Ancient Greece : Themistocles

(Original of August 26, 2009, revised November 16 by ‘The Other Pericles’)

Boris Johnson has spoken of the contribution a knowledge of the classics can make to understanding our own times. In the modern political world — as in the ancient — the same theme is played out again and again … with the same characters : political leaders that let power go to their heads and then pay the price (although that price is oft paid in larger measure by those they lead). It’s not all bad news, however, for Greek history is also full of inspirational stories.

Over the next few weeks we shall post a series of small articles on the ancient Greek world, a phase of human history from which we can still learn.

For other posts in the series see the Index.

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The fleet of triremes

Themistocles was an Athenian general and politician, who had fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490 (unless otherwise stated or implied by the context, all dates are b.c.). Unlike most leaders of his day, he was not of noble birth but drew his support from the lower classes. Realizing that, if the Persians attacked Athens again by land, they would be practically insuperable, he resolved to defeat them by sea and persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of triremes.

Designed for close combat and constructed from soft woods — mainly pine and fir (the latter being preferred for its lightness) with larch and plane used for interior parts — the trireme had the advantages (over the Persian ships from the Levant) of speed and manoeuvrability.

A common tactic was for the trireme to brush along the side of a bigger ship, snapping off that vessel’s oars and rendering her immobile. A trireme could ram an enemy ship like a guided missile but was expensive to build. In 484, however, a vast amount of silver was discovered in the mines at Laurium. This would normally have been divided equally amongst all Athenian citizens, as indeed advocated by Aristides, but Themistocles wanted the money to build his navy.

To tell the Athenians bluntly that this fleet was needed to repel the Persians would have caused undue disquiet ; Themistocles therefore dissembled : he played a complex bluff -– saying that the ships should be built to defend against their local rival, the small island of Aegina, rather than the Persians. It was a mark of his skill as a politician that he persuaded the Athenians to build the greatest naval force in Greece.

Xerxes plans revenge

King Darius of Persia had died ; his son Xerxes, who had vowed to avenge the Persian defeat at Marathon, assembled a mighty army, rumoured to number two million men (Herodotus reported 1.7-million ; recent scholars suggest a figure closer to 200,000 ; an overwhelming force none the less). In 480 news reached Athens that the Persian army was marching on Athens. Terrified Athenians turned for advice to the Oracle at Delphi.

The message from Apollo was not encouraging : the battle “would bring death to women’s sons” ; only “the wooden wall” would save the Athenians.

Amid increasing desperation in Athens, as the Persians rampaged across Thessaly, burning, looting and generally laying waste, Themistocles alone stayed calm, arguing that the “wooden wall” signified the wooden sides of his fleet of triremes ; the population should leave Attica and leave defeat of the Persians to the navy.

This seemed a perilous course ; it certainly demanded courage and a good deal of trust from every citizen : aware of the superiority of the Persian land forces, they were to abandon their homes with the object of drawing the enemy in to a naval encounter.

The Persian army duly advanced in to Attica and overran Athens, destroying the temples on the acropolis and killing any remaining defenders.

Themistocles’s plan

Meanwhile the fleet of the Persian king, Xerxes — at perhaps 1,200 vessels almost thrice that of Athens — was stationed in the Bay of Phaleron (sc. off the Piraeus, the port of Athens).

It might be mere fable, perhaps even of Themistocles’s own devising, or one conjured up by Herodotus but a story grew up that Themistocles had sent a servant to the Persian commanders to feed them false intelligence ; they were taken in and immediately sent their warships into the strait of Salamis, the perfect place for an ambush.

There the Athenian navy lay in wait : when the ungainly Persian warships entered the channel, the Greek triremes inflicted a memorable defeat upon them, some 200 enemy ships being destroyed. The Persian navy broken, Xerxes, who had been watching proceedings from a throne overlooking the sea, fled. The Greeks had won a stunning victory against the odds.

Themistocles is rejected

In ca. 471 the people turned on Themistocles. Despite all he had done for Athens, he was now unpopular, perceived as arrogant and even suspected of taking bribes. His response — reminding his fellow citizens of all they owed him — served only to aggravate them and he was ostracized.

Potsherd - Themistocles smaller
An ostrakon
bearing the name of Themistocles

He went first to Argos but, when he learnt of the Spartans’ wanting to pursue him over a matter of their own, he fled to Asia Minor, eventually entering the service of the Persian King Artaxerxes and being made governor of three satrapies. He lived there much honoured by the King, dying in ca. 459. (His death is ascribed by Plutarch, writing in the late-first century a.d. — so, nearly six-hundred years later — to suicide but by Thucydides, a meticulous historiographer writing in the same century, to natural causes.)

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19 thoughts on “Ancient Greece : Themistocles”

  1. Each Greek citizen would have received a fair wodge of silver from the Laurium mines, but Themistocles managed to talk them into building the fleet instead! How adept a politician was he?

