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Themistocles – Wily Strategist: Patriot or Traitor?

Parallel – Camillus

Themistocles saved Athens in its darkest hour, yet he dies in the Persian empire, the inveterate enemy of Athens. Is Themistocles a patriot or a traitor?

Important People

  • Aristides – Themistocles’s main political rival and a man he has to recall from exile to help him fight Salamis. Plutarch considers Aristides to be one of the noblest Athenians who ever lived, and so their lives give us two different perspectives on almost the same time period.
  • Eurybiades – The Spartan general in charge of the combined Greek forces at Artemisium and Salamis.

Important Places

  • Marathon
  • Artemisium
  • Thermopylae
  • Salamis

C. 1 – Obscure Birth

  1. Mother from Thrace; Father, Neocles, native Athenian.
  2. Disagreement about where his mother was from (Caria? Halicarnassus?)
  3. Family history goes back to Phyla because the Persians burned a shrine there that he paid to replace.

C. 2 – Youth and Education

  1. Childhood personality – impetuous and crafty by nature; ambitious and political by choice, composing speeches for and against his peers in his free time.
  2. His teacher’s thought: great, for good or ill. His rejection of education’s attempt to form his character.
  3. His later defense when taunted: I took cities in hand, not lyres or harps.
  4. The “Sophia” of the sophists and Mnesiphilus, Them’s advisor in political affairs.
  5. Uneven and stable as a youth, but he seems to have come out of it and seen his errors.

6. False, his parents did not disinherit him or die of grief at his youthful failings; some say his father pointed to old triremes abandoned on the shore and discourage his son from politics showing what the polis did to old ship was the same it did for old politicians.

C. 3 – Ambition and Marathon

  1. Aristides becomes his implacable political foe on the public stage, but this enmity had its source in a childhood competition.
  2. Aristides—opposite to him in so many ways, gentle, nobly born, and well-educated—resists Themistocles because his ideas not consistent with safety and justice.
  3. Themistocles jealous of Miltiades’ reputation after Marathon.
  4. Themistocles knew Marathon was only the beginning and anoints himself “champion of Hellas” and begins preparing the city.

C. 4 – A Silver Opportunity

  1. Convinces the Athenians to use silver from the mines at Laurium to fund the building of triremes.
  2. He knew he couldn’t use Persia as a threat that would convince anyone, so he used the current war against Aegina who then controlled the Saronic gulf. 100 triremes are built.
  3. He slowly changes the citizens from steadfast hoplites to sea-tossed mariners, even as Miltiades resisted him in this innovation.
  4. These triremes saved Greece causing Xerxes to flee and leave behind a general to prevent the Greeks from following up their victory into Xerxes’s own lands.

C. 5 – Themistocles v. Aristides

  1. Stingy or generous? Sources disagree.
  2. Threatens some with domestic division and brings famous musicians to his own house to attract a crowd: AMBITION.
  3. At Olympia he tries to rival Cimon (next life), but most people just see him as uppity.
  4. As choregus, chorus-leader, he won with a tragedy by Phrynichus and got an inscription commemorating his victory. He knew every citizen’s name, regardless of rank or status, and often was relied on as an arbiter outside of court. Good poets / good lawgivers.
  5. As he increases his influence, he ostracizes his political rival, Aristides.

C. 6 – The Persian Approach

  1. Themistocles uses bribes to prevent a weak and corrupt man from buying his way into the office of strategies, or general.
  2. When Xerxes demands earth and water, Themistocles has the interpreter arrested and put to death for abusing the Greek language with barbarian demands.
  3. Another man loses his citizenship for himself and his family because he tries to bribe the Athenians with Persian gold. But his greatest accomplishment was uniting the Greek polis against the Persian threat.

C. 7 – Spartan Leadership

  1. Tries to persuade Athenians to abandon the city and trust in their ships, meeting the barbarians in a sea-battle far from mainland Greece and earlier than they expect. No one accepts this plan.
  2. All the Greek areas through Boeotia (the area around Thebes and Plutarch’s homeland) surrender to the Persians without a fight. Themistocles sent to the strait of Artemisium, to watch the narrows. Compare this battle in the narrows with Thermopylae, and later Salamis. The Greek already knew their advantages against a larger foe. The Greeks entrust themselves to Spartan leadership.
  3. The Athenians, since they have the most ships, don’t want to listen to the Spartans, so Themistocles sets the example and surrenders his command to Eurybiades. Again, instrumental in saving all of Greece teaching Athenians to surpass their foes in valor and their allies in magnanimity.
  4. Eurybiades wants to retreat to avoid being surrounded and fight nearer the aid of infantry. The Euboeans give Themistocles money to convince the Greeks not to abandon them.
  5. Themistocles hands the money to Eurybiades, and is recited most strongly by a fellow Athenian naval captain. Themistocles incites a mutiny and his crew steals the man’s dinner making clear they won’t listen to him if he told them to row home.
  6. Themistocles then sends him dinner with a heap of silver at the bottom and says he should listen to his crew and stay, or Themistocles will report him as having accepted enemy funds.

C. 8 – Artemisium

  1. This battle not decisive, but gave the Greeks much-needed experience to see past the size, fanciness, or shouting of their enemy.
  2. Artemisium’s location on Euboea (Philoctetes reference); white marble slab smelling of saffron with inscription:
  3. Dedicated to the sons of Athenians who built a monument to Artemis.
  4. Nearby they burned their ships and that part of the water still has an ash-colored sand.

C. 9 – Athens Alone

  1. News of Thermopylae, they all fall back to safer waters, with the Athenians protecting their rear.
  2. Themistocles encourages all the lands he passes either to revolt from the Persians and join the Greeks, or to hinder and prevent the Persians from having easy access to harbors and supplies.
  3. The cities of the Phocians burned, no one goes to their aid. Everyone puts hope in the isthmus and the begins to build the wall across the isthmus.
  4. The Athenians are angered at this (because they’ll end up just like the Phocians if they ask for help); thus, their only option now is to abandon their city though most were in extreme distress to leave the temples of the gods and tombs of their fathers undefended.

C. 10 – Deus Ex Machina – To Salamis!

  1. Themistocles uses signs from the gods to convince the reluctant. When a snake stops frequenting the Parthenon, the priests (encouraged by Themistocles) interpret it that Athena herself has left the city.
  2. The “wooden walls” oracle calls Salamis divine, not dreadful or cruel, so this island must be important and helpful.
  3. Most Athenians send their wives and children across the Saronic Gulf to Troezen, and are eagerly welcomed there (now in the Peloponnesus and behind the defenses of the “Isthmus Wall.” Troezenians support everyone at public cost, educate the boys, and allow anyone to pick fruit anywhere.
  4. The Athenian treasury was empty to the members of the Court of the Areopagus personally fund the pay for the trireme warriors at 8 drachmas. Themistocles arranges to “find the money” when the Gorgon’s head falls off the image of Athena and Themistocles goes looking for it.
  5. The sadness of the scene: everyone leaving their loved ones and homeland, some to fight, some to flee.
  6. One dog swam across the strait following his master, arrived safely on shore and died from exhaustion, buried at “Dog’s Mound” to this day.

C. 11 – Aristides Returns

  1. Athenians want Aristides back; Them fears he may switch sides to the barbarian. He introduces a bill calling all exiles home.
  2. Eurybiades wants to fall back to isthmus to be near infantry, anecdote explaining origin of “those who lag behind get no crown”
  3. Eurybiades raises staff to hit Themistocles, who blurts out “Strike, but listen!” Someone comments that a man without a city should not advise men with cities.
  4. Themistocles’ speech in response: “we still have the greatest city in Hellas”
  5. He calls his accuser heartless (cuttlefish)

C. 12 – Tricking the Persians…and the Greeks

  1. Once an owl flew from the right and landed on the rigging, which the soldiers interpret as a good omen.
  2. As the Persians approach, the Peloponnesians decide to make their escape by night.
  3. Them sends a Persian from his household, Sicinnus, to deliver a message to Xerxes:
  4. “The Greeks are trying to get away, attack while they’re separated from their infantry”
  5. Xerxes puts to sea at once and surrounds the island of Salamis.
  6. Aristides the first to notice the enemy surrounding them. Them comes clean.
  7. Aristides praises his political enemy for this stratagem and encourages the naval captains who now must fight with a “courage born of necessity.”

C. 13 – The Battle of Salamis

  1. Xerxes seats himself high up on a golden throne for a view of the battle.
  2. The seer says Them must sacrifice the nephews of Xerxes before the battle to win.
  3. Themistocles reluctant and terrified, but the crowd had heard the seer’s prophecy and demand it be carried out, eventually doing it themselves. This from a reliable source of Plutarch’s.

