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The death of Themistocles.

1. The sources

Our sources present us with three different versions of Themistocles' death. The purpose of this article is to examine these different versions, explain how and why they developed in the form they did, and show which version is most likely to be correct.

a. The `suicide by drinking bull's blood' story

This story is found in Aristophanes, Knights 83-4, and is accepted by Diodorus, 11.58.3, and Plutarch, Themistocles 31.5-6.

Themistocles cannot have killed himself in this fashion, since bull's blood is not poisonous; though not exactly pleasant, it is apparently harmless to drink. Nevertheless there was a fairly widespread belief in the ancient world that it was instantaneously `poisonous', based on the observable fact that bull's blood congeals very rapidly. It was thus thought to produce a lethal choking effect in the stomach and throat if swallowed (cf. Aristotle HA 3.19, Pliny NH 11.222).

This lurid version was, because of its obvious reader appeal, popular in later accounts (ho polus logos, `the majority view', according to Plutarch), and it is the only one mentioned in the Diodorus/Ephorus account.(1) However, though impossible, it was not, pace Atticus in Cicero's Brutus, 11.42-3, a fiction made up by sensationalizing Greek historians of the late fourth and early third century, such as Cleitarchus and Stratocles (though they were sensationalizing writers, and not above making things up). We can see from Ar. Knights 83-4 that the story was current in Athens as early as 424 B.C., a mere 35 years at most after Themistocles' death.(2)

The ingenious theory of Percy Gardner, that this version originated as an ignorant deduction from the monument depicting Themistocles in a heroic pose, probably sacrificing, which is illustrated on an Antonine coin of Magnesia, is also unlikely for the same reason.(3)

b. The `suicide by taking poison' story

This version was also established early. It is reported by Thucydides, 1.138.4, writing no later than the end of the fifth century. Themistocles, `some say', killed himself in this fashion because he was unable to keep the promises he had made to the King. Thucydides is quoted, and followed in his rejection of the story, by Cornelius Nepos, Themistocles 10.4. It is mentioned by Plutarch, Cimon 18.6 (`it is said that'), and Themistocles 31.6 (`some say'), where the poison is described as `quick acting'.

c. The `death by natural causes' story

This is the version accepted by Thucydides, 1.138.4, death `through illness' nosesas, and Thucydides is faithfully followed by Nepos, Themistocles 10.4.(4) Typically Thucydides does not explain why he chooses to accept the version he does, but he is very definite about it -- he uses a laconic five words -- strongly implying he had good reasons.

2. The suicide tradition -- the alleged motives

The sources who refer to and/or accept the suicide tradition assign two very different, in fact totally opposed, motives to Themistocles' suicide. One is honourable, creditable in Greek eyes, and to this the bull's blood detail is invariably attached. This was a heroic death: so Aristophanes, by implication (it is worth noting that there are three favourable references to Themistocles in the Knights, at 82-4, 812-19, and 882-5), Diodorus/ Ephorus, and Plutarch Themistocles 31.5-6. The other is a dishonourable, discreditable motive; so in the references to the tradition by Thucydides and Nepos. The (treasonable) `promises' of Themistocles mentioned in this version, which he despairs of being able to fulfil, are more fully explained by Thucydides at 1.138.2 `because of the hope which he held out before him (Artaxerxes) that he would subjugate Greece for him' -- so also Nepos at Themistocles 10.4.

Plutarch was aware of this unfavourable version, and refers to it himself in some detail at Cimon 18.6, but, to a large extent, he suppresses it in the Themistocles. He does just mention the alleged promises (at 31.4), but without explaining what they were (`the Greek affairs', which he says Artaxerxes ordered Themistocles to attend to, is here simply a reference to the just mentioned Athenian-supported revolt in Egypt). Plutarch stresses that the motive for, and mood behind, Themistocles' suicide were honourable ones: Themistocles was not vengeful against Athens, despite having been exiled by his fellow citizens; he may (isos men) have felt himself to be not up to dealing militarily with the great Cimon, but certainly the most important consideration (to de pleiston) was his continuing respect for his own reputation, his previous patriotic deeds, and the great Greek victories won in those days, i.e. during the Persian Wars.

