Plutarch's Greeks and Romans Podcast

Episode 7: The Lives of Themistocles and Aristides Part 1

March 25, 2021 Plutarch902 Season 1 Episode 7
Episode 7: The Lives of Themistocles and Aristides Part 1
Plutarch's Greeks and Romans Podcast
More Info
Plutarch's Greeks and Romans Podcast
Episode 7: The Lives of Themistocles and Aristides Part 1
Mar 25, 2021 Season 1 Episode 7

Aristides and Themistocles came of age as tyranny in Athens was coming to an end and the world's first democracy was being established! It was a brave new world and would require brave new leaders.

Support the Show.

Plutarch's Greeks and Romans Podcast +
Get a shoutout in an upcoming episode!
Starting at $3/month
Show Notes Transcript

Aristides and Themistocles came of age as tyranny in Athens was coming to an end and the world's first democracy was being established! It was a brave new world and would require brave new leaders.

Support the Show.

Ryan:  So, Chris I guess we should begin today with a quick programming note on the next two episodes.  Thus far in our review of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans we have been alternating back and forth between Ancient Greece and Rome from one episode to the next, taking on one biography at a time.  However, for the next two episodes I feel we need to do something a little different.


Chris:   Right, so you have been telling me that with Themistocles and Artistides their lives are so entwined with each other, and with the bigger picture of Greek history, that their stories should really be told together.


Ryan:  Exactly, so even though Plutarch separated the two into individual Lives, I am going to mesh them together and try to give a larger perspective of Greek history during their lifetimes.


Chris:  Well, we said from the beginning that we were not going to stick with the exact same format as Plutarch.  So, I am interested in hearing you tell the story of these two characters in your own way.  Where do we start?


Ryan:  Well, we'll start with catching up on where things stand in Athens.  Oh, and before we get into it, we're covering a pretty wide geographic area in the next couple of episodes so if you are someone who likes to be able to visualize where the places, we are talking about are located in relation to one another

Anyway, so Athens - if you recall, at the end of the Life of Solon a tyrant by the name of Peisistratus was in control of Athens.  Peisistratus had allowed Solon's wise laws to remain in place, but he made sure to pack his supporters into the top offices, such as the annual office of Archon.  

When he died Peisistratus was able to pass on power to his sons Hipparchus and Hippias, but the tyranny fell apart during their reign of power.  The ancient Athenians liked to give credit for ending the tyranny to two heroic lovers named Harmodius and Aristogeiton who became known as the 'tyrannicides'.  There is a lot of propaganda at work there however:  for one they only killed one of Peisistratus' son's - Hipparchus - and his brother Hippias responded to this murder by turning the tyranny, which as we have discussed was a relatively moderate tyranny, into a more repressive regime.  It would take the eventual intervention of the Spartans to force Hippias out of Athens to put an end to the tyranny.  

And besides the fact that it did not end the tyranny - it also seems that Harmodius and Aristogeiton's murder of Hipparchus was not even politically motivated by a desire for freedom, but rather was sparked by a personal grudge.  The tyrant Hipparchus had apparently made romantic advances toward Harmodius and had been rejected and so he arranged to have Harmodius' family shamed.

As the story goes Hipparchus invited Harmodius' younger sister to carry the ceremonial offering basket in the Panathaneia festival but then when she arrived to take up the basket she was publicly rejected as unfit for the duty (which was only to be performed by virgins).  This had the effect of publicly shaming Harmodius family - and this is apparently what prompted Harmodius and his lover Aristogeiton to attack the two brother tyrants, killing Hipparchus.


Chris: So, it appears that these heroic lovers perhaps were not acting out of love for freedom or Athens, rather to avenge hurt egos, leaving it to the Spartans to truly end the tyranny.


Ryan:  After the end of the tyranny, Athens fell into factionalism, or what the Greeks call statis, civil strife.  On the one side you had a man named Isagoras who had gathered the support of the aristocrats, and who had the backing of the Spartans.  Facing Isagoras on the other side was his increasingly isolated rival Cleisthenes.  Whether it was out of a simple desire to win out and gain power for himself, or out of a genuine desire to empower regular Athenians, Cleisthenes turned for support to the common people - what his fellow aristocrats would consider the mob really.

