(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.
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.
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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