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Themistocles (B.C. 514–449)

Not many years after Solon's death there was born at Athens a boy destined to be one of the most wonderful men Athens ever saw. He was not a noble, like Solon, nor was he poor; but, like Solon, he was rather an unusual sort of boy, though in a different way. He was not particularly clever at his lessons at school, nor was he fond of games. When the other boys were playing at quoits or ball, or harnessing captive beetles to a paper car, he went off by himself and made up speeches, pretending that one of his classmates was accused of a crime, and that he himself was pleading before the judge that his friend should be let off. Or else he would call his schoolfellows together and make a long speech about politics, in which at that early age he took a great interest. His schoolmaster used to say he would turn out to be some one extraordinary, and would become either a great blessing or a great curse to his country.

And when he grew up, and was studying philosophy with a tutor, he knew more about politics and the affairs of the day than he did of his studies, which was a great disappointment to his father and mother.

In fact at that time Themistocles gave them much trouble, for he was rather inclined to be wild and extravagant, and they thought that if he would only leave politics alone, everything would be all right again. One day his father pointed out some worn-out warships that were rotting away in the docks, and told him that that was the fate in store for him if he became a statesman. "The Athenian people will work you very hard," he said, "and take all they can out of you, and then, when you can be of use to them no longer, they will leave you alone to die." But it was of no use for his father or any one else to talk like this to Themistocles, for nothing in the world interested him but politics, and just then in Athens very exciting things were happening.

When Themistocles was about fourteen years old, the Athenians had helped their kinsmen on the Asiatic shore of the Mediterranean Sea to fight against King Darius of Persia; and though they did not win in the end, they did much harm to Darius's dominions, and burned the great city of Sardis before they returned home.

This made Darius very angry indeed, but he was too busy just then to follow the Athenians home and avenge the insult. Yet, so that he should not forget his anger against them, he ordered one of his slaves to say to him every day at dinner, "Sire, remember the Athenians." Atossa, his wife, constantly, urged him to go against the Athenians, for she wanted Greek women for her slaves, as she had heard that they were very beautiful.

But eight years passed away before Darius found time to do anything. Then at last he called a very clever general to him, named Mardonius, and told him to make ready to go to war with the Athenians.

Now, if you look at the map, you will see the country through which Mardonius led his soldiers after he had crossed the Hellespont. It was a wild and barbarous country, in which lived savage and warlike tribes. Mardonius had ordered his ships to meet him after sailing round the point of Mount Athos (which you will see in the map).

But a dreadful storm arose, three hundred ships were almost all wrecked, and the twenty thousand men they carried were drowned near the rocky coast, which was as dangerous as many parts of the coast in the north of Scotland. And when the barbarian tribes heard of this, they attacked Mardonius's army, and destroyed more than half of it. So poor Mardonius lost heart, and felt that it would be wiser on the whole to go back to Persia.

Back he went, and for nearly two years after Persia was full of the hurry and bustle of preparing to make war on the Greeks. At last King Darius sent off heralds to each Greek city to ask the people for earth and water. You will think this a very funny thing for him to ask, but if the Greeks gave the earth and water, it meant that they would agree to Darius ruling them on land and sea. Many of the States were so frightened that they gave earth and water at once.

But you may be sure that Athens was not one of these. There the people caught hold of the herald and threw him into a deep hole, where, they said, he could get earth and water for himself. And they told all their soldiers to make ready for war. Just think how excited Themistocles must have felt when he came out of his philosophy class one day, and heard that in that deep hole in the quarry near by, into which he had loved to throw stones when he was a child, the enemy's herald had been thrown that morning.

You may be sure he delivered a fine speech to his fellow-students, which was so fiery that they all took sides for or against the Persian invader. Themistocles and another, Aristeides (besides others whose names I need not tell you), went off to the war under Miltiades, the great Greek general, for they agreed with him that they ought to fight at once, for fear the friends of Persia in Athens would open the city gates and let the enemy march in.

Out on a hill above the plain of Marathon gathered that brave little Greek army, looking down on the great host of the Persians between them and the sea.

For four or five days they awaited the attack of the Persians, but in vain: and so Miltiades himself decided to attack. All the fighting men of the little town of Platae had joined him (in gratitude for past kindnesses received from Athens), and his force now numbered between ten and eleven thousand. After arranging them in the best way possible for so small a force, he ordered them to start at a run down the hill towards the enemy.

The Persians either did not expect them, or thought that so small an army would never be so mad as to charge their large forces, and were far from ready to oppose them. They soon learned, however, to their cost, that if the Greeks were mad, there was a method in their madness, when the line of pikes charged into them with a great force gained by their run of a mile downhill. Both sides of the Persian army broke away in disorder, and were routed; but the Greek centre, which was their weakest part, would have been beaten had not the Greeks at the right and left come to the rescue. Even then there was a desperate struggle on the beach before the Persians were all driven into the sea or to their ships, and the field of, Marathon was won.

"Miltiades, thy victories

Must every Persian own:

And hallow'd by thy prowess lies

The field of Marathon."

This was one of the songs they sang in Athens after the battle, when every one was so happy that even the friends of Persia were quiet, and pretended to be glad too. But some of Themistocles' friends noticed that he was keeping away from the feasts that were held in honour of the victory, and that he was growing pale and looking ill. He did not attend to his studies any more, but went about alone, and would not talk to anybody.

At last a friend stopped him in the street one day, and said: "What is the matter with you, Themistocles? Are you ill? You have not been to the club nor to the philosophy class for several days, and we are quite dull without you to make us speeches." Themistocles grew very red, and after a little said: "I cannot sleep for thinking of the trophies Miltiades has won." "Go and win some yourself," said the other; and Themistocles took his advice. From that time forward he was never absent from the public council.

Athens was at war just then with the island of Aegina, and Themistocles advised the Athenians to build a great many ships, so as to conquer Aegina the more easily, as he said. But in the back of his mind he had another plan. He felt sure that Darius, the Persian king, would come back some day soon to try to conquer the Athenians, and this time he would not bring his army by land only, but would bring a great many ships as well. And he thought if the Greeks had two or three hundred ships in readiness, they might win another glorious victory.

But his old schoolfellow, Aristeides, who had gone with him to fight at Marathon, thought him quite wrong in this, and believed that the Athenians had better not waste their money in building so many ships. So whenever Themistocles spoke in the Assembly in favour of the proposal, Aristeides used to oppose him. Aristeides was not nearly so clever or wise as Themistocles, but he was a much better man. He had never grieved his parents, nor been wild and extravagant, and he was always so fair to every one that men called him "Aristeides the Just," and trusted him a great deal. He had never done anything of which he needed to be ashamed, whereas Themistocles had often done acts that were dishonourable, and was not always as careful of the people's money as he should have been. Then he sometimes told lies, and gave people bribes to do what he wanted, whether it was right or not. But he could never bribe Aristeides; and as Aristeides was always against him when he tried to get a larger navy for Athens, he at last grew very angry with him, and the two quarrelled so badly that every one grew tired of listening to them.

The Athenians had a plan for getting rid of people of whom they were tired, and they chose this way now. They all came into the city one day, and the clerks of the Council gave each of them an oyster shell, on which they were to write the name of the man they wanted to send out of the city. Then they dropped their shells into a large vase that stood near for the purpose. More than six thousand of them on this day wrote the name of Aristeides on their shells. After the clerks had counted the shells, Aristeides was told he must leave the city.

This voting by oyster-shells was called Ostracism, and Aristeides was said to be ostracised. He had to leave the city for ten years, and take no share in its doings all that time. Aristeides loved his country so dearly that this was a very cruel punishment to him, for he knew quite well that once he was out of the way, Themistocles would easily persuade the people to make a great navy; and this was just what happened. But in this matter Themistocles was right, and it was best for Athens, as you will see, that Aristeides should be sent away just then.

For across the Mediterranean King Darius of Persia was not sleeping all this time, but was very busy indeed. Furious that a small city like Athens should have defeated his large army, he made up his mind to make ready a larger army and a bigger fleet, and to sail against Athens again. Themistocles knew of all this, and never tired of telling the people of the use of a large fleet, and that Athens must become the "Mistress of the Seas"; until the Athenians believed it so thoroughly that they thought they had always wanted this.