His gambit succeeded and the Spartans were forced out by a popular uprising, with Cleisthenes quickly introducing a suite of democratic reforms, creating the world's 1st democracy in 508 BC.  

He divided the Athenians up into ten new tribes to replace the previous ones.  Each of the ten tribes had to contribute one hoplite regiment to the army and elected one general.  Each of the ten tribes also contributed 50 men to a new Council of 500.  This council would set the agenda for debate in the Ecclesia, the Assembly of all Athenian citizens (citizens being adult males, not included women or slaves, or foreigners residing in Athens).  The Council of 500 would send proposals to the Assembly to be debated and then either approved or rejected by a show of hands.  And any Athenian citizen could propose a law by writing their proposal on a tablet which they would place in the Agora at the Monument of Eponymous Heroes.  A commission from the Council of 500 would meet each month to review these proposals and select which of them to send to the Assembly for debate.

We will get into some real examples of how Athenian democracy operated in later episodes but for now I think it is important to note that Athens was a participatory democracy as opposed to our modern representative democracies.  So, unlike today where we vote perhaps once every four years to elect a representative to participate in Parliament or Congress on our behalf - in Athens, any citizen had the ability to get directly involved in the decision-making process.  Again, it is important to point out that women and slaves were excluded from citizenship but despite this restrictive definition of citizenship, participation was nonetheless extended to a much greater share of the population than in a modern democracy.


Chris: Its funny, it seems the Romans dated the founding of their Republic to 509BC, one year earlier than Athens, but many believe this date was later constructed to compete with the democratic accomplishments of the Athenians. 

Chris: Its quite amazing, Athens included all its citizens in policy debate. Ryan, at any point in did women and released slaves acquire citizenship and inclusion in their democracy?


Ryan:  Now, just like today, socioeconomic factors precluded most citizens from putting their name forward for top offices like general, or treasurer, or Archon - but there was not anything stopping an interested citizen from walking up the Pnyx Hill to participate in the Assembly.  Which is remarkable when you consider that it is essentially equivalent to a citizen today strolling into Parliament or Congress and participating in a vote?


Chris: Remarkable. 


Ryan: Anyway, Sparta would make one abortive attempt to put an oligarchy back in control of Athens, but it really turned into a debacle - with arguments erupting within the Spartan camp and their army turning back before even reaching Athens.  At this point democracy in Athens was already taking on a life of its own and there was no going back it seems.

So, this was the Athens that a young Aristides and Themistocles were coming to age in.  Aristides was a little bit older than Themistocles and Plutarch says that he was a friend and supporter of Cleisthenes and his democratic reforms - though Aristides himself would eventually become a conservative voice in the Assembly, however as we will see that may have had more to do with his rivalry with Themistocles than anything else.

Now while all of these political developments had been occurring in Athens - to the East the Persian Empire had been expanding.  In the episode on the Life of Solon we talked about how Cyrus the Great had conquered the Medes and then the Lydian Empire of King Croesus.  Cyrus did not stop there however and next went on to conquer Babylon, an event which is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible.  With this conquest, Cyrus the Great ended the captivity of the Jews in Babylon and allowed them to return to their ancestral homeland.

Cyrus the Great's son, the possibly deranged Cambyses, would add Egypt to the Persian Empire.  Now after some years of internal upheaval, the Great King of Persia was Darius.  His empire stretched all the way to parts of modern-day Pakistan in the East, into Central Asia and the lands of the Scythian nomads in the north, Egypt in the south-west, and now with the acquisition of Thrace in Darius' reign - the empire was bordering on Macedonia in the north-west, which layjust to the north of the various Greek city-states.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire (Achaemenid being the royal family name) was divided up into twenty provinces, called satrapies, each administered by a governor called a satrap.  

Darius improved the administration of this vast empire and introduced a common currency - coins that were called 'darics' in Darius' honour.  He was the first living ruler to have his image placed on a coin - the coins depicted in him a running pose holding a bow and quiver.  The bow was important to the Persians.  Persian nobles were expected to do three things above all:  shoot a bow well, ride a horse well, and speak the truth.


