Themistocles, one of the greatest politicians of the ancient world (if not of all time) found himself on an island once, surrounded by men with cities to defend. These men, with Athens burning only a few miles from them across the narrow gap of Salamis and also with their own navies at stake as they feared Persian retaliation, threatened to leave the alliance after the sack of Athens. A Corinthian had put down the Athenian statesman because he was now a man without a city and without land, unworthy of calling himself a free Greek. The Spartan commander, in disdain, proposed that Corinth and Sparta should defend the Isthmus of Corinth and forget Attica altogether. According to Plutarch (Them 11.4) Themistocles replied:
ὦ μοχθηρέ, τὰς μὲν οἰκίας καὶ τὰ τείχη καταλελοίπαμεν, οὐκ ἀξιοῦντες ἀψύχων ἕνεκα δουλεύειν, πόλις δ᾽ ἡμῖν ἔστι μεγίστη τῶν Ἑλληνίδων, αἱ διακόσιαι τριήρεις, αἳ νῦν μὲν ὑμῖν παρεστᾶσι βοηθοὶ σώζεσθαι δι᾽ αὐτῶν βουλομένοις, εἰ δ᾽ ἄπιτε δεύτερον ἡμᾶς προδόντες, αὐτίκα πεύσεταί τις Ἑλλήνων Ἀθηναίους καὶ πόλιν ἐλευθέραν καὶ χώραν οὐ χείρονα κεκτημένους ἧς ἀπέβαλον.
Ō wretch, indeed, we have come down and left behind us our houses and our city walls, not deeming it worthy for the sake of such lifeless things to be enslaved; but we still have a city, the greatest in Hellas, our two hundred triremes, which now stand ready to be made assistants to you on account of your own prerogative; but if you go off and betray us for the second time, straightway many Hellenes will learn that the Athenians have won for themselves a free city and a territory that is far better than the one they cast aside.
Herodotus (61.2) reported that Themistocles threatened the Corinthians with invasion; the Spartans, as we see above, with abandonment. I have always been curious though, as to the manner of Themistocles’ speech, here. It is a reminder, not an insult, that first escapes the mouth of Themistocles. The vocative form of μοχθηρέ indicates both the addressing of the man directly, and his plight for aid. One who is in such plight, especially when needing aid from the ones he is insulting, should not be the one barking orders. You need us, says Themistocles with his very first words. Further, he also states that the Athenians, who have lost everything, are not the buildings they lost nor the riches contained there in. Athens is its people. A people that would not become enslaved by virtue of their possessions, as the Corinthians and Spartans would if they resorted to defending their homes. I love the use of καταλελοίπαμεν, because the preposition κατα is attached to the verb. Literally meaning ‘down’ attached to ‘leaving behind’ it represents the fall of Athens, the descent of its citizens to the lower levels of the sea, the very journey the body of Athens has made, and the very pain they are experiencing. They have not only left the city behind, they had to descend from the very symbols of its power located in the heavenly acropolis to the lowest pits of hell. Low had they fallen indeed, the Athenians, in their descent.
The word Themistocles (or Plutarch) uses for ‘lifeless things’ is ἀψύχων, literally meaning ‘without breath,’ and which by that time meant the soul. He demonstrates, with that usage, that it was worth more to save the souls of the Athenians than the things which they treasured. Again, because the citizens were the city, not the other way around. It may seem natural to us to say, ‘ya, citizens are the state;’ but to the Corinthians and the Spartans the state represented its citizens. It is a show of democratic thought seldom understood by Sparta and Corinth, that individual citizens mattered. In Sparta, the citizen gave it all for the state, it was merely a moving part in a grand clock; to Athens, the citizen was everything; the citizen was the god of the city-state. Thus, Themistocles asserts, Athens was alive and well, still the greatest of Hellas, for it lived contained within the 200 triremes of the Athenians. It was not a bold claim to make, not even a controversial one, that without Athens the allied forces had no navy to speak of.
The touch of the master came when Themistocles said Greece would learn, should Athens be betrayed again, of the greatness of the land represented by the 200 triremes and the souls of the people that had been saved. Corinth was flat-out threatened with destruction, Sparta with separation. Both the Corinthian and the Spartan leader backed down and decided, there and then, that it was best to have Athens as an ally and to recover its lands than have it run, amok, in the Peloponnese and eventually to southern Italy. I can still, even now, picture the hand gestures of the Athenian general; his pointing at the Corinthian, his description of the way down from Athens and the glory that it was. I can hear his belief in Democracy, the power of the people, and the breathing-individuals that composed it. I smile when I think of the Corinthian and Spartan commanders looking at each other and realizing, in the end, that they had no power over a man, and a people, that had lost every thing, but saved every one. I’d like to think it went something like this…
It is no wonder that in the next Olympic games where all of Greece gathered to honor Zeus, as bored spectators waited for the games to start they arose as they heard the sound of roaring applause; they saw Themistocles, walking into the stadium, and they too begun to applaud and cheer for the man who had not only recovered Athens, but also saved all of Greece by virtue of his intelligence and defiance.
Themistocles is the great forgotten hero of the Greco-Persian Wars, and the true savior of democratic thought.