Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


As a boy Themistocles was remarkably bright and intelligent, and showed such deep interest in everything pertaining to public affairs that his master often said to him, "Boy, you will certainly make your mark, either as a blessing or a curse to your country." He was not disposed to study those branches that most of his companions preferred, and when they jeered at him for not desiring accomplishments he would get angry and say, "I may not know how to tune a harp or play upon a lute, but I understand the art of raising a small and unimportant city to glory and greatness." Most of his leisure moments were passed in imagining cases of dispute among citizens, and composing orations bearing upon them.

He could not be taught graceful manners, for they seemed of little consequence to him, though his countrymen attached great importance to the art of pleasing. Themistocles was an unruly boy, and carried on his mad pranks without much restraint. When taken to task for them he said, "The wildest colts make the best horses when they come to be properly trained." So ambitious of power and position was he that as he grew older he became involved in many quarrels with people of high rank and influence. Among these was Aristides, a man of mild disposition and unusual honesty, who was frequently annoyed by the way Themistocles would stir the people up to enterprises that seemed unjustifiable. The great battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians had won such a magnificent victory, was ever in the mind of the young man, and he burned to crown himself with glory, as Miltiades had done by entirely defeating the grand Persian army. Ambition rendered him sleepless by night and absorbed his thoughts by day. He became absent-minded and reserved, and lost interest in the recreations he had before enjoyed. His friends questioned him as to the cause. He said, "The trophies of Miltiades will not suffer me to sleep."

Few supposed that an opportunity would arise for him to gain such trophies, for it seemed as though the signal defeat of the Persians had put an end to the war. But Themistocles advised the Greeks to prepare their ships for an attack which he foresaw Darius, the Persian king, would make by sea, with the hope of restoring the fortunes lost at Marathon. This wonderful foresight proved that Themistocles had at least one of the qualifications of a great general, and we shall see that he had others besides.

The most flourishing people in all Greece were the Æginetans, and Ægina, their city, situated on an island near Attica, was one of the principal seaports. An old feud had existed between the people of Athens and Ægina, the effect of which was felt for many years. Taking advantage of this feeling of enmity, Themistocles found little difficulty in persuading his countrymen to make war on their powerful neighbors, whose ships rendered them masters of the sea. His real object was to prepare a navy to resist the Persians, but he thought best not to say so, knowing that little attention would have been paid to him if he had. The Persians at a distance did not seem formidable, nor was there much probability that they would so soon recover from Marathon as to make another attack. So long as he accomplished his desire, Themistocles was satisfied to keep his opinions to himself.

A large sum of money was required for ship-building, and this is how Themistocles managed to raise it. In the public treasury there happened to be an ample surplus that had been accumulating for many years from the rich silver-mines of Larium. A proposition was on foot to distribute this fund among the Athenians; but Themistocles used his utmost efforts in order to persuade them to appropriate it for the purpose of increasing their maritime power. He succeeded, and in a very short time had at his command a formidable fleet of two hundred ships, well equipped to resist any invaders.

There was at that time no other man in Greece who could have accomplished so much. Themistocles loved his country, and possessed all the brilliant qualities of a great statesman, yet he had his faults. His passion for distinction has never been surpassed, and he was so avaricious that he would accept bribes, and stoop to various other dishonest actions from mere love of gain. Most of his countrymen were displeased at his fondness for display, which in a man of humble birth was regarded as an evidence of bad taste. On the other hand, he won the hearts of the lower classes by the pains he took to salute each person by name, as though he were deserving of special consideration. Besides, he was just in his decisions when business transactions were submitted to him, and generally settled them satisfactorily. So anxious was he for notoriety, that long before he became famous he prevailed upon a young musician who played well upon the lyre to practise at his house, that people might inquire who lived there, and seek for admittance. Later, he appeared at the Olympic games in a splendid equipage, furnished his tent gorgeously, and gave the most sumptuous entertainments, all for the purpose of making himself the observed of all observers.

At this period the Athenians had great taste for tragedy, which had been brought to a high standard. Prizes were given to those who produced the best, and no pains was spared to make them attractive. Themistocles competed for one of these prizes, produced the play entirely at his own expense, and won. In memory of his success he put up this inscription: "Themistocles exhibited the tragedy; Phrynichus composed it; Adimantus presided."

