The Athenian Middleman
Jeffrey A. Smith, Themistocles – The Powerbroker of Athens (Pen & Sword, 2021)
(Reviewed by Dom Sore)
Many of us who have studied any amount of ancient history will have heard of Themistocles and may even be able to recount some details about him, but he tends not to be one of the “famous” Greeks. There are many more people who know nothing about him, what he did, how he did it, or his impact on the Western World. In this new biography, Jeffrey Smith narrates Themistocles’ life in a highly accessible manner. We learn a little of his upbringing, then his early career, his domination of Athens, and his final downfall. This was all encompassed within the world Athens founded and the Greek concept of arete (which you will need to buy the book to learn about).
This is a standard biography in that it covers Themistocles life and deeds in chronological order. And it does it really well. It is a very easy book to read, you get all the information you want with context that makes sense and no great leaps of imagination required with the sources. The ins and outs of Athenian politics are covered with aplomb and explained clearly without any dumbing down of the concepts. Ancient Greek concepts of honour are especially well handled and explanations of the differences between our morals compared to theirs handled deftly and without patronising the reader. The similarities with modern politicians are hinted at without being spelt out explicitly, and the book benefits from not indulging in such tangents.
My biggest niggle with the book was the part where it implies heavily armoured cavalry were the main component of Caesar Augustus’ army. It is something that nearly made me stop reading, but I am glad I didn’t. The author does spend some time assigning motives for what Themistocles’ did, which is not a bad thing, but it is done in a way where the reader would be forgiven if they thought we knew this was true. Given the paucity of first-hand information on Themistocles, however, we can really only guess and imply. One final error is to imply the Delian League was named at its formation rather than it being a more modern nomenclature introduced to make it easier for us to understand.
This is a rip-roaring tale from start to finish. Themistocles was at the heart of many world defining actions, and he arguably saved Greece from Persian Domination with his foresight. Without the Athenian navy, Xerxes’ invasion could have succeeded in subjugating the whole of Greece, and we would not have had the Athenian Golden Age and everything that flowed from that. If you want to know more about Themistocles, and even a simple understanding of the events he took part in, then you would be hard pressed to find a better book. It is such an easy book to read I now want to read another by Jeffrey Smith.