Plutarch's Life of Themistocles
Text by Thomas North
Themistocles (ca. 527-460/459 B.C.)
Reading for Lesson One
The birth of Themistocles was somewhat too obscure to do him honour. His father, Neocles, was of small reputation in Athens, being of Phrearrhioi and the tribe of Leontis; his mother was an alien or stranger.
[omission for length: speculation about the background of Themistocles' mother]
As "illegitimate" children, including those that were of half-blood or had but one parent an Athenian, had to attend at the Cynosarges (a wrestling-place outside the gates, dedicated to Hercules, who was also of half-blood amongst the gods, having had a mortal woman for his mother), Themistocles persuaded several of the young men of high birth to accompany him to anoint and exercise themselves together at Cynosarges; an ingenious device for destroying the distinction between the noble and the base-born, and between those of the "whole" and those of the half-blood of Athens.
It is confessed by all that from his youth he was of a vehement and impetuous nature, of a quick apprehension, and a strong and aspiring bent for action and great affairs. The holidays and intervals in his studies he did not spend in play or idleness, as other children, but would be always inventing or arranging some oration or declamation to himself, the subject of which was generally the excusing or accusing his companions, so that 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." He received reluctantly and carelessly instructions given him to improve his manners and behaviour, or to teach him any pleasing or graceful accomplishment; but whatever was said to improve him in sagacity, or in management of affairs, he would give attention to, beyond one of his years, from confidence in his natural capacities for such things.
This was the cause, that being mocked afterwards by some that had studied the liberal and elegant amusements, he was driven for revenge and his own defense, to answer with great and stout words, saying that indeed he could offer no skill to tune a harp, nor a viol, nor to play of a psaltery: but if they did put a city into his hands that was of small name, weak, and little, he knew ways enough how to make it noble, strong, and great.
Nevertheless, Stesimbrotus writeth that Themistocles went to Anaxagoras' school of philosophy, and that under Melissus he studied natural philosophy. But Melissus was captain of the Samians against Pericles, at what time he did lay siege unto the city of Samos. Now this is true, Pericles was much younger than Themistocles, and Anaxagoras dwelt with Pericles in his own house. They, therefore, might rather be credited who report that Themistocles was an admirer of Mnesiphilus the Phrearrhian, who was neither rhetorician nor natural philosopher, but a professor of that which was then called "wisdom"; which was no other thing but a certain knowledge to handle great causes, and an endeavour to have a good wit and judgment in matters of state and government.
In the first part of his youth he was not regular nor happily balanced; he allowed himself to follow mere natural character, which, without the control of reason and instruction, is apt to hurry, upon either side, into sudden and violent courses, and very often to break away and determine upon the worst; as he did afterwards confess himself by saying that a ragged colt ofttimes proves a good horse, specially if he be well ridden, and broken as he should be.
Howsoever it was, it is most true that Themistocles earnestly gave himself to state, and was suddenly taken with desire of glory. For even at his first entry, because he would set foot before the proudest, he stood at pike against the greatest and mightiest persons that bore the sway and government, but more especially against Aristides, the son of Lysimachus. They always took contrary part one against another, not only in their private likings, but also in the government of the commonwealth.
[omission for mature content]
For Aristides, being by nature a very good man, a just dealer, and honest of life, and one that in all his doings would never flatter the people, nor serve his own glory, but rather to the contrary would do, would say, and would counsel always for the most benefit and commodity of the commonwealth, was ofttimes enforced to resist Themistocles, and disappoint his ambition, Themistocles being ever busily moving the people to take some new matter in hand. 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 during the Battle of Marathon, where there was no talk but of the worthiness of Captain Miltiades that had won the battle: he was found many times solitarily there alone, thoughtful and reserved; besides, they say he could then take no rest in the night, neither would go to plays in the daytime, nor would keep company with those whom he was accustomed to be familiar withal before. Furthermore, he would tell them that wondered at the change, and asked him what he ailed, that Miltiades' victory would not let him sleep. 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 great 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.
Reading for Lesson Two
Wherefore, where the citizens of Athens before did use to divide among themselves the revenue of their mines of silver, which were in a part of Attica called Laurium: he alone was the first that dared speak to the people, to persuade them that from thenceforth they should cease that distribution among themselves, and employ the money of the same in making of galleys, to make wars against the Aeginetes. For their wars against all Greece were most cruel, because they were lords of the sea, and had so great a number of ships. This persuasion drew the citizens more easily to Themistocles' mind, than threatening them with King Darius or the Persians would have done: who were far from them, and not feared that they would come near unto them.
So this opportunity taken of the hatred and jealousy between the Athenians and the Aeginetes made the people to agree that with the said money they would make a hundred galleys, with which they fought against King Xerxes, and did overcome him by sea.
Now after this good beginning and success, Themistocles won the citizens by degrees to bend their force to sea, declaring unto them how by land they were scant able to make head against their equals, whereas by their power at sea they should not only defend themselves from the barbarous people, but moreover be able to command all Greece. Hereupon he made them "good mariners and passing seamen," as Plato sayeth, where before they were stout and valiant soldiers by land.
This gave his enemies occasion to cast it in his teeth afterwards that he had taken away the Athenians' spear and shield, and had brought them to the bench and the oar. Now whether thereby he did overthrow the justice of the commonwealth or not, I leave that to the philosophers to dispute. But that the preservation of all Greece stood at that time upon the sea, and that the galleys only were the cause of setting up Athens again: Xerxes himself is a sufficient witness, besides other proofs that might be brought thereof. For his army by land being yet whole, and unset on, when he saw his army by sea broken, dispersed, and sunk, he fled straight upon it, confessing, as it were, that he was now too weak to deal any more with the Grecians.
Themistocles is said to have been eager in the acquisition of riches, according to some, so that he might be the more liberal; for loving to sacrifice often, and to be splendid in his entertainment of strangers, he required a plentiful revenue. Others, to the contrary, blame him much, that he was too miserable: for some say, he would sell presents of meat that were given him.
