Episode 8: The Lives of Themistocles and Aristides Part B

The Persians are coming and Athens is doomed to destruction if the bold and clever Themistocles, and his rival the honorable Aristides, can’t find a way to stop them”

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Sneak Peak

Ryan: Welcome everyone to Part 2 of the Lives of Themistocles and Aristides. 

Chris:  Hello!

Ryan:  So Chris, If you remember at the end of the last episode, Athens had just won a surprising and momentous victory over a Persian army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, less than twenty years after becoming the world’s first democracy. 

Chris:  Yes, I do.  I imagine it must have been a pretty exciting time for the city.

Ryan:  Yeah, it’s safe to say that following the victory at Marathon, the people of Athens were feeling pretty good about themselves. Everyone except Themistocles that is. 

It seems that partly this was down to jealousy of the general Miltiades whose bold leadership at Marathon now made him Athens’ top star. Themistocles needn’t have been jealous – though for the very next year, Miltiades would, apparently due to a personal grudge, convince Athens to let him lead an expedition against the island of Paros which would end in failure. Upon his return to Athens, Miltiades was brought up on charges of treason and died in prison, probably from gangrenous wound. It’s worth taking note of the rapid rise and fall of Miltiades, because he will certainly not be the last person to discover this unfortunate feature of Athenian democracy: you can be a hero one minute and a zero the next. 

Of course in the weeks following the Battle of Marathon nobody knew that a year later their hero Miltiades would die in disgrace – and when young Themistocles friends noticed he was not showing up at any of his usual hangouts Plutarch says they asked him what was troubling him and he responded that “the trophy of Miltiades would not let him sleep.” This comment is in reference to the Ancient Greek tradition of the victorious side in a battle erecting a trophy on the battlefield assembled from the defeated enemies arms and armour. 

Chris: So Themistocles just couldn’t stand someone else getting all the glory? Sounds like a running feature in the lives of the greeks and romans.

Ryan: That’s right, but it seems that wasn’t the only reason Themistocles refused to feel satisfied with the victory. Plutarch writes that, “when others were of 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 in proper training.” 

Now, as it happens, when word of his armies defeat at Marathon got back to the Great King Darius he was furious and determined to launch another expedition against Greece, but while preparations were underway revolt broke out in the crucial province of Egypt, which ended up buying Greece a little time. Before Darius would set out on campaign in Egypt, he needed to choose an heir, according to Persian tradition. Darius had a choice between his two eldest sons, born of different mothers. Artobazanes was the eldest, but Xerxes mother was the formidable Attosa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, and second only to Darius himself in power and influence at the Persian court. Darius wisely chose Attosa’s son Xerxes as his heir, despite him not being the oldest son. As it turned out, Darius died before the campaign in Egypt could commence and it fell to the new Great King Xerxes to quell the rebellion. Back in Athens, Themistocles saw an opportunity to build up the city’s

defenses against the Persian invasion which his foresight told him would be coming. A silver strike was made at the mines of Laurium outside Athens and the money from this windfall was to divided amongst the Athenian population but Themistocles proposed that instead of a handout of ten drachmas to every Athenian the revenue from the mines should be spent on constructing a fleet of warships (Plutarch says 100 warships, Herodotus says 200 – so maybe we’ll split the difference and go with 150). Themistocles hoped this fleet could defend Athens against the Persian threat but this is not how he pitched the idea. he knew that the Persian threat seemed far away to his fellow Athenians, so he proposed building the fleet to make war against Athens old rival the Aeginetans. Aegina was an island close to Athens and the Aeginetans had a fleet of their own. Themistocles knew the Athenian people were far more likely to support building a fleet to take the fight to Aegina, than to defend against Persians who, even after Marathon, seemed a distant and uncertain threat. 

Chris: So appealing to jealousy and anger of the Athenians seemed like a better bet to Themistocles than appealing to their logic? 


Hope you liked the sneak peak!

Chris & Ryan
Plutarch’s Greeks and Romans Podcast

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