Cornelius Nepos : Life of Themistocles

Translated by J.C. Rolfe (1929). Click on the L symbols to go to the Latin text of each chapter.   Click on ** to go to the translator's footnotes.


I.   Miltiades  


  [1] L   Themistocles, son of Neocles, the Athenian. This man's faults in early youth gave place to such great merits that no one is ranked above him and few are thought to be his equals. 2 But we must begin our account of his life at the beginning. His father Neocles was of high birth. He married an Acarnanian woman possessing the rights of citizenship, who became the mother of Themistocles. The son displeased his parents by living too lawlessly and neglecting his property, and in consequence was disinherited by his father. 3 But this affront, instead of breaking his spirit, aroused his ambition. For believing that such a disgrace could be wiped out only by the greatest industry, he devoted all his time to public life, doing his best to gain friends and distinction. He took a prominent part in civil suits, and often came forward to speak in the public assembly; no business of importance was transacted without him; he was quick to see what was needed and able to express his views clearly. 4 Furthermore, he was no less active in carrying out his plans than he had been in devising them, because, as Thucydides expresses it, he judged present events with great exactness and divined the future with remarkable skill. As a result he soon became famous.   

  [2] L   The first step in his public career came in connection with the war with Corcyra; chosen general by the people to carry on that contest, he inspired the Athenians with greater courage, not only at that time, but also for the future. 2 For while the public funds which came in from the mines ** every year were being squandered by the magistrates ** in largess, he persuaded the people to use that money to build a fleet of a hundred ships. 3 The fleet was quickly built, and with it he first humbled the Corcyreans, and then made the sea safe by ridding it of pirates. In that way he made the Athenians not only rich, but highly skilled also in naval warfare. 4 How much this meant to the safety of all Greece became evident during the Persian invasion; for when Xerxes was making war upon all Europe by land and sea with greater forces than any man ever possessed before or since - 5 he had a fleet of twelve hundred ships of war, attended by two thousand transports, together with a land force of seven hundred thousand foot and four hundred thousand horse;- 6 after the news of his coming had reached Greece, and it was said that Athens was the special object of his attack because of the Battle of Marathon, the people sent to Delphi to inquire what measures they ought to take.   

  7 The Pythia replied to the envoys that they must defend themselves by wooden walls. When no one could understand what the oracle meant, Themistocles convinced the people that Apollo's advice was that they should take to their ships with all their possessions; for that was what the god meant by a wooden wall. 8 Having adopted that plan, they added to the fleet already mentioned an equal number of triremes, and transported all their movable property either to Salamis or Troezen. The citadel they left in charge of the priests and a few of the older citizens, who were to attend to the sacred rites; the rest of the city they abandoned.   

  [3] L   Many of the states did not approve of Themistocles' plan, but preferred to fight on land. Accordingly, a band of picked men was sent with Leonidas, king of the Lacedaemonians, to hold Thermopylae and prevent any further advance of the barbarians. They, however, could not resist the enemy's attack, but in that pass they all perished. 2 But the common fleet of Greece, consisting of three hundred ships, of which two hundred belonged to Athens, first engaged with the king's marines off Artemisium, between Euboea and the mainland. For Themistocles chose a narrow place, in order not to be surrounded by superior numbers. 3 Although the result of that battle was indecisive, the Greeks nevertheless did not venture to hold their ground, because there was reason to fear that if a part of the ships of their opponents should round Euboea, they would be exposed to attack on both sides. 4 They therefore retired from Artemisium and stationed their fleet at Salamis, over against Athens.   

  [4] L   Now Xerxes, having forced the pass at Thermopylae, at once marched upon Athens, and since it was without defenders, he massacred the priests whom he found on the citadel and destroyed the city by fire. 2 The flames of the burning town so terrified the soldiers on the fleet, that they did not dare to hold their position, but the greater number recommended withdrawing to their homes and taking refuge within their walls. Themistocles alone objected, saying that united they could be a match for the Persians, but insisting that if they should separate, they would all be lost; and he assured Eurybiades, king of the Lacedaemonians, who held the chief command at the time, that what he said was true. 3 And when he had less influence on the Spartan than he hoped, he sent the most faithful of his slaves by night to the Persian king, to take word to him in the name of Themistocles that his enemies were on the point of flight: 4 if they should disperse, it would require longer time and greater effort to end the war, since he would be obliged to attack each city separately; but if he advanced upon them at once, he would quickly destroy them all. Themistocles' design was to compel all the Greeks to fight a decisive battle against their will. 5 When the barbarian received the message, he did not suspect any deception, and although the position was most unfavourable for him, but highly advantageous for the enemy, he joined battle on the following day in so narrow a part of the sea that it was impossible to manoeuvre his immense number of ships. Hence he was defeated, thanks to Themistocles' strategy even more than to the arms of Greece.  

  [5] L   Although the king lost that battle, he still had so many troops left that with them he might even then have overwhelmed the Greeks. A second time he was baffled by the same man; for Themistocles, fearing that Xerxes would continue the war, informed him that a plan was on foot to destroy the bridge which he had made over the Hellespont and thus cut off his return to Asia. 2 The king was convinced of the truth of the report, and so, while he had taken six months to make the journey, ** he returned to Asia over the same route in less than thirty days, convinced that he had not been conquered, but saved, ;by Themistocles.   

  3 Thus through the cleverness of one man the liberty of Greece was assured and Asia succumbed to Europe. This is a second victory which may be matched with the triumph at Marathon; for at Salamis in like manner a small number of ships completely vanquished the greatest fleet within the memory of man.   

  [6] L   Themistocles showed greatness in that war and no less greatness when peace came. For while the Athenians were using the harbour of Phalerum, which was neither large nor good, through his advice the triple port of the Piraeus was constructed, and fortified with such strong walls that it equalled Athens herself in splendour and surpassed her in utility. 2 Themistocles also rebuilt the walls of Athens at great personal risk. For the Lacedaemonians, having found a specious reason in the invasions of the barbarians for saying that no city outside of the Peloponnese ought to have walls, namely, that there might be no fortified places for the enemy to get into their hands, tried to interrupt the Athenians in their work. 3 Their motive was not at all what they wished it to appear. The fact was that the Athenians by their two victories at Marathon and Salamis had gained such prestige all over Greece that the Lacedaemonians knew that it was with them that they must contend for the hegemony . ** 4 Therefore they wished the Athenians to be as weak as possible, and as soon as they learned that the walls were rising, they sent envoys to Athens, to put a stop to the work. While the deputation was present, the Athenians desisted, saying that they would send envoys to Lacedaemon to discuss the matter. 5 That mission Themistocles undertook and set out at first alone, giving orders that the rest of the envoys should not follow until the walls seemed to have risen high enough to defend: that in the meantime all, slave and free, should push the work, sparing no place, whether sacred or public or private, ** but getting together from every hand whatever they thought suitable for a fortification. That is the reason why the walls of Athens were made of shrines and tombs. 

  [7] L   But when Themistocles came to Lacedaemon, he at first refused to appear before the magistrates, and did his best to gain as much time as possible, pretending that he was waiting for his colleagues. 2 While the Lacedaemonians were protesting that the work was going on just the same, and that he was trying to deceive them about it, meanwhile the rest of the envoys arrived. When Themistocles heard from them that not much of the fortification remained unfinished, he went before the ephors of the Lacedaemonians, in whose hands was the supreme power, and declared in their presence that they had been misinformed: therefore it was just that they should send reliable men of high position, in whom they had confidence, to investigate the matter; in the meantime they might hold him as a hostage. 3 His proposition was accepted, and three deputies, who had held the highest offices, were sent to Athens. Themistocles directed his colleagues to return with them and charged them not to allow the envoys of the Lacedaemonians to return, until he himself had been sent back.    

  4 As soon as he thought that the deputation had reached Athens, he appeared before the magistrates ** and the senate of the Lacedaemonians and confessed to them with the utmost frankness that the Athenians, by his advice, and taking advantage of the rights granted by the common law of nations, had encircled with walls the gods of all Greece, of their native city and of their homes, in order the more easily to defend them against the enemy ; 5 and that in so doing they had acted for the best interests of Greece. For their city, he said, was like an outpost in the path of the barbarians, and upon it the king's fleets had already twice suffered shipwreck. 6 But the Lacedaemonians were acting wrongfully and unjustly in having in view rather what contributed to their own supremacy than to the welfare of Greece as a whole. Therefore, if they wished to recover their envoys which they had sent to Athens, they must let him go; otherwise they would never get them back again in their native land.    

  [8] L   In spite of all, Themistocles could not escape the distrust of his fellow-citizens; but because of the same feeling of apprehension that had led to the condemnation of Miltiades he was banished from the city by the shard-vote ** and went to live in Argos. 2 There because of his many accomplishments he lived in great distinction, until the Lacedaemonians sent envoys to Athens, ** to accuse him behind his back of having conspired with the king of Persia to enslave Greece. 3 On this charge he was found guilty of high treason without a hearing.   

  As soon as he learned of this, Themistocles decided that he was not sufficiently safe in Argos and withdrew to Corcyra. When he perceived that the leading citizens of that place were fearful that the Lacedaemonians and Athenians would declare war upon them because of his presence, he took refuge with Admetus, king of the Molossians, with whom he had relations of guest-friendship. ** 4 Having arrived there when Admetus was away from home, in order that his host might be under the greater obligation to receive and protect him he caught up the king's little daughter ** and hastened with her into the household shrine, which was regarded with the greatest veneration; and he would not come out again until the king gave him his right hand and received him under his protection. 5 And Admetus kept his promise; for when the Athenians and Lacedaemonians made an official demand for Themistocles, Admetus did not surrender the suppliant; he advised him, however, to take measures to protect himself, saying that it would be difficult for him to remain in safety in a place so near to Greece. Accordingly, the king had him taken to Pydna, giving him such escort as he deemed sufficient.   

  6 There Themistocles embarked on a ship without being known to any of the crew. When the vessel was driven by a violent storm towards Naxos, where the Athenian army was at the time, ** Themistocles understood that if he landed there he was lost. Therefore of necessity he made himself known to the captain of the ship, adding many promises if he would save his life. 7 The sailor, filled with pity for so distinguished a man, for a day and a night kept his ship at anchor out at sea far off from the island, and would not allow anyone to leave her. Then he went on to Ephesus and there landed Themistocles, who afterwards requited him for his services.    

  [9] L   I am aware that many have written that Themistocles passed over into Asia during the reign of Xerxes, but I prefer to believe Thucydides, because among the writers who have left a history of those times he was most nearly contemporary with Themistocles, besides being a native of the same city. Now he says ** that it was to Artaxerxes ** that Themistocles came, and that he sent a letter to the king in the following words: 2 "I, Themistocles, have come to you, the man of all the Greeks who brought the most ills upon your house, so long as it was necessary for me to war against your father and defend my native land. 3 But I also did him many more favours, so soon as I began to find myself in safety and he was in danger. For when he wished to return to Asia after having fought the battle at Salamis, I informed him by letter of the enemy's plot to destroy the bridge which he had made over the Hellespont and to cut off his retreat; and it was that message which saved him from danger. 4 But now I have sought refuge with you, hounded as I am by all Greece, seeking your friendship ; ** if I obtain it, you will have in me as good a friend as I was a courageous foeman of Xerxes. But with regard to the matters about which I wish to confer with you, I ask you to allow me a year's delay and let me come to you at the end of that time."  

  [10] L   The king, admiring his high spirit, and eager to win the friendship of such a man, granted his request. Themistocles devoted all that time to the literature and language of the Persians, in which he became so well versed that he is said to have spoken in much better style before the king than those could who were natives of Persia. ** 2 Themistocles made many promises to the king, of which the most welcome was, that if Artaxerxes would consent to follow his advice, the king's arms would subjugate Greece. Then, after receiving many presents from the monarch, he returned to Asia ** and took up his residence at Magnesia; 3 for the king had given him that city, with the remark that it would furnish him with bread (the annual revenue of the district was five hundred talents), also Lampsacus, to supply him with wine, and Myus, to furnish the rest of his fare. **   

  Two memorials of this man have endured to our own day: his tomb near the town in which he was buried, ** and his statue in the forum at Magnesia. 4 Of his death many different accounts are given by numerous writers, but once more I prefer to accept the testimony of Thucydides. That historian says that Themistocles died a natural death at Magnesia, admitting, however, that there was a report that he had poisoned himself, because he despaired of being able to keep his promises to the king with regard to the subjugation of Greece. 5 Thucydides has also stated that Themistocles' bones were buried in Attica by his friends secretly, since his interment there was contrary to law, because he had been found guilty of treason. 

III.   Aristides →



1.   The silver mines at Laurium, in the southern part of Attica.  

2.   See note on i. 6. 4.   

3.   In xvii. 4.4 Nepos gives the time as a year. It actually was four months (Hdt. viii. 51) and the return took forty-five days (id. viii. 115).   

4.   That is, the first rank among the Greek states and the chief command in time of war, then held by the Lacedaemonians.   

5.   Sacer is contrasted with privatus and publicus ( = profanus) but perhaps the reading of cod. M is right; cf. Cic. Verr. iv. 2 and v. 1.   

6.   Here and in iv. 4. 3 Nepos uses the singular magistratum of the college of five ephors or overseers. The "senate" is the gerousia, the corresponding body at Sparta, consisting of twenty-eight elders (gerontes) and the two kings. Other Roman terms applied to Greek institutions are nobiles (7. 2) and honoribus (7. 3).   

7.   An institution established by Cleisthenes after the expulsion of the Pisistratidae. The Prytanies and the popular assembly (ekklēsia) must first determine whether such a step was necessary. If they decided in the affirmative, each citizen wrote on a potsherd (ostrakon, whence the term 'ostracism') the name of the man whom he wished to banish. The one who had the greatest number of votes recorded against him, provided the total number of voters was 6000, was obliged to leave the city within ten days for an exile of ten, later of five, years, but without loss of rank or property, If, the number of votes did not amount to 6000, no action was taken. Cf. v. 3. 1, where the Greek name ostracism is given.   

8.   In 471 B.C., or according to others in 468 or 467.   

9.   This imposed a sacred and binding obligation to protect a guest against his enemies. Thucydides says that Admetus was not a friend of Themistocles, whence some editors insert non after erat.   

10.   Thucydides says that it was a son, and some editors change filiam to filium; but the deviations of Nepos from the historical sources are too numerous to mention in detail.   

11.   In 473 B.C., warring against the cities that had revolted from the Athenian league.   

12.   i. 137. 3 ff.   

13.   Artaxerxes Macrochir; see xxi. 1. 3.   

14.   Thucydides says, 'because of my friendship for you.'   

15.   This is one of Nepos' frequent exaggerations; cf. Thuc. i. 138 and Plut. Them. 29.   

16.   Used in the Roman sense of a part of Asia Minor.   

17.   Obsonium included everything that was eaten with bread by way of relish; with the Greeks, especially fish.   

18.   That is, Magnesia. 


III.   Aristides →

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