Themistocles: Putting into Practice the Vision

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2006

"Themistocles was that rare thing in a democracy, leader. [At the Battle of Salamis Themistocles] created a clash of a thousand warships precisely where he wanted it, and precisely when."--The Battle of Salamis, Barry Strauss.

Now that's leadership! Professor Strauss is not alone, nor indulging hyperbole, when he characterizes the battle of Salamis a "The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece --and Western Civilization." But that victory of the Greeks over the Persian fleet at the naval in the year 480 B.C., which assured that Greece would develop free democratic institution rather than be subject to Oriental despotism and which ushered in the golden age of Athens would not have happened without a plan and without a leader who could persuade the many jealous Greek city-states to unite behind that plan. Themistocles (c. 524-c.459 B.C.) was the first to propose to Athenians the building of a navy, which later became the salvation of Athens. He saw, perhaps a decade before its outbreak, that war with Persia was inevitable.

Whence comes greatness? The power of emulation. Themistocles was haunted by the mighty deeds of earlier generations of leaders and sought to emulate their valor.

For it is said that Themistocles was so transported with the thoughts of glory, and so inflamed with the passion for great actions, that, though he was still young when the battle of Marathon was fought /1/ against the Persians, upon the skillful conduct of the general, Miltiades, being everywhere talked about, he was observed to be thoughtful, and reserved, alone by him self; he passed the nights without sleep, and avoided all his usual places of recreation, and to those who wondered at the change, and inquired the reason of it, he gave the answer, that "the trophy of Miltiades would not let him sleep."

And from those lessons he formed an idea of the future greatness of Greece and of his role in bringing it about.

And when others were of opinion that the battle of Marathon would be an end to the war, Themistocles thought that it was but the beginning of far greater conflicts, and for these, to the benefit of all Greece, he kept himself in continual readiness, and his city also in proper training, foreseeing from far before what would happen. --Life of Themistocles, 3)

The vision and its execution. The threat from the Persians seeming too remote in the eyes of the Athenians, Themistocles exploited a traditional rivalry and directed Athenian concerns toward Aegina, an island state only a few miles from Athens in the Saronic Gulf, which could be plausibly presented as a naval threat against which the Athenians must prepare.

And, first of all, the Athenians being accustomed to divide amongst themselves the revenue proceeding from the silver mines at Laurium, he was the only man that dared propose to the people that this distribution should cease, and that with the money ships should be built to make war against the Aeginetans, who were the most flourishing people in all Greece, and by the number of their ships held the sovereignty of the sea; and Themistocles thus was more easily able to persuade them, avoiding all mention of danger from Darius or the Persians, who were at a great distance, and their coming very uncertain, and at that time not much to be feared...And henceforward, little by little, turning and drawing the city down towards the sea...that the deliverance of Greece came at that time from the sea, and that these galleys restored Athens again after it was destroyed, were others wanting, Xerxes himself would be sufficient evidence, who, though his land-forces were still entire, after his defeat at sea, fled away, and thought himself no longer able to encounter the Greeks --Life of Themistocles, 4)

Even after building the fleet, the Athenians were unwilling to commit themselves fully to becoming a naval power and to seeking their safety at sea. Through clever trickery, Themistocles brings the people around to his view that they must leave the city and take to the sea.

Themistocles, being at a loss, and not able to draw the people over to his opinion by any human reason, set his machines to work, as in a theater, and employed prodigies and oracles. The serpent of Athena, kept in the inner part of her temple, disappeared; the priests gave it out to the people that the offerings which were set for it were found untouched, and declared, by the suggestion of Themistocles, that the goddess had left the city, and taken her flight before them towards the sea. And he often urged them with the oracle which bade them trust to walls of wood, showing them that walls of wood could signify nothing else but ships...At length his opinion prevailed. --Life of Themistocles, 10)

Thus the Athenians were saved in the "walls of wood," the ships that Themistocles, a decade prior, had built for her defense. Was Themistocles completely honest with the people? No, his wiliness and resourcefulness in suborning the priests, and twisting the oracle to suit his needed interpretation ought to trouble us. Still, we must credit that he, through dishonest means, saved the people in spite of themselves. He is complex, like Odysseus who lied and tricked his way into and out of many an adventure. For Homer, Odysseus was "quick-witted," but for Dante was a prince among prevaricators damned to one of the lower circles of hell.