C. 14 – Salamis, Numbers and Timing

  1. Aeschylus, who fought at Salamis, estimates the Persian fleet at 1000 and the Greek fleet at 180. (Persians 341-343)
  2. Themistocles chose the best place and time because he knew how the currents and winds worked in the strait. This works to the advantage of the larger, but more maneuverable Greek ships.
  3. Two ships crash bow to bow, remaining stuck together and two Greeks throw Ariamenes, brother of Xerxes, into the sea. Artemisia recognizes his body and orders it to be brought to Xerxes.

C. 15 – Salamis – Portents and First Strike

  • A great light from Eleusis (Demeter) and a shout from the Thiasian plain (Bacchus) accompany a cloud coming out from the land and settling on all the ships. Some men see visions of armed men coming from Aegina. The sons of Aeacus, particularly Achilles and Ajax, have come to help the Greeks from Aegina, their ancestral homeland.
  • Lycomedes captures the first ship and dedicates its beak to Apollo at Phlya. The Persian ships get in each other’s way. The poet Simonides sees the primary reason for the “brilliant exploit” not in Hellenic or Persian valor, but in the “clever judgment of Themistocles”

C. 16 – Hellespont Threat –> Hasty (Naval) Retreat!

  • Xerxes, in a rage, tries to build land bridges out to Salamis to capture it with his infantry. Themistocles suggests the Greeks should go break up Xerxes’s bridge across the Hellespont to prevent retreat.
  • Aristides objects since this would leave an angry army in Greece with little to lose.
  • He suggests instead building a second bridge so the Persians can leave even faster. Themistocles agrees on looking for the fastest means to get the Persians to leave.
  • He sends a messenger to Xerxes urging him to hasten home, since he could count on Themistocles as a friend of the king’s to slow the allied Greeks down to prevent them from going straight to the Hellespont to destroy the bridge.
  • The remaining army’s fight at Plataea proves Plutarch’s point: Mardonius fought as if he had nothing to lose, even though he was left with a smaller part of the army than he’d come with.

C. 17 – Themistocles, First or Second?

  1. Aegina did best of all the poleis, and each general votes Themistcoles was the best, after himself of course.
  2. At the next Olympics, everyone ignores the athletes and marvels at Themistocles.

C. 18 – Love of Honor (φιλοτιμία)

  1. When holding public office, Them delays all religious and civic business to the last day so his public importance seems its highest right before he leaves.
  2. Ignores the treasures of the dead Persians while encouraging a friend to loot, since he isn’t Themistocles (pride/vanity/arrogance?)
  3. Them feels treated like a tree used for protection rather than a person with skills and abilities. The Seriphian anecdote.
  4. The Festival-Day and the Day After (a fable proving Themistocles’s worth to some unnamed general).
  5. His son rules Athens, twisted logic: Them rules Athens, his wife rules Them, the boy rules his mother. Chooses the man over the money rather than the money over the man for his daughter’s husband. Sells a parcel of land next to his and advertises it as having wonderful neighbors.

C. 19 – Rebuilding Athens (to the sea)

  1. Bribes Spartan Ephors not to interfere with re-fortification of Athens, when they levy the charge anyway, he says “See for yourself”
  2. This buys him time as the men travel to Athens and allows him to hold the ambassadors as hostages.
  3. Equips Piraeus “to attach the whole city to the sea”
  4. With increased emphasis on the sea, more common rather than more aristocratic people gain power. The bema on the Pnyx turned away from the sea under Spartan control (about 70 years later).

C. 20 – Naval Supremacy

  1. New plans for Athenian supremacy, not appropriate for public proclamation.
  2. Athenians make him tell Aristides and let him decide. Aristides says it is most advantageous and most evil at the same time.
  3. The Defensive League against the Persians tries to exclude those who didn’t fight against the Persians. Themistocles knows that he’ll lose a lot of allies this way, so he defends those cities.
  4. Only 31 poleis took part in the war; intolerable to exclude all of Greece and give decisions over to two or three of the largest or loudest cities. Spartans resent that he does this.

C. 21 – Critics of Themistocles

  1. He overtaxes the allies, demanding more money than they even have to give.
  2. Timocreon, an exile not called back by Themistocles’s motion, reviles Themistocles in poetry.
  3. Timocreon’s satire grew more pointed after Themistocles’s exile.
  4. When Themistocles charged with Medizing, Timocreon writes another poem calling Themistocles a fox.

