FOUR years after the battle of Marathon, Themistocles and Aristides were the two chief citizens in Athens.
Themistocles wished to make Athens a great sea-power, for he was sure that some day the Persians would return. He believed that if the Athenians were able to destroy the Persian fleet, all would be well. The land forces of the enemy would be powerless to conquer Greece.
But if Athens was to have a better fleet, Themistocles knew that she must first have a better harbour. The one that the Athenians used was at Phalerum, where the sea almost reached the city. It was only an open roadstead, a place where ships might ride at anchor, which would be of little use to protect vessels from an enemy.
Themistocles knew a better site than Phalerum, where a strong harbour might be built. This was the rocky peninsula of Piraeus, which was about four miles from Athens.
By his advice three harbours were made here, into which the largest vessels could enter. Yet the opening to all three was such that it could be closed easily with chains and logs, so as to prevent the entrance of an enemy. The Piraeus soon grew into a large town, for those who did not own land flocked to the port in the hope of finding work.
Not only did Themistocles persuade the Athenians to fortify the Piraeus, but he also made Athens a great sea-power.
At this time there was money to spare in the public treasury, for a rich bed of silver had been discovered in an old mine. This money was to be divided among the Athenians. Themistocles was brave enough to risk the anger of the people by proposing that it should not be given to them, but should be used to build ships.
The Athenians were eager to conquer the people of Ægina who for years had harried their coasts, and they agreed to his proposal more readily than Themistocles had dared to hope. With the money the State built two hundred ships, so the people were able to conquer their enemy and were well content. But it was Themistocles alone who wished to prepare Greece for a great Persian invasion. Of this the Athenians had no fear.
When the ships were ready, Themistocles saw that the soldiers must be trained to manage the vessels, to become indeed good sailors.
A wise Greek named Plato tells us that Themistocles "from steady soldiers turned the Greeks into mariners and seamen, tossed about the sea, and gave occasion for the reproach against him, that he took away from the Athenians the spear and the shield, and bound them to the bench and the oar."
Aristides and Themistocles were rivals. They were brought up together, and when they were boys they usually took different sides, just as they continued to do when they were men.
If you could have watched the boys in school or in the playground you would have seen at once how different they were. Themistocles was impetuous and bold, artful too, if by being so he could gain his own ends. Aristides was gentle and retiring, honest as the day, in work as in play.
Themistocles was not fond of lessons nor yet of games. But he knew a great deal even as a boy of what was going on in the city and in the State, and he was eager to know more.
While Aristides and his comrades were laughing and shouting over their game of quoits, Themistocles was walking up and down alone in a quiet corner of the playground. He was rehearsing a speech, which he would soon begin to recite aloud.
Sometimes, in more friendly mood, he called his play-fellows together and delivered his speech to the crowd of little critics. It was usually about the affairs of the State—about politics, as we would say.
His schoolmaster saw that although the lad did not love lessons, he could be an earnest student if he were interested in a subject. One day he said to him, "You, my boy, will be nothing small, but great, one way or other, for good or else for bad."
From his boyhood Themistocles was ambitious, and when he grew up he accepted bribes, if by doing so he thought he could reach a higher position in the State.
When he became a judge he showed favour to his friends, even though to do so was unjust. One of them once said to him that he would be a good judge, if he would give sentence "without respect of persons." But in no way abashed, Themistocles answered, "May I never sit upon the seat of judgment where my friends shall not receive more favour from me than strangers.
Aristides was in this, as in other things, the opposite of his rival, for he was an honourable and upright judge. He was ever ready to please or to help a friend, but to do so he would stoop to no act of injustice. Once he accused one of his enemies of a crime, and the people, with whom Aristides was at that time a favourite, wished to condemn the man without listening to his defence. But this Aristides would not allow.
When he himself was judge, two people came before him, one of whom was an enemy of his own. The other, knowing this, felt sure that he would win his suit, and instead of telling of what he accused the man, he began to remind Aristides that it was an enemy of his own who stood before him. But Aristides bade him be silent. "Tell me not," he said, "what injury he has done to me, but what harm you have suffered from him, for I am trying your cause and not my own."
Themistocles not only took bribes, but he often tried to make others accept them. Many of the Greeks did so, for they could not easily resist gold, but Aristides was never one of those who took money from Themistocles, or indeed from anyone.
When Themistocles urged the Athenians to increase their fleet, Aristides opposed him with all his strength. And he did this, not because he disliked his rival, but because he believed that it would be better for the State to increase her army rather than to have a powerful navy.
About this, as about other important affairs, the two great men disagreed so often and so long, that the people thought the city would be governed better if one of the leaders was ostracised.
So they assembled in the market-place, where each was given an oyster-shell on which to write the name of the man he wished to be banished from Athens.
As the citizens were busy writing on their shells, a rough country fellow who could not write came up to Aristides and, handing him his shell, asked him to put down the name of Aristides. The countryman did not know that he was speaking to Aristides himself.
"Has Aristides done you an injury?" asked the Athenian, as he took the shell.
"None at all," answered the fellow, "neither know I the man, but I am tired of everywhere hearing him called the Just." Aristides did not answer the ignorant countryman, but he quietly wrote his own name upon the shell and handed it back to its owner.
The necessary number of votes being recorded against him he was ostracised. As he left the city he lifted up his hands to heaven and prayed that the Athenians "might never have any occasion which should constrain them to remember Aristides." And this he did although it was a bitter thing to him to leave the city that he loved so well. In his absence he knew that Themistocles would be able to carry out his plans unopposed, and this added to his pain.
But Themistocles was wiser than Aristides when he urged the Athenians to increase their fleet. For although the great king Darius was dead, Xerxes his son was preparing to invade Greece as his father had hoped to do. And without a large and well-equipped fleet, the Athenians would have been unable to meet the Persians at sea.