And when they had the best of it in the Aeginetan War, they felt sure that Themistocles was right, though Darius died, and so ended their fear that he would come again. But his son Xerxes continued to prepare for war against the Greeks, and at last the report came across the sea that he had left home with a very large army and fleet.

Xerxes was a foolish king, and had been so spoiled in his childhood that he often behaved like a big baby. When he could not get across the Hellespont in his bridge of boats because of a great storm, he flew into a rage, and ordered his servants to thrash the sea for being so rough. At last, however, he crossed the Hellespont, and then marched through wild country towards Greece. The Greeks on their side were preparing to fight him.

Leonidas, King of Sparta, met him in the narrow pass of Thermopylae (which is on the Malian Gulf, in your map) with seven thousand men against the Persian myriads. Xerxes was very angry because Leonidas and his men did not run away, but combed their long curls and practised many gymnastic exercises, as if the enemy were not there at all.

"Are they mad," he cried, "that they do not run away or surrender?"

"Nay, sire," said an exiled Spartan who was with him, "they always comb their hair very carefully before a big battle. They have determined to fight to the death."

After a time Xerxes sent some troops against them, to take them alive and bring them before him. But the Spartans soon showed that they could fight as well as they could curl their hair. There was room for a few only to fight at a time, and they fearlessly cut down the Persians who came against them time after time, until one set grew tired and another took its place. For two days this terrible fight went on, till the Persians were so frightened that their captains had to drive them into the fight with whips.

On the second night a dreadful thing happened. A treacherous Greek of the neighbourhood, who wanted to grow very rich, went to Xerxes, and said that if he were given a large sum of money, he would show him a path over the mountains which would bring him in at the back of brave Leonidas and his men. Xerxes was only too glad to give him as much gold as he asked, and sent soldiers over the mountain path with this traitor as their guide.

But they did not attack Leonidas until noon next day, and he had many friends who came to warn him that the enemy had found the path at his back. He called his captains, and held a council of war, and decided that, in obedience to Spartan laws, he must stay and fight it out, even though he was sure to be killed. He kept with him three hundred Spartans, and seven hundred Thespians who said nothing would make them leave him, and four hundred Boeotians whom he could not trust out of his sight, and sent all the rest of his army away.


Then there was nothing for it but to fight till they fell, and this they did, each one killing many Persians or hurling them over the steep cliffs into the sea below, before they fell themselves, covered with glorious wounds. Leonidas fell in the thick of the fight "on the field of honour."

And over the spot where he fell a great marble lion was placed, after the war was over, and two other monuments, on one of which were carved these lines, which a great poet of that time had written:

"Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,

That here obedient to their laws we lie."

I think I hear you asking: "But where was Themistocles all this time? Why did he not come to help Leonidas? Was he afraid?"

He was fighting the Persians somewhere further south. You must remember that the Persians came not only overland, but with many ships too. Fortunately for the Greeks a tremendous storm, which raged for three days and three nights, did so much harm to the enemy's ships that four hundred of them were destroyed, many men drowned, and much treasure and many stores lost. The coast almost in sight of Thermopylae was covered with the wreckage of boats, and with dead bodies, and Themistocles, like the other Greeks, was glad at this news.

But he knew that even after losing four hundred ships the Persian fleet would still be much larger than that of the Greeks. So he was not surprised, as the other Greeks were, when they saw on the morning after the storm a very large fleet off the north of the long island of Euboea. They wanted to sail away at once down the coast of Euboea to Chalcis to take shelter. Themistocles tried hard to persuade them to stay where they were and fight; and the people in the island heard this, and sent him a very large present of money, so that he should keep the Greek fleet off the north of the island. You noticed before that Themistocles was not very particular about taking money or giving it, if he could get his own way by so doing; so he thanked the islanders, and gave presents to all the other admirals, if they promised to stay there and fight.

They promised; in those days most Greeks would do anything for money (and this was the worst point in the Greek character), but they did not begin the fight till the evening. Then they fought very bravely for some time, but just when they were beginning to get the worst of it, it grew so dark that they had to stop the battle for that night.

Strange to tell, during that night too arose a great wind, which dashed the Persian ships about so much that many were wrecked altogether, and others so much damaged that they could not fight next day. By the day after the Persians had patched up their ships, and began to fight again. The battle lasted all day, till the poor Greeks were so battered that even Themistocles thought they must escape southwards down the channel between the long island of Euboea and the mainland. But he would not have been Themistocles if he had not played a trick by the way.