    What absolutely beautiful ships the triremes were! Light, graceful, elegant, and the word trireme is so melodious!

    I am beginning to understand why the Mayor is a Greek history nut. The Athenians turned for hope and consolation to the Oracle at Delphi….. anyone tuned in to the mystical side of things is fascinated to discover that just as people now go to psychics to ease their fears, the Greeks were consulting the Oracle at Delphi. I have read they believed in this Oracle absolutely.

  2. I naturally find all this very exciting, because having for years been teased for my interest in astrology and modern oracles, I now find the Ancient Greeks and Romans backed me up.

    I am reading a book about the Roman despot Domitian, who in 96AD had the astrologer Ascletario put to death because the astrologer predicted that his corpse would be torn to pieces by wild dogs. It was in vain. The prediction happened.


    My comment above was wrong – what happened was Asclertario had predicted the date and hour of Domitian’s death and foretold he would be assassinated. Terrified, Emperor Domitian asked him to predict the manner of his OWN death, and Asclertario predicted that he himself would die by being ripped to pieces by wild dogs. Domitian then had him put to death.

    However, the astrologer’s prediction came to pass. After he had been put to death, Ascletario’s corpse was put to burn, so he would be cremated. Wild dogs dragged the half burnt corpse from the flames and tore it to pieces.

  4. Marsh dwelling people in southern Iraq also build their mini triremes and their floating dwellings using only dried reeds and willow stems. They also create their floating gardens using the same materials, then top up with layers of marsh plants which rot away into rich compost. Their lush floating gardens of herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and flowers and even the odd cannabis plants just look after themselves drinking water straight from the lake. Genius!

    ( Uuuuuh, I’m feeling hungry right now. That’s why I picked this name. I just love potato farts, I mean farls. Warm them up slightly in the microwave, then smear them with top quality butter. Mmmmm… farls, farls, farrrrls… )

  5. Mr. Potato Farl, what a great description of the floating gardens.

    Persia used to be the name for what is now the Iranian plateau, comprising today’s Iran and Afghanistan.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  6. Those are not cannabis plants. They are hemp plants whose fibre is used to make fine cloth and ropes. We are very self sufficient people. We are on broadband, too. We can check what other people say about us on the internet.

  7. Learnt an interesting grammatical fact from our Editor. There is often confusion about apostrophes in the national press.

    I knew that you say “St. James’s Park” and “Boris’s bike”. However, dopily, I did not realise that “Themistocles’s fleet” is correct. It sounded funny to me, but it is correct. On the internet, you frequently read “Themistocles’ fleet” but this is wrong.

    The rule applies throughout, so it is “Themistocles’s fleet”, “Socrates’s writings”. Boris Johnson is red hot on accuracy in spelling and punctuation, so it is good to learn these things.

  8. There are some who feel puritanical about grammar issues and Boris is no exception – of course there are exceptions for biblical and classical names but the general rule is apostrophe ‘s’ for the singular possessive form (not so in the plural) so in Boris spirit we will be as accurate as possible.

  9. The general standard of English nowadays is just appalling. Boris has already made the point about the ridiculous signage we are forced to endure.

  10. On ITV2 last night, a hammy film starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. He had the girly bit down cold though (the mother of Achilles, the nymph Thetis, to protect her son from a prophesy, dangled him in the River Styx so he would become immortal. The only bit of him that was not immortal was his heel, the part she had to hold). She also disguised him as a girl for the first thirteen years of his life, possibly this is why Brad Pitt pouted aand flounced his way through the film, smoothing his girly braids, it must have been method acting.

    The one thing that was amazing in the film was the fleet of Triremes! They glided like swans across the water. Closeups showed all the different types of wood that went into making them and you could see how light, fragile, speedy and manoevrable they were. Watching them brought the story of Themistocles to life.

  11. The triremes in that film did look fragile. They were also easily destroyed – you saw in the film, it only took a load of fireballs to set fire to all the triremes in the harbour. It must have taken huge courage on the part of the Greeks to fight the massive Persian warships from such flimsy crafts.

  12. “The rule applies throughout, so it is “Themistocles’s fleet”, “Socrates’s writings”. …” — angela

    Both grammatically right, of course, but an unfortunate choice — semantically — in the latter case.

    “… Boris Johnson is red hot on accuracy in spelling and punctuation …” — ad loc.

    Must admit that, knowing him to be a devout classicist, I was surprised to hit a floating participle (“Made of soft woods, … larch and plane were …”), “divided equally between each Greek citizen” and “convinced … to build” in his article.

    London’s mayor is, nevertheless, an admirable man and ought to be the next British P.M.

  13. Dear Pericles

    Well spotted you perfectionist! This was written by one of our able volunteers and we are happy to make the necessary amendments in our continuing striving for excellence.


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