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THE WOODEN WALLS
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
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
This was a plan to get rid of citizens before they could become too
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
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
 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
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
Themistocles said, "Leave the city. Go on board the ships and trust in
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
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 vas 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 AEgina. 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
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.