Updated: Sep 5, 2019
This is part 2 of a series introducing poetry to those who have had bad experiences reading poems.
The man who was the greatest purveyor of Western Civilization died as a trophy to his lifelong enemy. He was exiled from his home—a home he not only saved but also built and rebuilt. He had been charged with treason, so that his bones could not even be immured in the dirt of his homeland.
“I cannot tune a harp or play a lyre, but I know how to make a small city great.”
It would be years after his death that the great ancient Greek historian, Thucydides would remind his fellow Greeks that “it was he who first ventured to tell the Athenians that their future was on the sea. Thus he at once began to join in laying the foundations of their empire.” And it was this single man’s vision, and his ability to Carry On in the face of definite defeat which paved the way for all the glory of Athens: The Parthenon and the progression of architecture; Plato’s Academy and the progression of thought; the immortal tragedies and the progressions of art; the experiment in democracy and the progression of politics.
The man was Themistocles. He was a Greek born around 440 BC to a middle class father and a foreign mother. But through force of will, and an unwavering allegiance to his Life’s mission, he had taken a small Greek City and turned it into a great one.
After his accomplishments, when the Athenians thought him inconvenient, he was forced to flee. He must have felt a terrible irony, when, like Dr. Frankenstein being chased by his own creation, Themistocles was chased by the warships he had brought into existence. It is a safe bet that as the Persian ship he stood upon cut through the waters, the words sluicing through his mind were the words of warning from his father years earlier: “Look!” His father had said while pointing to the abandoned and busted ships lying on the beach, “See how people cast off their leaders when they have no more use for them.”
But it was not in Themistocles’ DNA to give in, not the man who overcame the seemingly impossible burden of being born to a lower class citizen and a foreign mother, and his rising to the top leadership position in his city. Themistocles had a vision and he stuck to it till his last days; he had followed the edict from the temple of Delphi, "Know Thyself" when he said “I cannot tune a harp or play a lyre, but I know how to make a small city great.”
And he did. Though it happened not by chance or luck, not because anyone believed in him, not even by the help of the Gods, or the ease of the times, but by his ability to Carry On despite everything being against him.
HIs goal was to turn the small city into a great naval empire. Before Themistocles, Athens had very few ships and insufficient naval defenses. In the first attack by the Persians in 490 BC The Athenians relied almost exclusively on land fighting. If not for strong winds that destroyed hundreds of Persians ships, Athens likely would have lost the war.
With the fervor of hated against Persia at an all time high within Athens, Themistocles convinced the Athenian assembly to construct enormous walls from the nearby natural port, Piraeus, to the city gates—but then after several years of freedom from Persian attack, along with the rising costs for construction, this wall was abandoned. Ten years later, Themistocles, still convinced Persia would return, had another chance to further his city along toward the goal of his vision.
However, The Athenians were beginning to tire of Themistocles and his cry that the Persian Wolf would return, so when the city-owned silver mine revealed a vast subterranean deposit of silver ore, Themistocles seized the moment. Every one of the Athenian citizens came to the assembly. They were prepared for their allotment of the silver. Each man would receive a portion of silver. Themistocles had to convince them to use the money to build 200 warships, and thus in one strike they would have the mightiest navy in Greece. But could he convince them to see further than their own pockets?
He could not tell them to take this bold action in preparation for a Persian invasion, so he pointed to another Greek city, one that rivaled them for commercial supremacy, and he convinced them to build the fleet for that reason.
It could not have occurred at a more opportune moment, for shortly after these warships were built, King Xerxes of Persia began his invasion of the Greek homeland.
During the strategic planning the allied Greeks received an oracle informing the Athenians that they must trust to the “wooden walls.” The elders were convinced that this meant the thorny bushes surrounding one of their religious temples. Despite all opposition, Themistocles fought to convince them that the wooden walls meant the newly built wooden ships, and that to trust them meant to abandon Athens for the time being and fight the Persian armada away from their homeland.
Themistocles tricked them. He had ulterior motives. He desired a showdown against Xerxes in the straits of Salamis—a narrow channel of water between the island of salamis and the coast of Athens. Once again no one supported his vision. One allied commander, a Spartan, even struck him in the face. Saying that he was a man without honor, a man without a country. This was true; Athens had recently been burned down by King of Kings Xerxes. Intransigent, Themistocles stood his ground, stating that so long as Athens had their navy, they had the greatest city on earth, and that if the allies did not stay and fight he would take his fleet and find Athens a new home.
The allies capitulated.
After fighting his countrymen in order to build a navy, and his allies in order to use it, he now had to face the greatest threat of all: A Persian navy that outnumbered the Greeks three to one.
Themistocles did not surrender or even flinch. He believed in the superiority of Greek rowers. He believed in his vision. As was his way he would:
fight the good fight and true/ believe in your mission, greet life with a cheer / there’s big work to do and that’s why you’re here.
All his plans hinged on the Persians pursuing the Greeks into the narrow channel. But they had no need to do this, since they could merely await them on open waters and use their superior numbers to their advantage. In typical Greek fashion, Themistocles devised his “Trojan Horse,” to win the war; the “Siccinus Affair.”
He sent the tutor of his children, Siccinus, to Xerxes with a message. The tutor told the Great King that the Athenians were prepared to abandon the Greek Allies and surrender to Xerxes, because the allies were preparing to betray Athens. If Xerxes desired to win the war here and now, he should come destroy the allies while they were all positioned in one location.
And so Xerxes did.
The battle of Salamis was the greatest victory for the Greeks. But nothing would ever be over for Themistocles. Though he was now finally being celebrated as a hero, he knew there was more work to be done. Athens was in ruins. With the vision of Themistocles and his ability to Carry on even when defeat seems guaranteed, he rallied his countrymen to build the walls from the Pirareus, erect new shrines to the Gods of the Sea, commit to building twenty new warships a year and provide incentives to attract skilled craftsman to their city from all over the known world.