In his creative financing of the war we see again Themistocles acting "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. /2/"

There was no public treasure at that time in Athens...When the Athenians were on their way down to the haven of Piraeus, the shield with the head of Medusa was missing; and he, under the pretext of searching for it, ransacked all places, and found among their goods considerable sums of money concealed, which he applied to the public use; and with this the soldiers and seamen were well provided for their voyage. --Life of Themistocles, 10)

Character matters. This brings us to consideration of the character of Themistocles and inquiry into why he, of all the Athenians, was the one indispensible man. First, as regards he acquisiion and use of riches. Themistocles sought riches and was not always so careful as to how he obtained money. Yet he was no slave to riches, on the contrary, he exploited the weakness for money when he observed it in others.

When the king of Persia was now advancing against Greece, and the Athenians were in consultation who should be general, and many withdrew themselves of their own accord, being terrified with the greatness of the danger, there was one Epicydes, a popular speaker, son to Euphemides, a man of an eloquent tongue, but of a faint heart, and a slave to riches, who was desirous of the command, and was looked upon to be in a fair way to carry it by the number of votes; but Themistocles, fearing that, if the command should fall into such hands, all would be lost, bought off Epicydes and his pretensions, it is said, for a sum of money. --Life of Themistocles, 6)

And so, we see, Themistocles, sought money for the good he could do with it. He stole from his fellow citizens to finance the war. Had they lost the war the Persians would have plunder all the Athenian wealth anyway and taken their land and liberty as well. It is true, he accepted bribes, but usually to pursue a course he intended to pursue anyway. And he used the money to bribe weaker men who were hindering his progress and imperiling the future of Greek freedom. We may compare the conduct of Themistocles, who sought wealth and did not scruple at minor irregularities in financial matters so long his actions advanced his vision of a free and secure Greece, with his great Athenian rival Aristides, known as "The Just" because of his utter incorruptibility in matters of public finance. Aristides was so good he was good for nothing and his failure to provide for his own funeral and his leaving his children as public charges suggest that Aristides' affections were not properly ordered with regard to money /3/.

The noble character of Themistocles was clearly seen when he yielded his claim to command to Eurybiades the Spartan as the Greeks prepared to engage the Persian fleet. Athens, historically, was a land power and the Spartans traditionally were at the head of any combined Greek naval force. Only a Spartan-led force could command the allegiance of some of the Greek allies and produce the united effort needed for victory. Eurybiades was, as Themistocles knew, a timid and ineffective commander, but Themistocles receded from his claim to command the fleet that he had been so instrumental in building, accepting second place.

When the contingents met here, the Greeks would have the Spartans to command, and Eurybiades to be their admiral; but the Athenians, who surpassed all the rest together in number of vessels, would not submit to come after any other, till Themistocles, perceiving the danger of this contest, yielded his own command to Eurybiades... And by this moderation of his, it is evident that he was the chief means of the deliverance of Greece, and gained the Athenians the glory of alike surpassing their enemies in valor, and their confederates in wisdom. --Life of Themistocles, 7)

While serving under Eurubiades he reproves that one's want of valor.

Eurybiades, by reason of the greatness of Sparta, was admiral of the Greek fleet, but yet was faint-hearted in time of danger, and willing to weigh anchor and set sail...Themistocles resisted; and this was the occasion of the well-known words, when Eurybiades, to check his impatience, told him that at the Olympic games they that start up before the rest are lashed; "And they," replied Themistocles, "that are left behind are not crowned." Again, Eurybiades lifting up his staff as if he were going to strike, Themistocles said, "Strike if you will, but hear;" Eurybiades, wondering much at his moderation, desired him to speak, and Themistocles now brought him to a better understanding. --Life of Themistocles, 11)

"Brought him to a better understandings." As when Themistocles persuaded the reluctant Athenians to pursue the naval plans that only he fully understood, we see here Themistocles displaying one of the highest traits of leadership. When he sees better than others the needful thing to be done he finds a way to bring them around to his vision of the future order.

Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Themistocles.


/1/ in 490 B.C.

/2/ Matt. 10:16.

/3/ See Plutarch's Life of Aristides, 27.