Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 4a Themistocles

Henri-Camille Danger (1857–1937), Themistocles Drinking Poison (1887), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch’s fourth book of biographies of famous Greek and Roman figures contrasts the Greek statesman and general Themistocles, known as the saviour of the city-state of Athens and Greece as a whole, and a Roman counterpart in Camillus – both obscure unless you are a classicist. Although neither appears to have been painted by any of the more famous masters, you may be surprised at how often they have appeared in art.

Themistocles was of lowly birth, who came to receive ‘wisdom’ handed down from Solon. From an early age, he became driven by high ambition in the desire to make a great reputation for himself. He first came to attention when the Greeks had discovered huge deposits of silver at Laureium, and were debating how those riches should be divided. The popular proposal was to divide the money up among the citizens of Athens, but Themistocles alone proposed that income should be used to construct triremes for their ongoing war with Aegina.

His case won the day, the warships were built, and later secured victory for the Greeks against the mighty Xerxes, king of the Persians.

Themistocles remained a man of the people despite his great personal ambition. He took command of the Athenian forces, and started to prepare the triremes for battle against the Persian navy. He then met opposition at home, forcing him to lead the Athenian contribution to a large army, augmented by Spartans, to the vale of Tempe, but was unable to achieve much in that, and the Persians moved inexorably deeper into Greek territory.

The combined Greek fleet learned from early skirmishes, including the Battle of Artemisium, as Xerxes and his forces were steadily closing in. Themistocles had to be ingenious in solving the many problems which threatened to weaken his naval force, and manipulated ‘signs from the gods’ to his advantage in keeping his large fleet fully manned. He also faced dissension from Eurybiades, the leader of the Spartans who was in overall command, and had to use his powers of persuasion to keep their fleet united.

Themistocles resorted to deception and misinformation: a Persian prisoner of war, Sicinnus, was very loyal to Themistocles, and taught his children. Sicinnus was sent in secret to Xerxes to tell him that the Greek fleet was fragmented and trying to escape, and to encourage the Persians to block the strait between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland, close to the city of Athens. This set a trap for Xerxes, who thought that he could achieve a quick naval victory.

At dawn, Xerxes was watching from a high place ashore, as Themistocles proceeded with the sacrifice of three prisoners of war. The Athenian general had determined that the best time for battle was when the sea breeze was fresh enough to send a swell rolling through the strait, which would compromise the higher vessels of the Persians.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805–1874), The Battle of Salamis (1868), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Maximilianeum (Bayerischer Landtag) Senatssaal, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s romantic fantasy of The Battle of Salamis from 1868 is wonderful swashbuckling stuff, but bears little resemblance to Plutarch’s account. Xerxes is shown only a little above the shoreline, at the upper left, and there are quite a few women who have somehow become embroiled, and partially unclad, in the battle.

The Greeks won the day, beating the Persians into retreat, thanks to the skill and tactics of Themistocles. This prevented the Persians from conquering the whole of Greece, allowing the Greeks to mount a later offensive. Themistocles earned widespread acclaim, even from Sparta.

Themistocles then convinced Athens that it needed to rebuild and strengthen its fortifications, and turned Piraeus into the city’s port. Unfortunately, the Spartans were moving to take control of the Greek alliance by excluding from it those city-states which had not fought against the Persians. Not only did Themistocles fall out with the Spartans, but he became unpopular at home too.

This came to a head when he was ostracised – votes cast against him on ostraca, fragments of pottery, were sufficient to result in banishment from Athens. Plutarch considers that this was not a penalty, but a way of dealing with inevitable jealousy which his success had aroused.

When Themistocles was in exile, Pausanias tried to involve him in a scheme of treachery against the Greeks, but Themistocles would not hear of it. Pausanias was then put to death, which led to Themistocles being charged with treason. The exiled general fled from city to city until he reached Epirus, where he took refuge with Admetus, King of the Molossians.

Admetus’ wife Phthia had suggested a way of supplication which would make it almost impossible for Admetus to refuse the Athenian’s request: Themistocles took the king’s son in his arms and threw himself down at his hearth.

Franz Caucig or Franc Kavčič (1755–1828), Themistocles Seeking Refuge with King Admet (before 1801), oil on canvas, 146 x 204 cm, Velké Losiny, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Caucig or Franc Kavčič’s painting of Themistocles Seeking Refuge with King Admetus from before 1801 is a reasonably faithful depiction of the scene, although Admetus and his court appear very modest, and Themistocles still young.

Pierre Joseph Célestin Francois (1759-1851), Themistocles and King Admetus (1832), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Joseph Célestin François’ Themistocles and King Admetus from 1832 seems more confused and confusing, with a young Themistocles standing before Admetus, who has his infant son on his lap, and his wife at his side.

Themistocles was forced to flee once again, and found it hard to keep ahead of his pursuers. This ultimately brought him to the court of the Persians, where Xerxes had died and his son Artaxerxes had succeeded to the throne. Themistocles had to resort to further cunning to gain entrance to the court: he travelled in one of the wagons normally used by the wives and concubines of the king.

Themistocles was granted an audience before Artaxerxes, an extremely unusual situation in which the leading adversary who had done much harm to the Persians sought their protection from his enemies. Artaxerxes was secretly overjoyed that he now had Themistocles. The king gave him a year’s grace, and time to learn the Persian language – a period during which he took part in royal hunts and entertainments.

I have been unable to find a painting of this remarkable audience before Artaxerxes, but there are two fine illustrations made for books from the early twentieth century.

William Rainey (1852-1936), Themistocle at the Persian Court (c 1900), in Plutarch’s Lives for Boys and Girls by W H Weston, Frederick A Stokes, New York.

William Rainey’s Themistocles at the Persian Court published in about 1900 in an illustrated summary of Plutarch’s Lives for “Boys and Girls” draws a sharp visual contrast between the Persians and Themistocles.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), illustration in The Story of Greece : Told to Boys and Girls (c 1910), text by Mary Macgregor, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Walter Crane’s illustration from about 1910 dresses Themistocles in a warrior’s helmet and fine armour. This too was published in a re-telling of Greek history for “Boys and Girls”.

Themistocles survived an attempt on his life, and had further adventures with the Persians. But Persia was again under threat from the Greeks under Cimon, and Artaxerxes looked to Themistocles to come up with a solution to his Greek problem. Recognising the impossibility of the task, Themistocles took poison, and died in the city of Magnesia on the Maeander, in the far south-west of modern Turkey, when he was sixty-five, in 459 BCE. Other sources deny his suicide, and claim that he died there of natural causes.

Henri-Camille Danger (1857–1937), Themistocles Drinking Poison (1887), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1887, the suicide of Themistocles was set as the theme for the contest for the Prix de Rome. It was won by Henri-Camille Danger’s painting of Themistocles Drinking Poison, which recreates the moment of great drama as Themistocles, visibly aged, raises a goblet ready to drink to his death.

The ashes of Themistocles were interred in a grand tomb in Magnesia, although his reputation was not rehabilitated for a long time by the Greeks.

Giuseppe Bossi (1777-1815), Burial of the Ashes of Themistocles (1806), media not known, 60 x 119 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

That interment is shown in Giuseppe Bossi’s painting of the Burial of the Ashes of Themistocles from 1806, with a dramatic if fanciful landscape behind.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.