Monday, March 30, 2009

The 21 Letters of Themistocles

As anyone who's tried to research Themistocles knows, there aren't a whole lot of ancient sources on the Athenian navarch. The earliest we know of is Herodotus, and shortly after a few words from Thucydides. From there the sources get pretty dubious due the increasing time lapse between his death and later authors.

But one of the most dubious sources is also one of the most interesting: 21 letters accredited to the political powerhouse that follow his adventures from Argos, where he was exiled sometime after 478 BC, to his triumphant escape to Persia in the mid 460s. These letters are addressed to everyone from King Pausanias of Sparta to Themistocles' personal banker, and go from petulant to proud, angry to contrite. Modern scholars are pretty sure they were written around the first century A.D., so it's safe to say they probably aren't Themsitocles' personal letters (though could there have been an earlier source...?).

That being said, I was still intrigued and decided to read them for myself, but getting my hands on a copy was HARD. No matter what I Googled or where I looked online I couldn't seem to find these phantom letters! Luckily Amazon came to my rescue by bringing up Patricia A. Rosenmeyer's "Ancient Greek Literary Letters", which has all 21 in tact for my reading enjoyment!

The letters are fairly short, and unfortunately they don't shed a whole lot of new information on Themistocles; they just re-hash what earlier sources have already reported. What's really weird about them though is their contradictory nature. They make Themistocles look downright schizophrenic!

For example, in one letter Themistocles thanks Aristeides for helping take care of things back in Athens for him. Yet in another correspondence Themistocles has only childish spite for "The Just" one:

"I hope the victory statue set up at Salamis will fall down and crush you; it's stone you know, large and plenty heavy[!]"


"So Aristeides, son of Lysimachas can go hang himself, and the rest of you [Athenians] can go hang yourselves too."

I have to admit out of all 21 letters, this is by far my favorite. It's just so hilariously immature! I can't help imagining Themistocles standing in the direction of Athens and sticking his tongue out.

As for the I, Themistocles itself...I'm SOOO close to finishing my first draft! Themis is in Aeolia right now, trying to get an audience with the Persian king. I think Themistocles should be involved in one last good ruse before I write "The End", but I'm still not sure what that should be. Does he help the Athenians at the battle of Eurymedon? Is he involved in Artabanus' court intrigues in Susa? Does he create more mischief for Sparta while abroad? Can't seem to decide...

Oh. before I forget, there's something I want to ask readers: what do you think of the title I, Themistocles? I like it, and the words even appear in a "letter" to Artaxerxes according to Thucydides, but it's far from original (I, Claudius, I Elizabeth, etc.). What do you think of these alternative titles?

1) King of the Sailing/Floating/Windswept/Briney Walls
2) King of The Winedark Sea
3) Teaching Cattle to Walk Backwards: The Life and Times of Themistocles
4) Odysseus in Athens
5) A Victory Wreath for Foxes

I'm really liking Teaching Cattle to Walk Backwards (a shout-out and 1000 points to anyone who gets the reference!, King of The Briney Walls, or Odysseus in Athens. Let me know what you think in the comments section (and feel free to make your own suggestions).


D.A. Riser said...

Hi Meghan - Congratz on getting close to finishing the 1st draft. That's huge!

And, I salute you for tracking down those 21 letters. Google is great for that sort of thing.

I love The Cattle Walked Backward as a title. Is this a reference to when Hermes stole Apollo's cattle?

Carla said...

I vote for King of the Wine-Dark Sea. But don't pay any attention to me - it's your book!

If the letters aren't genuine, who do you suppose wrote them and what for? Was somebody in the 1st century AD trying to show Themistocles as a sulky kid, do you suppose?

Meghan said...


Thanks! I can't wait to finish, type it up finally (it's all hand-written) and then try putting it together well enough to send to an agent. Let's hope that goes well.

And major points to you. It is indeed a reference to the clever Hermes and his adventures with Apollo's cattle. :D


I appreciate your vote! I need the feedback and it helps me a lot with the "marketing" aspect.

I have no idea who wrote the letters of Themistocles. I can't help but think it's multiple authors though; they're just so contrasting at times it's not even funny.

Scott Oden said...

I like I, Themistocles, myself. Titles should be as short and evocative as you can make them. Also, don't get to attached to any title you pick -- Marketing will have the final say in what the book is called.

Meghan said...

Marketing will have the final say in what the book is called.

Oh dear! Good to know.