AmblesideOnline: Plutarch's Life of Themistocles

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Study Guide by Anne White


If you read anything about ancient Greece, especially about the Persian War period (499-479 B.C.), it's hard to avoid Themistocles. He was a statesman, a leader of Athens; he convinced the Athenians to build up a navy; and he was responsible for the Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis (probably the first battle ever fought at sea).

Because there is so much information out there about the Persian Wars (starting with the history written by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.), this study could take a very long time. But since we are studying Plutarch's Life of Themistocles, we will try to focus on the life and character of Themistocles rather than on the war itself. I think Plutarch assumes that his readers are familiar with the major events he is discussing, and many AmblesideOnline students will have covered them in their history studies. You can find chapters on Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis in Hillyer's A Child's History of the World, Guerber's The Story of the Greeks, and Van Loon's The Story of Mankind. I also like The Story of Greece by Mary MacGregor and Temple on a Hill by Anne Rockwell, in addition to references written for adults. Any of these may be helpful for maps and for extra details about Greek and Persian ships and so on. It's also very easy to find online information and photographs. I like PBS's page-by-page introduction to Themistocles, here: . (Or click on and follow the links to Themistocles (he is the second face from the left).

The study notes are based on the Dryden/Clough translation of Themistocles. We have provided a slightly edited version of the text, divided into twelve readings. The editing was done mostly for length rather than to omit certain events; however, there is one sentence in Lesson One that was omitted because of unsuitable content. (If you are using a complete text rather than our version, it follows the sentence "Eager from the first to obtain the highest place, he unhesitatingly accepted the hatred of the most powerful and influential leaders in the city, but more especially of Aristides, the son of Lysimachus, who always opposed him.")

Spelling and Pronunciation Notes

If you're searching for Themistocles (Them-MIS-to-kleez), it is occasionally spelled Themistokles. Aristides (Ar-iss-TYE-deez) is sometimes spelled Aristeides.



It's always interesting to read about the early life of someone who later became great or famous, and to find out what he or she experienced as a child. What did he read? What events of history made an impression on him? Who were his teachers? What did he play, or what did he do while other children were playing? What did his parents say to him? Plutarch tells us all of these things about the Athenian statesman Themistocles. (Don't worry about the rather convoluted argument in the first long paragraph about the philosophers Themistocles admired most; Plutarch seems only to be adding his own two cents' worth to an ongoing argument.)


of a quick apprehension -- quick to learn
oration or declamation -- speech
sagacity -- wisdom
master -- tutor
contrary to chronology -- this story that he studied with Melissus doesn't line up with history, since Melissus lived some years after Themistocles
rhetorican -- typo. Should be rhetorician -- one skilled in the art of rhetoric, beautiful and persuasive language
essays -- tentative efforts
calumniate -- slander, say untrue things about someone
interfere against the increase of his influence -- keep him from getting too powerful
Battle of Marathon -- fought in 490 B.C.

READINGS: The readings for this study have already been marked in the edited text, so I will not repeat them here.


Describe the main characteristics of Themistocles as a young man, as Plutarch describes him. Which of these do you think would serve him well later, and which ones might turn out to be negative?

Why did Themistocles feel that leadership and management skills were more important than manners and social success? Do you agree that one is more valuable than the other?

Discuss this sentence: "His master would often say to him, "You, my boy, will be nothing small, but great one way or other, for good or else for bad." Do you know (or know of) anyone else like this?

What do you know so far of Aristides? Compare him to Themistocles.



This reading goes back and forth a bit in time. The main event described is the building up of the Athenian navy, under Themistocles, just before the Persian invasion of 480 B.C.

Athens had never had a navy. Athens didn't even have its own harbour. Why would they be getting into ship building? Themistocles convinced them--or at least enough of them--that it was the smartest way to spend the dividends from the city's silver mine. Xerxes was going to attack by land and by sea; Themistocles reasoned that they would have to fight Xerxes by sea as well. Ships could also provide a means of escape for the people, if Athens was attacked. And--looking at the longterm picture--having a navy would give Athens much more power over other Greek city-states who weren't so up-and-coming.

The reading also gives some more general description of Themistocles--what he was like, what he wanted; good and bad points about his character. Money seems to be a big factor in a lot of these stories. Money is the reason that the Athenian ships got built; and money, in the end, is the way that Themistocles solves another big problem.

READINGS: The readings for this study have already been marked in the edited text, so I will not repeat them here.


the silver mines at Laurium -- the Athenians had discovered a rich vein of silver in some publicly-owned land (the modern-day equivalent might be "they struck oil"), and their usual procedure was to divide any income from it amongst the citizens
durst -- dared
(they) held the sovereignty of the sea -- their navy ruled the sea
seasonable employment of the emulation and anger -- timely use of the jealousy the Athenians already felt; playing on the current feeling toward the Aeginetans
turning and drawing the city down towards the sea -- Athens was not technically right on the sea and did not have its own harbour; the harbour was a couple of miles away in Piraeus. Themistocles needed to get the Athenians to think of Piraeus as theirs as well, to think of Athens as a city on the sea.
whether or no be hereby injured -- typo--should be "whether or no he . . . "
the acquisition of riches -- this included taking bribes
more liberal -- more generous
parsimonious, sordid -- cheap, stingy
dispute and litigation -- legal fights (somebody suing somebody)
wooden horse -- probably refers to the Wooden Horse of Troy
"won the price" -- typo--should be "won the prize"
ostracism -- banishment for a period of time


Aeginetans -- people from the island of Aegina
Xerxes -- the king of Persia after Darius
Stesimbrotus -- (mentioned in the first paragraph here) 5th cent. B.C., Greek biographer
Miltiades -- Athenian general
Mardonius -- kinsman (or son-in-law) of Xerxes; a commander of the Persian army; when Xerxes and most of the Persian army were beaten, Mardonius and some Persian troops were left behind to guard the Greek territory they had previously won (although Plutarch gives another possible reason)
Cimon -- Athenian general


Plato, later on, said that Themistocles "took away from the Athenians the spear and the shield, and bound them to the bench and the oar." Plutarch takes this as an accusation that Themistocles "injured the purity and true balance of government." Are these accusations true? Are they just? How does Plutarch use Xerxes' reaction as a point in Themistocles' favour?

"He went beyond all men in the passion for distinction." Explain and give some examples. How does "distinction" differ from just showing off?

Themistocles is sometimes accused of being stingy, but he also knows how to use large amounts of money to fuel his own big ideas. Is there anything wrong with that?

LESSON THREE: "To behave yourselves like men"


This reading covers the period when the Persians were threatening to invade Greece, through the battles at Artemisium and Thermophylae. They tried threats and they tried bribes, but the Athenians stubbornly refused to submit.

There were a few false starts for the Athenians, usually because they weren't willing to trust completely in Themistocles' leadership; but their good showing at Artemisium convinced them that they were ready for sea fighting.

I would suggest reading the Wikipedia article "Battle of Artemisium" or something similar to give a bit more context to Plutarch's version of the story. Artemisium is supposed to have happened on the same day (August 11, 480 BC) as the Battle of Thermopylae, which is mentioned in the last paragraph; you might look up Thermopylae as well if you need a refresher on that.

READINGS: The readings for this study have already been marked in the edited text, so I will not repeat them here. The first paragraph is one of the most Plutarchian of long, long sentences. To make it somewhat easier, you could add in extra semi-colons, and stop between them to make sure that you're clear on what's been read:

"When the king of Persia sent messengers into Greece, with an interpreter, to demand earth and water, as an acknowledgment of subjection, Themistocles, by the consent of the people, seized upon the interpreter, and put him to death, for presuming to publish the barbarian orders and decrees in the Greek language; this is one of the actions he is commended for; as also for what he did to Arthmius of Zelea, who brought gold from the king of Persia to corrupt the Greeks, and was, by an order from Themistocles, degraded and disfranchised, he and his children and his posterity; but that which most of all redounded to his credit was, that he put an end to all the civil wars of Greece, composed their differences, and persuaded them to lay aside all enmity during the war with the Persians; and in this great work, Chileus the Arcadian was, it is said, of great assistance to him."


If you are not using our edited version of the text, there is a bit omitted after "which, as Herodotus reports, he accepted and gave to Eurybiades . . . " It's not critical that this be omitted, but it does make the passage longer.

