Themistocles: Everyone's second chance

July 31, 2020
Peter J. McDonnell, MD
Volume 45, Issue 12

Ancient election offers lesson to modern voters


Themistocles was
without doubt one of the most important and colorful figures of Classical Athens.

Born in 524 BCE, he became a leading statesman and general and his emphasis on making Athens into a naval power ensured Greece’s survival against the greatest threat it had ever faced: mighty Persia.

Previously by Dr. McDonnell: The value of a reputation: Mixing medicine, politics a bitter tool

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides states that “Themistocles was a man who exhibited the most indubitable signs of genius; indeed, in this particular he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled.”

He came from a middle class family and (like many geniuses) was apparently not considered to be a gifted student.

As an adult politician, he is credited with building the city of Piraeus into the largest naval base in the Greek world, and argued that a strong navy would one day be needed for defense.

In 490 BC, the Persian army, under Darius, invaded Greece. In the land battle of Marathon, the Greeks prevailed and Persians retreated to lick their wounds.

During the next ten years, Themistocles grew the Athenian fleet from 70 to 200 triremes.

With a triple bank of rowers, the trireme could ram opposing ships and the soldiers (hoplites) aboard would leap onto the enemy vessel and slay their opponents.

Related: Editorial: Impressive generals

A decade after his father failed to prevail at Marathon, Xerxes returned in 480 BC with his enormous army and navy, dwarfing the defensive forces of the Greeks.

The Greek fleet, composed of the independent fighting forces of the various city-states, needed an overall commander.

A naval historian friend tells me that an election was held to select the leader of the Greek armada, with each captain being given a vote for who should be the leader.

The vote was not helpful, as some 300 candidates each received a single vote when each and every captain voted for himself.

A second election was then held, and this time the question being voted upon was: “If it must be someone other than you, who would you want to lead the fleet?” This time there was a clear answer, with virtually every vote cast for Themistocles.

Themistocles did not disappoint.

Luring the large Persian vessels into a narrow strait, the smaller and more maneuverable Greek vessels picked off the invading ships one at a time, negating the Persian numerical advantage. The naval Battle of Salamis, still studied some 2500 years later, was a crushing defeat for the Persians.

Related: Editorial: Ars longa, vita brevis

Shortly thereafter the Greek land army prevailed against the invading ground forces, and Persia ceased to be a threat. Themistocles had bought Greece some 500 years of power, by which time the Romans would ascent to preeminence.

Themistocles was the man of the hour. Even the Spartans, traditional hated rivals of Athens, foisted honors upon him.

But Themistocles’ glory was short-lived.Only four years after his landmark victory, Themistocles was accused of being thirsty for power and riches and was exiled by his fellow Greeks. In a testament to what must have been his incredible political skills, Themistocles fled by merchant ship to—of all places—Persia, where he was welcomed by Ataxerxes I.

He spent the last decade of his life as governor of Magnesia, honored by the Persians whose navy he had destroyed, while simultaneously being declared a traitor and condemned to death in absentia by the Greeks whose country he had saved from the Persians!

Personally, I love the idea of an election in which all the candidates are forced to choose the person who—if it cannot be them—would be best qualified to lead.

Read more editorials by Dr. McDonnell

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