Chris: Are these the same Persians in the infamous Battle where 300 Spartan forces held back the Persian Army while reinforcements could group?

Communication between different parts of such a large empire was important - Herodotus reports that the provincial capital of Sardis was linked to the imperial capital of Susa by a royal road with 111 stations where a royal messenger could switch horses.  This allowed a message to travel between the two cities (nearly 2,600 km) in little over a week.  Despite this impressive organization and bureaucracy, the Great Kings of Persia ruled their subjects with a relatively light hand.  So long as the tax and tribute flowed in, and the satrapies provided levies of troops when required, the various peoples of this incredibly ethnically diverse empire were allowed a considerable degree of freedom, religious and otherwise, to live in their traditional ways.

However, in an empire as vast as this one, no matter how well it is administered, trouble is certain to pop up somewhere.  For the Great King Darius it arose in the Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor.  These cities had been annexed by King Croesus of Lydia but the remained semi-autonomous and when Cyrus the Great had conquered the Lydian Empire these cities initially fought for similar treatment from Cyrus but were defeated.  The Greek cities of Ionia were old - they were found in the Dark Ages following the Bronze Age collapse, well before the later wave of colonization that would see Greek colonies pop up all over the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  The Ionian cities were centers of Pre-Socratic philosophy - that being philosophy before Socrates.  A number of eminent thinkers would emerge in these cities advancing theories to explain reality that did not involve the intervention of Gods.  Aristotle looking back would consider Thales of Miletus (another of the Seven Wise Men along with Solon) to  have been the world's first philosopher.

Anyway, these Ionian cities were old and sophisticated and it is easy to understand why some in these cities may have been chafing under Persian control, and in 499 BC a revolt began in Miletus and spread from there to the other Ionian cities.  Aristagoras of Miletus appealed to the Greek cities on the other side of the Aegean for help with their revolt but ultimately it was only the Eretrians, sending 5 ships, and the newly democratic Athens, sending 20 ships, who came to their aid - albeit in a pretty minor way.  


Chris: I can sympathise with their position. Cyrus had given other conquered states one way of ruling, and the Ionians just wanted the same and to keep their long-standing traditions intact.


Nonetheless with the arrival of these ships with their reinforcements the Ionians and their allies went on the offensive - marching inland to Sardis (King Croesus' old capital you will remember) and capturing the city with no resistance.  However, the Greeks were unable to plunder the city because they accidentally burned the place down.  Herodotus' says that the houses in the city had thatched roofs and when one house was torched, soon the whole city was up in flames.

The Greek forces withdrew to Mount Tmolus, however the Persian forces were able to organize themselves and followed the Greeks.  At Ephesus the two sides did battle with the Persians defeating the Greeks and inflicting heavy casualties.  This was the end of Athens' support for the revolt, which was finally put down in 494 BC.

The city of Miletus was punished harshly by Darius for its role in inciting the Ionian revolt, when the city fell to the Persians all of the men were killed and the women and children sold into slavery.

The celebrated Athenian playwright Phrynicus wrote a play soon after titled The Capture of Miletus which depicted this tragic event - and it so affected audiences that Herodotus says Phrynichus was fined for 'reminding the Athenians of their misfortunes' and the play was banned from being performed in the future.


Chris: Well, these sorts of ancient retributions were common place and used sometimes to send signals to other would be resisters.


 So, the Achaemenid Persian empire was a looming threat to Athens when Aristides and Themistocles were young men.  Plutarch says that the two men were rivals stretching back to their boyhoods.  The initial cause of their dislike apparently stemmed from competing for the affection of the beautiful Stesilaus of Ceos.  Unfortunately, Plutarch does not tell us what became of this love triangle - only that Themistocles and Aristides carried their rivalry over into the arena of the new democratic political scene.

It is unclear if Aristides was an aristocrat by birth or from a more modest background - but he ended up as a leader of the aristocratic political faction, while his rival Themistocles would end up championing the poorer masses.  Plutarch indicates that Aristides taking up the aristocratic side may have had as much to do with opposing Themistocles and preventing him from gaining too much power as it did his own political leanings.  Aristides believed in justice above all, and his greatest hero was said to Lycurgus of Sparta.

