Themistocles: Was He Really the Essentially Tragic Figure That He is Often Made Out To Be?

WITHIN the prevailing caste system of Ancient Greece, many citizens with a lack of social distinction may well have regarded themselves as being in a rather tragic and irreconcilable situation. But for Themistocles, however, despite being regarded as the alien child of a “woman of Caria”[1] he did not seem to be constricted by the lowly circumstances of his birth. Indeed, there was nothing tragic about his meteoric rise into an important public figure, something which was perceived as “an ingenious social manoeuvre”[2] engineered by Themistocles himself because of the fact that he had apparently altered the distinction between “pure Athenians and those of mixed descent.”[3] A subsequent taste for action – inspired by the “political acumen and practical intelligence”[4] of his mentor, Mnesiphilus – soon led Themistocles towards a life of fame and recognition, despite the rumours and “falsehoods”[5] which related to disheritance and the tragic “suicide”[6] of his mother. The bitter childhood feud between Themistocles and Aristides was to prevail until adulthood. The mutual hatred between the two men frequently meant that each of them voted against the other in the political arena[7], although it was the “light-fingered”[8] Themistocles who – far from tragically – saw to it that Aristides was ostracised in 483-2 BC[9].

By far the most significant act which was attributed to Themistocles was the “providential decision”[10] to donate significant Athenian finances towards the building of a huge naval fleet[11], something made possible by the revenue which came from the silver mines at Laurium. Themistocles’ sense of destiny and shrewd planning was to result in the victory at Salamis against the Persians. Once again, far from tragically the “yearning for fame”[12] and “ambition”[13] had led to a great deal of positive recognition. Indeed, despite having a taste for luxury and annoying Cimon by attempting to “raise himself above his station”[14], Themistocles remained – according to Plutarch – “high in the affections of the people.”[15] Themistocles also received immense praise for ruthlessly executing a hapless interpreter who accompanied the Persian envoy[16], uniting the various quarrelling factions within Greece[17] and even relinquishing his own command to Eurybiades[18]. Further initiative on his part also playing an important role in winning the hearts and minds of his fellow citizens by managing to persuade them – with the use of oracles[19] – to Leave Athens and cross over the sea to Salamis. Other “ingenious but unscrupulous”[20] strategies, such as using Sicinnus to deceive Xerxes into believing that the Greek fleet was “disorganised”[21], as well as his “surpassing skill and judgement”[22] in naval warfare, enabled him to be credited with the eventual victory of the Greek forces and stood him in good stead with his contemporaries and prevented tragedy from striking either himself or his contemporaries.

But the pragmatic statesmanship that had earned Themistocles his reputation could not always protect him from the tragedies that were to feature prominently in later life. In the years that followed the 480-79 Persian War, Themistocles became more and more unpopular with the Athenian people[23]. According to Oman, “his unscrupulous talents were better suited to troublous times than to the less eventful days”[24] and his growing corruption became more easily detectable. Despite Aristides having been recalled from exile by Themistocles himself and going on to become a general and assist “his bitterest enemy to become the most famous of men”[25], he was to make the most cutting remark that Themistocles had ever faced. When Themistocles – “in a self-laudatory manner”[26] – observed to Aristides in public “that the chief excellence of a statesman was to be able to foresee and frustrate the designs of public enemies”[27], Aristides replied: “Certainly you cannot do without that, Themistocles, but the honourable thing and the quality which makes a real general is the power to keep his hands clean.”[28] Themistocles had embarked upon his descent down the slippery slope of human tragedy. By 472 BC political factionalism in Athens had become so commonplace that Themistocles was eventually condemned to exile by his countrymen, although ostracism itself was seen more as a means of “blunting the spirit of envy, which delights in bringing down the mighty”[29] rather than a form of punishment. Nevertheless, such “honorary banishment”[30] gave Themistocles’ rivals an opportunity “to humble his great reputation”[31]. Eventually, Themistocles was accused of treason by Leobotes, after being approached by Pausanius and presented with an invitation to join him in negotiations with Artaxerxes, the Persian King[32]. However, before the Athenian authorities could arrest Themistocles in Argos and bring him to trial, he fled to Corcyra[33] before taking refuge in Epirus[34].

Once there, Themistocles appealed to King Admetus of the Molossi for mercy[35] and, as a result, was protected from the Athenian and Spartan officials charged with his arrest[36]. Themistocles – by this time a veteran of several “hair-breadth escapes”[37] – then decided to attempt a journey across the Aegean in order to meet the Persian King[38], and was smuggled aboard a ship bound for the Persian coast[39]. During the voyage, a twist of fate led to a storm driving the ship towards Naxos which, at that time, was being besieged by an Athenian fleet[40]. Filled with terror, Themistocles blackmailed the ship’s captain into delaying the voyage long enough to avoid a confrontation with the Athenian forces[41].

When Themistocles landed at Cyme, he discovered that many people were lying in wait for him and that Artaxerxes had put a fee of “200 talents on his head”[42]. After spending time in Aeolia with Nicogenes and experiencing a strange dream which indicated a change in his fortunes, Themistocles was smuggled out of Aeolia in a four-wheeled wagon[43] and then made a desperate plea to Artaxerxes:

“If you save me, you will be saving a man who has thrown himself on your mercy, but if you destroy me, you will be destroying an enemy of the Greeks.” [44]

This act saved Themistocles from further tragedy, and Artaxerxes was said to be “so affected with joy”[45] that he even cried out in his sleep: “I have Themistocles the Athenian!”[46] However, the King of Persia showed Themistocles much kindness and sent him down to Magnesia, where he became a tyrant[47]. In fact Themistocles was accorded honours “far greater than those enjoyed by other foreigners”[48], and became “more influential than any Hellene has ever been”[49]. Despite this brief upturn in his fortunes, Themistocles soon had to prove his sincerity to the Persian King and “fulfil his promises”[50] by applying “himself to Greek affairs in earnest.”[51] His subsequent reluctance to help his Persian hosts defeat his fellow countrymen – due, in part, to a fear that Cimon and his fleet would be victorious[52] – arose from his unwillingness “to tarnish the glory of his earlier achievements, or dishonour the trophies he had won.”[53] Plutarch has written that, in one final and tragic moment and as calculated as everything else in his tumultuous existence, Themistocles – this time unconvinced that he could escape yet another unfortunate episode – finally resorted to suicide and poisoned himself “in the sixty-fifth year of his life.”[54] Alternatively, Thucydides – whilst openly praising Themistocles as “a man who showed an unmistakable natural genius”[55] – was sceptical of the suicide theory, claiming that Themistocles died merely “as a result of an illness.”[56] Despite the conflicting opinions, the way the former Athenian naval commander met his end does not diminish the recurring tragedies that affected his life.

So it can be reliably postulated, therefore, that Themistocles was indeed an essentially tragic figure. Despite rising to glory in the early years of his life, Themistocles soon found himself pursued from all quarters and forced into exile in a foreign land. In addition, of course, it must be remembered that the events in his life can be directly attributed to the results of his own flirtations with controversy. In his final years, Themistocles did indeed become a lonely and discredited figure, forced, ultimately, to end his life “as the pensioner of the barbarian.”[57]


1. Plutarch; The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (Penguin, 1960), p. 77.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 78.

5. Ibid., p. 79.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 113.

9. Ibid., p. 116.

10. Richard Humble; Warfare in the Ancient World (Guild Publishing, 1980), p. 118.

11. Aristotle; The Athenian Constitution (Penguin, 1984), p. 65.

12. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 80.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p. 82.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 83.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p. 84.

19. Ibid., p. 86.

20. C. W. C. Oman; A History of Greece (Longmans, 1962), p. 214.

21. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 89.

22. Ibid., p. 92.

23. Oman, op. cit., p. 244.

24. Ibid.

25. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 118.

26. Oman, op. cit., p. 244.

27. Ibid.

28. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 136.

29. Ibid., p. 99.

30. Oman, op. cit., p. 245.

31. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 98.

32. Ibid., p. 99.

33. Oman, op. cit., p. 245.

34. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 100.

35. Thucydides; History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin, 1972), p. 115.

36. Ibid., p. 116.

37. Omar, op. cit., p. 245.

38. Thucydides, op. cit., p. 116.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 101.

43. Ibid., p. 102.

44. Ibid., p. 103.

45. Oman, op. cit., p. 246.

46. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 104.

47. Oman, op. cit., p. 246.

48. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 105.

49. Thucydides, op. cit., pp. 116-7.

50. Plutarch, op. cit., p. 107.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Thucydides, op. cit., p. 117.

56. Ibid.

57. Oman, op. cit., p. 246.

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