Being the main port of Athens, inevitably Piraeus follows the history and fate of the Athenian Democracy, passing through periods of glory and prosperity as well as times of poverty and decadence. Overall, the period between 507 BC, when Piraeus is officially established as a municipality (demos) by Cleisthenes, and 431 BC, at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, when the city suffers the first of a series of setbacks, is admittedly considered to be the golden era of ancient Piraeus.
Themistocles and Piraeus: The Man & the City
Probably no other man in power linked their name that closely with the city of Piraeus than Themistocles. In his era and following his initiatives, Piraeus becomes the most important port of antiquity. Themistocles renders the Athenian Democracy the supreme naval power of his time and sees that Piraeus is a safe and prosperous port.
The Naval Battle of Salamis
In 480 BC the Athenian Fleet triumphs over the Persian Fleet in the Naval Battle of Salamis. The outcome of the battle was totally unexpected, as the Greek ships were by far outnumbered by the Persian ones.
But it was Themistocles’ brilliant plan that led to this victory: the Persian fleet wasn’t stopped until it reached the narrow sea passages of Salamis. That was the place where Themistocles had chosen for the naval battle to take place. In such narrow location, the huge Persian ships could hardly move, while the smaller and much more flexible Greek ones were able to hit and go.
The outcome for the Persians was devastating: their fleet was destroyed and their second attempt – the first being the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) when they were also defeated – to conquer Greece had failed. On the other hand, the Greeks had won not just a naval battle, but probably the battle that guaranteed the existence of the Western world as we know it today.
The Long Walls
A man with a vision and with extraordinary political virtues, Themistocles was the first politician to foresee what an instrumental role Piraeus could play in the Athenian dominance in the Mediterranean basin. This is why as early as in 493 BC Themistocles proposes a fortification project aiming at connecting Athens and Piraeus with walls, known as the Long Walls.
The Persian invasions, however, put the ambitious project on hold and only in 480 BC did the actual fortification works begin. It wasn’t until much later though (446 BC) that the original Themistocles’ project was completed.
The Ship Sheds
Built within the very first years of the Athenian Democracy, the ship sheds were part of Themistocles’ plan to render Piraeus the most important port in antiquity.
Located in the ports of Munichia, Zea and Kantharos the ship sheds accommodated the Athenian fleet during periods of peace.
Hippodameian Town Planning
In twenty years, from 451 – 431 BC Piraeus is rebuilt according to the famous town plan of architect Hippodamus of Miletus. Piraeus town planning, known as the “Hippodameian plan”, was perfect to the last detail and the Hippodameian plan itself is still being emulated in cities all over the world.