The Man Who Saved Western Civilization


In Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book, The Savior Generals, we learn the story of the second Persian invasion of Greece. Just ten years after the Greek victory over Darius I at the battle of Marathon, the Persians had returned. Now led by Darius’ son Xerxes, they came back with an army of overwhelming size. Northern Greek cities surrendered rather than face certain defeat. The Spartan forces at Thermopylae were annihilated. Athens was occupied and burned. The people fled into the countryside to avoid death or enslavement. The city lost, Athens’ allies prepared to retreat south to defend their homes in the Peloponnese.

Now came the naval battle in the strait of Salamis. Themistocles, leading a combined Greek fleet, decisively defeated a larger Persian force. Within sight of the refugees of Athens, the Greeks stopped the invasion cold. Then taking the initiative, they then drove the Persians from Greece never to return.

The battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. was one of history’s major turning points. Themistocles’ victory against a numerically superior forces was by itself a great accomplishment. But what made the result truly exceptional was everything that came before.

It was Themistocles all-encompassing dedication to protect his home that led Hanson call him one of history’s few “savior generals”.

The large fleet that won the battle didn’t exist only a few years before. Themistocles had to create it almost from scratch. Having fought at Marathon, he recognized that the Greeks were lucky to have won, while almost everyone else reveled in the individual valor and successful tactics of that single battle.

Anticipating the Persian’s eventual return, Themistocles developed a counter-strategy. A large Persian army would need a supporting fleet for mobility and supply. Themistocles uniquely foresaw that a large new fleet could serve as the “defensive wall” blocking a Persian advance.

But there was no money to build such a fleet. Serendipitously, a rich vein of silver was discovered in Athens’ mine. Themistocles seized the opportunity. He needed to convince the Athenians to spend the money on a fleet and not distribute it amongst themselves. So since the Persians seemed a distant threat, he sold the new fleet to the Athenians by inventing a story that they would use it against a rival city.

When the Persian invasion finally came, Themistocles initially went forward with the allied Greek armies to engage them. While this effort failed to halt Xerxes’ advance, it burnished Themistocles leadership reputation and he gained effective command of the Athenian fleet.

Upon learning of the Spartan’s defeat at Thermopylae, he foresaw the sack of Athens and convinced the other leaders that the city should be evacuated before the population could be captured or killed.

Now it was time to use the naval wall to stop the Persians even though Athens was already lost to them. Themistocles needed to create a tactical advantage for the Greek naval forces. A battle in the narrow strait of Salamis would give the bigger and heavier Greek ships just such an advantage over the lighter and more numerous Persian ships.

But how could he draw the Persian fleet in the strait? And how could he keep the skeptical Greek allies from retreating home? He did both by giving false intelligence to Xerxes, that the Greek fleet was starting a retreat. This spurred Xerxes to quickly launch his attack. It also led him to split his fleet in two, one to engage and one to cutoff Themistocles’ sham retreat. By inducing Xerxes to attack so quickly, Athens’ allies had no choice but to fight alongside them.

As the Persian commander advanced, Themistocles lured the him deeper into the strait by first rowing away and then reversing course. In the following day-long battle the Persians were routed with massive casualties.

A great battle victory was won, but the war was far from over as a huge Persian army still occupied Athens. Themistocles once again used guile against Xerxes to convince him that he was in danger of being trapped by the Greek’s now superior fleet. Xerxes quickly fled the “trap” and in in his haste to escape, once again divided his forces. Over the next year of continued fighting, the remaining Persians forces and their allies were defeated by the now better matched Greek armies. Thus Xerxes invasion turned in a costly blunder and the Persians never returned.

At the time, the Persian empire stretched from the Indus valley to Egypt and Asia minor and was expanding. But the Persians were not united in common cause and culture. On the other hand, while the Greeks warred against each other, they shared a common culture. When faced with an existential threat, they put down their weapons and joined forces.

It was the combination of Greek common-cause and Themistocles’ strategic foresight, honest assessment, political skills, crafty deceptions, courageous tactics, quick wits and perseverance that save Greece. Thus by both leadership and the people’s willingness to follow in pursuit of the nation’s best interests can one small nation defeated a mighty empire.

Themistocles After Salamis

The ships at Salamis were rowed into battle by the common people, those without land and thus the ability to afford battle armor. After Salamis, Themistocles started building a fortified wall around Athens to further protect the city.

But that was only part of the reason. You see Themistocles was not of high birth, something still important in the nascent democracy. He was a common person of mixed ancestry. His city wall reduced the wealthy’s political power and enhanced his own. Because the wealthy landowners had to pay the commoners, the veterans of Salamis, to build the wall which would make Themistocles even more popular.

The Greeks were lucky at Marathon and again at Salamis where a different foreign king might not have made as many mistakes. The next time the Greeks needed to be ready as a people, united by common interests towards a common strategy.

Themistocles’ ultimate strategy to protect Athens, was to use the city wall to enhance democracy by bringing the people together in common cause as opposed to a situation that favor the landed wealthy. Athens was to be both a land and naval power and this offered more opportunity for all through agriculture, commerce and trade.

What happened to Themistocles plan? The political establishment resisted to protect their own special interests. He fought for his strategy but without an imminent threat to rally around, he lost power and was eventually ostracized from Athens. He died in 459 B.C. a minor figure in a foreign country.

Themistocles was a man ahead of this time. But the goals that we sought were later realized in Athens’ “golden age” under the leadership of Pericles.

Themistocles’ Legacy to America

Our founding fathers understood what Themistocles sought, a nation united in common cause. For a government of the people, by the people and for the people:

Of the people: “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

By the people: “We the People…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

For the people: “endowed …with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” and ” in Order to … promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”

And Now — Themistocles’ Relevance Today

Today we are divided nation that seems more willing to fight each other than to join in common cause. But we have shared common cause from our founding days through two centuries of social and economic progress. We have the tradition and spirit waiting to be called.

What would Themistocles do if faced with today’s problems?

  • Develop a strategic plan for America that we all know about. The Containment strategy that defeated the Soviet Empire in cold war widely understood and debated. Even if a person disagreed with it or parts of it, it’s wasn’t disguised as something else.
  • Force a debate about the de facto Globalist strategy.
  • Propose a credible alternative strategy.
  • Fight apathy and rouse the citizens to join in the debate.
  • Say what needed to be said and not be cowed by political correctness.
  • Force the decision. Hard tasks need hard commitment to get done. Without skin-in-the-game, it’s just talk.
  • Create advantages the American team to purse goals from a position of strength, not weakness.
  • Get going and set the agenda instead of playing it safe.

The Greeks had no way of knowing if the Persians could be defeated with an unbuilt fleet in a battle at an unknown location. But they faced the future and chose to sacrifice some of today’s pleasures for tomorrow’s safety.

They could not afford be complacent with their foreign invaders just as we cannot be complacent in our loss of common cause. Sometimes it is right to be disruptive, and perhaps even vulgar, to shake up the complacency. That time is now.

Let us, Themistocles’ heir’s, be roused to once again join in common cause. To promote the general Welfare. To defend our Constitutional freedoms. And if we do, then leaders like Themistocles’, will come forward from among us to lead with strength and courage towards renewing the American Dream, the pursuit of Happiness for all.

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