No one will any longer read it, but it is the best story by the world’s greatest story teller. It is The Histories by Herodotus. I mention it only because it is discussed here in War for the West, written by possibly my favourite living essayist, Joseph Epstein. The subheading for the article is, “What if the Persians had defeated the Greeks?” Just a bit of the article to give you a taste, and what I have found wonderous was that not all that long ago, the mayor of Athens was someone named Themistocles.
One cannot award so grand a victory to any single city-state or heroic figure, yet without the Athenians and Themistocles Greece would doubtless have fallen to Xerxes. Thermopylae apart, during the Persian war the Spartans, in Peter Green’s words, showed “over-cautious conservatism, slowness to move in a crisis.” In the war itself no city-state paid a higher price than the Athenians, having their city occupied and destroyed and all of surrounding Attica devastated by Persian troops. The Persian invasion goaded Athens, abetted through the suasion of Themistocles, to convert from a standard hoplite infantry to a naval power. When the Athenian silver mines at Laurium struck a rich vein, Themistocles convinced the assembly at Athens that the profits from the mines, rather than be divided among the populace, be used to build the Athenian fleet up from 70 to 200 triremes. He had also convinced them to build up the fortifications round the harbor at Piraeus, which would house these ships.
A tougher sale came later when Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to desert their city before the onslaught of the Persians and board their new fleet, with older men and women and children and their valuables sent off to safety at Aegina, Salamis, and Troezen. The winning strategy at Salamis, that of drawing the Persian ships into the narrow straits where the Greek triremes awaited, was also devised by Themistocles, and the Greek victory at Salamis is surely among the most significant battles in all history. Perhaps most impressive of all, Themistocles was able to convince the various Greek city-states to set aside their rivalries and join together, if only temporarily, to fight the barbarian foe. As Plutarch writes, Themistocles “put an end to all the civil wars of Greece, composed their differences, and persuaded them to lay aside all enmity during the war with the Persians.”
What makes Themistocles of special interest is that he wasn’t, like Pericles or Marcus Aurelius, a man of sterling character. He was closer to a Chicago politician, an operator, a main chancer, not above accepting bribes nor bribing others. No one was more adroit than he at manipulating the new Athenian democracy, perhaps because no one more embodied it in his person than he. “Themistocles,” wrote the classicist Maurice Bowra, “was the personification of the vigorous Athenian spirit.” In the language of the current day, Tom Holland notes that “he could infight, he could network, he could spin.” Herodotus does not pass up an opportunity to emphasize Themistocles’ wiliness. But Themistocles was ultimately wily for the public good. “I cannot tune a harp,” Themistocles said, “but I know how to take a modest city in hand and raise it to greatness.” Which is precisely what he did.
What happened after that you will need to read Epstein’s article to find out, or perhaps better, to read Herodotus’s Histories for yourself.
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