Needless to say Themistocles enjoyed a brief post-war period of adoration and respect from his fellow citizens. He directed the reconstruction of the city and continued his shipbuilding program with the aim of making Athens the preeminent naval power in Greece. But the mob can be fickle. For reasons too involved to be examined in this series, the great statesman-admiral, despite being the savior of Athens, would eventually fall from favor among the very people who once followed him into battle. His power and prestige created jealous enemies, and his own arrogance given what he’d accomplished would be his undoing. As is the rudderless nature of pure democracy, the popular winds blew this way and that, and in 471 BC Themistocles was ostracized from the city that owed him its very existence.
**[Author’s Note: The distrust of what they saw as the incendiary, emotional, and transitory nature of Athenian mob rule led our own Framers to opt for a more deliberate, representative government rather than one man-one vote.]**
With false charges of treason following him—initiated by the Spartans who feared the growing Athenian might at Themistocles’ direction—he eventually fled Greece and sailed across the Aegean to Asia Minor. He presented himself as a servant and counsel to the Persian King Artaxerxes…the third son of the very king of kings he’d been so instrumental in defeating in the land that had now forsaken him. Plutarch tells us that Artaxerxes was elated that so esteemed a foe “who did your house more harm than any of the Hellenes” had come into his service. Themistocles died in 459 BC at age 65, either through natural causes or suicide. We may never know how the story of this great son of Athens truly came to an end.
But this was hardly the end of the Athenian story…
A Golden Age Under Pericles Begins
What did the violence and bloodshed and destruction from the Fiery Gates to the Bay of Salamis all mean? And how is this story of incredible Greek resistance against overwhelming odds from 490 to 479 BC relevant to us today?
With the driving away of the foreign invaders, and the subsequent rebuilding of Athens, a Golden Age of Greek philosophy, art, politics, and science flourished. Having participated in the defeat of Persia, the non-hoplite citizenry, the common men who labored in the sweaty and dank holds of the victorious triremes, demanded a voice in the rising democracy. With Themistocles gone, it was in the aristocrat Pericles that the common people of Athens paradoxically found their champion. From 461 to 431 BC Pericles, who rose to be the populist leader of Athens after much political intrigue, labored to replenish the coffers and commence a building and arts program that would see the city rise to the height of its imperial glory. His crowning achievement would be the massive public works endeavor to build upon the Acropolis, which had stood in ruins for two decades as a monument to the fallen of the Persian War. It would become the epicenter of the Greek world; its signature edifice, the great Parthenon, temple to the goddess Athena, the patron of the vibrant city, was the embodiment of Athenian ascendency.
“Our whole city is an education. For our citizens excel all men in versatility, resourcefulness, and brilliance,” declared Pericles. He and those in his circle and the decades following were to become one of the most famous and influential groups in Western history. A group that included the great philosophers Socrates, Plato and his student Aristotle, the poets and playwrights Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, the sculptor Phidias and others. Their philosophical, scientific, and artistic achievements would transcend the ages and weave their way through the politics and culture of the modern West and its belief in the rational world and natural law that would give us the foundations of Jeffersonian democracy we enjoy today. We in the West are the heirs and stewards of this great age of Greek enlightenment. And this Golden Age, the benefits of which we enjoy to this day, was only possible because in the pass at Thermopylae and waters of Artemisium, in the straits of Salamis, and on the plain of Platea, fierce Greek warriors stood their ground and beat back the eastern horde that promised only tyranny and subjugation.
Sadly, fifty years after Salamis, the very same allies who worked together to defeat the foreign invaders, Sparta and Athens, turned on each other once again and plunged Greece into a war that would devolve into episodes of brutality and violence, as so many civil wars do, that were difficult to comprehend. It was, as the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides called it, “a war like no other.” Athens would suffer a cruel plague in 431 BC that wiped out half those who crowded behind its walls to escape marauding Spartans out in the fields of Attica (Pericles was among its fatalities). In the next thirty years of brutal stalemate – with Sparta unable to beat the Athenian navy and Athens unable to overcome the Spartan army – the jewel of the Greek city-states would see its treasure and human capital squandered in what would be known as the Peloponnesian War. In the end, in 404 BC the growing Spartan navy, funded with Persian gold, prevailed and the victorious Lacedaemonians would lay a heavy hand on the conquered city. Although by 395 BC Athens would fully recover and, with the help of the Persians who’d grown distrustful of the Spartans, be free and democratic again, the celebrated Golden Age was over.
The Spartan conquest of Athens is an appropriate denouement with which to end this tale. That the Athenian Golden Age did not last is a testament not just to the brutality of man when the veneer of civilization is peeled away, but to the fragility of all nation-states, no matter how grand. Ours is no exception. But our own history since the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776 to declare our independence, and then another group of enlightened thinkers convened 11 years later to form a working government, is proof that Athenian ideals, protected by rough men in hoplite bronze, live on in the modern West. Ideals that have allowed us to reach new heights of discovery, prosperity, and peaceful co-existence undreamt of in the time of Themistocles and Pericles…if properly nurtured. But, as Ben Shapiro warns us, we can very easily squander it all away. “The college students who fulminate against [Classical Studies] are undercutting the very foundations upon which they stand. They’re ignoring reason, science, and democracy…There is no question that without Athens the West simply would not exist as it is, and that the world would suffer greatly for that fact.” It is said that history may not actually repeat itself, but it certainly can rhyme. If anything, the rise and fall of Athens in two generations should be a potent reminder of what could happen here should we forget ourselves, and those whose legacy we have, so far, faithfully honored.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: