Saturday, November 24, 2012

Themistocles & Ostracism

Kalispera, Patient Readers!

After a long absence I'm back, and as usual I assure you I am still writing about Themistocles and his amazing life. In fact, I'm happy to report that I am currently reading a book that may speed the process along, since it's helping me to better understand the events that took place in Themistocles' lifetime.

The book is called Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece. In it, author Sara Forsdyke attempts to explain the peculiar institution known as ostracism, which was created to stop the never ending cycle of violence that plagued the polis (city-state) of Athens. For over a hundred years, Archaic Athens was constantly torn apart by civil strife between the warring factions of Athens' nobility. This resulted in either murder or entire families being permanently banished from the city, which led to more murder and exile in retaliation. Even with reforms introduced by Draco (a rather severe lawmaker), Solon (a much nicer lawmaker), and Pisistratus (an affable tyrant), the bickering continued. Finally around 508 BCE, a gentleman named Cleisthenes introduced a set of revolutionary reforms that transferred power from the war-loving nobles to the slightly less war-loving people of Athens. One of these reforms was the power to let the majority decide who should go and who should stay, as opposed to the wealthy minority. This was known as ostracism.

Ostracism comes from the word ostracon, or "potsherd." This is because whenever the people of Athens voted to banish someone from their city, they would cast "ballots" made from broken pieces of pottery with the names of potential candidates scratched on them. If these candidates received at least 6,000 votes against them, they were then asked to leave the city for ten years. After this they could return home and become a citizen again, and in the meantime were allowed to keep their property and any income they accumulated from it.  These generous terms were incentive for the ostracized to return peacefully and leave their grudges behind them.

 It was a clever system that broke the cycle of intra-elite conflict in Athens, but unfortunately it was also easily abused. Anyone able to turn a crowd against a particular individual -- whether they were a threat to the polis or not -- could use ostracism to their advantage. In fact, Themistocles is credited with a string of ostracisms between 490-480 BCE.  Among those cast out of Athens during this time were Aristides (one of the generals at the battle of Plataea), Xanthippus (father of Pericles and one of the generals at the battle of Mycale) Megacles (a relative of Cleisthenes) and Hipparchus (a relative of Pisistratus). Ironically, Themistocles would get a taste of his own medicine around 470 BCE, when the people of Athens grew tired of their clever but boastful leader and sent him packing.

We know the story of Themistocles' ostracism is true, because we have a mountain of physical evidence left behind by the Ancient Athenians to prove it. As you can see from the pictures above and below, archeologists have discovered a myriad of potsherds with the name Themistocles son of Neocles written on them. What's interesting is that many of these ostraca are suspiciously intact, almost as if they were manufactured and then handed out. It wouldn't be surprising to learn that Themistocles had a rather wealthy enemy, one who, perhaps in revenge for once being banished himself, may have ordered up a large number of potsherds to use against Themistocles in the future. It's also possible that Themistocles was suggested for ostracism more than once over the years, which would explain why so many ostraca with his name on it survive. Whatever the case, it's clear that many considered him a danger to the polis.

But WHY did they consider him dangerous? He was the hero of Salamis after all, as well as the architect of Athens' powerful (and victorious) navy. Why would the people he saved from an invading Persian army want him banished? According to Herodotus, it was because they were simply tired of Themistocles boasting about his military accomplishments. This is certainly a possibility, but Sara Forsdyke offers up evidence that indicates it may have been more than just a few obnoxious boasts that got him into trouble:

"Themistocles explained by the literary sources as a result of [his] excessive power and honor. At least one voter, furthermore, seems to have been referring to Themistocles' prestige when he wrote on his ballet, 'This potsherd is for Themistocles, of the deme Phrearrhius, on account of his honor.' Another voter, however [wrote] on his ballot, 'Themistocles, son of Neocles, asshole...' Yet another voter accused Themistocles of being a pollution in the land."

 The latter quote about Themistocles "being a pollution to the land" is especially interesting. Why would somebody think him a "pollution"? Could it be that he was acting outside of social norms in his private life? Or were people blaming him for some catastrophic event? Say...the destruction of Athens by the Persians?

For me, the latter idea makes a lot of sense. In 480 BCE, Themistocles decreed that the people should abandon the city and head for their ships in order to escape the invading Persian forces. The populace was reluctant to leave their homes undefended, but he reminded them of an oracle which hinted that "wooden walls" would be their salvation against the Persians. He suggested that their newly-formed navy was what the oracle was referring to, and that they could evacuate the city with these ships, as well as confront the Persians with them. Sure enough, the oracle about wooden walls proved to be true. Not only were the people of Athens able to escape the marauding Persians, but a ship battle took place between the Greeks and the Persians in the windy straights of Salamis that summer, with the Athenians and their allies achieving a stunning victory over the larger Persian navy. This victory changed the tide of the war in the Greeks' favor, and allowed the Athenians to safely return home. Alas, when the Athenians sailed back into the port of Piraeus, they were horrified by what they saw. Houses were looted. Temples had been burned to the ground. Public buildings were destroyed. And those left behind had either been killed or captured.  The sweet taste of victory turned bitter in their mouths as the Athenians saw their city reduced to ashes. It was gone. All gone. And so, it may be that they blamed their misfortune on the man who suggested they abandon the city to the Persians: Themistocles, son of Neocles.

But if that's the case, why would the Athenians wait ten whole years before throwing him out of Athens? The answer isn't clear, but we do know that less than a year after the battle of Salamis Themistocles was already demoted from his position as Generalissimo of the Greeks, because he is conspicuously absent from the decisive Greek victories at the battles of Pleatea and Myclae. Nor is he mentioned as being a part of the founding of the Delian League in 478, a coalition of Greek city-states that was meant to act as a shield against the Persian empire.  The most reasonable explanation for his absence (to me at least) is that perhaps he was ostracized earlier than was initially believed, say closer to 479 or 478 BCE.

Though scholars and history lovers may initially balk at this theory, it certainly makes it easier to explain why Themistocles was not part of several major events in the 470s. Thus I hope you don't mind if I change things around a bit in my Themistocles novel. I think an earlier ostracism will not only make writing my novel a lot easier, but who knows? Perhaps it will make it more interesting, too. ^_^

*Note: Of course I am aware of the various stories about Themistocles that are said to have taken place after the battle of Salamis. We hear of him shaking down allies for money, stalling the Spartans while Athens rebuilt its walls (Sparta was suspicious of Athens' new authority among the Greeks), fortifying the port of Piraeus, attending the Olympic games, and building a small shrine in his own honor. He was certainly busy, but it doesn't really explain why he wasn't a part of several significant events. Thus it seems easier to say these reported activities happened while he was ostracized. And once again, I AM writing historical fiction. So I hope it's OK to move things around!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Checking In!

Kalispera, Gentle Readers!

I just wanted to check in and let everyone know that yes, I'm still working on my novel(s) about Ancient Greece. Unfortunately I'm struggling with my Themistocles novel yet again, so there  hasn't been much to report.  :(

The good news is that gives me an excuse to go back and work another project of mine, which is about King Cleomenes I of Sparta. In it a man named Othryades (named after the soldier who stood his ground against the Argives at Thyrea ) tries to find out what really happened to the Agiad king after his apparent "suicide." The list of subjects is fairly long, as Cleomenes made a LOT of enemies in his lifetime due to his controversial policies at home and abroad. Most of the suspects however aren't foreigners. They're Spartans, and highly influential ones at that.  That makes Othryades' job harder and a lot more dangerous. What really happened to Cleomenes? You'll just have to read it to find out!

At any rate, thanks for your patience. Some of you have been following me for years and are probably doubtful any of these stories will ever be published/completed. But I assure you, I'm going to continue working hard and hopefully finish my novels soon!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Language of Leonidas Lives On

Back in 2009 I blogged that there are parts of Greece that still speak an ancient dialect (Ancient Greek Still Spoken in the Peloponnese!?). This Greek dialect is known as Tsakonian, and can trace it's heritage back almost 3000 years. In fact, Tsakonian is the direct descendant of the ancient Doric used by the Spartans!

Recently I came across a fantastic-looking documentary on how people in the Eastern Peloponnese (Southern Greece) are trying to preserve this historic tongue. Called A Groussa Namou (Our Language), it shows how the native Tsakonians are starting to lose their unique form of speech and what they're doing to preserve it. Here is a description from the website:

In the Eastern Peloponnese, in a remote region in the shadow of Mt Parnon, live the Tsakonians, a stubborn group of native Greeks. For 3,000 years now, they have been speaking an ancient dialect, the only surviving representative of the Doric language. They never abandoned it, not even when the Attic-based Koiné (from which Modern Greek derives) became the first common dialect of all Greeks and the lingua franca of the entire Mediterranean. Having survived for a great many centuries, the Tsakonian dialect entered a period of neglect in the 1960s, and may currently be approaching its end...This movie is about the loss of identity: what it means to know that your language will have vanished in a hundred years’ time.

If you have a love for history and languages, check out this Youtube clip and listen to what the Spartans may have actually sounded like! Or if you're so inclined, you can instantly download the documentary and watch it by going to their website.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Kratos vs. Leonidas: This. Is. SPARTA!!!

If you've read my blog long enough, you've probably figured out that I'm a huge video game fan. And since I also LOVE Ancient Greek history, it stands to reason that I enjoy Sony Santa Monica's God of War series, starring everybody's favorite angry Spartan, Kratos. But is Kratos an accurate depiction of a real Spartan warrior?  Let's compare a picture of him to a statue of a real-life Spartan with a graphic I made and find out!

What do you guys think? :)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Artemisia's Part in 300 Movie

Yay! More 300: Battle of Artemisium news! Recently IGN talked to  Eva Green about her role as Queen Artemisia. It's a brief interview, but it gives a bit of insight into the queen of Halicarnassus and her part in the movie:

Queen Artemisia

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Battle of Artemisium: The Movie!

After a loong period of silence, there's finally some more information on the sequel to the movie 300, which is apparently now being called 300: The Battle of Artemisia. The bad news? Er, the title should be called The Battle of Artemisium. (Strike one for marketing and/or IMDB.) The goods news? Apparently the focus is not on Xerxes (as the original title Xerxes suggests) but on none other than our hero of Salamis --and Artemisium, of course-- Themistocles! If you're not familiar with the battle itself, here's a quick run-down:

In 480BCE the Persian Empire, under the leadership of their king Xerxes, invaded Greece under the guise of avenging the Persian loss at the Battle of Marathon ten years previous (in which the Athenians and their Plataean allies stopped an earlier invading force). Out of over 1000 of the Ancient Greek city-states, only about 30 agreed to try and stop the Persians. The leaders of this small resistence were the Spartans under King Leonidas (known for their military state) and the Athenians under Themistocles (known for having the largest naval fleet amongst the allies).

The first serious attempt to stop the Persians was made south of Thessaly, where the Greeks coordinated a land and naval defense against the invaders. The narrow pass at Thermopylae was held by the disciplined Spartans while the Straights of Artemisium nearby were occupied by the equally disciplined Athenian navy. The battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium took place simultaneously over the course of three days sometime in late August, and though the Spartans were finally defeated and the Athenians forced to retreat, they both managed to inflict serious damage on the enemy. The allies re-grouped on the island of Salamis just off the Attican coast, and it was there that they managed a stunning naval victory over the Persians, thus literally turning the tide of war in their favor.

Of course the movie is meant to be over-the-top and will have very little basis in historical fact, but it's still exciting to see this little-known battle get the attention it deserves. It's also wonderful to read that not only will Themistocles be featured prominently in the movie (played by Sullivan Stapleton), but other notable figures like Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus will be in the movie as well (played by Eva Green). I suspect Artemisia will be the wily seductress in the movie, which is a bit eye-rolling, but as long as she still comes across as strong and independent (which is far more true to her historical self)then I'm just happy she's there. Also, for those who are curious, Rodrigo Santoro will indeed be revising his role as King Xerxes.

The movie is set for 2013, and I for one am stoked!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Themistocles: Fact Over Fiction.


Once again sorry for neglecting my poor little blog, but I promise you I haven't given up on the fight to tell a really cool story starring Themistocles. I'm just SUPER PICKY about how I want it to go. Without a proper theme/plot/motivation, the story won't make sense. So I want to make sure I'm 100% on board with any ideas that I come up with before piecing the story together. (I'm also going to go back and look at older chapters and stuff with fresh eyes. Perhaps I have more plot/theme/motivation for Themistocles than I think!)

Still, all this struggling makes me wonder if it wouldn't be easier to just write a modern biography on Themistocles. With over 100 books on Ancient Greece and Persia, I certainly have a good starting point! Of course, I'm not a historian, but it would be fun to try. Yet then my imagination would be shackled to cold, hard facts, and when it comes to Themistocles, they are very few facts out there. Maybe it's safer to go with my imagination--which if I can manage to finally dedicate myself to one overall theme for my book will serve as a way to get Themistocles' name out there. And better yet, I'd be in a good company!

Speaking of which, for those who are interested in reading about Themistocles right now, I highly recommend Gary Corby's Ionia Sanction and Scott Oden's upcoming Serpent of Hellas! I also highly recommend their other books on Ancient Greece, especially Memnon, Men of Bronze and The Pericles Commission. Lovers of Ancient Greece won't be disappointed!

Monday, February 06, 2012

Happy New Year!

OK, so I'm a month late on wishing everyone a great 2012. Sorry about that! >_<; But I've been stuck while writing my novel again, and there hasn't been much to update on that front. However, an idea hit me not too long ago that might actually get me writing again. You see, I've been struggling to clearly define how Themistocles fits into the birth of democracy in Athens (yes, that's democracy with a small d). The explanation is of course that he knows its founder, Cleisthenes. Now, for some reason I imagine Cleisthenes as a bit crazy in my story. Why? Because it strikes me as odd that someone from a noble family who COULD have been tyrant if he really wanted to decided to give power to the people instead.

To be fair, perhaps Cleisthenes did it because he was just a really cool guy, but the idea of him being an insane genius a la Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is much more interesting and adds a sense of drama. Why is he helping the lower classes? What does he really want? And do the ends justify the means? These are all questions Themistocles will have to ask himself as the story progresses and he finds himself unable to completely trust his mentor and ally. (His confrontation with Cleisthenes will ultimately shape how he fights the Persians later on.)


At any rate, if there's still anyone left reading this blog, thank you for your patience. This novel needs to be written (more people must know about Themistocles). I just hope I'm up to the task!