America’s Founding Fathers admired a famous Greek named Themistocles. In fact, Thomas Jefferson compared John Adams to this Athenian statesman whose strategic vision (pronoia) helped Europeans turn back a massive invasion from Asia in the fifth century B.C. So to Themistocles’ gifts as a leader we now turn.
Some 2,500 years ago, a tyrant in the Middle East proclaimed that he would conquer Europe. Had Xerxes succeeded, the history of Western civilization would have been much different. It is unlikely the Greeks would have ever gone through a golden age to inspire later generations. Further, the West’s birth and development as a distinctive civilization might have been delayed several centuries. It surely would have taken a much different course.
The series of conflicts that decided Europe’s fate at this time is known as the Persian Wars. Like the Trojan War, these conflagrations revealed the clash of civilizations. On the one side was Xerxes, the king of the Persians who had forged an army out of the greatest empire the world had ever seen; the Persians were “ruling over many peoples and all of Asia.” On the other side were the Greeks, a hodgepodge of quarrelsome city-states scattered about the Aegean Sea and elsewhere, badly outnumbered by the Persians on land and at sea, but determined to preserve their freedom. By every measure, the Greeks faced daunting odds against Xerxes, whose expeditionary force was the largest in human history – perhaps larger than all previous invasion forces combined. The Greek historian Herodotus claims the Persian expeditionary force embarked with more than five million soldiers and camp followers, and upwards of one thousand ships. So many invaders, they drank rivers dry on their march to Greece. Moreover, Xerxes’ men had a fearsome reputation. The very mention of the name “Persian” caused fright in many a Greek.
To make matters worse, the Greeks were badly divided among themselves. Many of them believed that the Persian juggernaut was unbeatable. Certainly the oracles coming out of Delphi had been dispiriting. As the Persian juggernaut rolled into Greece, more than 200 Greek city-states either stayed neutral or went over to Xerxes’ side. (They “medized,” Herodotus says, referring to the fact that Xerxes was also king of the Medes.) Only 31 Greek city-states decided to stand up to the Persian king and fight to keep their independence. Let those odds sink in: just 31 Greek city-states would fight to preserve their freedom, despite staring into the maw of the greatest fighting machine the world had ever see, from an empire whose despotic king had intimidated some 200 Greek city-states into submission. In retrospect, no one could have blamed the Athenians, Spartans, and their allies had they sought terms or abandoned their homelands.
Yet the Greek freedom fighters did not abandon their homeland or the struggle for independence. One reason for their courage was their astonishing victory over the Persians ten years earlier on the field at Marathon; no one had expected the Athenians to win that battle – least of all the Athenians themselves. But now they had a spark of confidence.
Another source of encouragement was their leader – a Churchillian statesman named Themistocles. His vision (pronoia) enabled relatively modest Greek forces to slow down Xerxes and ultimately defeat the terrible Persian juggernaut.
Themistocles lived from about 524 to 459 B.C. He had fought against the Persians when Darius led the first invasion Greece in 490 B.C. Themistocles was in his mid thirties. He had risen in leadership when Xerxes launched the second invasion in 480 B.C. Themistocles, now in his mid forties, became the leading statesman in Athens and played such an important role in defeating Xerxes that he has been called “the guiding spirit of Greek resistance to Persia.” The historian Thucydides believed he was one of Greece’s greatest statesmen ever. He cited Themistocles’ prodigious gifts of leadership, which included imagination, prudence, decisiveness, and persuasion.
To contemporaries, Themistocles was an unlikely hero. The historian Herodotus did not particularly like him, and he was not especially well born. But what he lacked in pedigree he made up in imagination. Indeed, it was Themistocles’s vision – his foresight and ability to see possibilities that others could not – that became the Greeks’ most powerful weapon against the Persians.
Like most leaders in the ancient world, Themistocles subscribed to the “great man” view of history. He believed one determined individual could make a difference in the fate of a nation – and he believed he was that individual, called upon to lead Athens through its greatest peril.
In the 480s Athens faced two threats. The lesser came from the nettlesome city-state of Aegina; the greater came from the mighty kingdom of Persia. When a rich vein of silver was discovered in Mount Laurium near Athens, many in the city thought that the silver should be distributed to its citizens as a windfall. But Themistocles saw the threats on the horizon and argued that it would be imprudent to disperse the public treasury in personal enrichment. To paraphrase Ralph Hauenstein, Themistocles could “see what was required.” What was required was a strong navy to defend their city-state. Indeed, Athens should become the greatest naval power the world has ever seen, for her security and destiny lay at sea.
Some aristocrats snickered at Themistocles and wondered if he was paranoid; others thought he was acting too big for his britches. “It is true,” Themistocles told them. “I cannot play a lyre or tune a harp, but I know how to make a small city great.” Themistocles’ words hit home; his great ability as an orator carried the day. Athens used the newly discovered silver at Laurium to double the size of her navy from 100 to 200 warships to defend against invasion. Called triremes, these warships were the most advanced weapon of the day, manned by some 200 citizen-rowers, -marines, -musicians, and -officers.
Themistocles also had the foresight to build up naval bases at the nearby port at Piraeus, and to construct a military highway – Athens’ version of an ancient Interstate highway – to connect the great city to her naval bases some twelve miles away.
Not long after, when word reached Greece that Xerxes was planning an invasion of Europe, emissaries from the various city-states met to decide whether to resist the Persians. Themistocles insisted that they could and must. Greece would never be great under Xerxes’ foot.
His confidence must have seemed misplaced to many who wondered how the underdog Greeks could successfully resist the greatest expeditionary force in history. But Themistocles knew that two of the chief rules of war involved timing and geography: pick your time and place to fight, and join the battle on terrain favorable to you. The enemy’s advantage of having a larger army and navy could be neutralized if squeezed into a bottleneck. In a narrow corridor, the Persians’ greater numbers would be to no advantage. So the Greeks decided to confront Xerxes on land at a pass called Thermopylae – at its narrowest, wide enough only for a single cart – and at sea in a narrow waterway called Artemisium Channel. Some 20-25 miles separated these land and sea bottlenecks. The proximity of the two defensive positions would allow the Greek army and navy to stay in close contact with each other. With a little luck, holding the Thermopylae-Artemisium line would allow the Greeks to delay and decimate a vastly superior Persian force. At the very least, the enemy’s supply lines would be disrupted. The hope was that Xerxes would grow discouraged and return to Asia.
At first the Greek strategy worked. When battle was joined, Greek hoplites gave far better than they got and killed multitudes of Persians. Xerxes was angered and vexed. His best troops were of no use in such a narrow pass. It was only because of treachery (by the Greek traitor Ephialtes) and cowardice (by unreliable Theban and Phocian allies) that the Greek plan broke down. When Xerxes learned of a mountain pass around Thermopylae that could be used to outflank the defenders, he was able to deploy enough soldiers to attack the rear of the Greek defense. Xerxes’s crack troops met fierce resistance. Herodotus describes in a chilling passage how the battle unfolded. The Spartans fought first with their spears, then with their swords, then with their knives, then with their hands, and finally with their teeth. Alas, slowly, inexorably, the Persians overcame the brave citizen soldiers whom history memorializes as the Spartan 300.
Less well remembered is what was happening some 20-25 miles away at sea. At the same time the Spartans were holding Thermopylae, the Greek navy was attacking Persian ships in nearby Artemisium Channel. Few people nowadays realize that the Greeks bested the enemy in the naval skirmishes.
Be that as it may, Thermopylae was a dispiriting defeat for the Greeks. Athenians knew that once Xerxes made it through the pass, there was nothing to stop the Persian juggernaut from reaching their city and destroying it. What to do? Once again, Themistocles had seen what was required and had thoroughly prepared Athenians for a fallback position.
Some months before Thermopylae-Artemisium, when news of Xerxes’ invasion spread, the Athenians had sent envoys to consult the oracle of Delphi. The prophetess at Delphi – intoxicated by ethylene vapors rising out of the geologic fault beneath the temple – delivered ominous news. At first she darkly warned that all was lost; Athenians should flee their doomed city if they valued their lives; even Zeus could not save Athens. But then she cryptically prophesied that a “wooden wall” would be Athens’ salvation.
When the envoys returned to Athens with the mysterious allusion to a “wooden wall,” a debate broke out in the Assembly over how to interpret its meaning. Most citizens assumed that the “wooden wall” was a palisade around the ancient Acropolis. But Themistocles had the imagination to see the oracle differently. To him, the “wooden wall” was not the palisade, but the hulls, oars, and masts of the Athenian navy.
It was a risky strategy. But in an impassioned speech that historians have likened to Churchill’s addresses to the British during the darkest days of the Second World War, Themistocles proposed to the Athenians what they should do if the line at Thermopylae-Artemisium failed: abandon their city, remove to an island called Salamis, and assemble their navy in the nearby waters. There Athens – and Greece – would make their final stand.
In a bravura rhetorical performance, Themistocles carried the day. The people of Athens voted to support his high-risk strategy. He then had to convince the allies to support his plan history knows as the Themistocles Decree. Sparta and the others balked. Wouldn’t it make more sense to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, the gateway to southern Greece? Themistocles thought that idea was foolhardy. The Persians, he argued, would simply sail around the defenses at Corinth and attack wherever they pleased. Themistocles, summoning all his persuasive powers to get Sparta and the other city-states to adopt his plan, got the Greeks to unify for once.
It was fortuitous that they did. In the days following the collapse of the Thermopylae-Artemisium line, the well-prepared Greeks put their plan into action. On a late summer day in 480 B.C., the unified Greek navy met the Persian navy in the waters off Salamis and routed the invader. After the Battle of Salamis, Xerxes’ navy was no longer an offensive weapon. His supply lines were severely disrupted. And the Greeks suddenly held the strategic advantage – just as Themistocles had foreseen.