He went beyond all men in the passion for distinction. When he was still young and unknown in the world, he entreated Episcles of Hermione, who had a good hand at the lute and was much sought after by the Athenians, to come and practise at home with him, being ambitious of having people inquire after his house and frequent his company. When he came to the Olympic games, and was so splendid in his equipage and entertainments, in his rich tents and furniture, he displeased the Greeks, who thought that such magnificence might be allowed in one who was a young man and of a great family, but was a great piece of insolence in one as yet undistinguished, and without title or means for making any such display.
[Omission for length: Themistocles became so powerful that, first, he managed to have Aristides ostracized; and he then was elected general of the Athenians. They first persuaded Themistocles to lead an land army to defend the region of Thessaly; but when that was not very successful, they agreed to put his naval plan to a test.]
Whereupon they sent him with their navy to the city of Artemisium, to keep the strait. There the other Grecians would have had the Lacedaemonians and their admiral Eurybiades to have had the authority and commandment of the rest. But the Athenians would not set sail under any other admiral than their own, because theirs were the greatest number of ships in the army, and above all the other Grecians. Themistocles foreseeing the danger that was likely to fall out amongst themselves, did willingly yield the whole authority unto Eurybiades, and got the Athenians to agree unto it: assuring them that if they behaved themselves valiantly in these wars, the other Grecians of their own accord would afterwards submit themselves unto their obedience. Hereby it appeareth that he only of all others was at that time the original cause of the saving of Greece, and did most advance the honour and glory of the Athenians, by making them to overcome their enemies by force, and their friends and allies with liberality.
Reading for Lesson Three
As soon as the Persian armada arrived at Aphetae, Eurybiades was astonished to see such a vast number of vessels before him; and being informed that two hundred more were sailing around behind the island of Sciathus, he immediately determined to retire farther into Greece, and to sail back into some part of Peloponnesus, where their land army and their fleet might join; for he looked upon the Persian forces to be altogether unassailable by sea. But the Euboeans, fearing that the Greeks would forsake them and leave them to the mercy of the enemy, sent an envoy named Pelagon to confer privately with Themistocles, taking with him a good sum of money, which, as Herodotus reports, he accepted and gave to Eurybiades.
[omission for length]
These first fights in the strait of Euboea, between the Grecians and the barbarous people, were not so important as to make any final decision of the war; but it was a taste given unto them which served the Grecians' turn very much, by making them to see by experience, and the manner of the fight, that it was not the great multitude of ships, nor the pomp and the sumptuous setting out of the same, nor the proud barbarous shouts and songs of victory that could stand them to purpose, against noble hearts and valiant-minded soldiers that dared grapple with them, and come hand to hand with their enemies.
This Pindar appears to have seen, and says, justly enough, of the fight at Artemisium, that:
There the sons of Athens set
The stone that freedom stands on yet.
For the first step towards victory undoubtedly is to gain courage.
Sidebar - Artemisium is in Euboea, beyond the city of Histiaea, a sea-beach open to the north; most nearly opposite to it stands Olizon; there is a small temple there, dedicated to "Diana of the Dawn"; and trees about it, around which again stand pillars of white marble; and if you rub them with your hand, they send forth both the smell and colour of saffron. On one of these pillars these verses are engraved:
With numerous tribes from Asia's region brought
The sons of Athens on these waters fought;
Erecting, after they had quelled the Mede,
To Artemis this record of the deed.
There is a place still to be seen upon this shore, where, in the middle of a great heap of sand, they take out from the bottom a dark powder like ashes, or something that has passed the fire; and here, it is supposed, the shipwrecks and bodies of the dead were burnt.
News being brought what had been done at Thermopylae, how that King Leonidas was dead, and how that Xerxes had won that entry into Greece by land: they returned back to the interior of Greece, the Athenians having the command of the rear, the place of honour and danger, and much elated by what had been done.
As Themistocles sailed along the coasts, he took notice of the harbours and fit places for the enemy's ships to come to land at, and he engraved large letters in such stones as he found there by change; as also in others which he set up on purpose near to the landing-places, or where they were to water. These were the words:
"that the Ionians should take the Grecians' parts, being their founders and ancestors, and such as fought for their liberty; or at the least they should trouble the army of the barbarous people, and do them all the mischief they could, when the Grecians should come to fight with them."
By these words he hoped either to bring the Ionians to take their part, or at the least he should make the barbarous people jealous and mistrustful of them.
Xerxes being already entered in the uppermost part of the province of Doris, into the country of Phocis, burning and destroying the towns and cities of the Phocians: the other Grecians lay still and suffered the invasion; notwithstanding, the Athenians did request them to meet with the barbarous army in Boeotia, to save the country of Attica, as before they had done when they went by sea to Artemisium. But they would not hearken to it in no wise, and all was because they were desirous they should draw to the Strait of Peloponnesus, and there they should assemble the whole strength and power of Greece within the bar of the same, and make a strong substantial wall from the one sea to the other. The Athenians were enraged to see themselves betrayed, and were half discouraged and out of heart, to see themselves thus forsaken and cast off by the rest of the Grecians. For it was without purpose that they alone should fight against so many thousands of enemies; and therefore their only remedy was to leave their city, and cling to their ships; which the people were very unwilling to submit to, imagining that it would signify little now to gain a victory, and not understanding how there could be deliverance any longer after they had once forsaken the temples of their gods, and exposed the tombs and monuments of their ancestors to the fury of their enemies.
Wherefore Themistocles seeing that neither reason nor man's persuasion could bring the people to like his opinion, he began to frame a device (as men do use sometimes in tragedies) and to threaten the Athenians with signs from heaven, with oracles and answers from the gods. And the occasion of Athena's snake served his tum for a celestial sign and token, which by good fortune did not appear in those days in the temple as it was wont to do: and the priests found the sacrifices, which were daily offered to him, whole and untouched by any. Wherefore being informed by Themistocles what they should do, they spread it abroad amongst the people that the goddess Athena, the protector and defender of the city, had forsaken it, pointing them the way unto the sea.