In the fleet of the Persians were the Ionian Greeks, who lived across the Mediterranean Sea, and were servants of the Persian King. For their benefit Themistocles wrote up in very large letters near every well all along the cliffs: "Let all the Ionians desert the Persians and help the Greeks; or at least throw the Persian fleet out of order after the battle begins." Of course he knew that the Ionians were too weak and too much afraid of Xerxes to do anything of the kind, but he thought it would make Xerxes uneasy if he saw this writing, as he was sure to do.

But while Themistocles was writing on the cliffs, the other admirals in the Greek fleet, who were not Athenians, and did not care very much what happened to Athens, decided to sail far south to guard their own homes. Nothing that Themistocles could say made them change their minds, so he told the Athenians that they must all leave their beloved city of Athens and their homes and everything dear to them. Many of them wept and said they would not go; they would rather die than go.

Themistocles, who meant for the best, played another of his clever tricks to persuade them to go. He walked into the midst of the wailing citizens, crying out that the Gods had left Athens, so it was time that men left it too. "What do you mean?" they shouted; and then he told them that Athene, the goddess who loved their city most and always lived in the temple on the hill, had gone away, taking with her her pet snake, which had been there so long that no one knew its age. Further, that a prophet in another temple had prophesied that Athenians would "find safety behind wooden walls only"; and "of course," said Themistocles, "the wooden walls are the sides of the ships, into which you had best go at once."

Perhaps Themistocles could have told you where the goddess and the snake had gone, but the unhappy Athenians did not stop to ask him that. They all hurried off and caught their little ones in their arms, and took them and their wives, and afterwards as much of their furniture as they could pick up in their hurry, and went on board the ships. For two or three days the ships were busy sailing to and fro between Athens and Salamis, taking Athenian families and property across to safety in the island of Salamis. The Greek fleet promised to stay near Salamis till all the Athenians were removed. By that time Xerxes had reached Athens and set it on fire, and the Persian fleet was drawing near again, ready for another fight.

Then followed a most exciting discussion in the Greek Council of War. Themistocles felt sure that if the Greeks with their small ships stayed in the narrow strait of Salamis, and provoked the Persians to attack them there, the enemy's lumbering ships would not have room to move about, and could be thrown into great disorder; whereas if the battle was fought in a wider place the Persians would have the best of it. But no one else in the Council agreed with him, and they all left, after deciding to sail away from Salamis next morning.

Themistocles was not satisfied, however, and went on board the ship of Eurybiades, the Spartan admiral, and tried to persuade him to alter the plan. But all Eurybiades would promise to do was to call another Council. The other admirals were very angry at being called back again, and when Themistocles kept urging them to choose his plan, one of them cried out, "Themistocles, those who rise up at the Games before their turn are whipped."

"May be," answered Themistocles, "but those who never rise at all never win the crown of victory."

At which words the other fell into such a passion that he raised his heavy stick to strike Themistocles. Themistocles did not flinch, but said quietly, "Strike me if you like, but listen to me."

At this the other was ashamed, and let his stick fall, and listened. But as Themistocles went on to give fresh reasons why they should stay where they were, the news came that Xerxes had taken the city of Athens, and Adeimantus, the Corinthian admiral, said with a sneer that Themistocles had not even the right to speak, for he had now no city.

At this Themistocles lost his temper entirely, and in a rage he cried that if he had not a city, he had a fleet of two hundred ships, and if he took them away, as he thought of doing, he could build a splendid city for his men away in the west, where Xerxes would not trouble him.

This made the others very much afraid, and they agreed to stay and fight at Salamis. Then each went to his own ship and to rest.

Next day, however, so many of their friends came from their homes begging them to come south at once, that they said they must have another council meeting. Themistocles now saw that he would not succeed in persuading them this time, so he planned to trick them into doing what he thought best for them all. He sent a very clever and trusty servant to King Xerxes, saying that he (Themistocles) was very fond of Xerxes, and hoped that Xerxes would win. But the Greek fleet were just planning to give Xerxes the slip. So Xerxes had better come close up at once, and begin the battle.

Xerxes was much pleased, and thought kindly of Themistocles for such seemingly friendly advice, and remembered it to his credit years afterwards.

Themistocles and the captains

Meanwhile the Greek admirals were still quarrelling over the plans of attack, and Themistocles listened sadly, but said nothing. Suddenly the door opened, and a servant came in and pulled gently at Themistocles' sleeve, and said, "A ship-captain, who will not tell his name, wishes to speak with you, sir." Themistocles hurried out and saw—whom do you think?—his old rival, Aristeides.

Some time before, he had asked the Athenians to let Aristeides come back, and they had agreed, and here he was—too full of important news, however, to remember to thank Themistocles. He begged that they should now be rivals only in doing their country good, and whispered that the Persian fleet had sailed quite close, and there was now no longer a chance of escape for the Greeks.

This was just what Themistocles was longing to hear; and remembering Aristeides' patriotic spirit in the old days, he decided to trust him with his secret. So he said, "You bring good news, Aristeides, for you tell me that my plans have turned out well. I had to do this to make the Greek admirals fight here." And he told him the whole story. Aristeides praised the plot, and they went into the Council together. Aristeides was well known by name to all the admirals, and much respected by them; and at another time they would have given him a warm welcome; but just then they had hardly patience enough to hear what he had to say. They would not believe him until the captain of another ship came in and told the same tale.

When they woke next morning, they did not doubt any longer, for there lay the Persian ships in front of them, and the battle soon began. It was a terrible fight, and lasted all day, but in the end the Greeks won, losing only forty ships, while the Persians lost two hundred. And as soon as the Persian ships fled, Aristeides went hastily on shore and fought against the army of the Persians, and defeated them utterly.

The Persian fleet, or rather what was left of it, fled home, with King Xerxes on board, and a great part of the army. But quite a large force was left behind, which continued the war until the next year, when the Persian general, with most of his army, was slain in the great battle of Plataea; and at last the great war was over.

The Athenians were now free to go to their own city, and Themistocles with them, covered with well-deserved glory from the war, and beloved by all his fellow-citizens. They found all their houses in ruins, but there was one thing that cheered them very much. The pet snake of the goddess Athene was back again in the spot where the temple used to stand, and in the spot near by where there had been for years an old gnarled olive-tree, which the Persians had burned down to its roots, a fresh sprig of olive had sprung up. These things made them feel that the goddess meant to come back again herself, and wanted them to come too.

Themistocles said they must build finer temples and houses than before, and make Athens the most beautiful and the strongest city in the world. They must build many new ships, too, and a fine new harbour, and strong walls all round the city, and all round the port and harbour of Peiraeus, too. The Peiraeus was about four miles from Athens, and there most of the shipping business of Athens was carried on.

The people were delighted at the idea, and after they had built enough houses for themselves to live in, they all set to work with a will, so that the neighbouring states were quite frightened to see such energy. They were jealous because the Athenians had so many ships, but now they began to say that the Athenians must mean to conquer them as well as Persia, and to make themselves masters of Hellas.

At last the Spartans heard about it, and were very angry. Up till the time of the war, they had always been thought the best and bravest of the Greeks. But now many were saying that the Athenians were better and braver than they, and that the Athenians had really been the saviours of Hellas, and the Spartans had always come too late to every battle except Thermopylae. So the Spartans sent ambassadors to Athens to ask why the people were building such strong walls.

"Surely," said they, "if the Persians come again, we shall help you, and if they get inside your walls, then it will be very difficult to drive them out again. We think there is no need to build such strong walls, but rather come and help us to pull down all the city walls throughout Hellas."

"Now," said the people to Themistocles, "what are we to do? We are not ready for a war just now, and the Spartans will make war on us if we refuse to pull down our walls."

And they spoke in very anxious tones.

"Send me as ambassador to Sparta," answered Themistocles, "and choose a few other men to follow me later on, and I will smooth away the difficulty"; and he laughed so much that the people began to laugh too, though they were not quite sure why they laughed. But they thought that Themistocles was sure to manage the matter well, as he always did. He made ready to go to Sparta, and sent word that he was coming to talk things over. Before he left, he called the people together, and said: "While I am away, do you finish the city wall as fast as you can—all of you, men, women, and children."

