Table of contents

300: Rise of an Empire 4

Some notes on Themistokles

Plutarch says Themistokles was not high-born. To compensate for his low birth, which made his status as citizen seem unpromising, he provoked other youths, well-born youths, to wrestling matches. Wrestling was part of the Greek education. Thus, he would win what otherwise would not even be a contest. Might is right? Well, no. Getting people angry is convincing them to fight for what they think is theirs – they have already accepted, implicitly, that it can be attacked, that it must be defended – that it can be contested – though they do not know it, they are learning that what is their own, & by what right, is questionable.

Call this philosophy in reverse, or muscular philosophy. If you want to see just how far this questioning goes, even in haste, consider: Wrestling matches do produce incontestable winners & losers. Assumptions about nobility & social class do not – they aim to decide things in advance of any contest. The strength of the body is a matter of fact, people might say, but nobility a matter of opinion. Themistokles could rise because of the Athenian – the Greek – opinion: Striving – war – is noble.

Plutarch denies that Themistokles, like Perikles later, heard the philosopher Anaxagoras, whom we’ll call the father of Enlightenment – the first man to teach politicians that reducing every question to advantage or gain or what’s good for you is the key to success. Themistokles, however, is that much the natural politician, that even in his boyhood he practiced the political accusations & apologies where judgment about right & horse-sense are tested. Music he did not love.

It astounds us to think that Themistokles was a very greedy & petty man – after all, had he lived in our times, World War II would have been far easier to fight. He alone managed to deceive the Athenians, by sound reasoning & foresight, into preparing for war & alone he saved Athens.

Yes, Themistokles was Mr. Democrat. Why? Maybe he had no choice, maybe it suited his temper. He loved being honored & was always looking for ways to improve Athens, unencumbered by a sense of shame or a pious regard for justice. His great vulgarity alone might today earn him the title genius.

One way to see the greatness of the things Themistokles did is this, that the future was incredibly unpredictable after his rule, whereas he alone had seen that the victory at Marathon was the beginning of the war, not the end. Another way is this, Themistokles is a model for modern democratic politicians, because he saw great danger without fear & looked for solutions by his best judgment, not by what some prophet or scientist can be made to say.