And again he won them by a prophecy, which commanded them to save themselves in walls of wood: saying that "walls of wood" did signify nothing else but ships. And for this cause he said, "Apollo, in his oracle, called Salamis ‘divine,' not ‘miserable' nor ‘unfortunate,' because it should give the name of a most happy victory which the Grecians should get there." And so at the last, they following his counsel, he made this decree: that they should leave the city of Athens to the custody of Athena; and that all those which were of age to carry any weapon should get themselves to the galleys: and for the rest, that every man should see his wife, children, and bondmen placed in some sure place as well as he could.
Reading for Lesson Four
After this decree was passed and authorized by the people, the most part of them did convey their aged fathers and mothers, their wives and little children, into the city of Troezen, where the Troezenians received them very lovingly and gently. For they gave order that they should be entertained of the common charge, allowing them apiece two obulos a day, and suffered the young children to gather fruit wheresoever they found it: and furthermore they did hire schoolmasters at the charge of the commonwealth, to bring them up at school. He that was the penner of this decree was one called Nicagoras.
The Athenians at that time had no common money; but the Areopagus (as Aristotle sayeth) furnished every soldier with eight drachmas, which was the only means by which the galleys were armed. Yet Clidemus writeth, that this was a craft devised of Themistocles. The Athenians being come down unto the haven of Piraeus, he made as though the target of Pallas (on the which Medusa's head was graven) had been lost, and was not found with the image of the goddess: and feigning to seek for it, he ransacked every corner of the galleys, and found a great deal of silver which private persons had hidden amongst their fardels. This money was brought out unto the people, and by this means the soldiers that were shipped had the wherewithal to provide them of necessary things.
When the whole city of Athens were going on board, it afforded a spectacle worthy alike of pity and admiration, to see them thus send away their fathers and children before them, and, unmoved with their cries and tears, passed over into the island. But that which stirred compassion most of all was, that many of old men, by reason of their great age, were left behind; and even the tame domestic animals could not be seen without some pity, running about the town and howling, as desirous to be carried along with their masters that had kept them; among which it is reported that Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, had a dog that would endure to stay behind but leaped into the sea, and swam along by the galley's side till he came to the island of Salamis, where he fainted away and died; and that spot in the island which is still called "The Dog's Grave" is said to be his.
Among the great actions of Themistocles at this crisis, the recall of Aristides was not the least: for, before the war, he had been ostracized by the party which Themistocles headed, and was in banishment; but now, perceiving that the people regretted his absence, and were fearful that he might go over to the Persians to revenge himself, and thereby ruin the affairs of Greece, Themistocles proposed a decree that those who were banished for a time might return again, to give assistance by word and deed to the cause of Greece with the rest of their fellow-citizens.
And also where Eurybiades, being general of the Grecians' whole army by sea (for the worthiness of the city of Sparta, but otherwise a rank coward at time of need), would in any case depart from thence, and retire into the gulf of Peloponnesus, where all the army of the Peloponnesians was by land assembled: in that, Themistocles stood against him, and did hinder it all he could.
At that time also it was that Themistocles made so notable answers, which specially are noted and gathered together. For example, Eurybiades said one day unto him: "Themistocles, those that at plays and games do rise before the company are whistled at." "It is true," said Themistocles: "but those that tarry last so do never win any game."
Another time Eurybiades, having a staff in his hand lifted it up as though he would have struck him. "Strike and thou wilt," said he, "so thou wilt hear me." Eurybiades wondering to see him so patient, suffered him then to say what he would. Then Themistocles began to bring him to reason.
And when one who stood by him said unto him: "Themistocles, for a man that hath neither city nor house, it is an ill part to will others that have such things to forsake all." Themistocles turning to him, replied,
"We have willingly forsaken our houses and walls (said he), cowardly beast that thou art, because we would not become slaves for fear to lose things that have neither soul nor life. And yet our city, I tell thee, is the greatest of all Greece: for it is a fleet of two hundred galleys ready to fight, which are come hither to save you if you list. But if you will needs go your ways, and forsake us the second time, you shall hear tell, ere it be long, that the Athenians have another free city, and have possessed again as much good land as that which they have already lost."
[omission for length]
But when the fleet of their enemy's ships arrived at the haven of Phaleron, upon the coast of Attica, and with the number of their ships concealed all the shore; and when they saw the king himself in person come down with his land army to the seaside, with all his forces united, then the good counsel of Themistocles was soon forgotten, and the Peloponnesians cast their eyes again towards the isthmus, and took it very ill if any one spoke against their returning home. To be short, it was concluded that they should sail away the next night following, and the masters of the ships had order given them to make all things ready for them to depart.
Themistocles, perceiving their determination, was marvellous angry in his mind that the Grecians would thus disperse themselves asunder, repairing every man to his own city, and leaving the advantage which the nature of the place, and the strait of the arm of the sea where they lay in harbour together, did offer them: and so he bethought himself how this was to be helped. Suddenly the practice of one Sicinnus came into his mind, who, being a Persian born, and taken prisoner before in the wars, loved Themistocles very well, and was schoolmaster to his children. This Sicinnus he secretly sent unto the king of Persia, to advertise him that Themistocles (general of the Athenians) was very desirous to become his majesty's servant, and that he did let him understand betimes that the Grecians were determined to flee: and therefore that he wished him not to let them escape, but to set upon them, whilst they were troubled and afraid, and far from their army by land, to the end that upon a sudden he might overthrow their whole power by sea.
Xerxes, supposing this intelligence came from a man that wished him well, received the messenger with great joy, and thereupon gave present order to his captains by sea that they should instantly set out with two hundred galleys to encompass all the islands, and enclose all the straits and passages, that none of the Greeks might escape, and that they should afterwards follow with the rest of their fleet at leisure.