The version recorded by Diodorus 11.58.2-3, as one which `some historians say', is even more pro-Themistocles in its explanation of his motive. Themistocles carries out a deception on the King, and so saves Greece from a second major invasion.(5)

3. The exile and return of Themistocles' sons

The return of Themistocles' sons to Athens from exile in Asia, almost certainly in the early 450s, was an event of very great significance for the subsequent development of all the Themistocles traditions, including the tradition about his death.

Themistocles was exiled (on a charge of treason) at the end of the 470s or early in the 460s, and he was given sanctuary in Asia by King Artaxerxes in late 465(6) or early 464. Themistocles' sons were exiled along with him.(7) Themistocles had five sons in all (Plutarch, Themistocles 32.1). The eldest, Neocles, died in boyhood from the bite of a horse; the second, Diocles, had been adopted by his maternal grandfather, and so probably did not have to go into exile. The other three were Cleophantus, Polyeuctus, and Archeptolis. Of these Cleophantus, who had had some connexion with Lampsacus,(8) and Polyeuctus subsequently returned. Archeptolis may have, or he may have stayed to look after the family property in Magnesia, since he married his half-sister, Mnesiptolema, who was the priestess of Cybele at Magnesia, and who thus presumably remained there.

The evidence that they were allowed to return to Athens is firm.

(i) At Plato, Meno 93D-E (dramatic date c.402 B.C., three years before Socrates' death) Socrates refers to the activities of Themistocles' son Cleophantus as a hippeus in Athens. His appeal to the recollection of anyone, old or young, on the subject of Cleophantus' moral and political qualities, strongly implies that Cleophantus had returned to reside in Athens at some time after he had gone into exile with his father in c.468 (and presumably that he had regained enough property, in terms of land facilities, to engage in horse-rearing).

(ii) Pausanias 1.1.2. `The sons [note the plural] of Themistocles certainly returned, phainontai katelthontes, and dedicated a painting in the Parthenon in which Themistocles is portrayed.'

(iii) Pausanias 1.26.4. `Near the statue of Olympiodorus [on the Acropolis] stands a bronze statue of Artemis Leucophryne [i.e. of Magnesia], dedicated by the sons of Themistocles.'(9)

(iv) Pausanias 1.37.1. `On the Sacred Way there is a grave of Themistocles, son of Poliarchus, the grandson of Themistocles who fought the sea-fight against Xerxes and the Medes.' This is probably a misreading by Pausanias of the inscribed `Polyeuctus', the name given by Plutarch at Themistocles 32.1, since Poliarchus is not attested as the name of a son of Themistocles anywhere else.

Assuming that they did return, when did it happen? J. K. Davies(10) is surely right to suggest a date in the early 450s, in the context of a completely changed political climate at Athens. It is clear that at the end of the 460s Athenian public opinion swung very strongly and sharply against Cimon and his policies.

The main political enemies of Themistocles at Athens in the 470s and 460s had been the Philaid Cimon and the Alcmaeonid family (Plus. Aristides 25.7). Cimon's wife, Isodice, was the granddaughter of the Alcmaeonid leader Megacles, who had been ostracized in 486 (Cimon 4.9). This marriage politically united two powerful families. Themistocles' prosecutor was called Leobotes, the son of Alcmeon (Themistocles 23.1); Leobotes was a Spartan king's name, but is not otherwise attested in Athens or Attica, i.e. it was a deliberate, politically programmatic, name within the Alcmaeonid genos. The Spartans certainly promoted the career of Cimon as a rival to Themistocles (Themistocles 20.4), and he, in turn, called one of his sons Lacedaemonius (Thuc. 1.45.2).

Cimon's political downfall and ostracism was a direct consequence of the Spartan rebuff, administered to the Athenian expeditionary force which had been sent under Cimon's command to help put down the helot revolt (Thucydides 1.102.1-3, Plutarch, Cimon 16.6-8, 17.1-2). The proposal to send the expedition had been supported in the assembly by Cimon, and opposed by Ephialtes (Cimon 16.8). At the time of his ostracism Cimon was widely perceived in Athens to be too pro-Spartan (Cimon 15.2-3, 16.1-3, 17.2).