C. 22 – Themistocles Ostracized…

  1. His fellow-citizens slander him out of jealousy and he defends himself publicly and builds a temple to Artemis Aristoboule (best strategist).
  2. The Athenians are annoyed because he builds this temple near his house to remind them of his plan. There is still a statue of Themistocles in this temple showing that he looked as well as acted heroically.
  3. So, Themistocles is ostracized (~472 B.C.) for his “oppressive power.” Ostracism, in Plutarch’s opinion, not a penalty for the unjust, but a remedy for jealousy which delight in humbling the great.

C. 23 – Exile in Argos; Panhellenic Trial?

  1. Themistocles goes to Argos, Pausanias dies and the Athenians bring a trial against Themistocles for treason.
  2. Backstory to Treason Charge: Pausanias had defected to the Persian King and tried to bring Themistocles in on it. Them refused, but told no one.
  3. Pausanias put to death and letters connecting Pausanias’s treason to Themistocles were found. Themistocles sends his defense via letters.
  4. His argument: Because he has always been bent on ruling, switching sides to serve the Persians makes no sense for his character. Nonetheless, men sent with orders to arrest him and bring him to stand trial in Athens.

C. 24 – Flees the Athenians & Spartans to Molossus

  1. Them flees first to Corcyra (modern Corfu) then Epirus, but the Spartans and Athenians are chasing him, so he runs to Molossus (so did Theseus!)
  2. This king should hate him for an earlier rejection he suffered at Themistocles’s hands, but Themistocles throws himself on the king’s mercy.
  3. Takes the baby of the king of the Molossians and sits on the hearth, a most sacred thing for the Molossians. Was it rehearsed or spontaneous?
  4. His wife and children are brought to him, snuck out of Athens at night. The man who helped sneak them out is later sentenced to death for this act.

C. 25 – Flees with Family to Asia (not Sicily)

  1. Since Themistocles also had personal enemies in Sicily (he had insulted the tyrant Hiero at the Olympics once), it’s most likely that at this point he flees to Anatolia.
  2. He boards a ship at Pydna and heads for Anatolia, but a storm stops them near Naxos, which is an ally revolting from the Athenians, whose fleet is there. Themistocles threatens and entreats the captain not to give him up.
  3. Themistocles’ wealth and property secretly pulled out of Attica, almost 100 talents of which never make it to him. When he started his political life, his net worth was 3 talents.

C. 26 – Dreams and Disguises

  1. Lands at Cyme, finds out the King of Persia has put a price of 200 talents on his head.
  2. Hides with a Nicogenes, wealthiest man in the region and well-connected. Pedagogue of Nicogenes’s children falls into a trance and gives Themistocles a prophecy about the night.
  3. That night, Them has a dream about a snake crawling up to his neck and then turning into an eagle, which carries him away to a place with a herald’s wand, free of terror and distress.
  4. Persians are jealous and watchful of their women, carrying them around in fully-enclosed tents on poles. Nicogenes takes advantage of this, and makes Themistocles sit inside one to get him directly to the king.

C. 27 – Themistocles Before the Vizier

  1. Some authors say Themistocles spoke with Artaxerxes, many others say it was still Xerxes on the throne. Thucydides weighs in on it being Artaxerxes.
  2. Gatekeeper to the king is Artabanus, grand visor, whom Themistocles tells he has a most important message from the Greeks for the Persians.
  3. Artabanus says the Greeks admire liberty and equality above all things, but Persians do obeisance to the king as an image of god and preserver of all things, so if you do that first, you may see the king. If not, find a messenger.
  4. Them responds that he will observe the customs and cause more men than do so now to pay homage to the king.
  5. Artabanus asks who he is, but Them says only the king will be the first to know.

C. 28 – Themistocles Before the King

  1. After paying homage to the king, Them reveals himself as an exile, pursued by his enemies, and though the Persians can see me as the root of many evils, he is also the root of many goods, because he hindered the Greek pursuing the Persians out of Greece.
  2. Use my misfortunes for the display of your virtues rather than the satisfaction of your anger, because you will save a suppliant but destroy an enemy of the Greeks.
  3. Themistocles relates the dreams and visions from the gods he has recently had, implying that Zeus and the Persian King were both equally “Great Kings.” The king does not reply but is impressed.
  4. Later, his friends report that he prayed Ahriman/Ahura-Mazda would always make his enemies drive their best men away, sacrificing in thanksgiving and shouting out in his sleep about the joy of having Themistocles.