This being done, Aristides (Lysimachus' son) being the first that perceived it, went to Themistocles' tent, though he was his enemy, and through his only means had been banished before, as ye have heard: and calling him out, told him how they were environed. Themistocles, who knew well enough the goodness of this man, being very glad he came at that time to seek him out, declared unto him the policy he had used by the message of Sicinus, and entreated him that, as he would be more readily believed among the Greeks, he would make use of his credit to help to induce them to stay and fight their enemies in the narrow seas.
Aristides, commending his great wisdom, went to deal with the captains of the other galleys, and to procure them to fight. For all this, they would not credit what he said, until such time as there arrived a galley which brought certain news that the strait, out of doubt, was shut up. So that besides the necessity which did urge them, the spite which the Grecians conceived thereof did provoke them to hazard the battle.
Reading for Lesson Five
The next morning by break of day, King Xerxes placed himself on a marvellous steep high hill, from whence he might discern his whole fleet, and the ordering of his army by sea, above the Temple of Hercules, as Phanodemus writeth. This is the place where the coast of Attica is separated from the island by a narrow channel; but Acestodorus writes that it was in the confines of Megara, upon those hills which are called the Horns, where he sat in a chair of gold, with many secretaries about him to write down all that was done in the fight.
[omission for content]
As for the number of the ships of the barbarous navy: Aeschylus the poet, in a tragedy which he entitled The Persians, knowing certainly the truth, sayeth thus:
King Xerxes had a thousand ships I know,
amongst the which, two hundred were (I trow)
and seven: which all the rest did oversail
with swifter course. This is without fail.
The Athenians had nine score, in every one of the which there were eighteen soldiers, whereof four of them were archers, and all the rest armed men. Themistocles also did with no less skill and wisdom choose his time and place to fight, forbearing to charge his enemies, until the hour was come that of ordinary custom the sea wind arose, and brought in a rough tide within the channel, which did not hurt the Grecian galleys, being made low and snug, but greatly offended the Persian galleys, which had high sterns and lofty decks, and were heavy and cumbrous in their movements, as it presented them broadside to the quick charges of the Greeks, who fiercely set upon them, having always an eye to Themistocles' direction, that best foresaw their advantage.
Ariamenes, admiral to Xerxes, a brave man and by far the best and worthiest of the king's brothers, was seen throwing darts and shooting arrows from his huge galley, as from the walls of a castle. Aminias the Decelean and Sosicles the Pedian, who sailed in the same vessel, upon the ships meeting stem to stern, and transfixing each the other with their brazen prows, so that they were fastened together, when Ariamenes attempted to board theirs, ran at him with their pikes, and thrust him into the sea. His body, as it floated amongst other shipwrecks, was known to Artemisia, and carried to Xerxes.
[omission for length]
The first man of the Athenians that took any of the enemy's ships was Lycomedes, a captain of a galley, who cut down the ship's ensign and dedicated it to Apollo the Laurel-Crowned. The other Grecians in the front being equal in number with the barbarous ships, by reason of the straitness of the arm of the sea wherein they fought, and so straitened as they could not fight but by one and one, where by the barbarians disorderly laid one another aboard, that they did hinder themselves with their over-multitude: and in the end were so sore pressed upon by the Grecians, that they were constrained to flee by night, after they had fought and maintained battle until it was very dark.
So the Grecians won that glorious and famous victory: of the which may truly be affirmed that, as Simonides sayeth:
Was never yet, nor Greek nor Barbarous crew
that could by sea, so many men subdue:
Nor that obtained, so famous victory
in any fight, against their enemy.
Thus was the victory won through the valiantness and courage of those that fought that battle, but especially through Themistocles' great policy and wisdom.
After this battle, Xerxes, being mad for his loss, thought to fill up the arm of the sea, and to pass his army by land, upon a bridge, into the Isle of Salamis. Themistocles, because he would feel Aristides' opinion, told him, as they were talking together, that he thought best to go and occupy the strait of Hellespont with the army by sea, to break the bridge of ships which Xerxes had caused to be made: "to the end," said he, "that we may take Asia into Europe." Aristides liked not this opinion.
"We have hitherto fought with an enemy who has regarded little else but his pleasure and luxury; but if we shut him up within Greece, and drive him to necessity, he that is master of such great forces will no longer sit quietly with an umbrella of gold over his head, looking upon the fight for his pleasure; but in such a strait will attempt all things; he will be resolute, and appear himself in person upon all occasions, he will soon correct his errors, and supply what he has formerly omitted through remissness, and will be better advised in all things. There, it is no ways our interest, Themistocles, to take away the bridge that is already made, but rather to build another, if it were possible that he might make his retreat with the more expedition."
Themistocles then replied, "Seeing you think this were good to be done, we must all lay our heads together, to rid ourselves of him as soon as may be."
Reading for Lesson Six
Themistocles found out among the captives one of the King of Persia's (personal servants), named Arnaces, whom he sent to the king, to inform him that the Greeks, being now victorious by sea, had decreed to sail to the Hellespont, where the boats were fastened together, and destroy the bridge; but that Themistocles, being concerned for the king, revealed this to him, that he might hasten towards the Asiatic seas, and pass over into his own dominions; and in the meantime would cause delays and hinder the confederates from pursuing him. Xerxes no sooner heard this but, being very much terrified, he proceeded to retreat out of Greece with all speed.
The prudence of Themistocles and Aristides in this was afterwards more fully understood at the Battle of Plataea, where the Persian lieutenant Mardonius, with a very small fraction of the forces of Xerxes, put the Greeks in danger of losing all. Of all the towns and cities that fought there, Herodotus writeth that the city of Aegina won the fame for valiantness above the rest; and of private men, among the Grecians, Themistocles was judged the worthiest man: although it was sore against their wills, because they envied much his glory. When they returned to the entrance of Peloponnesus, where the several commanders having sworn upon the altar of their sacrifices that they would give their voices, after their consciences, to those they thought had best deserved it: everyone gave himself the first place for worthiness, and the second unto Themistocles. The Lacedaemonians carried him into Sparta, where, giving the rewards of valour to Eurybiades, and of wisdom and conduct to Themistocles, they crowned him with olive, presented him with the best chariot in the city, and moreover they sent three hundred young men to accompany him to the confines of their country. And at the next Olympic games, when Themistocles was once come into the showplace where these games were played, the people looked no more on them that fought, but all cast their eyes on him, shewing him to the strangers which knew him not, with their fingers, and by clapping of their hands did witness how much they esteemed him. Whereat he himself took so great delight, that he confessed to his friends that he then reaped the fruit of all his labours for the Greeks.
He was, indeed, by nature, a great lover of honour, as is evident from the anecdotes recorded of him. When chosen admiral by the Athenians, he would not quite conclude any single matter of business, either public or private, but deferred all till the day they were to set sail, that, by dispatching a great quantity of business all at once, and having to meet a great variety of people, he might make an appearance of greatness and power.
[omission for length]
He said the Athenians did not esteem of him in time of peace: but when any storm of wars were toward, and they stood in any danger, they ran to him then, as they run to the shadow of a plane tree upon any sudden rain; and after fair weather come again, they cut away then the branches, and boughs thereof.
There was a man born in Seriphos, who being fallen out with him, did cast him in the teeth, that it was not for his worthiness, but for the noble city wherein he was born, that he had won such glory. "Thou sayest true," said he; "but neither should I ever have won any great honour, if I had been a Seriphian, nor thou also if thou hadst been an Athenian."
Another time one of the generals having done good service unto the commonwealth, made boast before Themistocles, and compared his service equal with his. Themistocles, to answer him, told him a pretty tale. That the Working Day (or, the Day After the Festival) brawled on a time with the Holy Day (or, the Festival), repining against her, that he laboured for his living continually, and how she did nothing but fill her belly, and spend that which they had gotten. "Thou hast reason," said the Holy Day. "But if I had not been before thee, thou hadst not been here now. And so, if I had not been then, where had you my masters been now?"
Laughing at his own son, who got his mother, and, by his mother's means, his father also, to indulge him, he told him that he had the most power of anyone in Greece: "For," sayeth he, "the Athenians command the Grecians, I command the Athenians, my wife commandeth me, and my son commandeth her."
[omission for length]
These were Themistocles' pleasant conceits and answers.
Reading for Lesson Seven
After these things, Themistocles began to rebuild and fortify the city of Athens; bribing, as Theopompus reports, the Lacedaemonian ephors not to be against it, but, as most relate it, overreaching and deceiving them. For, under the pretext of an embassy, he went to Sparta; whereupon, the Lacedaemonians charging him with rebuilding the walls, he denied the fact, bidding them to send people to Athens to see whether it were so or no; by which delay he got time for the building of the wall, and also placed these ambassadors in the hands of his countrymen as hostages for him; and so, when the Lacedaemonians knew the truth, they did him no hurt, but, suppressing all display of their anger for the present, sent him away.
Afterwards he made them also mend and fortify the haven of Piraeus, having considered the situation of the place, and all to incline the city to the sea. Wherein he did directly contrary to all the counsel of the ancient kings of Athens: who, seeking (as they say) to withdraw their people from the sea, and to accustom them to live upon the land, by planting, sowing, and plowing their grounds, did tell them the fable of the goddess Pallas. And that is this, how she, contending with Neptune about the patronage of the country of Athens, brought forth and shewed to the judges the olive tree, by means whereof she prevailed, and obtained the preeminence.
Even so, Themistocles did not join the haven of Piraeus unto the city of Athens (as the comical poet Aristophanes sayeth), but rather joined the city unto the haven, and the land unto the sea. This increased the power and confidence of the people against the nobility; the authority coming into the hands of sailors and boatswains and pilots. Thus it was one of the orders of the Thirty Tyrants (a few years later) that the hustings in the assembly should be turned round towards the land; implying their opinion that the empire by sea had been the origin of the democracy, and that the farming population were not so much opposed to oligarchy.
Themistocles called to mind another matter also of greater importance, to make the city of Athens a greater power by sea. For after the retreat of Xerxes, when all the fleet and navy of the Grecians wintered in the haven of Pagasae: he said one day in an open assembly of the people, that he had thought of a thing which would be very profitable and beneficial for them, but it was not to be told openly. The people willed him then to impart it to Aristides: and if he thought it good, they would execute it speedily.
Themistocles then told Aristides that the thing he had considered of was to burn the arsenal where the Grecians' navy lay, and to set on fire all their ships. Aristides hearing his purpose, returned to the people, and told them how nothing could be more profitable, but withal more unjust, than that which Themistocles had devised. The Athenians then willed Aristides it should be let alone altogether.
Reading for Lesson Eight
The Lacedaemonians proposed, at the Council of the Amphictyonis, that the representatives of those cities which were not (officially) in the league, nor had fought against the Persians, should be excluded. Themistocles, fearing that the Thessalians, with those of Thebes, Argos, and others, being thrown out of the council, (and that then) the Lacedaemonians would become wholly masters of the votes and do what they pleased, supported the deputies of their cities, and prevailed with the members then sitting to alter their opinion on this point; showing them that there were but thirty-one cities which had partaken in the war, and that most of these, also, were very small; (and showing) how intolerable would it be, if the rest of Greece should be excluded, and the general council should come to be ruled by two or three great cities. By this, chiefly, he incurred the displeasure of the Lacedaemonians, whose honours and favours were now shown to Cimon, with a view to making him the opponent of the state policy of Themistocles.
He was also burdensome to the confederates, for that he went sailing still to and fro amongst the isles, exacting money of the inhabitants of the same. And this is to be known by the matter propounded by him to the Andrians (of whom he requested money) and by the answer they made him, as Herodotus writeth. Themistocles said that he had brought them two mighty gods: Love and Force. And they answered him again, that they also had two great goddesses, which kept them from giving him any money: Poverty and Impossibility.
And Timocreon the Rhodian poet galled him to the quick, when he sharply taunted him for calling home again (for money) many that were banished; and how for covetousness of money he had betrayed and forsaken his host and friend. The verses wherein this matter is mentioned are to this effect:
Who might commend worthy Pausanias,
Xanthippus, or good Leotychides,
yet shall I seem but light thereof to pass,
compared with valiant Aristides.
[omission for length]
Besides these verses, Themistocles' own citizens, for the ill-will they bore him, were contented to hear him ill spoken of. Therefore while he sought ways to redress all this, he was driven to use such means, which more increased their hatred toward him. For in his orations to the people, he did oft remind them of the good service he had done them; and perceiving how they were offended withal, he was driven to say, "Why, are ye weary so oft to receive good by one man?"
He yet more provoked the people by building a temple to "Diana of Best Counsel"; intimating thereby, that he had given the best counsel, not only to the Athenians, but to all Greece. He built this temple near his own house, in the district called Melite. There is to this day a small figure of Themistocles in the temple of "Diana of Best Counsel," which represents him to be a person not only of a noble mind, but also of a most heroic aspect.
In the end, the Athenians banished him from Athens for five years, because they would pluck down his over great courage and authority; as they did use to serve those whose greatness they thought to be more than the common equality that ought to be among citizens would bear. For this manner of banishment for a time, called Ostracismon, was no punishment for any fault committed, but a mitigation and taking away of the envy of the people, which delighted to pluck down their stomachs that too much seemed to exceed in greatness: and by this means they took away the poison of his malice, by diminishing his glory and honour.
So Themistocles, being banished from Athens, went to dwell in Argos. (During this time) the detection of Pausanias happened, which gave such advantage to his enemies, that they indicted him of treason. Besides this, the Spartans also did sit on his skirts, and charged him sorely.
For Pausanias never before revealed to Themistocles the treason he had purposed, although he was his very familiar friend. But after he saw Themistocles was banished, and did take his exile very impatiently: then Pausanias was bold to open his treason to him, to procure him to take his part, and showed him the letters the king of Persia had written to him, and all to stir him up against the Grecians, as against ungrateful and unnatural people. Howbeit Themistocles shook him off, and told him plainly he would be no partner of his treason; though he never revealed his communications, nor disclosed the conspiracy to any man, hoping either he (Pausanias) would give it up, or that shortly his aspirations to things of great danger, and without purpose or possibility, would be discovered by other means.
[The fallout from Pausanias continues in the next lesson.]
Reading for Lesson Nine
After Pausanias was condemned, and had suffered pains of death for the same: they found, amongst his papers, certain writings and letters, which made Themistocles to be very sore suspected. Whereupon the Lacedaemonians on the one side cried out of him and his enemies and ill-willers at Athens accused him on the other side. To the which he made answer by letters from the beginning, and wrote unto the people that it was not likely that he, who sought all the ways to rule, and was not born to serve, neither had any mind thereto, would ever have thought in his head to sell his own liberty, and the Grecians also, unto the barbarous people their enemies.
Notwithstanding this, the people, being persuaded by his accusers, sent officers to take him and bring him away to be tried before a council of the Greeks, but, having timely notice of it, he passed over into the island of Corcyra, because the city there was greatly beholden to him for a certain pleasure in time past he had done them. For they being at suit and strife with the Corinthians, he took up the matter between them, and gave judgement on their side, and condemned the Corinthians to pay them twenty talents in damages: and did set down an order that they should occupy the Isle of Leucade in common together, as ground that had been inhabited with the people as well of the one city as of the other.
From thence he fled to Epirus, whether being followed by the Athenians, and the Lacedaemonians, he was compelled to venture himself upon a doubtful and very dangerous hope. For he went to yield himself into the hands of Admetus, king of the Molossians. Who, having heretofore made certain requests unto the Athenians, and being shamefully denied them by means of Themistocles (who then was at his chiefest height and authority), the king was marvellously offended with him: and it was a clear case indeed, that if he could then have laid hands on him, he would have been revenged of him thoroughly.
Howbeit, feeling the present misery of his exile, he thought he might less fear the king's old quarrel and displeasure than the fresh hate and envy of his countrymen. Whereupon he went unto King Admetus, trusting to his mercy, and became an humble suitor to him in a strange, extraordinary way. For he took the king's little young son in his arms, and went and kneeled down before the altar in his chapel: which humble manner of suing the Molossians take to be most effectual, and such as they dare not deny, nor refuse. Some say that Queen Phthia herself, the king's wife, did inform Themistocles of this their country custom and manner, and brought her little son also near unto the altar. Other write also, that it was Admetus himself that taught and showed him this enforcing manner of petition, only for a cloak to excuse himself to those that should come to demand Themistocles of him: he was able to say that by duty of religion he was so straitly bound and restrained, that he might not deliver Themistocles out of his protection.
[omission for length: Themistocles continued his travels into Asia]
When Themistocles arrived at Cyme, and understood that all along the coast there were many lying in wait for him, for the game was worth the hunting for such as were thankful to make money by any means, the king of Persia having offered by public proclamation two hundred talents to him that should take him; he fled to Aegae, a small city of the Aeolians, where no one knew him but only his host Nicogenes, who was the richest man in Aeolia, and well known to the great men of Inner Asia.
Themistocles continued hidden certain days in his house: in which time, on a night after the feast of a sacrifice, one Olbius, schoolmaster to Nicogenes' children, by some secret working of the gods, suddenly fell into a sort of frenzy, and began to sing these verses out aloud:
Night shall speak, and night instruct thee,
By the voice of night conduct thee.
The next night following, Themistocles being fast asleep in his bed, dreamed that a snake wound itself round about his belly, and glided upwards to his neck, until it touched his face, and suddenly then it became an eagle, and embraced him with his wings: and so at length did lift him up into the air, and carried him a marvellous way off, until he thought he saw a golden rod (such as heralds used to carry in their hands) whereupon the eagle did set him, and so was delivered of all this fear and trouble he thought himself in.
[Themistocles wanted to appear before the king of Persia, but he didn't want to be caught by bounty hunters on the way. How was he to get there safely?]
Nicogenes had the following device in his head: the barbarous nations for the most part (and specially the Persians) are of a very strange nature, and marvellous jealous over their women, which they keep so straitly locked up, that no man ever seeth them abroad at any time, but are always, like house-doves, kept within doors. And when they have any occasion to go into the country, they are carried in closed coaches covered all about, that no man can look into them. Themistocles was conveyed into one of these coaches, dressed after this manner, and he had warned his men to answer those they met by the way, that asked whom they carried: how it was a young Grecian gentlewoman of the country of Ionia, which they carried to the court to be married to a nobleman there.
Reading for Lesson Ten
Themistocles being come now to the sword's point (as it were) and to the extremity of his danger: he did first present himself unto one Artabanus, colonel of a thousand men, and said unto him:
"Sir, I am a Grecian born, and desire to speak with the king: I have matters of importance to open to his majesty, and such as I know he will thankfully receive."
Artabanus answered him in this manner:
"My friend sir stranger, the laws and customs of men are diverse, and some take one thing for honest, others some another thing; but it is most honesty for all men to keep and observe the laws and manners of their own country.
"For you Grecians have the name to love liberty, and equality above all things: and for us, amongst all the goodly laws and customs we have, we esteem this above the rest: to reverence and honour our king, as the image of the god of nature, who keepeth all things in their perfect life and state. Wherefore, if thou wilt fashion thyself after our manner to honour the king, thou mayest both see him, and speak with him: but if thou have another mind with thee, then must thou of necessity use some third person for thy mean. For this is the manner of our country: the king never giveth audience to any man that hath not first honoured him."
Themistocles hearing what he said, answered him again:
"My lord Artabanus, the great goodwill I bear unto the king, and the desire I have to advance his glory and power, is the only cause of my present repair unto his court: therefore I mean not only to obey your laws (since it hath so pleased the gods to raise up the noble empire of Persia unto this greatness), but will cause many other people also to honour the king, more than there do at this present. Therefore let there be no stay, but that myself in person may deliver to the king that I have to say unto him."
"Well," said Artabanus, "whom then shall we say thou art ? For by thy speech it seemeth, thou art a man of no mean state and condition."
Themistocles answered him, "As for that, Artabanus, none shall know before the king himself."
Thus doth Phanias report it.
Themistocles being brought to the king's presence, after he had presented his humble duty and reverence to him, stood on his feet, and said never a word, until the king commanded the interpreter to ask him what he was; and he answered:
"May it please your majesty, O noble King: I am Themistocles the Athenian, a banished man out of my country by the Grecians, who humbly repaireth to your highness, knowing I have done great hurt to the Persians, but I persuade myself I have done them far more good than harm. For I it was that kept the Grecians back: they did not follow you when the state of Greece was delivered from thralldom, and my native country from danger, and that I knew I stood then in good state to pleasure you. Now for me, I find all men's goodwill agreeable to my present misery and calamity: for I come determined, most humbly, to thank your highness for any grace and favour you shall show me; and also to crave humble pardon, if your majesty be yet offended with me. And therefore license me (most noble King) to beseech you, that taking mine enemies the Grecians for witnesses of the pleasures I have done the Persian nation, you will of your princely grace use my hard fortune as a good occasion to show your honorable virtue, rather than to satisfy the passion of your heat and choler. For in saving my life, your majestic saveth an humble suitor that put himself to your mercy: and in putting me to death, you shall rid away an enemy of the Grecians."
Having spoken thus these words, he said further, that the gods, by various signs and tokens, had procured him to come to submit himself unto him, and told the king what vision he had seen in his dream in Nicogenes' house; and declared also the Oracle of Jupiter Dodonian, who had commanded him that he should go unto "him that was called as a god," and how he thought it was the person of His Majesty, because that god and he in truth were called both great kings.
The king having thus heard him speak, gave him then no present answer again, notwithstanding he marvellously wondered at his great wisdom and boldness. But afterwards, amongst his familiars, the king said he thought himself very happy to meet with the good fortune of Themistocles coming to him; and so besought his great god Arimanius, that he would always send his enemies such minds, as to banish the greatest and wisest men amongst them. It is reported also he did sacrifice unto the gods, to give them thanks therefore, and disposed himself presently to be merry. Insomuch as dreaming in the night, in the midst of his dream he cried out three times together for joy: "I have Themistocles the Athenian."
Reading for Lesson Eleven
The next morning, the king having sent for the chiefest lords of his court, he made Themistocles also to be brought before him: who looked for no goodness at all, specially when he saw the soldiers at the court gates give him ill countenance and language both, when they beheld him and understood his name. As he came forward towards the king, who was seated, the rest keeping silence, passing by Roxanes, a commander of a thousand men, he heard him, with a slight groan, say, without stirring out of his place, "O thou Greekish serpent, subtle and malicious: the king's good fortune hath brought thee hither."
Nevertheless, when he came to the king, and had once again made him a very humble and low reverence, the king saluted him, and spoke very courteously to him, saying:
"I am now your debtor of two hundred talents, for presenting yourself. It is good reason I should deliver you the money promised him that should have brought you: but I give you a further warrant: be bold, I charge you, and speak your mind freely, say what you think of the state of Greece."
Themistocles replied that a man's discourse was like to a rich Persian carpet, the beautiful figures and patterns of which can only be shown by spreading and extending it out; when it is contracted and folded up, they are obscure and lost; and, therefore, he desired time.
