Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

Traitor or Patriot?

I have already spoken of the extraordinary, it might almost be said, preternatural sagacity of Themistocles. I have also said in reference to the message which he sent to the Persian king before the battle of Salamis, that in the midst of his patriotism he never forgot his personal fortunes. It is difficult indeed, when we consider the events of his later career, to avoid the conclusion that his private interests counted far more with him than suits the highest type of a statesman, more than they did, for instance, with Aristides or with Cimon. Various anecdotes that tend this way are told of him in reference to the operations of the war. When the first stand was made against the advancing Persians, it was arranged that the army stationed at Thermopylæ should be supported by the fleet taking up a position at Artemisium, a promontory in the north of Eubœa. The inhabitants of this island reckoned, in consequence, of having at least time to remove their families from the scene of danger, and also to secure the moveable portion of their property. But the Greek commanders were so terrified by the sight of the Persian fleet, which lay at anchor within view on the opposite coast, and by the general sense of the invader's superiority in force, that they resolved to retreat. The islanders, thus abandoned, were in despair. They appealed to the commanders of the fleet, but in vain. Then they sought an interview with Themistocles, and offered him thirty talents, if he could so arrange that the fleet should remain at Artemisium for at least a few days. Themistocles took the money, purchased the adherence of the Spartan commander by a bribe of five talents, and that of the Corinthian by a bribe of three. The remainder, more than two-thirds of the whole, he kept for himself.



After the victory of Salamis, his conduct was still more unscrupulous. States that had given up their submission to the Persian king might expect to suffer for it. Themistocles, "always seeking for gain," according to Herodotus, saw and used the opportunity of aggrandizing his private fortunes. He used his influence with the allied Greeks to spare or deal leniently with cities which purchased his favour, and to use severity to those which refused to do so. In one case at least, that of Carystus, an Eubœon town which had been compelled to submit to Persians, he was unable or unwilling to fulfill his bargain. He took the bribe but allowed its territory to be plundered.

The proceedings of Themistocles at Sparta, after the final repulse of the Persians, were less blameworthy, because they were not suggested by personal interest, but they were such as a high-minded Statesman would not have stooped to.

The Athenians began, as soon as possible after their return to their country, to rebuild their city, and to surround it with larger and stronger fortifications than it had before possessed. The Spartans, prompted partly by their perpetual jealousy, partly by the remonstrances of their allies, begged them to desist. Their own city was, by their deliberate choice, unwalled, and they would gladly have had all their rivals in the same condition. The reason which they put forward for their request was of a different kind. It would be injurious, they alleged, to the common interests of Greece, if the Persians, in any further invasion, should find a walled city outside the Peloponnese to occupy. Thebes had been such a city, and had therefore been injurious to the Greek cause. The Athenians ought not to think of supplying the enemy with a second advantage of the same kind. The Athenians, at the suggestion of Themistocles, gave no direct answer to these representations; they would send envoys to Sparta who should be qualified to express their opinion. Of those envoys Themistocles was one. His colleagues, one of whom was Aristides, were long in arriving—so it had been arranged—and Themistocles declined to act in their absence. While they lingered the whole population of Athens laboured incessantly at the walls. Nothing was spared, private houses and public buildings being alike destroyed to furnish materials.

The walls had risen to half their planned height, when news of what was going on was brought to Sparta, probably by some jealous neighbour of Athens. The authorities taxed Themistocles with deceiving them. He promptly denied the charge; he affirmed that the news was false, that nothing was being done in the matter of the building of the walls. "Send envoys to see for themselves," he said to the Ephors. The Spartans naturally believed an assertion made with such confidence. They had, too, a profound and, it must be said, a well-earned respect for Themistocles, and were not unconscious of the greatness of the service which he had rendered to them and to the whole of Greece. The envoys were sent, and with them went private instructions from Themistocles to the Athenian government to keep them in safe custody, or, anyhow, to hinder them from communicating with anyone. Meanwhile Themistocles's two colleagues arrived, bringing with them authoritative news that the walls were now sufficiently high for purposes of defence. Themistocles then came foward and boldly avowed the truth. The Athenians, he said, had lately proved how well able they were to judge on matters that concerned their own duty and the common welfare of Greece. The Spartans made no reply; they were well aware that the building might possibly have been prevented, but that once done it could not be undone. They uttered no remonstrances or reproaches, but they never forgave the man who had deceived them. They were not more favourably disposed to him by his subsequent policy, when he still further increased the strength of Athens by suggesting the building of the Long Walls, the fortifications which connected the city with the great harbour of the Peiræus.

For a time the Spartans were content to leave him to enjoy his popularity undisturbed. But they had intimate relations with an influential party in Athens which was always on the watch to bring about the degradation of a powerful rival, nor did the conduct of Themistocles himself fail to afford them opportunities of attack. The people, always jealous of the personal ascendency even of the most esteemed citizens, took offence at the boasts which the great statesman was said to utter about his signal services to his country, and at various other indications of self-esteem, among them the erection of a chapel near his house dedicated to Athené of Good Counsel. Then there were charges of corruption brought against him by persons from the allied cities. It was affirmed that he had accepted bribes to pronounce sentences often unjust, banishing and even executing citizens on allegations of Medism which had been made by personal enemies. Not many years after the repulse of the Persians—the precise date is not known—these feelings found expression in a formal accusation. He was arraigned before the Assembly. His political opponents did their best to bring about his condemnation, and the Spartans, it is said, were liberal with their bribes. But the memory of his great services to Athens was still strong. His own appeal to them carried an irresistible weight; and he was acquitted.

In 471 the enemies of Themistocles succeeded in bringing about; not his condemnation, but his ostracism, the singular process by which a jealous democracy expressed its opinion that this or that citizen was growing too powerful to be endured with safety to the state. He retired from Athens to Argos.



Six years afterwards came the discovery of the treason of Pausanias, described in my last chapter. The Lacedæmonian authorities discovered among the documents which came into their hands what they considered to be proofs of the complicity of Themistocles. The language of Thucydides, born, it will be remembered, in 471, and so not far removed from the time, seems to imply that these proofs were genuine. The historian Ephorus, about five generations later, says that Pausanias solicited the aid of Themistocles, but that the latter took no part in the affair, though he concealed his knowledge of it. The two accounts are not inconsistent. At the same time there is nothing in the character of Themistocles to make us feel, as we feel about Aristides or Cimon, that he could not possibly have tampered with treasonable schemes. However this may be, the Spartans demanded that Themistocles should be put on his trial before a congress of Greek states, and the two powers forthwith despatched messengers to arrest him. Warned, it is probable, that Argos would not venture to protect him, he fled to Corcyra, a city to which in the days of his prosperity he had done some kindness. The people of Corcyra were willing enough to show their gratitude, but could not engage to protect him against a combination of the Greek states. They passed him to the Mainland, where he was now outside the borders of Greece. The messengers still pursued him, and he was so hard pressed that he was compelled to take refuge in the dwelling of Admetus, king of the Molossians. Admetus had in former days received some affront from Themistocles, probably in connection with some suit against an Athenian citizen, and was not likely to be friendly to him. Fortunately for the fugitive, the king happened to be away from home. His wife received Themistocles kindly, and instructed him to sit at the hearth with her child in his arms. This was the attitude of a suppliant, and would appeal in the strongest way to both the conscience and the compassion of Admetus. And the appeal was successful. Admetus promised his protection, and actually refused to give him up when the emissaries from Athens and Sparta arrived at his court and demanded the fugitive. But Themistocles was not content to spend the rest of his days at the court of a half-barbarous king. He had more ambitious schemes in his head. Admetus, at his request, furnished him with guides who conducted him across the hills to a Macedonian seaport. Finding there a merchant-vessel about to sail for the coast of Asia Minor he took his passage in it. No one had recognized him, and he did not give his name. A storm drove the vessel out of its course to the island of Naxos. Under ordinary circumstances the captain would have gladly seized the opportunity of obtaining rest and refreshment. But to stop at Naxos would have been ruin to Themistocles, for the place was then besieged by an Athenian fleet. Themistocles acted with characteristic courage and ingenuity, and with as little scruple as usual about speaking the truth. He discovered his name to the captain, promised him a great reward if he succeeded in escaping, but threatened to accuse him of having been an accomplice, should he be captured. The captain consented not to approach, and, after beating about off the island for a day and a night, carried his passenger safely to Ephesus.

Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes, had been on the Persian throne a few months when Themistocles arrived. He received the news with pleasure, according to some accounts with even extravagant expressions of joy. The letter in which the fugitive announced his arrival was abrupt and even haughty, but it seems not to have given offence to the king. It ran thus: "I, Themistocles, am come to thee, I who did to thy house more damage than any man in Greece, so long as I was compelled to defend myself against thy father, but who also did him great service, when it was possible so to do without danger to myself, and his escape was imperilled. There is yet therefore owing to me reward from thee. And now the Greeks have banished me on account of my liking for thee, nevertheless I can yet do thee good service. Suffer me to tarry a year, after that I will come and set forth my purpose by word of mouth."

During the year Themistocles set himself to learn the Persian language; at the end of the time he visited the court, and laid before the king a scheme for the conquest of Greece. The king on the other hand treated him with munificent generosity. He gave him a Persian wife, and the revenues of three districts for his support. Magnesia, where he lived, was supposed to supply him with bread, Myus with other provisions, and Lampsacus with wine. The amount of the first contribution was fifty talents, that of the others we do not know.

Themistocles seems to have lived at Magnesia for some fifteen or sixteen years. During that time he had done nothing, probably had attempted to do nothing towards carrying out the promise which he had made to Artaxerxes. According to Thucydides he died from natural causes; the historian, however, mentions a tradition that he poisoned himself because he felt himself unable to carry out his intentions. The people of Magnesia erected a splendid monument in his honour, but it was said that his friends removed his remains, and buried them secretly in Attic soil.

It may be said with great probability that Themistocles never intended to do serious injury to Athens or to Greece. He was, indeed, shrewd enough to see that no such injury was possible. So far he may be acquitted of treason; but that he was one of the most unscrupulous of politicians cannot be doubted. Proofs of this have already been given in this chapter, another is to be found in the amount of his property, when this was confiscated after his flight from Argos. He had contrived to carry off much, and his friends had saved for him as much more; nevertheless what was seized realized eighty, or, according to one account, a hundred talents. And he had begun life, we are told, with a patrimony of three!