Themistocles was of common birth but even as a young boy he had a precocious and impetuous nature.  He was a quick learner and applied himself to improving his knowledge of practical matters, though Plutarch notes, not necessarily to improving his manners.  Plutarch says that Themistocles was driven by his desire for glory and distinction and mentions that some say he was greedy for money as well, so that he could make lavish sacrifices and entertain guests.

Now Herodotus tells us that ever since the Ionian Revolt was finally put down in 494 BC the Great King Darius had been planning retaliation against the two Greek cities who had aided the rebellion - Athens and Eretria.  Now it may seem like the desire for revenge against these two small Greek poleis was beneath the concern of the ruler of such a vast empire, and that invading Greece was just the next logical step in the expansion of the Persian empire.  However, when the invasion happened there is no doubt that those two cities were the principal targets of the Persian forces so clearly making an example of Athens and Eretria was one of the objectives.

In 492 BC Darius launched an invasion force under the command of the general Mardonius.  The Persian armada hugged the norther Aegean coastline but encountered a fierce storm off the coast of Mt. Athos which damaged the fleet.  This gained the Athenians a two-year reprieve but in 490 BC a second invasion fleet was launched under new commanders - Datis and Artaphrenes.  This time the fleet island hopped across the Aegean to avoid the dangerous waters off Mt. Athos and conquered the island of Naxos along the way.  The next target was the city of Eretria on the island of Euboea (eh-vee-a).  The Eretrians paid a high price for sending those 5 ships to aid the Ionian Revolt nine years earlier - after holding out against the Persians for six days the city was conquered, and the population enslaved.  

Now it was Athens' turn.  Hippias, the exiled son of the former Athenian tyrant Peisistratus, had fled to the Persian court after being forced out of Athens and was now accompanying the Persian forces on campaign.  He advised the Persians to land their forces at Marathon, which would afford them some suitable ground to use their cavalry.

With the Persians at their doorstep, the Athenians sent a runner to Sparta to request their aid against the Persians.  This runner was the now famous Pheidippides.


Chris: I wonder how Pheidippides would perform against our modern Olympic athletes? I mean he made two famous runs correct. 


Ryan:  Yes, it turns out the original story of Pheidippides from Herodotus is quite different.  Herodotus tells us that Pheidippides was a professional long-distance runner, what was known as a hemerodrome, a day-runner.  Pheidippides was dispatched to run the 240 km to Sparta and request their help fighting against the Persians, which was a lot longer than the 40 km distance between Athens and Marathon.  40 kilometres would be just a warm-up to a runner like Pheidippides.


Chris: You know, Id, be lucky to survive 5km walk, hahah I’m lucky if get 10,000 steps in any given day.


Ryan:  When Pheidippides was midway through his run to Sparta, around the Mount Parthenium region above Tegea, he had a vision of the god Pan who asked why the Athenians do not pay him more regard when he has done them favours in the past - and will do so again in the future.  Now when you consider the distance Pheidippides had already run - visions or hallucinations do not come as a huge surprise.  Herodotus writes that, "The second day after leaving Athens on his mission from the generals, he was already in Sparta.  'Men of Lacedaemon' he said, once had had come before their officials, 'the Athenians beg you for assistance.  Do not, by looking the other way, allow the most ancient city in Greece to fall into bondage and the clutches of barbarians.  Already, Eretria has been reduced to slavery, and Greece thereby made the weaker by the loss of a famous city.'  This was the message he delivered, just as he had been instructed to do; but the Lacedaemonians, although keen to come to the help of the Athenians, were unable to do so right away, because of a law that they were most unwilling to break.  'It is the ninth day of the month,' they explained, 'and because of that, we are unable to set out until the moon is full.' "

Now the Spartans were notoriously scrupulous about observing their religious calendar - but one does have to wonder if this was also just a handy excuse for delay.  Maybe I am being too skeptical though, this is the Spartans we are talking about after all.

In any event, Pheidippides had to turn around and start the run all the way back to Marathon to deliver the bad news that Athens was on its own - the Persians had landed the night before and the Athenian forces had marched out to oppose them.  When I say the Athenians were on their own that is not entirely true.  They did have some reinforcements from the Plataeans who the Athenians had defended against the Thebans in the past.