So every one of them set to work, the little children as busily as any, and the walls grew higher and higher every day.

When Themistocles reached Sparta every one was very polite to him, for they were all rather afraid of him. He was so quick-witted and clever, that he seemed to be laughing at them; for they themselves were always slow in their wits and in their speech.

He made them suspicious now, because he kept away from their Council, always saying that he could do nothing without his fellow-ambassadors; and something seemed to be delaying them on their journey. But when the news reached them that the Athenians had built the wall to a great height since Themistocles had left Athens, they asked him rather angrily for an explanation.

He answered that they were mistaken, and should send ambassadors to Athens to see for themselves. He said this because, if the Spartans, after they learned the truth, should want to do any harm to himself and his friends, who had at last arrived, they would not dare to do so for fear the Athenians should pay them out by seizing their ambassadors.

And he sent word to Athens that the people were to be very kind to the Spartan ambassadors, but were not to stop building the wall. They followed his advice, so that the Spartan ambassadors sent word to Sparta that the story was all true, and the walls round Athens were very high and very strong. Then Themistocles and his comrades went into the Spartan Council, and said boldly that the Athenians had meant all the time to have walls, so that if enemies again attacked Hellas, the Athenians would not again be homeless outcasts. The walls were now of a great height, and nothing would persuade them to pull them down. It was quite different for the people who lived in the south, and farthest away from the enemy, but Athens was, so to speak, the rampart of the Greeks on the North, from which part alone an enemy could attack the Greeks by land.

The Spartan Council was very angry when it heard this, but dared not say anything, for there was, after all, some truth in what Themistocles said. Besides, they could not afford to quarrel with Athens just now. Then Themistocles and his friends went away home.

When he found the Athenian walls so high he persuaded the Council to do more wall-building, this time all round the port and harbour of Peiraeus. This was agreed upon, and soon Athens had one of the largest and finest harbours in the world, in which hundreds of ships could anchor safely. And not long after, the smaller states of Hellas made Athens head of the United Fleet, which gave great satisfaction to Themistocles; and the people felt more than ever that Themistocles' policy was the right one for them. Every one soon acknowledged that Athens was the great naval power of the day.

It is very sad to have to tell you that after this Themistocles grew so boastful and proud that by the time he was forty-three years old the Athenians, heartily tired of him, ostracised him as they had done Aristeides some years before the war. Only they never allowed Themistocles to come home again, for after they had sent him away the Spartans told them that he had taken part in a wicked plan to give the Greeks over into the power of Xerxes of Persia.

The Spartans had said this in the hope that the Athenians would never allow him to come home again, for they hated him, and knew that he did not believe in them. Unfortunately the Athenians believed this horrible story, and tried to capture Themistocles to put him to death. But he ran away, and hid himself in one place after another, until, after many hairbreadth escapes, he reached Artaxerxes' realm. He sent a letter to Artaxerxes reminding him of the kindness he had done his father at Salamis, and claiming kindness in return. And he pretended that he hated Athens so much that he would help Artaxerxes to conquer her. But he asked for a year's time in which he could learn the Persian language, so as to talk over such important matters with the King.

Artaxerxes gave him not only a year, but a province in which to live, and ordered three towns to supply him with all he needed of food and clothes, and other things, for himself and his family. After a year in this place, called Magnesia, he returned to the King, but found him too busy with other wars to be able to fight Athens just then. Themistocles was very glad at this, for he did not want to harm Athens.

For several years he lived quietly in Magnesia, and the people round about grew very fond of him. Then one day an order came from Artaxerxes that he was to lead an army against the Greeks, to punish them for all the harm they had lately done to his kingdom. Themistocles felt he would have to obey, or die. So he prepared a great feast, and invited all his friends to bid them good-bye; and without telling them what he was about to do, he put a strong poison in his wine, and died almost immediately.

When they told this to the King he admired him more than ever, because he had chosen to die rather than to do his country any harm, although it had been so ungrateful to him. And the King was very kind to Themistocles' family as long as he lived.

The Magnesians put up a monument in their market-place in memory of the hero, and the historian Plutarch tells us it was still standing there five hundred years later, when he visited the place.