes because they had to, not out of any zeal for their new king of kings. (It’s likely that as many Ionians and “Medized” – newly subjugated -- Greeks were fighting for Persia as the dwindling number of free Hellenes.) Themistocles believed in the Panhellenic Alliance and set about making his case forcefully to the remaining Greek admirals that not only could they stop the Persians at sea, but they could destroy them.
Themistocles refused to either surrender to Xerxes or see the cream of Greek hoplites wiped out in a forlorn last stand on the open plains of Attica. Rather, he took the measure of the Persian foe and saw salvation in the Greek fleet. They’d been roughly handled at Artemisium and possibly some 100 of his ships were in need of repairs. But the allied navy, still nominally under the command of Eurybiades, remained a potent weapon with a now gathered total of some 370 ships from 20 city-states, the majority from Athens.
Although the death of a Spartan king had shaken much of Greece, Themistocles was emboldened by Leonidas’ brave stand; it showed the Persians were far from supermen. He’d watched Darius’ legions get butchered when he served at Marathon, and fought a much larger Persian fleet to a draw at Artemisium. He knew how to fight them. He now had to convince the rest of the remaining free Greeks that they could indeed beat Xerxes’ invaders in another naval battle. But it was not easy for men who still had a country to listen to the grandiose plans of a man who’d lost his. Why should they fight to save an Athens that no longer existed? At one point Eurybiades had been so frustrated by the Athenian’s insistent arguments that he threatened to beat him. But Themistocles was adamant. “Strike me if you must. But then listen!”
In the end the Spartan admiral did listen. The Persian fleet numbering anywhere from 700 to 1,200 depending on the source was moored at the Bay of Phaleron, the main port near Athens. If the Greek fleet could force a battle in the narrow waters of Salamis Bay, the heavier Athenian triremes could lay waste to the smaller but faster Persian vessels whose speed and agility would mean nothing when jammed up in the narrow channel. Even though they would be outnumbered by at least two-to-one (some estimates are as high as four-to-one), the freemen sailors, marines and oarsmen would be fighting to save their families camped out in the hills from slavery. Motivation would be a force multiplier. Plus the Athenians, who once again would be in actual charge of the engagement, though not as experienced sailors as Xerxes’ Egyptians, Ionians, or Phoenicians, knew these waters, their depths, tidal flows, and quirks. Time was running out for Athens’ displaced citizens. Either they fight, run away, or surrender. At a council of war the Greeks were eventually persuaded…partly due to the counsel of Themistocles’ respected former rival, the taciturn statesman Aristides, who convinced the allies the firebrand admiral’s logic was sound. They would retreat no more but offer battle again.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: