Our Debt to Themistocles
~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~
We know nothing of his early life. Themistocles (thuh MISS tuh kleez) was born between 510 and 520 BC and stepped onto the world stage in 490 BC. At that time, the lives of the Greeks were entwined with the imperial ambitions of the Persians, the greatest military power in the world, who had just retreated to Persia from their loss by outnumbered Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. All serious statesmen and military leaders fully expected the Persians to return. In 482, Themistocles challenged Aristides for leadership of Athens, believing that Athens could only defeat Persia, ultimately, on the sea, Aristides placing his hope on another victory on land. Themistocles won the challenge, and immediately turned the Athenian wealth into naval expansion.
Two years later, the Persians returned with an enormous* army under Xerxes (ZURK-sees), first being delayed by, but then annihilating, the Spartans at Thermopylae, then turning toward Athens. Themistocles deliberately abandoned Athens (the Persians burned the Acropolis), moving the population west to the island of Salamis, where they were joined by remaining Spartans.
On a day in late September, the Persian fleet, reduced by storms but still outnumbering the Greek, divided their force so as to encircle Salamis and trap what they thought was a retreating Greek navy. To their immediate doom, for Themistocles had planned the naval battle well (**), and the Persian fleet was destroyed. Xerxes, watching this loss from a safe place on land, decided to return to Asia Minor while the getting was good. A remaining Persian land force was destroyed the following year.
Seeing a cock fight Themistocles said: "Behold soldiers, they do not fight for their nation, nor for their Gods, nor for their idols, nor their liberty; only pride animates them to fight, so far as neither would like to suffer defeat, and you - compelled to defend so much - would you not do likewise?"
To the Athenians, as it would be for the English after World War II, it was not "What have you done for us?" but "What have you done for us lately?", for as Churchill was driven from office when the last bullet was fired, so, after the victory, envious Athenians demoted Themistocles militarily, and, in 471, banished him from Athens on the charge that he accepted bribes.
Themistocles, however, was well regarded by the Persians he had defeated, and an estate in Magnesia was awarded him by the Persian king. Themistocles would remain there for the balance of his life.
With the defeat of the Persians, the Greeks would enter their "Golden Age" (461 - 431), and all of the names better known to students today - Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and others - appear. This is the period in which their greatest sculpture, architecture, drama, and philosophy, would be produced. Would this have been the case had the Persians conquered Greece in 480 BC? We cannot rewind the tape and know. But we can guess that a Persian victory would have left the Greeks as an extension of the Middle East. The Persian culture lacked philosophy and literature, and while it employed magnificent art and architecture, neither was original. Greek sculpture exhibited a spirit and life based on freedom; Persian sculpture was stiff and celebrated the king.
Golden Ages derive from an unfettered people but the Greeks would have been fettered. No Greek philosophy? No Greek astronomy? No Alexander? No Greek inspiration to the emerging Romans? It is hard to imagine any of this finding its way back to what it became.
The name of Themistocles is little known today, but to him we owe a large part of what we are.
* Herodotus places the Persian army at 5 million, which seems wildly inflated. Discounting elites, camp followers, and assorted hangers-on, the actual land based fighting force must have been less than a quarter million. However, the navy probably consisted of more than 600 warships, a significant function of which was to maintain supply of the enormous mass of humanity marching overland across Turkey to Greece. This navy was the target upon which Themistocles aimed his own 270 ships.
** Winds and tides, known well at Salamis, were exploited by the Greeks insofar as they affected differently the heavier, taller ships of the Persians.
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