Document #10: The Life of Themistocles by Plutarch

And when others were of the opinion that the battle of Marathon would be an end to the war, Themistocles thought that it was but the beginning of far greater 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.

And, first of all, the Athenians being accustomed to distribute amongst themselves the revenue proceeding from the silver mines at Laurium, he was the only man that durst propose to the  people that this distribution should cease, and that with the money ships should be built to make war against the Aeginetans, who were the most flourishing people in all Greece, and by the number of their ships held the sovereignty of the sea. Themistocles, thus, more easily persuaded the people, avoiding all mention of Darius or the Persians who were yet a great distance away and, at that time, not greatly feared; and by appealing to the anger felt by the Athenians against the Aeginetans, he induced them them to preparations for war. And so with this silver money, a hundred ships were constructed, ships which would be used later against Xerxes. Little by little, Themistocles drew the city of Athens towards the sea, int he belief that whereas on land they were not fit to fight their neighbors, with their ships they might be able to both repel the Persians and command Greece. Thus, as Plato says, from steady soldiers he turned them into mariners and sailors; that he took away from the Athenians their sheild and spear and bound them to the bench and oar. These measures he carried in the popular assembly, against the opposition of Miltiades. Now whether or not he did so to the injury of the democratic system in Athens is a question for philosophers,  but Xerxes himself would have to agree that the deliverance of Greece came at that time from the sea and that these triremes restored Athens again after it was destroyed, for even though Xerxes still retained his land forces, he fled away after his defeat at sea, no longer able to confront the Greeks. The Persian general Mardonius was left in Greece not with any hope to subjugate the Greeks, but to hinder their pursuit of a defeated Xerxes.

… He was well liked by the common people and saluted individual citizens by name and always show himself a just judge in questions of business between private men. He once said to Simonides, the poet, who desired something unreasonable of him when Themistocles commanded the army, “Simonides, you would be a poor poet if you wrote false meter, and I would be a poor governor if for you I made false law.” And another time he laughed at Simonides for putting down the Corinthians, since, however much Athens did not get along with them, they were the inhabitants of a great city.

… When the king of Persian sent messengers into Greece, with an interpreter, to demand earth and water as an acknowledgement of subjugation to Persia, Themistocles, by concent of the people, seized upon the interpreter and put him to death for presuming to publish the barbarian orders in the Greek language. But that for which he is most credited with was that he put an end to all the civil wars of Greece, smoothed over their differences and persuaded them to lay aside all enmity during the war with the Persians.

… Thought the fights between the Greeks and the Persians in the straits of Euboea [at the Battle of Artimesium] were not so important as to make any final decision of the war, still the experience that the Greeks obtained there was of great advantage. By trial and in real danger, they discovered that neither number of ships nor wealth and ornament, nor boasting shouts, nor barbarous songs of victory were any way terrible to men who knew how to fight and who were resolved to come hand-to-hand with their enemies. This Pindar the great poet appears to have recognized and says justly of the fight at Artemesium 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, and near the beach of Artemesium there is a small temple dedicated to the huntress goddess Artemis, around which stand pillars of white marble. On one of the pillars you will find engraved the following verses:

With numerous tribes from Asia’s regions brought     The sons of Athens on these waters fought;     Raising, after they had quelled the Mede,     To Artemis this record of the deed.

And there is still a place upon that shore where, in the midsst of a great heap of sand, you can scoop out from the bottom a dark powder like ashes. Here, it is supposed, the shipwrecks and the bodies of the dead from the Battle of Artemesium were burned.

After the battle, as Themistocles sailed southward along the caost, he took notice of the harbors and fit places for the enemies’ ship to put in to land and engraved large letters ont he stones he found there and had set up others near the landing places or in the water. The inscriptions called upon the Ionians, who were sailing for Persia, to forsake the Medes and come over to the Greeks who were their proper founder and fathers and who were now hazarding all for their liberty, but if this couldn’t be done, to impede and disturb the Persians in all engagements. He hoped that these writings would cause the Ionians to rebel or at least raise some trouble by making their loyalty doubtful to the Persians.

Now, though Xerxes had already passed through Doris and invaded the country of Phocis, burning and destroying the cities of the Phocians, the Greeks, being wholly intent upon defending the Peloponnesus and resolved to gather all forces along the Isthmus behind a wall constructed from sea to sea, sent no troops north to help Athens defend those territories. The Athenians were engaged to see themselves betrayed and at the same time dejected by their own destitution. For to fight alone against such a numerous army was to no purpose; the only  option now left them was to abandon their city and cling to their ships, which the Athenians were reluctant to do, not understanding how there could be victory anymore once they abandoned the temples of their gods and exposed the tombs and monuments of their ancestors to the fury of their enemies.

Themistocles, finding it impossible to convince the people by appealing to reason, set his machines to work as in a theter and employed prodigies and oracles. The serpent of Athena, kept in the inner part of her temple on the acropolis, disappeared, the offerings untouched, and the priests, moved by the suggestions of Themistocles, declared that the goddess had left the city and fled to the sea. He also urged them to heed the oracle which had prophesied that  the wall of wood alone shall save the City. At length his opinion prevailed and he obtained a decree that the city be committed to the protection of Athena, queen of Athens, and that all of an age to bear arms should embark to war and all others evacuated.


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