"undoubtedly is to gain courage, Artemisium is in Euboea" should be "undoubtedly is to gain courage. Artemisium . . . "


as an acknowledgement of subjection -- to show that they would submit themselves to the King of Persia's rule
barbarian -- Persian
degraded and disfranchised -- deprived of his citizenship
civil wars of Greece -- ongoing battles between the various city-states, such as between Athens and Sparta
to persuade the citizens to leave the city -- "the citizens" referred to the able-bodied men of fighting age, rather than the women, children and old people
Thessaly . . . had not as yet declared for the king -- at this point it wasn't known whether Thessaly would join the others in fighting Persia, or simply surrender
terrible -- terrifying


You might want to look up the Straits of Artemisium on a map of Greece.

Lacedaemonians -- Spartans
Aphetae -- where the Persian ships were anchored
King Leonidas -- Spartan king who died, with his loyal followers, at Thermopylae (which opened to the door to the Persians moving in by land towards Athens)

NARRATION AND DISCUSSION IDEAS (choose one or more to discuss)

Themistocles "composed their differences, and persuaded them to lay aside all enmity during the war with the Persians." How is it possible to be both a peacemaker and a defender of your country? (Remember that Greece was not a country as we know it.)

Why did Themistocles yield his own command to Eurybiades? What did he mean by, "if in this war they behaved themselves like men, he would answer for it after that the Greeks, of their own will, would submit to their [the Athenians'] command." Was he right?

Why did Eurybiades need to be bribed to stay, when the ships arrived at Aphetae?

"Much elated by what had been done." Why?

What is your favourite quote from this passage?

LESSON FOUR: Athens is Evacuated (480 B.C.)


Themistocles is thoroughly in charge here, and he prepares as well as he can for the coming Persian invasion. Like a chess master, he sees the best moves to make, the ones that nobody else has thought of. He spreads a little propaganda (for the benefit of the Ionians) and uses a little "stagecraft" to move things along, in spite of the fact that the Spartans don't show up to help. The last image in this passage is one worthy of a painting: all the Athenians who were not in the navy being evacuated to Troezen, not knowing if they will ever be able to return.

READINGS: The readings for this study have already been marked in the edited text, so I will not repeat them here.


"Xerxes has already passed through Doris" -- could either be a typo for "had" or just one of Plutarch's slips in tense.

"the shield with the head of Medusa was missing; and be" -- be should be "he"


hazarding -- risking
"the Greeks sent them no relief" -- refers to the Spartans, who had promised to help fight the Persians
destitution -- lack of resources and manpower
expedient -- suitable action
"it would signify little now" -- it wouldn't mean much now
set his machines to work, as in a theatre -- used some stagecraft tricks
employed prodigies and oracles -- used the peoples' religious beliefs and superstitions to manipulate them into obeying
the serpent of Minerva -- the symbol of Minerva or Athena, the goddess of Wisdom and the patron goddess of Athens
the priest gave it out to the people -- the priest declared to everyone
"he often urged them" -- Themistocles, not the priest
the oracle which bade them trust to walls of wood -- the oracle at Delphi had told them that they would be saved by walls of wood; but there were no wooden buildings in Athens, so it was a puzzle what that meant; the oracle also mentioned the island of Salamis
his opinion prevailed -- they listened to him
the council of Areopagus -- the city government


I recommend looking up the History section of "Ionia" on the Wikipedia site. To make it very short, the Ionians were a colony of Greeks living in Persian territory (in what is now Turkey); and there was some question of their loyalty during these battles.

Medes = Persians
Attica -- the land around Athens
Peloponnesus -- the land around Sparta; the Spartans were most interested in saving their own part of the country
the Isthmus -- the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land that joins one part of Greece to the other
Piraeus -- the harbour associated with Athens; Athens itself wasn't located right on the sea
Troezen -- the Wikipedia article "Troezen" has a map showing where the old people, women and children were sent for safety before the battle of Salamis

NARRATION AND DISCUSSION IDEAS (choose one or more to discuss)

How did Themistocles show both experience and imagination during this time? Do you think he was too sneaky?

Explain what Themistocles wanted the Ionians to do--why was he leaving messages for them on the rocks?

Was it unusual to provide such generous pay for those who served in the navy? Where did Themistocles get the money, since there was no money in the public treasury?

Narrate this passage in the voice of someone (a woman or someone too old or young to fight) being taken away to Troezen.

This study is incomplete, but Anne says she's still working on it and plans to complete it very soon. [Aug 2007]