In 2010, the western world celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. In 2020, it will celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of Thermopylae and Salamis. Taken together, those three iconic battles saved Greece, and Europe, from being overrun by the Persian Empire. Although Sparta and the other Greek city-states played a vital role in those history-changing campaigns, it was Athens who spearheaded the democratic resistance to Persian tyranny.
It was the Athenians who defeated the army of Darius at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Were it not for a twist of history, they might not have been in a position to lead the ever-squabbling Greek city-states to victory when the far greater forces of Xerxes descended on Greece ten years later.
During the decade between the battles of Marathon and Salamis, Athenian democracy was beset with turmoil, as it was through most of its relatively brief life. At the forefront of the unrest, two mighty politicians struggled for supremacy.
On the right was the conservative, Sparta-loving Aristides. Like Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” he was noble, steadfast, and aristocratic. Whereas almost all of the Athenian politicians would eventually “medize”—that is, go over to the Medo-Persian Empire hat-in-hand during troubles at home—Aristides remained loyal to Athens. His fairness, unimpeachable character, and refusal to take bribes earned him the nickname “Aristides the Just.”
On the left was the radical, progressive Themistocles. Like Rhett Butler, he was daring, impetuous, and unscrupulous. Lacking full Athenian citizenship due to his birth, his political star rose due to a streak of good fortune and he lived a reckless life of action. A tutor of Themistocles once said that—either for good or for evil—he would one day become a great man. Themistocles said he could not play the lyre, but he made Athens great.
The safe money would have been on Aristides, but Athens was more in need of a politician than a statesman. As with Winston Churchill after him, however, Themistocles knew that while totalitarian aggressors had been defeated, they would likely be back again for a second “world war.” Ultimately, it was better to be safe than sorry.
When Laurion silver mines near Athens yielded a fabulous load, Themistocles convinced the Athenians to use the enormous surplus to build 100 new warships. If Aristides had been in charge, the windfall would more likely have gone back to the citizens in the form of a rebate.
It was also Themistocles who persuaded the Athenians to abandon their indefensible city and move to the more easily defensible Salamis, with its narrow inlets and more advantageous terrain. Although he could not guarantee a victory, he was able to make it clear to them that this was their only chance for survival.
In a clever move, knowing that Spartan soldiers would never take orders from Athenians, Themistocles convinced his naval officers to serve under the Spartans. Even with all his nobility and honesty, Aristides could not have pulled off such political coups. Indeed, he would not have thought to do so.
Themistocles proved to be the savior of Athens, but he would not have accomplished that feat had he not used dirty politics to rid himself of his rival, Aristides. A few decades earlier, during the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes (508), Athens had instituted the political safety valve of ostracism.
If the citizens of Athens ever felt that a politician was wielding excessive and dangerous influence over the polis, meaning their community, they could vote to have him expelled from the city for ten years. During that time, his property would be preserved, but he would not be allowed to set foot in the city. The practice was called ostracism because votes were cast by writing the name of the politician on an “ostrica” (or pottery fragment) and dropping it in a basket in the agora, or marketplace.
By means of an ancient political smear campaign, Themistocles managed to rile the Athenians up against the loyal, upstanding Aristides to such a degree that they voted to ostracize him in 483. According to an ancient story that is likely true, Aristides was wandering incognito through the agora when an illiterate Athenian approached him and asked him to please write a name on his ostrica so he could cast his vote. When Aristides asked what name to write, the man told him, “Aristides.”
Concealing his shock, Aristides asked the man why he felt it necessary to ostracize Aristides. The man answered: “Because I am sick and tired of hearing everyone call him Aristides the Just!” Without batting an eye, Aristides wrote his name on the ostrica, threw it in the basket, and went on his way.
The ostracism of Aristides gave Themistocles the political power and leverage to institute the very policies that allowed Athens to win the war. As for Aristides, not only did he stay loyal to Athens, when the city called him back in 480 to help with the war effort, he did so immediately without seeking revenge against his political enemies.
I do not offer this historical reminder as a direct comment on any single aspect of the current American political scene. Rather, I share it to highlight the ironies of history. The use of dirty political maneuvers in a democracy is not, alas, a new thing—it was invented in Athens and perfected during the waning days of the Roman republic. It can be low, petty, and underhanded, but it often serves a purpose. Sometimes, it can even serve to save democracy itself.
Both the Republican Abraham Lincoln and the Democratic Franklin Delano Roosevelt overstepped the bounds of the Constitution. Yet however unseemly their actions may have appeared at the time, they saved our ongoing American experiment in self-government. With that in mind, let us not despair the current low state of political discourse in the country. Its effects may not turn out to be all bad.
Sometimes—to borrow a line from “Hamlet”—our indiscretions serve us well when our deep plots do pall. For modern Americans, as much as for ancient Greeks and medieval Danes, there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.