The king liked his comparison passingly well, and willed him to appoint his own time. Themistocles asked a year: in which time having prettily learned the Persian tongue, he afterwards spoke to the king himself without any interpreter. So such as were no courtiers thought he only talked with the king of matters of Greece. But there happening, at the same time, great alterations at court, and removals of the king's favourites, he drew upon himself the envy of the great people, who imagined that he had taken the boldness to speak concerning them. Thereupon they greatly envied him, and afterwards murmured much against him.
For indeed the king did honour Themistocles above all other strangers whatsoever they were. On a time the king had him out a-hunting with him, he made him see his mother, with whom he grew familiar: and by the king's own commandment he was to hear the disputations of the wise men of Persia touching secret philosophy, which they call magic.
Demaratus the Lacedaemonian being at that time in the court of Persia, the king willing him to ask what gift he would, he besought the king to grant him this favour: to license him to go up and down the city of Sardis, with his royal hat on his head, as the kings of Persia do. Mithropaustes, the king's cousin, taking him by the hand, said unto him: "Demaratus, the king's hat thou demandest, and if it were on thy head, it would cover but little wit. Nay, though Jupiter did give thee his lightning in thy hand, yet that would not make thee Jupiter." But the king gave him so sharp a repulse for his unreasonable request, and was so angry with him for it, that it was thought he would never have forgiven him: howbeit Themistocles was so earnest a suitor for him, that he brought him into favour again.
And the report goeth, that the king's successors which have been since that time, under whom the Persians have had more dealings with the Grecians, than in former days: when they would retain any great state or personage of Greece into their service, they wrote unto him, and promised him they would make him greater about them, than ever was Themistocles about Xerxes. That which is written of him, doth also confirm it. For he being stepped up to great countenance and authority, and followed with great trains of suitors after him by reason of his greatness: seeing himself one day very honourably served at his table, and with all sorts of dainty meats, he turned him to his children, and said unto them: "My sons, we should have been undone, if we had not been undone."
[omission for length]
When Themistocles came to Sardis, he visited the temples of the gods, and observing, at his leisure, their buildings, ornaments, and the number of their offerings, he saw in the "Temple of the Mother of the Gods" the statue of a (maiden) in brass, two cubits high, called "The Water-Bringer." Themistocles had caused this to be made and set up when he was surveyor of the waters at Athens, out of the fines of those whom he detected in drawing off and diverting the public water by pipes for their private use; and whether he had some regret to see this image in captivity, or was desirous to let the Athenians see in what great credit and authority he was with the king, he entered into a treaty with the governor to persuade him to send this statue back to Athens. This so enraged the Persian officer that he told him he would write the king word of it. Then Themistocles began to be afraid, and was driven to seek to the governor's wives and other women, whom he got by presents of money to entreat him, and so made fair weather again with the governor. But from thenceforth, he took better guard of himself in all his doings, greatly fearing the envy of the barbarous people.
For he progressed not up and down Asia, as Theopompus writeth, but lay a long time in the city of Magnesia, quietly enjoying the king's gracious gifts bestowed on him: where he was honoured and reverenced for one of the greatest persons of Persia, whilst the king was elsewhere occupied in the affairs of the high provinces of Asia, and had no leisure to think upon those of Greece.
Reading for Lesson Twelve
But when news was brought to Themistocles that Egypt was rebelled, by means of the favour and assistance of the Athenians; and that the Grecians' galleys did scour the seas even unto the Isle of Cyprus, and unto the coasts of Cilicia, and that Cimon had all the sea in subjection: that made him then to bend all his thoughts how to resist the Grecians, that their greatness might not turn to his hurt.
Then commissions went out to levy men, to assemble captains, and to dispatch posts unto Themistocles at Magnesia, with the king's letters straitly charging him to have an eye to the Grecians' doings, to put him in minds of his promise, and to summon him to act against the Greeks.
Yet this did not increase his hatred nor exasperate him against the Athenians, neither was he in any way elevated with the thoughts of the honour and powerful command he was to have in this war; but judging, perhaps, that the object would not be attained (the Greeks having at that time, besides other great commanders, Cimon in particular, who was gaining wonderful military successes); but chiefly being ashamed to sully the glory of his former great actions, and of his many victories and trophies, he determined to make such an end of his life as the fame thereof deserved.
For he made a solemn sacrifice unto the gods, and feasted at the same all his friends. And, after he had taken his leave of them all, he drank bulls' blood, as most men think; others say he took a poison which dispatcheth a man in four and twenty hours. And so he ended his days in the city of Magnesia, having lived sixty-five years, most of which he had spent in politics and in wars, in government and command.
It is written, that the king of Persia understanding the cause and manner of his death, did more esteem him afterwards than he did before; and that ever after he continued to use his friends and familiars in very good sort.
[omission for length: the later lives of Themistocles' children]
The Magnesians possess a splendid sepulchre of Themistocles, placed in the middle of their marketplace. But Diodorus the cosmographer says, in his work on Tombs, but by conjecture rather than of certain knowledge, that near to the haven of Piraeus where the land runs out like an elbow from the promontory of Alcimus, when you have doubled the cape and passed inward where the sea is always calm, there is a large piece of masonry, and upon this the Tomb of Themistocles, in the shape of an altar. Plato the comedian confirms this, he believes, in these verses:
Thy tomb is fairly placed upon the strand,
Where merchants still shall greet it with the land;
Still in and out 'twill see them come and go,
And watch the galleys as they race below.
[The above is Dryden's version. North translates the last two lines quite differently:
Sometimes also, it may rejoice to see,
the bloody fights, upon the sea that be.]
And furthermore, those of Magnesia did institute certain honours unto the family of Themistocles, which continue yet unto this day. And in my time, another Themistocles also of Athens (with whom I was familiarly conversant in the house of Ammonius the philosopher) did enjoy the same honours.
AmblesideOnline Plutarch Readings:
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus