September 24: With Great Power Comes Great Personality Defects

I don't know what it stands for, either. Cool badge, though.

The battle of Salamis, we are told, was the Most Significant Battle In Human History -- at least in the non-metaphorical division, because what about the Battle Against Greasy Buildup? But we're talking about a different Greece today, and if its Grecian spirit -- inquiry, the individual, democratically elected leaders sandbagging their rivals, etc. -- had been vanquished by the Persians all those centuries ago, today we'd be the ones wanting Iranian blue jeans. Or something.

Anyway, the genius behind the Greek victory was Themistocles, and we get some of his story today via Plutarch. What emerges is a guy who was a paragon of virtue, old-school definition, as opposed to virtue, contemporary definition. In other words, he got things done, but not in Common Cause-approved ways. Here he is performing a little trickeration on the rubes:
Themistocles, being at a loss, and not able to draw the people over to his opinion by any human reason, set his machines to work, as in a theatre, and employed prodigies and oracles. The serpent of Minerva, kept in the inner part of her temple, disappeared; the priests gave it out to the people that the offerings which were set for it were found untouched, and declared, by the suggestion of Themistocles, that the goddess had left the city, and taken her flight before them towards the sea.
And here he is after his success, as un-humble as an NFL wide reciever:
When chosen admiral by the Athenians, he would not quite conclude any single matter of business, either public or private, but deferred all till the day they were to set sail, that, by despatching a great quantity of business all at once, and having to meet a great variety of people, he might make an appearance of greatness and power. Viewing the dead bodies cast up by the sea, he perceived bracelets and necklaces of gold about them, yet passed on, only showing them to a friend that followed him, saying, “Take you these things, for you are not Themistocles.” He said to Antiphates, a handsome young man, who had formerly avoided, but now in his glory courted him, “Time, young man, has taught us both a lesson.”
Hey, it turns out the homos saved Western Civilization! I'm not sure Western Civ. has returned the favor (although I imagine it's better here than in Iran). Themistocles eventually drove the Athenians crazy, apparently, and you can see why. Still, he is the kind of shitkicker who you like to have in a crisis. Another noteworthy thing about Themistocles is that, when push came to shove, he was anything but grandiose. Here he abandons his post-Salamis grand designs in the face of hardheaded advice:
Themistocles, being desirous to try the opinion of Aristides [his archrival, whom he has brought back because of the urgency of the situation], told him that he proposed to set sail for the Hellespont, to break the bridge of ships, so as to shut up, he said, Asia a prisoner within Europe; but Aristides, disliking the design, said, “We have hitherto fought with an enemy who has regarded little else but his pleasure and luxury; but if we shut him up within Greece, and drive him to necessity, he that is master of such great forces will no longer sit quietly with an umbrella of gold over his head, looking upon the fight for his pleasure;...Therefore, it is noways our interest, Themistocles,” he said, “to take away the bridge that is already made, but rather to build another, if it were possible, that he might make his retreat with the more expedition.”
I think it's in Murray Kempton's great essay about Eisenhower where he says one of Ike's principles was "Always give an enemy an exit," and here you see another example of that. Again, not particularly virtuous, but effective.

1 comment:

Lisa Simeone said...

We used to play a game in college called The Battle of Salamis. No joke. We did it on College Creek. (Yes, it involved boats.)