Tall poppy syndrome

I heartily agree with the remark that no man who has unsparingly thrown himself into politics, trusting in the loyalty of the democracy, has ever met with a happy death.
You can count me +1 on that. The quote comes from Pausanias, in reference to Demosthenes. Demosthenes had a negative experience when he advised the Athenians to fight Philip of Macedon and his son, a lad by the name of Alexander, and after Alexander died one of his successors called Antipater. After the Athenians had been totally crushed by Antipater, they decided to hand over their leaders for retribution, in the hope Antipater wouldn't raze Athens to the ground and enslave the entire population (no idle concern...Thebes was previously destroyed by Alexander for much the same behaviour). Demosthenes took poison to avoid an inevitable ugly death.

But Demosthenes wasn't the only Athenian leader to suffer. Ancient Athens had a long history of ultimately destroying their best men.

Miltiades, who led them to victory at Marathon, was a year later unjustly convicted of taking bribes from the Persians. He would have been sentenced to death, but in consideration of him winning the most important battle in human history, the sentence was commuted to a fine of a "mere" 50 talents, which he couldn't pay, so he died of war wounds while languishing in prison. His son Cimon was still required to pay the fine. The prosecutor was Xanthippus, the father of Pericles.

Cimon himself proved a fine military commander and an outstanding benefactor of Athens (he built the Academy out of his own pocket). So naturally he was ostracized. The prosecutor was Pericles, son of Xanthippus. (You might be spotting a trend here...) Cimon too died of war wounds while in exile.

In an interesting example of karma at work, Pericles himself when an old man was prosecuted and fined 50 talents. The charge was theft from the public purse, but his real crime was leading the Athenians into a war against Sparta, which didn't work out as planned. Like Miltiades and Cimon, he was almost certainly innocent. He died shortly after of the Great Plague.

Socrates, as is well known, was pretty much judicially murdered. So too was Pericles, the son of Pericles and Aspasia, along with other generals, after they won a sea battle, but didn't win it well enough for the liking of the populace.

Themistocles, the strategic genius who led Athens and all of Greece to victory against Persia in the face of almost impossible odds, was the only one to be brought down and survive. He was ostracized because people feared he was so powerful he might make himself tyrant of Athens, and while he was in exile he was convicted in absentia of treason on trumped up charges on the basis of falsified evidence supplied by Sparta. Themistocles broke the trend though on unhappy deaths. He was smart enough to run while the running was good. He went straight to the court of the Great King of Persia, where he was honored and made a minor satrap and lived in sumptuous luxury. He was quoted as toasting a dinner with the words, "I would have been undone, had I not been undone."


Lexi said...

Mary Renault, in Fire From Heaven, hasn't a good word to say for Demosthenes. I know she was meticulous about research, so am inclined to side with her.

What do you think?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Lexi! Yeah, that's a brilliant point.

Demosthenes was the implacable enemy of Macedon, and Mary Renault was the devout and loving author of three novels and one biography about Alexander. So this might be one of the few areas where she could possibly carry a bit of bias.

How you feel about Demosthenes probably depends on your feelings toward trial lawyers. If he were alive today, Demosthenes would certainly be a top notch prosecutor. Certainly he threw a lot of vitriol, but it must be said that he received as much in return from his numerous opponents and rivals. He was a self-made man who was orphaned at an early age and whose guardian totally ripped off his inheritance; that probably didn't encourage a happy disposition.

On the plus side he never wavered in his dedication to furthering Athens, when he might have had a much more comfortable life, and he wasn't afraid to put his life where his mouth was.

So my guess: not a nice man, but an honourable one with some admirable qualities.

I just realized I blundered in the original text, by the way. It was Antipater, one of the successors of Alexander, who finally did over Athens and caused Demosthenes to suicide. I've fixed the error in the main body.

Meghan said...

Ah, Themistocles. How I love thee! Of course he got away--he was too forward thinking for Athens, thus was always one step ahead. :)

Sarah W said...

So the Persians didn't hold a grudge against Themistocles -- all's fair in war?

It occurs to me that I know very little about Persian culture and customs that wasn't filtered through the bias (or outright hatred) of their enemies. Could you recommend some reading materials on the subject?

Gary Corby said...

Sarah, the Great King of the Persians had set a price of 200 talents on Themistocles' head, when the man himself walked into the Great King's court. How much is 200 talents? Well, an average family could live on that for about 3,500 years. I'm not kidding! So the Persians were still more than a little bit angry.

But they admired bravery above all things, and the king declared that since Themistocles had presented himself, he'd earned his own reward money and promptly gave him 200 talents. They ended up good friends and the Great King gave Themistocles a minor satrapy to rule in his name, where Themistocles lived in luxury until his death.

Sources for Persia...they're very thin on the ground. The best well known source is Herodotus. He almost certainly had access to some now lost Persian books, because some of his stories of Persian court machinations match discovered cuneiform inscriptions.

Plutarch did a Life of Artaxerxes.

Xenophon wrote the Cyropaedia, a bio of Cyrus the Great, which Alexander is said to have kept by him, and which more recently was much read by a fellow named Thomas Jefferson.

There's more to be had from archaeology than written sources.

Sarah W said...

Thanks, Gary -- guess I'd better start digging (no pun intended).

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hi Gary, excellent post as always. I especially enjoyed your response/take on Demosthenes as a trial lawyer ('nuff said?) with some honorable qualities.