Friday, April 11, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Themistocles

Throughout all of human history a handful of generals have performed so admirably in what looked to all to be a hopeless cause, that Victor Davis Hanson has dubbed them, The Savior Generals. These are not the men one would normally associate with such a grandiose title. In fact VDH states, “Such men emerge far later from the lower echelons when wars are almost lost. They arise only because their superiors are desperate and turn to the unlikely, to whom, in normal circumstance, they otherwise probably would not.” The use of the word “savior” attached to these generals refers to a lasting victory with historical repercussions. These are the victories which mark turning points in history’s landscape.

The first such Savior General VDH details is of the little known Themistocles, yet this man may be responsible for the advent of Western Civilization itself. We are more familiar with the famous Battle of Marathon and the loss of the 300 brave Spartans at Thermopylae, but the Battle of Salamis led by Themistocles is what earns him the title of Savior General.

In 480 B.C. Athens faced an existential threat from Xerxes and his Persian empire. The Persians had battled the Greeks 10 years earlier at the Battle of Marathon, resulting in a rousing defeat of the much larger invading Asian force. Ten years later, the Persian hoard invaded again. The Spartans made a brave stand at Thermopylae, resulting in the death of King Leonidas and his 300 troops, yet they ultimately failed to hold the pass. Now the Athenians were forced to abandon their centuries-old city and flee to the nearby coast of the Peloponnese. 

While his fellow Greek had spent the previous 10 years celebrating their victory over Xerxes at Marathon, Themistocles alone recognized it for what it was, a fluke of sorts. The Persians had simply been launching a dry run, with a diminished force, probing at Greek defenses. Themistocles saw with perfect clarity that the Persians would return and unless the Athenians and their allies built up a navy ready to battle Xerxes, all hope would be lost. Capitalizing on a fortuitous silver strike, Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to invest in the latest sea-going battleships, triremes.

Since Themistocles had convinced the Athenians not to take a stand on land and to abandon their city, Themistocles became a general without a home. Consequently his entreaties to the Spartan general Eurybiades to battle the Persians at sea held little sway. As the Greeks became increasingly despondent over their ability to battle back the invading hoards, Themistocles grew increasingly optimistic. “Few others shared his optimism, perhaps because a Spartan king had just fallen in battle at Thermopylae, partly because unlike Themistocles they still had homes to retreat to for a while longer.”

Yet bravely, Themistocles made his case for a sea battle to end the threat for good. “We Athenians have given up, it is true, our houses and city walls, because we did not choose to become enslaved for the sake of things that have no life or soul. But what we still possess is the greatest city in all Greece -- our two hundred warships that are ready now to defend you -- if you are still willing to be saved by them.” 

Incorporating the lessons he had learned from the Battle of Marathon, Themistocles knew sea power allowed a people to decide when and where to fight. Despite their overwhelming loss at Marathon, the Persian survivors had been able to sail away unscathed, choosing when and where to return. In the days when infantry battles seemed the only way, Themistocles envisioned another route. He begged his compatriots to fight in the nearby Salamis straights off the coast of Athens. 

Ignoring Themistocles, the allied generals reviewed their options: 1. Fight on the Attic plain to the north of Athens in the hopes of repeating a Marathon-like victory. 2. Take a stand in Athens to save the city. 3. Surrender and join the Persians. 4. Abandon Athens, fight on the narrow isthmus of Corinth to repel the invaders from Sparta and use the Spartan navy for retreat. This fourth option seemed most promising and had the added benefit of punishing the Athenians for failing to reinforce King Leonidas at Thermopylae. 

Themistocles would have none of it. If the allies would not agree to fight at Salamis and therefore offer the chance at preserving Athens, Themistocles would take the refugee Athenians to Siris and usher in a rebirth of a relocated Athenians. The Spartans could count on no support from his large navy and forces in the upcoming battle. 

Faced with a squabbling and intransigent group of generals, Themistocles engaged in a ruse. He sent his slave Sicinnus on a mission to Xerxes with a “warning” of a complete Greek withdrawal. If Xerxes bought the lie, Themistocles hope it would convince him to hastily pursue the “retreating” Greeks through the straights of Salamis as well as split up his forces to block any exits available to the Greeks. In addition, Themistocles believed he would force his allies’ hands when they saw the Persian deploying. The plan worked perfectly. Xerxes dispatched a contingent of his much larger navy to cut off escape routes, thereby negating his numerical superiority and Themistocles was able to choose the time and place of battle, knowing the straights provided little room for maneuvering the much larger Persian vessels. 

The ensuing battle raged the whole day. “By nightfall half the Persian fleet was sunk, due both to poor tactics and leadership and to the superior morale and seamanship of the crews of the Greek triremes, who knew far better the tides and currents of Salamis Bay -- and that defeat meant the enslavement of their families watching from the beaches.” The surviving fleet and much of the Persian infantry raced back to Asia, hoping to cross the Hellespont before the Greeks could demolish their pontoon bridge. Some of the retreating Persian land forces and their general, Mardonius, raced to the north for the winter, leaving the Athenians to return to their homes to rebuild after the Persians had burned it. The Asian forces returned the following summer for a land battle in the plains of Attic after burning the city of Athens again. However, because they had lost their navy and much of their infantry after Salamis, Mardonius was killed and his forces crushed. Greece was forever free of the Persian threat thanks to the brilliant foresight of Themistocles.

But what happened to him after his epic victory? Themistocles disappears from the history books after the Battle of Salamis for five years. He then turns up in the territory of his old enemy, the Persians, where he seems to have perished at his own hand. It seems that although he achieved a stunning victory, Themistocles was never accepted or revered by his own people. His arrogance and cunning put off the virtuously-minded Athenians. He had turned their world upside down with his unorthodox methods and thinking. The victory alone was not enough to overcome their distaste for him and his methods. 

So what did he do right, that led to a resounding victory? First, he built an armada from the windfall silver gains. He learned the lesson from Marathon that everyone else overlooked. Sea power was key to Greek survival. Second, he took the daring step of ordering the complete abandonment of Athens. He recognized that a city is its people, not its buildings. He saved a people and a culture. The building could and would be rebuilt, or like he threatened, he could build a new Athens with the refugees. Third, he overcame enormous opposition and forced the battle to occur at Salamis. Subsequent events proved how futile any of the plans of the other generals would have been. A victory in the straights of Salamis, it turns out, was the only way to preserved the Greeks. In fact, “What made Themistocles a great captain was his ability to craft strategy to reflect national character: Sea power not only embodied the city’s real strengths, but would alone make Athens preeminent among the Greek poleis.” In contrast to Xerxes, perched on a throne overlooking the ensuing sea battle, Themistocles was in the lead trireme. Unlike most Greek generals, Themistocles confided in his slave and used him as an integral player. Finally, while Xerxes was revered and feared by his troops, Themistocles was hated and reviled. Not coming from the landed aristocracy, Themistocles was a soldiers’ general. 

But finally, what was the lasting impact of Themistocles’ bold and unconventional actions? Had the Greeks lost that day, Greece would have been a conquered nation and their culture would have stagnated under the Persian rule. The Greek “ideas about personal freedom, democracy, the rights of individuals, and rationalism” would have been lost to us. The philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle followed many years after Themistocles’ victory and so handed down to us today the very foundations of Western Civilization. In short, “without the savior general Themistocles, the world as we know it today might have been a very different place indeed.”

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