A further, connected, consequence of this swing in Athenian public opinion was the assembly's decision to accept Ephialtes' proposals to reduce the powers of the Areopagus, a reform which can be firmly dated to the archon year 462/1 (Ash. Poll 25.1-2, 26.1). The Areopagus was probably the body which had condemned Themistocles in 468.(11) This reform was opposed by Cimon (Plutarch, Cimon 10.7-8, 15.2). Ephialtes was supported by Pericles, and was perceived as a political friend of, and heir to, Themistocles (Ash. Poll 25.3-4).

At the same time, at the end of the 460s and early 450s, Athenian foreign policy became aggressively anti-Spartan. An alliance was made with Sparta's great rival in the Peloponnese, Argos, in c.460, Megara was detached from the Spartan bloc (Thucydides 1.102.4, 103.3), and a pitched hoplite battle was fought between the Athenians and Spartans at Tanagra in c.457 (Thucydides 1.108, Plutarch, Cimon 17.4).

This radically changed public mood, which is well attested, provides a very suitable context for a decree recalling Themistocles' sons (though almost certainly it came after the death of Themistocles himself, news of which may itself have contributed to the change of feeling).

4. The source conflict -- an explanatory hypothesis

I would suggest that the whole tradition of Themistocles' death by suicide originated with the sons and family of Themistocles, who, on their return to Athens, put it about in public speeches and private conversations in an attempt to rehabilitate their father's memory. He had of course been officially condemned on a charge of treason, in absentia, in c.468 -- a fact which was publicly recorded. So the notion of Themistocles the traitor had to be countered.

This original version, at first essentially an oral tradition, stressed his honourable and patriotic motivation, and it is this which is reproduced by Plutarch at Themistocles 31.5-6. Themistocles killed himself at Magnesia in a heroic fashion, by drinking bull's blood to escape the disgrace of having to take up arms and lead a Persian army against his fellow countrymen in Egypt, thus proving that he was not a traitor. The story was probably intended to recall the defiant anti-Persian suicide of the Egyptian king, Psammenitus.(12)

Themistocles' political enemies at Athens moved swiftly to debunk this favourable tradition, but not by contending that in fact he had just died a natural death as a result of an illness, since that was something which they could not be expected authoritatively to know, and so could not plausibly maintain. So they accepted the supposed fact of suicide, but contested the motive. Themistocles had really poisoned himself out of despair (they claimed) at his inability to make good the treasonable promises he had made to the King, and/or through jealousy at the military success of his rival Cimon. This version is only hinted at by Plutarch in the Themistocles (31.4-5), but it is more fully reported by him at Cimon 18.5-6, and the discreditable motive is the only one mentioned by Thucydides in his reference to the death-by-suicide tradition at 1.138.4.

Thus `death by suicide' became a fable convenue, an `agreed fable', in both the pro- and anti-Themistocles camps, and hence in public opinion, from the 450s onwards. This was facilitated by two factors, one particular and one general: (a) very few people in Athens in the 450s had the resources, or the inclination, to check the story, by making a personal visit to Magnesia; (b) in the absence of autopsies in the ancient world it was always possible to suggest that the sudden or unexpected death of a famous man, which was not obviously due to violence or an accident, had been the result of poison, administered by himself or by others.(13)

When accounts of, and incidents from, early fifth-century Athenian history began to be written down, from about 430 onwards, by e.g. Herodotus, Hellanicus of Lesbos, Thucydides, and Aristophanes, both versions of Themistocles' alleged suicide were in circulation simultaneously, as oral traditions, and different writers adopted or reported or alluded to one or the other version.

The Diodorus/Ephorus version, of a deliberate deception practiced by Themistocles on the King, is a product of the same ongoing propaganda battle. It is a refinement on the part of the pro-Themistocles lobby, from a somewhat later stage in the controversy. It seems designed to explain and justify his promises (for which cf. Thucydides 1.137.4, 138.2, 4, Nepos, Themistocles 10.4, Plutarch, Themistocles 27.6, 31.4, Cimon 18.6), which the pro-Themistocleans apparently could not deny he had made at the time the King gave him sanctuary. They agreed that the promises were lavish, but argued that they were never seriously meant, and that, when the test came, Themistocles practiced an effective deception on the King, in getting him to give a guarantee that he would not send his expedition against Greece if it wasn't commanded by Themistocles. Thus, by committing suicide, Themistocles did not just preserve his own honour, and prove that he was no traitor, he also saved Greece a second time.

5. The death of Themistocles -- the facts

Almost certainly Themistocles died a natural death. Whatever Themistocles' `promises' to the King were (see earlier), they can hardly in fact have been as lavish as the sources suggest. Themistocles was a supreme realist, who must have known that there was no prospect in the late 460s of bringing about the subjugation of the whole of Greece to Persia, nor would Artaxerxes have believed any such vaunting. Themistocles would not have promised something which he knew there was no possibility of delivering.

No doubt there was some arrangement. Themistocles was expected to do something in return for his pension, operating from his main base in Magnesia, but on a much smaller scale. Possibly it was his job to subvert the loyalties of Delian League cities in the area, particularly Miletus. But that was a long-term enterprise, which could hardly have been said to have `failed' by the time the revolt in Egypt began in c.460.(14)

As far as that revolt is concerned, it is highly unlikely that at this date, so soon after ta Medika, a Greek would have been asked to take command of the Persian expeditionary force which was subsequently sent to deal with it. Themistocles was still, no doubt, a wily political operator, and it may have been at his suggestion that an attempt was made to bribe the Spartans to invade Attica during the period of the Egyptian campaign (Thucydides 1.109.2-3). Themistocles knew his Spartans. However, supreme military command was something else. Furthermore, he was now, at the age of 65 (Plus. Themistocles 31.6), surely too old to play an active military role. As we would expect, the commander actually chosen by the King was a high ranking Persian, Megabyzus, son of Zopyrus (Thucydides 1.109.3).

Thus, since the prospect of having to hold high military command simply did not arise in 459, Themistocles cannot have been terminally worried about not being up to the job.

Conversely, the fact that the Persians were happy to see Themistocles' honours at Magnesia continue long after his death (Thucydides 1.138.5, Diodorus 11.58.1, Plutarch, Themistocles 32.4) strongly suggests that, in their eyes, there had been nothing defiantly or cunningly anti-Persian about his death either.

Thus, on examination, none of the postulated motives for Themistocles' alleged suicide has much credibility. The conclusion must surely be that Thucydides' version is the correct one. Themistocles died a natural death, through an `illness' whose effect perhaps was unusually rapid, maybe a sudden massive heart attack or stroke. We can only speculate as to where Thucydides got his information from, but it may perhaps have derived from a private conversation with certain relatives of Themistocles whom he seems to have known, and whom he cites for the story that Themistocles' remains were removed from Magnesia and secretly buried in Attica (1.138.6).

However, in the atmosphere of partisan controversy about Themistocles at Athens in the mid-fifth century, it did not suit the book of either side to espouse the prosaic truth. The `death by suicide' story became a fable convenue, and the dispute became one about his alleged motives. Later writers were only too happy to follow this more sensational version (to this extent Cicero/Atticus was right), and it is much to Nepos' credit that he nevertheless not only reported the `natural death' tradition, which was apparently to be found only in Thucydides, but accepted it too.


(1.) It is generally agreed that Diodorus' main source for his account of Themistocles' career in Book 11 was the fourth-century B.C. `universal' historian, Ephorus of Cyme: see e.g. A. J. Podlecki, The Life of Themistocles (1975), p. 92.

(2.) There seem to have been two different chronologies of Themistocles' life in antiquity, with a discrepancy of about ten years between them: see F.J. Frost, Plutarch's Themistocles. A Historical Commentary (1980), pp. 70-1; Podlecki, Lip, pp. 195-9. However, even on the early chronology his death cannot be dated before 459.

(3.) `A Themistoclean Myth', CR 12 (1898), 21-3. For the coin see e.g. Podlecki, Life, plate 3c, facing p. 176; G. F. Hill, Sources for Greek History (2nd. ed., revised by R. Meiggs and A. Andrewes, 1951), C10(b), p. 332. Magnesia on the Maeander was given to Themistocles by Artaxerxes (Thuc. 1.138.5).

(4.) Cf. Nepos, Themistocles 9.1, where he sets out his reasons for a similar preference for the version of Thucydides over that of his other sources.

(5.) In this account Themistocles is invited by the King, who is eager to send a second expedition against Greece, to take command of the war, and he agrees to do so, having received sworn guarantees that the King will not march against the Greeks without Themistocles. He then sacrifices a bull and, filling a cup with its blood, drinks it down and dies immediately (parachrema teleutesai). Xerxes (the Persian King in this version) thereupon gives up his plan.

(6.) The evidence is summarized by Podlecki, Life, pp. 197-8. According to Thucydides 1.137.3, Themistocles, after crossing the Aegean to Asia, wrote a letter to King Artaxerxes, `who had recently come to the throne'. This accession can be dated, on independent evidence, to late 465. See M. E. White, 'Some Agiad dates: Pausanias and his sons', JHS 84 (1964), 142 and n. 13.

Diodorus 11.55.4-8, dates his flight from Argos (and, by implication, his condemnation for treason) to the archonship of Praxiergus, i.e. 471/0 (11.54.1). However, Diodorus assigns a large number of events of Themistocles' later life to this year, including his ostracism, flight from Argos, sojourn with Admetus of the Molossians, journey across to Asia, and reception by the King. Clearly this is a chronological impossibility. These events cannot all have occurred in the same year.

All our accounts agree that Themistocles was first ostracized, as a result of which he went to live in Argos, and was subsequently threatened with prosecution for treason, as a result of which he fled to north-west Greece. He was eventually given protection by Admetus, the king of the Molossians.

Certainty is not possible, but the most likely chronology, in my view, is ostracism in spring 470, trial and condemnation for treason in absentia in 468 or 467.

(7.) We are not told this explicitly by the main literary sources, but we are by Idomeneus of Lampsacus (FGH 338 F1 = schol. Ar. Wasps 947), Cicero Brut. 1.15.11, and the Suda s.v. Themistokleous paides.

Atimia for one's sons seems to have been a normal part of the penalty imposed on anyone convicted of treason in fifth-century Athens. P.J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (1981), p. 222, has argued that atimia in this context means `outlawry' rather than `disfranchisement'. But in either case it would m practice have entailed exile. We may compare the decree recording the conviction for treason of Antiphon and Archeptolemus in 410 (Pa-Plutarch, X Or. [Moralia], 834 A-B), which imposed the death penalty on them, and atimia on both them and genos to ek touton, kai nothous kai gnesious, `their issue, both legitimate and illegitimate sons'. Also revelant is the Athenian decree against Arthmius of Zeleia, probably passed in the 460s, and mentioned by a number of fourth-century orators (Dem. 9.41-3, 19.271; Aeschines 3.258; Dinarchus 2.24-25), in which, according to Plutarch, Themistocles 6.4, `they inscribed his name on the list of the atimoi, together with his sons and family, because he had brought the Persians' gold and offered it to the Greeks'.

(8.) See the inscription dated c.200 B.C. in Hill, Sources, B122, p.234. Now lost, it was originally published by H. Lolling, Ath.Mitt. 6 (1881), 103-5. It shows that Cleophantus' descendants were still receiving honours at Lampsacus at that time.

(9.) For Themistocles' close connection with Artemis cf. Plut. Them. 8.4, 22.2-3.

(10.) Athenian Propertied Families, 600-300 B.C. (1971), 6669 VI, p. 218.

(11.) See e.g. Rhodes, Commentary, p. 320.

(12.) Herodotus 3.15 reports that the young Egyptian King, Psammenitus (=Psamtik), the son of Amasis, committed suicide by drinking bull's blood (he died immediately, apethane parachrema), after the failure of his revolt against the Persian King, Cambyses. Herodotus' narrative suggests this took place very soon after Cambyses' conquest of Egypt in 525. It is extremely likely that Psammenitus' name was invoked by the Libyan and Egyptian kings, Inarus and Amyrtaeus, at the time of their nationalist revolt against Persia in the 450s (Thuc. 1.104, 109-10). It is surely no accident that in this same chapter (3.15) Herodotus makes a forward reference to both Inarus and Amyrtaeus, which strongly suggests that his sources had mentioned Psammenitus, Inarus, and Amyrtaeus in the same breath.

This Egyptian revolt, which lasted for six years, was heavily supported by Athens and her allies, and Athenian public opinion at the time was doubtless both familiar with Psammenitus' name, and susceptible to an appeal to his memory and example.

(13.) See e.g. D. Stockton, `The death of Ephialtes', CQ 32 (1982), 227-8.

(14.) For the chronology cf A. W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides I (1945), p. 410.
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Author:Marr, John
Publication:Greece & Rome
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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