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Build your Armada

john hale lords of the sea obercome adversity themistocles vision

Lesson: have the courage to Carry On in the face of adversity.

 

The great statesman from antiquity, Themistocles, must have smiled sardonically as he fled from the Athenian ships at the end of his life. Urging his rowers on, he told them that capture meant death. He was like Dr. Frankenstein being pursued by his own creation, for Themistocles was the chief architect of the Athenian Armada.

His Father's’ words must have echoed in his mind: “Look!” his father had said, pointing to the broken down and abandoned ships in the salvage yard. “That is what the people do to their politicians when they are through with them.”

But Themistocles had a dream—a vision. It had occurred to him in his youth, and would stay with him till his death. He believed that Athens, a small insignificant city in Greece, could one day become a great city. And, he believed, the only way to get there was by building a grand navy. Themistocles intended to ensure its creation.

The main threat to Athens, and the Greeks as a people, came from the mighty nation of Persia. The Persian forces under King Darius had attacked Athens in 480 B.C. At the Battle of Marathon, Athens won what could only be considered a miraculous victory over the massive Persian forces.

In the heat of the pre-war fervor, Themistocles had no trouble persuading the Athenian democracy to begin fortifications of their natural port, the Piraeus. But after the battle of Marathon, when the Athenians were victorious, they lost their fervor and ceased construction.

Now would come the biggest impediment to Themistocles’ vision: peace. No one wanted to hear of his war mongering. No matter how loudly he cried that the Persians would return, they ignored him. What was worse was the city had discovered a vast subterranean silver mine. At the next assembly, they were preparing to vote on a measure that would dole out the silver equally to each citizen.

It would all come down to this single meeting. Themistocles would have to convince the entire city to use the silver to build 200 new warships, and in one fell swoop, they would have the largest navy in Greece.

He knew it was foolish to point to the Persians as a threat, for it had been years since there had been any sign of danger. Instead, Themistocles had a different strategy. Like all great persuaders, he intended to get all of Athens on his side of the negotiating table, rather than going head to head with them.

He did not point to Persia, but to Aegina. They were a trading rival to Athens, and thus usurped the small city of any possible prosperity. Then he made a win-win proposition. If the Athenians agreed to build the ships, the money would go to the wealthiest 200 men in Athens. These men would each be required to build a single ship. This, of course, meant they would have to hire men to build it, and men to row it. If the assembly changed their minds later, the owners of the ships would pay back the money, but keep the ship. This would create jobs as well as provide a navy to compete with the trade rival.

Themistocles won the day. And just in time too, for the new Persian King Xerxes was amassing a grand invasion of Greece. In the end, it would be the Athenian Armada that would defend all of Greece.

Though at the end of his life, Themistocles was chased by his own creation, he was a success. He had done what he had set out to do. Athens was safe, and it would flourish. Now the city was free to create all the grand products that lead to the development of Western Civilization: Philosophy, democracy, drama, literature, historical inquiry, architecture and more. All due to one man with a vision.


“I do not know how to turn a lyre or play the harp, but I can make a small city great.” --Themistocles of Athens


Tale from the book: Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.

Listen to the show "When Western Civilization Almost Wasn't"

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