Themistocles, son of Neocles, was the public figure who changed the history of Athens (and Greece) by setting the foundation for the naval supremacy of his city.
Themistocles could also have been the hero of an ancient Greek tragedy.
A few years after being recognized throughout Greece as the architect of the naval victory at Salamis (which turned the tide of war and marked the beginning of the end of the Persian invasion) Themistocles was banished from his home city, falsely accused of treason. Pursued by his enemies, Themistocles tried unsuccessfully to settle in various Greek cities, until forced to flee to the Persian Empire, where he sought (and got) the protection of king Artaxerxes I.
He died there, far from his home city, which for ancient Greeks was one of the greatest calamities to befall a man.
The residents of the city of Magnesia, in Asia Minor, buried him in honor in their agora (civic and commercial centre of the city) but his own deepest desire was to return home.
A secret burial
It is said that his descendants returned to Athens and secretly buried his bones in an undisclosed location, somewhere near the city. Ancient author Plutarch mentions that two authors before him believed that there was a tomb of Themistocles somewhere to the NW of Piraeus, in a small cape, overlooking the ships coming and going from the harbor. It was also said to be in a perfect spot to watch the rowing games held there. Plutarch does not seem to believe that his bones had been moved from Magnesia.
The testimony of Pausanias
The tradition that the bones of Themistocles were buried somewhere in Piraeus must have been very strong. Even as late as the 2nd century CE, the traveler Pausanias mentions seeing his tomb near the largest of the three harbors of Piraeus.
A monument next to the waves
Today, it is believed that the tomb of Themistocles is an ancient monument to the south of this largest harbor, right next to the grounds of the Greek Naval Academy.
A low stone wall encloses a small area with a sarcophagus carved out of the rock. Right next to it, there is a column (without the usual vertical grooves) which must have supported a sculpture. There is no way to know for certain whether this is indeed the monument of Themistocles, but there is no other candidate for the monument described by Pausanias.
A unique historic monument
If this is indeed the monument to the architect of the Greek naval victory of Salamis, this is of unparalleled historic importance. Even if the general’s bones did not lie here, the firm belief of Athenians that they were is a testament to the importance of his legacy to the city for centuries after his passing.
Out of reach
It is a pity that such an important monument is inaccessible to the public due to its location within the grounds of the Naval Academy. It ought to have been made a focal point in Piraeus, a location of honor and homage. I can almost imagine the area around it landscaped to facilitate visiting; a promenade by the sea where people could go daily to gaze at the sea next to this constant reminder of a victorious battle fought for freedom so long ago.
Unfortunately, this has not happened. Fenced off from the public, the tomb is surrounded by utilitarian walls which seem to have been built without the slightest regard for aesthetics or the monument itself. Surrounded by them, the monument becomes almost invisible to the untrained eye. At least I hope the cadets know of its importance and pay the proper respects to it. For the public, the monument is visible from the road along the coast or from the sea, for those coming towards the harbor.
A modern sacrilege
This year marks 2,500 years since the victory at Salamis. Instead of investing time and effort to renovate the monument and highlight its importance, the exact opposite is happening. It seems that a program of land reclamation has begun in Piraeus, right next to the monument; truckloads of earth have already been dumped within view of it. It is unknown what the plans for the area are and it is rumored that the construction taking place has failed to procure the necessary permits. However, I feel it is safe to assume that the reclamation with further degrade the landscape around the monument.
Proud of our heritage or not?
This recent construction next to the monument is a further violation of both the landscape of Piraeus and our historic heritage. If Greeks are indeed proud of their ancestors they should stop treating historic monuments as inconvenient stumbling blocks on the way to “development”. When history is respected it is embraced and enhanced. I am very much afraid that our current behavior demonstrates the exact opposite.
Sources: Facebook, Reportaznet (photos) και Reportaznet (photos & videos).
Photos of the monument before recent reclamation work, from Flikr: Dimitris Kamaras
Except for my own, at the top, all the other photos have been taken from the above sources. One has been edited.