He was a somewhat ignoble, half-bred Greek. He grew to be a prescient general, whose stratagem checkmated one of the ancient world’s most powerful villains. He was a hero of heroes, the opulent fortifier of a burgeoning empire. He grew to be a groveling outcast, whose final gulp was not the finest wine of the Grecian plains, but deadly poison.
Themistocles of Athens was a man who knew what it was to rise to towering heights and plummet to astonishing depths. Today we’re going to trace the rise of this great man, and then consider how pride led to his fall from grace and tragic demise. By reflecting on pride—the vice of all vices—I hope we’ll be spurred on in our pursuit to learn the virtue of humility.
Themistocles’s story is in our book, Famous Men of Greece, a collection of stories gathered from the annals of history and myth; it’s perfect for any student or teacher of classical history from 5th-7th grade.
Themistocles was born to an inauspicious Athenian family in 520 BC. Despite his not-so-promising start, he quickly earned a reputation for being terrifically ambitious. While other boys would play games and spend their leisure time in trivialities, Themistocles would practice writing and delivering speeches, always envisioning himself to be a man of influence.
As he entered adulthood, Themistocles’s ambition for greatness only grew. He leveraged his charisma and popularity to work his way into the foreground of Athenian politics, and, when he was about 40 years old, his hour of glory came. The mighty Persian empire was on Greece’s doorstep for a 2nd time, and the often quarrelsome city-states of the Hellas were forced to band together for the common cause of a free Greece. Themistocles won the election for general of Athens, and, since Athens boasted a mightier navy than all of the other Greek cities combined, he gained tremendous influence over the Greeks’ naval strategy as a whole.
The Persian triumph at Thermopylae sent the Greek fleet scurrying back down the eastern coast of Greece and into the Bay of Salamis. Here the Spartan general wished to retreat and fight the Persians in open water, but Themistocles was convinced that being backed into this corner was precisely where the Greek warships needed to be. He even sent a messenger to Xerxes, the Persian king, telling him to attack at once while the full Greek navy was within his grasp.
Xerxes took the bait. And the full force of the Persian navy—some 1,000 ships strong—descended upon the 380 ships of Greece. Yet there in the narrow strait where Themistocles had chosen to do battle, the greater size and speed of the Persian warships was of little value. And the greater number of ships proved to be a hindrance. The bronze bows of Greek ships smashed into the muddled mess of Persian boats, and in those close quarters the Greek men-at-arms and archers dominated their Persian counterparts. Xerxes from his golden throne could only look on in dismay. He went home to Persia a defeated king. Themistocles went home to Athens an immortalized hero.
For a time, the legend of Themistocles was on everyone’s tongues, but the limelight limel ight of men’s praise is ever-shifting. Before long Themistocles found that the acclaim he had received was not enough for him. He sailed around to the allied city-states and attempted to force them to pay him for his heroic feats in the Persian war. He complained about his treatment at home in Athens, saying that he was treated as nothing more than a plane tree—looked to for protection in a storm, but plucked and hewn down in times of calm.
Themistocles’s yearning for enduring preeminence in the city of Athens gradually engendered distrust among the citizens. He wearied the Athenian Assembly with his incessant reminders about all he’d done for them. At length he was formally ostracized by popular vote, and banished from the city for 10 years.
During his banishment, he fled Greece entirely and sought refuge in the court of Artaxerxes—the son of the great king he’d so brilliantly thwarted just 15 years before. Themistocles would never again ascend the acropolis in Athens. He would never again taste the salty breeze of the Aegean Sea. In time he was called upon to aid the Persians in making war against the Athenians, and this was a level of shame to which he simply would not stoop. Instead, he raised a glass of poison to his lips and died an exile in a foreign land.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes, “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.” If that’s true, and I think it is, then it behooves us to learn all that we can about this vice of all vices. I think at least three lessons about pride stand out in Themistocles’s remarkable story.
First, pride so often corrupts ambition. Themistocles’s ambitious spirit was known by all from his youth, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. If people never had big ambitions, they would never do remarkable things. But pride creeps in and attaches a parasitic craving for our prestige, our renown, our applause to everything our ambition seeks.
Second, pride leads to entitlement and ingratitude. A precious few human beings ever “go out on top.” Like Themistocles, almost everyone lives to see the lustre of their brightest moments fade. Pride causes us to relentlessly insist upon receiving our perceived due for the accomplishments we esteem the most. Since it wasn’t ultimately the trophies we were after, the trophies we’ve received cease to satisfy us, and we conclude that we haven’t been given our due.
Third, pride exiles us from our homeland. Seldom does pride drive us from our physical homelands as it did for Themistocles. But for all of us, our pride estranges us from the One whom we were created to know. In a prayer to God, St. Augustine famously wrote that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” And, as it turns out, proud hearts will seek for rest just about anywhere else besides the God who made them and in whom alone they can find it.
So what do you think of Themistocles’s story? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks so much for joining us today. If you liked this video go ahead and drop us a like. And if you want to learn about more heroes like Themistocles, check out the Famous Men series by Memoria Press.