Monday, June 1, 2009
First, the obvious question: Who is Themistocles? He was an Athenian general, statesman, and crafty politician who was responsible for the survival of pre-classical (or early classical) Athens (480 BC), the city whose classical-period cultural and political flourishing would not have occurred otherwise than by his machinations. Classical Athens is one of, if not the most important, source of our Western heritage. Cleisthenes may have founded its democratic style of governance (508 BC), but Themistocles assured its survival, against incredible odds by defeating a large Persian naval force. The Greek forces were badly outnumbered. Themistocles, through a combination of political acumen and foresight had convinced his fellow Athenians to use a windfall discovery of silver to finance the formation of a naval force.
This allowed him to gain de facto control of those naval forces. His persuasion and guile convinced the combined Greek navy to anchor at Salamis, a small island off the mainland. That same guile convinced the Persians to fight in the narrow waters. They were badly beaten. The narrow confines did not allow them to fully deploy their forces. Themistocles set the trap, and triggered it. This one event preserved the possibility of Western culture.
The battle of Thermopylae, is a more famous event in the Persian wars, and took place only a few weeks before this decisive naval battle. The heroic self sacrifice of the Spartans is an oft told story, and rightly so. But, they were defeated by the Persians. The Persian army was poised to lay waste to Greece. The only conceivable way to prevent this was to damage the Persian navy. Themistocles accomplished this.
If things had ended with Persian victory, we would probably be only dimly aware of Athens, and it certainly would not have survived to give us Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and too many others to mention. So we owe a great deal to Themistocles. What is interesting is that he came to be reviled by his own countrymen shortly after this pivotal event.
So, this brings me to the word "shade" in the title. There is a clumsy double meaning here: First, we have to familiarize ourselves with one of Aesop's stories:
Two Travelers, worn out by the heat of the summer's sun, laid themselves down at noon under the wide-spreading branches of a Plane-tree. As they rested under its shade, one of the Travelers said to the other: "What a singularly useless tree is the Plane. It bears no fruit, and is not of the least service to man." The Plane-tree interrupting him said: "You ungrateful fellows! Do you, while receiving benefits from me, and resting under my shade, dare to describe me as useless, and unprofitable?
Themistocles, when defending himself against accusations of conspiracy with Sparta, compared himself to this plane tree, unappreciated giver of shade. He certainly was in a sense used by the Athenians to protect themselves from a storm. But for Themistocles, they would not only have lost their homes, but freedom or life. Xerxes intended to kill or enslave every Athenian. While he did succeed in putting the town to the torch, he did not succeed in the latter. Once the storm had passed, though, the Athenians turned on Themistocles, plucked his leaves and hacked his branches, having no more use for him.
This pattern seems to repeat. Churchill was rejected. Truman ended his presidency unpopular, as did G.W. Bush. Yet, we still live under the shade cast by such men. Because of their actions and the men and women of the United States and allied military our world is relatively secure.
The United States is a a sort of plane tree for the world.
A second sense of the word "shade": Shades are ghosts by another name. Ghosts stand alongside us, expecting we do right by them, and protect what they have provided us.