Do you see what Themistocles had managed to do? Using all his skills as an orator, and all his wiles as a strategist, he maneuvered both the Spartans (his ally) and the Persians (his enemy) into fighting the Battle of Salamis. One year later, he did the same thing in a land battle, convincing the Spartans and others to fight the Persians at Plataea, a battle that ended the offensive capability of the Persians on European soil. It was Themistocles who chose the time and place of battle.
And what about that remark in which Themistocles said he knew how to make a small city great? The statesman knew that naval power was the key to Athens’ security. After repulsing the Persians, Greek warships turned the Aegean Sea into an Athenian lake. By dominating the Aegean, Athens not only became more secure militarily; she also protected important trade routes and grew vastly more wealthy. Recall how Themistocles had insisted on improving the port at Piraeus. His strategy paid handsome dividends. After their astounding victory in the Persian Wars, Athens became one of the most formidable economic powers on earth.
That she did not long keep her hegemony was not Themistocles’ fault. Democracy does not always appreciate her great leaders. Churchill, after leading the British to victory in World War II, was turned out of office by voters just two months after the war ended. Themistocles, after leading the Athenians to victory in the Persian Wars, was ostracized and then exiled by fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, Themistocles was one of the most consequential leaders a democracy has ever had. Again and again, he saw what was required to oppose the Persian juggernaut, keep his people free, and transform Athens into a great city-state. He led the Athenians by superior imagination, discernment, decisiveness, and persuasion.
Let’s unpack these four qualities. Themistocles could see what was coming (possessing pronoia, imagination, vision, foresight); knew what to do about it (using discernment, prudence, good judgment); could act quickly and boldly (with confidence, decisiveness); and convince others that he was right (by means of rhetoric, persuasion). These four cornerstones of Themistocles’ leadership so impressed the historian Thucydides that he called the Athenian leader the greatest statesman of his age. In fact, Thucydides penned a passage that has become a classic for leaders. The passage provides an excellent review of the timeless qualities of leadership. Words in CAPS are added by me.
- 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. By his own native capacity, which was neither shaped by education nor developed by later training [GREAT MAN THEORY],
- he was at once the best judge in those sudden crises which admit of little or of no deliberation [DISCERNMENT, PRUDENCE, GOOD JUDGMENT],
- and the best prophet of the future, even to its most distant possibilities [PRONOIA, IMAGINATION, VISION, FORESIGHT].
- An able theoretical expositor of all that came within the sphere of his practice [RHETORICAL SKILL, PERSUASION],
- he was not without the power of passing an adequate judgment in matters in which he had no experience [DISCERNMENT, PRUDENCE, GOOD JUDGMENT].
- He could also excellently divine the good and evil which lay hidden in the unseen future [PRONOIA, IMAGINATION, VISION, FORESIGHT].
- To sum up, whether we consider the extent of his natural powers, or the slightness of his application, this extraordinary man must be allowed to have surpassed all others [GREAT MAN THEORY]
- in the faculty of intuitively meeting [DISCERNMENT, PRUDENCE, GOOD JUDGMENT]
- an emergency [REQUIRING CONFIDENCE, BOLD ACTION, DECISIVENESS].
Themistocles provides a model of a great democratic statesman. Americans admired him for saving the West. He kept Europe from being conquered by Asians, and he saved Athens so it could develop into a distinct crucible of civilization. No wonder Thomas Jefferson compared John Adams to Themistocles when our second president advocated building up a strong navy to defend the U.S. against the great European powers that threatened the young republic.
 The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 7:8, pp. 496-97.
 The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 9:122, p. 722.
 According to Herodotus, the Persian expeditionary force grew to 5.3 million fighting men and camp followers, as well as to more than 4,200 boats and ships, by the time it reached Thermopylae-Artemisium. The numbers are outlandish. For a realistic appraisal of the Persian army, see Michael A. Flower, “The Size of Xerxes’ Expeditionary Force,” Appendix R, in The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), pp. 819-23.
 Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7:43, p. 423.
 The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, ed. Paul Cartledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 365.
 Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2002), course guidebook, pp. 117-18.
 “Themistocles,” in Plutarch’s Lives, ed. Arthur Hugh Clough, trans. John Dryden (New York: Modern Library, 2001), vol. 1, p. 146.
 John R. Hale, “The Greek and Persian Wars” (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2008), lecture 7, track ?
 Elizabeth Vandiver, Herodotus: The Father of History (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2002), course guidebook, p. 103.
 Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7:225, p. 483.
 There were actually about 1,900 Greek defenders who made the last stand at Thermopylae.
 Hale, lecture 9, on Cimon/Themistocles
 Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 1, chap.. 138, trans. Richard Crawley, in The Landmark Thucydides, ed. Robert B. Strassler, Introduction by Victor Davis Hanson (New York: Free Press, 1996), p. 79.