C. 29 – The King’s Gifts

  1. Themistocles summoned the next day, expecting unfavorable results because he was insulted by the guards on his way in, and he is called a “subtle serpent of Hellas” by one chiliarch (leader of a thousand men, a Greek translation of a Persian rank).
  2. The king claims to owe him 200 talents, since he should receive the reward for his own capture, and gives Themistocles permission to speak his mind about Greek matters to the king.
  3. To speak with the king without a translator, Themistocles requests one year to learn the Persian language.
  4. More honored than any other foreigner, taking part in the King’s hunts and parties, learning from the Mages and befriending the Queen Mother.
  5. Demaratus (deposed Spartan King) requests to wear his tiara in Sardis in the same manner as the Persian King. The King’s cousin puts him in his place.
  6. The king himself also wants to reject Demaratus, but Themistocles bargains that Demaratus not be treated harshly and the King relents.
  7. Themistocles is richer than before, and the King gives him at least 3 (and possibly 5) cities to rule over and from which he can supply all his bread, wine, and meat.

C. 30 – Themistocles Saved by a Dream

  1. One of the satraps of Persia (Upper Phrygia) plots to kill Themistocles at a town called the Lion’s Head. Magna Mater visits him in a dream warning him to shun the heads of lions.
  2. Themistocles goes by a different route but is still pursued, even if temporarily foiled, and some of his tent equipment had fallen into the water and was drying out overnight.
  3. His pursuers mistake his tent-strung-out-to-dry for his actual tent (at night) and are captured by guards because Themistocles isn’t even there yet. In thanksgiving for his safety, Themistocles makes his daughter Mnesiptolema a priestess of Cybele (Magna Mater = Cybele, a mother goddess of Anatolian origin).

C. 31 – Greek rile Persia again; Themistocles dies (by his own hand?)

  1. While admiring the statues and temples of Sardis, he comes upon a statue taken from Athens which he had caused to be made and set up (Water-Carrier). Not sure of his motive, but he asks the Satrap if the statue could be returned to Athens.
  2. The satrap is annoyed and wants to complain to the king, upon which point Them turns again to the women’s quarters and befriends women in the satrap’s household to calm him down. After this, Them wanders less and stays put in Magnesia living well and wealthily.
  3. But around 459 B.C. Egypt revolts from Persia and Athens gives aid, with Greek triremes sailing far out of the Aegean into Cyprus and Cilicia. Cimon becomes “master of the sea” and the king requests Themistocles’ presence for help with the “Hellenic problem”
  4. Them doesn’t respond to the request but decides to kill himself.
  5. He sacrifices to the gods, calls his friends together, and either drinks bull’s blood or a quick poison, dying in Magnesia at 65 years old, most of which had been spent in political leadership. The King, hearing about it, admired him more and treats his survivors kindly.
Themistocles' tomb near the modern port of Piraeus.
Themistocles’ Tomb near the Modern Piraeus. Was he buried in Attica or Asia? Where does he deserve to lie?

C. 32 – Children and Tomb

  1. Three sons, none of whom are known to history except one was a good horseman.
  2. Themistocles had about five daughters, and Plutarch traces who they married.
  3. Magnesians set up a splendid tomb of Them in their market place, but all the rest about his remains being stolen by the Athenians is a fabrication.
  4. One author thinks he is buried near the Piraeus (show modern picture).
  5. Plutarch was friends with a Themistocles directly descended from the original one (400 years later!)

Helpful External Links

Battle of Salamis Podcast by Barry Strauss (Classics Professor at Cornell University)

Themistocles in Paintings

Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles – Bernadotte Perrin translation

1 thought on “Themistocles – Wily Strategist: Patriot or Traitor?”

  1. Well done.
    Little nobodies in Athens and Sparta connived to bring him down and he had to flee for his life.
    Interestingly, the King of Persia, who was the son of Xerxes, recognized him as a great man not an enemy.
    Pericles, another great man who would also suffer from the barbs of little people, sought to resurrect his memory.
    Today he is recognised as an hero in Greece and I have just read they propose to name a new fleet of warships in his honour.


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