We have said that Themistocles and Aristides frequently quarrelled. Two men, so entirely opposite in character, could scarcely be good friends. Aristides was the inferior in ability, but vastly superior in honesty and integrity. His one desire was to benefit his country, regardless of party or self-interest, and for this very reason he gained enemies among those who managed public affairs. His uprightness and justice were acknowledged by all who knew him, and he received the surname of "the Just." But he always opposed Themistocles, and in the course of three or four years they became such bitter enemies that he was banished by ostracism, his rival being so popular as to influence the multitude to this end.

Banishment by ostracism was managed in this way: every citizen took a piece of pot or shell, on which he wrote the name of the person he would have banished. These were collected and counted by the magistrates; if the number amounted to six thousand they were sorted, and the man whose name appeared the greatest number of times had to leave Athens within ten days and remain in exile ten years.

Xerxes had succeeded Darius as king of Persia by this time. He was not a man of much ability or experience, but he was anxious for military glory, and so resolved to invade Greece, as his father would have done a second time, had he lived long enough. It was fortunate for the Greeks that Xerxes was such an inferior general as he proved himself, for he came with a mighty army, the sight of which spread terror among the enemy. But he passed the winter at Sardis, and during that season gave the Greeks a chance to prepare for resistance.

Themistocles undertook the command of the Athenian forces, and tried to persuade the people to go out on the ships and fight the Persians as far away from the coast of Greece as possible; but this plan met with so much opposition that he joined his army with that of the Lacedæmonians and marched to the Pass of Tempe, which forms the entrance to northern Greece. This was found to be an unsafe position, being open to attack from the rear, so the army returned without having accomplished anything; and then the Thessalians and all the northern Greeks as far as Bœotia, being left to themselves, went over to Xerxes.

Thus the proposition of Themistocles to fight by sea gained favor, and he was sent to guard the Straits of Artemisium, which form the entrance to the Gulf of Thessaly. When the forces assembled there arose a dispute as to who should take the lead. The Lacedæmonians wanted to command, and to have Eurybiades for their admiral. Themistocles showed his wisdom by persuading his countrymen to yield, and assured them that if in this war they behaved like men they need not fear, but all the Greeks would be willing enough to submit to them for the future.

Eurybiades was astonished when the Persian armada hove in sight, for he had never seen such an array of ships; but when he was informed that two hundred more were coming around the island of Sciathus his heart misgave him, and he determined to retire to a position where the land army and the fleet of the Greeks could unite. The fights that took place in the Straits of Eubœa were not so important as to decide the war, but they served as experience to the Greeks, which proved of great benefit to them. They had shown themselves brave soldiers on land, but it remained to be seen what sort of seamen they would become.

While defending the Eubœan straits the Greeks resolved to make a stand at Thermopylæ also. This was a narrow pass, about a mile in length, lying between the lofty mountains of ta, and considered, after Tempe, the most convenient point for defence against an invading army. A small band of Spartans under Leonidas was sent there. History tells us of the brave resistance they made against the mighty hosts of Xerxes, and how they were overcome at last by the treachery of a Malian, who led the Persian army by a secret path across the mountains.

When the dreadful news was brought to Artemisium that King Leonidas and all his soldiers were slain, and that Xerxes was master of the passages leading into Greece, a panic seized upon the army, and they returned to the interior of the country.

Xerxes advanced, burning and ransacking the cities of the Phocians without mercy. The Athenians were desirous that the northern Greeks should unite with them and make a stand at Bœotia for the protection of Attica; but they were intent upon defending Peloponnesus, and resolved to gather all their forces within that district, and build a wall from sea to sea across the narrow isthmus which connects it with central Greece, and thus defend themselves. The Athenians were very angry at being deserted by their confederates, because they knew how useless it would be to attempt to fight the numerous army of Xerxes alone. There seemed nothing left for them but to leave their city and take to their ships; but this plan met with opposition from the majority, who declared that they could not hope for success if they forsook the temples of their gods and exposed the tombs of their ancestors to the fury of the enemy.

All the arguments that Themistocles brought to bear were of no avail, so he employed oracles to convert the people to his opinions. The Dragon of Minerva suddenly disappeared from her temple, and, at the suggestion of Themistocles, the priests made it known that the offerings set before the holy place remained untouched, and that the goddess had forsaken the city and preceded the army to the sea. The voice of the oracle constantly urged the people to trust to walls of wood, which meant ships, and pronounced the island of Salamis divine, which was interpreted as meaning that the Athenians would meet with good fortune there. Superstition prevailed, and it was soon settled that all who were old enough to fight should embark, and that the women, aged men, children, and slaves should be removed for protection to Trœzene.

It was heart-rending to see the whole city of Athens deserted, and the cries and sobs of the women and children who were leaving their husbands, brothers, and fathers, perhaps forever, filled the air. Even the domestic animals were objects of pity, as they ran about the town, and in their dumb way showed their eagerness to be carried along with their masters. One poor dog jumped into the sea, and swam beside the ship all the way to Salamis, falling dead from sheer exhaustion as he reached the shore. In spite of these pathetic scenes the Athenians, who were going forth to fight, stood firm and resolute.

The Trœzenians offered a hearty welcome to those who were placed in their care, and passed a vote that they should be maintained at the public expense. The children were free to gather fruit wherever they pleased; they had many other privileges besides, and school-masters were provided to attend to their education.

Themistocles showed himself wise by recalling Aristides at this time. He had been banished before the war, but it was clear that the people wanted him back, and even feared that to revenge himself he might be induced to join the Persian army, which would have been a dreadful blow to the cause of Greece. A decree was therefore proposed recalling all those who were banished, so that they might give aid to their fellow-citizens in this trying period.

Now when the fleet had assembled off Salamis, Eurybiades grew faint-hearted, and wanted to set sail for the Isthmus, where the Peloponnesian army was encamped, but Themistocles would not listen to such a thing, and his opposition led to a serious quarrel. Some sided with one commander, some with the other, but Themistocles boldly maintained his ground, and while he spoke an owl was seen, which after flying to the right of the ship came and perched on top of the mast. This was considered a happy omen, for the owl was sacred to Minerva, the goddess of the Athenians, and everybody eagerly prepared at once to fight. The enemy's fleet advanced and covered the neighboring coasts, while Xerxes himself was observed marching towards the shore with his land forces. Such a prodigious armament struck terror to the hearts of the Greeks, and many of them gave orders to their pilots to steer that very night for the Isthmus.

Determined to retain the position he held in the straits, and not to allow any of his confederates to desert, Themistocles contrived a stratagem for carrying out his plans.

There was in the Athenian army a Persian captive named Sicinus, who was warmly attached to Themistocles and ready to obey any of his commands. Themistocles sent him secretly to Xerxes, with the assurance that the commander of the Athenians desired to join the Persian army, and was therefore the first to inform him of the intended flight of the Greeks. He begged the king not to let them escape, but advised him to take advantage of their confusion to attack and destroy their whole navy while they were at a distance from the land army. Of course Themistocles did not intend to turn traitor to his country, but Xerxes was completely deceived by his message, and ordered the commanders of his fleet to set out at once with two hundred ships, and so surround all the islands as to prevent the Greeks from escaping, and added that the rest of the ships would follow at their leisure.

Aristides was one of the first to observe this movement of the enemy, and at great personal risk made his way to the tent of Themistocles to inform him of it. The Athenian commander was touched by the generosity of the man whom he had long regarded as an enemy, and told him of the message he had sent to Xerxes, at the same time urging him to entreat the Greeks to stay and fight. Aristides approved of the stratagem, and went among the different officers of the navy with words of encouragement and hope; but they would not believe that the enemy's vessels were upon them until a galley deserted from the Persians and came in to confirm the report that all the straits and passages were threatened. Then the Greeks were forced to fight whether they would or not, and this was just what Themistocles had striven for.

As soon as day dawned, Xerxes had a golden throne placed on an eminence, and seated himself thereon to watch the movements of his army. Secretaries stood near to write down all the details of the fight which was to decide the fate of Greece. Xerxes and the princes who were with him felt sure of victory; but there was one person present who saw at what a disadvantage the large Persian ships would be in the narrow straits of Salamis, and that was Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus, who tried to dissuade the king from engaging; but her arguments had little weight, and the order for attack was given.

Meanwhile, Themistocles had not only chosen the most advantageous place, but he also managed not to begin the fight until the time of day when the fresh breeze from the open sea began to blow and produce breakers in the channel. They were not inconvenient to the Greek ships, but rendered the cumbrous Persian ones quite unmanageable. The Greeks kept their eyes fixed on their commander, not only because they were eager to follow his lead, but because at the very beginning of the battle Ariamenes, brother and admiral to Xerxes, began to oppose his ship and to shower down darts and arrows upon it, as though he had been stationed on a castle. After a time the Persian and the Athenian galley stuck their prows into each other so that they were fastened together. Then Ariamenes attempted to jump on the Greek vessel, but he was run through the body with a pike and thrust into the sea. His corpse was recognized and picked up by Artemisia, who commanded one of the ships.

Although the Persians had a tremendous fleet, only a part of it could enter the narrow arm of the sea at a time, and their ships fell foul of one another. We need not follow all the details of the battle of Salamis, one of the most memorable in history; it is only necessary to say that when the day declined the Greeks had gained a complete victory. The Queen of Halicarnassus distinguished herself by such daring deeds of bravery that day that Xerxes, indignant at his defeat, contemptuously exclaimed, "My men are become women, and my women men!"

Now Themistocles and Aristides had a consultation, and decided that the best thing they could do was to try to get Xerxes and his army out of Greece, for if permitted to remain there they would certainly seek to avenge their recent defeat. The sagacity of Themistocles was again brought into play to accomplish this object. Among his captives was one of the king's slaves, named Arnaces, who was sent to his master with this message: "That the Greeks, who were now victorious, were determined to sail to the Hellespont and destroy the bridge of boats there; but that Themistocles, being a friend to Xerxes, sent to reveal this secret to him in order that he might hasten to his own dominions before it was too late, promising that he would cause delays and hinder his confederates from pursuing him."

Xerxes was so frightened that he hurried out of Greece with all the speed in his power, never for a moment doubting that Themistocles was really his friend.

The city of Ægina was considered to have done the best service in the war, and to Themistocles was awarded the prize among the commanders. The Lacedæmonians took him with them to Sparta, where they rewarded Eurybiades, their commander, for bravery, but crowned the Athenian general with an olive-wreath for his wisdom and good management. They also presented him with the best chariot in the city, and sent an escort of three hundred young men with him to the border of their country. The next time he appeared at the Olympic games everybody stared at him, and he was pointed out to the strangers present as a hero. He was so gratified by the clapping of hands that greeted his appearance that he confessed to his friends he then reaped the fruit of all his labors for Greece.

Many anecdotes are told of Themistocles which prove how fond he was of having honors shown him. When he was chosen admiral by his countrymen he would not quite arrange anything until the day of sailing, so that he might appear full of important business and seem powerful to those who stood about him. When he saw the bracelets and necklaces on the dead bodies cast ashore by the sea after the battle of Salamis, he said to a friend, "You may take these things, for you are not Themistocles." To Antiphates, a handsome young man, who had once treated him with disdain, but was ready to court him when he became famous, he said, "Time, young man, has taught us both a lesson." He declared that the Athenians did not honor or admire him, but made a sort of plane-tree of him, under which they would shelter themselves in a storm, and which they would rob of its leaves and branches when fine weather appeared again.

An officer who thought he had done the state some service boastingly compared his actions with those of Themistocles, whereupon the latter answered him with this fable: "Once upon a time a dispute arose between a feast-day and the day after the feast. Said the latter, 'I am full of hurry and bustle, whereas with you folks enjoy quietly everything already provided.' 'Very true,' returned the feast-day; 'but if I had not been before you, you would not be at all.' So if Themistocles had not come first, where would you be now?" When his own son persuaded his mother, and through her means himself also, to grant a favor, Themistocles said, laughingly, "You, child, are greater than any man in Greece; for the Athenians command the Greeks, I command the Athenians, your mother commands me, and you command your mother."

When two young men courted his daughter at the same time, he preferred the worthy man to the rich one, saying, "I would rather have you marry a man without money than money without a man."

Some one offered to teach Themistocles the art of memory, but he answered, "Ah, teach me rather the art of forgetting; for I often remember what I would not, and cannot forget what I would."

There are many more anecdotes related of this great general, but we have quoted enough to show that his ready wit equalled his military skill.

Having secured Athens from all danger of an immediate attack, Themistocles next devoted himself to rebuilding and fortifying it. He did the same to the harbor of Piræus, which provided sea-coast accommodations for the city. Then he had another scheme, which shows the immoral side of his character. He alluded to it before a large assembly of the citizens, but said at the same time that he could not explain it in detail before so many people. "Then communicate it to Aristides alone," they said; "and if he approve, we agree to carry it into execution." This is a proof of the confidence still reposed in Aristides, in spite of the injustice and ingratitude that had been shown him. Themistocles took him aside and told him that what he wished was to destroy the whole Greek fleet that had gone into harbor for the winter, his object being to make the Athenians stronger on the sea than their neighbors. Aristides was shocked at such a shameful proposition, and told his fellow-citizens "that the enterprise which Themistocles had in view would indeed be advantageous, but most dishonorable." The Athenians then ordered it to be abandoned at once.

After that Themistocles was guilty of accepting bribes and of resorting to other dishonorable deeds, which made him so unpopular that he was publicly reprimanded; thereupon he haughtily reminded the citizens of the numerous services he had performed in the interest of his country, and of the gratitude due him. At length his pride and vanity became unbearable, and he was banished by ostracism.

He proceeded to Argos, and shortly after his arrival there certain papers found among the effects of one Pausanias, who had been put to death for the crime of treason, cast suspicion upon the banished general. He was accused, and his enemies were so eager for his punishment that they refused to listen to the defence which he made by letter, and despatched officers to fetch him back to Athens to stand a trial. But he had been warned in time to make his escape, and, after wandering about under an assumed name in disguise, he at last reached Persia in safety.

By that time Xerxes was dead, and his son Artaxerxes had succeeded him on the throne. Themistocles first sought an interview with Artabanus, a military officer high in command, to whom he said, "I am a Greek, and have travelled a great distance on purpose to speak with your king about matters of the greatest importance to Persia." The officer replied that if he was willing to conform to the customs of the country, and to prostrate himself before the king, he might be permitted to see him and speak to him. Themistocles promised to do so. "But," returned Artabanus, "who shall we say you are?" "Nobody must know that before the king himself," answered Themistocles. Thereupon he was introduced to the royal presence, and upon being questioned, answered through an interpreter in the following contemptible manner: "The man who now stands before you, O king, is Themistocles, the Athenian, an exile, persecuted by the Greeks. The Persians have suffered much by me, but it must not be forgotten that after I had saved my own country I did them a service. I come to you now prepared to receive your favor and to offer my submission. Believe what my enemies have said of the services I have done the Persians, and make use of the opportunity my misfortunes afford you to show your generosity rather than to satisfy your revenge. If you save me, you save your suppliant; if you kill me, you destroy the enemy of Greece."

The king made no answer, but he congratulated himself upon his good fortune, and prayed secretly that the gods might always influence his enemies thus to drive off their ablest men. In his sleep that night he was heard to exclaim three times, as in an ecstasy of delight, "Themistocles, the Athenian, is mine!"

The next day the exile was ordered to appear before the king and his council. After graciously saluting him, Artaxerxes spoke thus: "I owe you two hundred talents, for that is the price I set upon your head, and, as you have delivered yourself up to me, it is but just that you should receive the reward. In addition I promise you my protection. Now speak freely, and let us hear what you have to propose with regard to Greece."

"A man's discourse is like a piece of tapestry, which when spread out displays figures that were concealed among its folds; therefore let me have time," returned the Athenian. This flowery, mysterious manner of expressing one's self was customary among Oriental nations, and the king was so pleased with the bearing of Themistocles that, although he did not understand him, he granted him all the time he desired. Themistocles demanded a year, and during that period he studied the Persian language until he could converse without an interpreter. He won the king's favor besides, and became so popular at court that the nobility grew jealous of the favors that were shown him. The king took him hunting, talked with him freely, and introduced him to the queen-mother, who honored him with her confidence.

Once he was sent on business of importance to the sea-coast, and stopped at a city called Leontocephalus, or Lion's Head. The governor of Upper Phrygia hated him, and engaged some men to kill him; but he was saved in this way: he was taking a nap one afternoon, when the mother of the gods appeared to him in a dream and said, "Beware, Themistocles, of the Lion's Head, lest the lion crush you. For this warning I require your daughter for my servant."

Themistocles awoke in terror, devoutly returned thanks to the goddess, and left the place of danger. As he travelled on, one of his horses that carried his tent happened to fall into a river, and at night the servants spread out the wet hangings to dry. The would-be assassins mistook these hangings in the moonlight for the tent of Themistocles, and advanced with drawn swords, expecting to kill their victim while he slept. But they were repulsed by his servants, who killed some and captured others. In honor of the goddess who had saved his life Themistocles built a temple at Magnesia, and appointed his daughter priestess of it. After that he behaved with great prudence, and lived for a long time at Magnesia in peace and security.

This was not to continue, however, for Egypt revolted, the Athenians took sides with her, and Cimon, the great general, was master of the seas. Then the King of Persia called on Themistocles to make good his promise and help him to oppose Greece. That he could not do, for he still loved his country too well to fight against her. He resolved, therefore, to put an end to his existence. Having offered sacrifices to the gods, he assembled his friends, bade them farewell, took a dose of poison, and expired almost immediately.

The people of Magnesia erected a handsome monument to his memory, and the king's admiration was excited to such a degree by the cause and manner of his death that special honors and privileges were granted to his descendants.