The Athenian army probably numbered in the 9 - 10,000 range and was considerably out-numbered by the Persians.  Estimates range wildly for the size of the Persian army at Marathon but considering that it was transported by sea - it seems that 20,000 to 25,000 might be a reasonable guess.  It seems like the logistics get tricky if the army gets much larger than that.  The Persians certainly had a numerical advantage at Marathon, but the makeup of the two opposing armies was quite different.  The Greeks, as we talked about in the Life of Lycurgus episode, had developed hoplite warfare - which featured tightly packed infantry formations, presenting a wall of spears and over-lapping, large, round, bronze-faced shields - with the warriors behind it wearing varying levels of bronze armour (greaves, cuirass, and the iconic bronze helmets many featuring the horsehair crest on top).  So, the Athenian side consisted entirely of these heavy armoured infantries.

The Persians troops were more of a mix and could vary widely depending on which part of the Empire the levies were drawn from.  The core of the Persian infantry though would carry a bow and a spear, shorter than the Greek spear, and probably a dagger or short sword as a secondary weapon.  They had light shields of wicker covered in hides, and in terms of armour they might wear a shirt of iron scales beneath their tunic.  Some had bronze helmets, but a great many had only felt hats or soft cloth headgear and tiaras covering their heads.  In addition to their infantry the Persians made use of cavalry which the Greeks largely did not, and they had some cavalry with them at Marathon.  The principal weapon for the Persians was the bow with which they were highly skilled and could rain down an overwhelming barrage of arrows on the enemy.

Without the aid of the Spartans the Athenians faced off with the larger Persian army at Marathon and considered their next move.  As I mentioned earlier in the episode, each of Athens ten tribes elected a general, so there were 10 Athenian generals leading the Athenians and Aristides was one of them.


Chris: Ya not be skeptical of the Spartans, but it seems a bit of an appeasement answer from the Spartans, where those in Sparta who opposed would realise any Spartan involvement would likely come too late and would be okay with the offer to help, while those who wanted to help Athens were likely pleased, and since they were Spartans likely thought their excuse was reasonable.


Command of the army was to pass from one general to the next each day, but unsurprisingly some of the generals were disinclined to do battle with the larger Persian army.  However, one general, Miltiades, was much in favour of taking the fight to the Persians - and Aristides, seeing the wisdom in this boldness, lent his support to Miltiades and gave over his day of command to him.  Plutarch writes that, " Among the ten commanders appointed by the Athenians for the war, Miltiades was of the greatest name; but the second place, both for reputation and power, was possessed by Aristides; and when his opinion to join battle was added to that of Miltiades, it did much to incline the balance.  Every leader by his day having the command in chief when it came to Aristides' turn, he delivered it into the hands of Miltiades, showing his fellow officers, that it is not dishonorable to obey and follow wise and able men, but, on the contrary, noble and prudent." 

With Miltiades in the lead the Athenians drew themselves up facing the Persians across the Plain of Marathon.  To stretch their line long enough to match the Persians the Athenian line was thin in the centre but deeper on the wings.  As the Athenians advanced toward the Persians, they picked up speed and began to run.  It is not clear if this was intended to minimize the volleys of arrows they would endure or if the plan was to intimidate the Persians.  As Herodotus describes it, "With everyone now at battle stations, the throats of the sacrificial victims were slit - and then, once these offerings had proved favourable, the signal was given to the Athenians, who advanced towards the Barbarians at a run.  The distance between the two armies was 8 stades at the very least.  When the Persians observed the Athenians bearing down on them at full tilt, they set about bracing themselves for the impact; but the truth was because they could see how few the Athenians were, and because the charge was unsupported by either cavalry or archers, they believed their attackers must be possessed by a death-wish"

Now some find it incredible that the Athenians would be able to run across this large plain in full armour but I for one, tend to believe it.  By all accounts, the Ancient Greeks were quite athletic and had impressive stamina.


Chris:  He just ran all the way to Sparta and back.


Ryan:  Haha right - and while he was a professional runner, there is no reason to believe the men fighting at Marathon were not in good shape themselves.  The Greeks even had an event in the Olympics called the hoplitodromos where men raced wearing the greaves, helmet, and carrying the shield of a hoplite.

And secondly, Herodotus completed his Histories only about 60 years after the battle of Marathon and would read the work to audiences of Athenians who presumably would know whether this claim was nonsense or not.

In any event, once the Athenians came to grips with the Persians the fighting was reportedly fierce.  Plutarch tells us that Aristides and Themistocles were situated near each other in the line of battle and that both rivals fought bravely.

In the center the Persians were getting the better of the Athenians and were pushing them back, but on the right and left wings the Athenians were victorious and rather than pursue the fleeing enemy they turned to reinforce the center.  The Persians found themselves pressed on three sides and collapsed.  The Athenians pursued the Persians back to their ships, capturing seven of them while the rest escaped.  Herodotus writes that, "As the Persians turned tail, the Athenians set off after them, hacking away, until they reached the sea - at which point they called for fire, and began to grab at the ships."

It is said that an Athenian named Cynegeirus, a brother of the famous playwright Aeschylus, grabbed on to the stern of a ship and had his hand chopped off by an axe.  It seems the story was later embellished so that after having the right hand chopped off, Cynegeirus reached up and held on with the left hand.  Then after his left hand was chopped off, he seized on to the ship with his teeth!


Chris: Early form of dentistry? Did he also get his teeth cut off? Joking of course, just showed how determined he was to win for Athens at all epense.


There were other famous tales attached to the battle.  One Athenian was said to have brought his dog to camp with him and when the battle began the faithful dog charged into battle alongside his master.  This famous dog was duly included in the large mural of the Battle of Marathon that would later be painted in the Agora.

It is at this point that the story goes the runner Pheidippides was sent back to Athens with word of the victory and where he arrived and exclaimed "Hail, we are winners!" and promptly collapsed and died of exhaustion.  The modern marathon run would base its distance of 26.2 miles on the distance between the plain of Marathon and Athens.  The only problem is Herodotus does not mention this happening at all, it seems the first mention of it comes from a later Roman writer.  It is a good story though.


Chris: Running to Sparta and back is more impressive and defiantly produced way cooler hallucinations.


Speaking of the Spartans, they arrived soon afterwards but were of course too late to lend a hand in the battle though Herodotus says they were keen to get a look at the Persians and inspect the battlefield before congratulating the Athenians and heading home.  The victory was a resounding one - Herodotus reports 6,400 Persian dead compared to only 192 Athenians.  This seems extremely lop-sided however ancient battles often seemed to turn out this way - with the side that breaks first and runs suffering most casualties.

The victory was a sensation in Athens.  Anyone who took part in the battle became a minor celebrity - none more so than the general Miltiades who had taken the lead.  To get an idea what Marathon meant to Athenians - the acclaimed writer Aeschylus, said to have authored some 70 to 90 plays, among them the Oresteia trilogy and The Persians, possibly also Prometheus Bound (though that one is debated) - after he died the epitaph on his grave read, "The tomb conceals the dust of Aeschylus, son of Euphoria, amid the grain-bearing Gelan fields.  Marathon was witness to his courage, as were the long-haired Medes who knew him well."


Chris: Sounds like a V-Day style commemoration to me! Tyranny knocked on Athens door and they answered with a swift boot to the butt of the Persians, even fighting them while their hands got chopped off trying to take their vessels. I do find it Strange the Spartans drive for battle did not trump their desire to fulfill the full moon cycle. This battle seems right up the Spartans’ ally.


That is right, despite all his literary achievements and being the most celebrated poet of his time - it seems what he really wanted to be remembered for was having fought at Marathon.


But while all the Athenians were elated with themselves and with their victorious general Miltiades, there was one Athenian that was unsatisfied.

(Plutarch quote p.107 Plutarch’s Lives)

It seems that Themistocles was convinced that the Persians would be back and with an army no Greek city could match.  He was right, but the bigger question was what could he, or anyone else, hope to do about it?  To find out, make sure to join us next time for Part 2 of The Life of Themistocles and Aristides.