People & Stories

Rationalizing the irrational – Themistocles’ invincible weapon


This is a true story that happened 2500 years ago in Athens by the time when the Persians, the superpower of that time, attempted a second invasion of Greece, 10 years after their catastrophic defeat suffered in the legendary battle of Marathon. During the second invasion, General of the Greeks was an ingenious man called Themistocles. He left us an outstanding example of crowd management that may be of use when we have to cope absurd at particularly critical moments.

Themistocles convinced the Greeks to delay the Persian army at Thermopylae. And indeed, the brave and heroic resistance of king Leonidas and his comrades brought heavy losses upon the Persian invasion army and bought more time for the Greeks to prepare for the Persians who were heading towards Athens destroying anything standing their way.

While the army chiefs where trying to figure out how they would save the population of Athens, people were terrified. Not only by the huge number of enemies approaching, but also because the sacred snake of goddess Athena had suddenly disappeared from her temple in Acropolis. This would mean that, for reasons unknown, the goddess had withdrawn her support for the Athenians. The next step was to seek a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, as they always did before making serious decisions. The response was that “…Zeus all-seeing will grant a wood-built wall to the Trito-born, a stronghold for you and your children” and concluded something even vaguer: “Divine Salamis, you will bring death to many women’s sons when the corn is scattered, or the harvest gathered in”.

The oracle made things difficult for Themistocles. His plan was to evacuate the city so that when the Persians arrived they wouldn’t find anyone to kill. He knew that the strength of Athens was the navy and so his plan was to man the ships with combatants and to transfer the rest of the civilians to the islands, and mainly to Salamis, a small island northwest of Attica. The Athenians being all superstitious would never dare to ignore the oracle of priestess Pythia of Delphi. Now she had advised a wooden wall shall save them. They would barricade themselves behind the wooden walls of Acropolis, hoping that the gods would save them. The rationalist and ambitious Themistocles knew that this would be a disaster, but how could he implement his highly unpopular plan, and even right away?

Imagine him invading the market and bursting:

“You foolish Athenians, uneducated and ignorant, that you base your rescue in the claptrap of a doped, crazy priestess! How stupid can you be not to understand that oracles are simply tales and how coward can you be to deny reality and let anyone take advantage of your superstitions! So, stop messing around now and go board the ships to save your families and yourselves.” And then, imagine him explaining in every detail the reasons why they should trust him with the ships. He talked about numbers, dimensions, the strength of winds, coordinates… until he noticed that his audience had disappeared. What had happened?

The terrified Athenians are now in panic. They believe that the gods would be furious by the disrespect their General showed. Insulted and in a state of total confusion, they abandoned their disrespectful General and barricaded behind the wooden walls of Acropolis. A few days later, Xerxes the king of Persia, conquered the city, brought down the walls and slaughtered everyone. First Athens, and then all other Greek cities became provinces of the Persian Empire.

This would have become real history, if Themistocles had been a rigid rationalist requiring everyone else to adapt to his own ingenious reasoning. Luckily for us, Themistocles was a very skillful politician. He knew that if he were to save the city and its population, everybody should stick together feeling strong and united. They would feel that they’re giving a fight worth fighting for. He appealed to their emotions, not in order to take advantage of them, but to convince them to follow him down the road to rescue. Not only their rescue, but the rescue of generations to come. This is how he spoke to them in fact:

My dear fellow citizens, there is no reason to worry because it is obvious that the gods are on our side. First of all, the fact that the sacred snake abandoned the temple is an omen that the goddess has left the city, and so should we. It clearly tells us to go to sea. Secondly, it is clear, that the wooden wall which will remain standing, as the Oracle tells us, can’t be the fence of Acropolis; not only because the goddess has left the place, but also because the prophecy calls the island of Salamis ‘divine’. So that is where we will have divine protection and the sons who will die will be the Persians. Our ships will be our wooden walls!

Only 500 Athenians weren’t convinced and stayed in the Acropolis, mostly those who could not move or fight, Herodotus says. Everyone else followed Themistocles’ guidance. They felt safe and strong under the leadership of a man who respected what they respected. A man who was one of them, and not someone who’d stand against them pointing the finger. In fact, even in ancient times, there was the rumor that Themistocles had made up this prophecy himself. And that he had forced the Oracle of Delphi to replace the original prophecy which had foretold complete catastrophe. Themistocles’ proposal to evacuate the city got voted by all other Generals. The instruction was: “Trust the city to the goddess Athena; anyone who can fight will board the ships and everyone should save the women, children and slaves, any way he can”.

During those years of early democracy, the great politicians knew,  unlike in the authoritarian regimes of the East where a monarch would impose by force the ethics and ways of his liking to his subjects, in a city of free citizens this would be impossible. Here a leader would have to be smart, flexible and affable to persuade the citizens to grant him the authorization to implement his every plan.

If Themistocles had not managed to convince the Athenians about the correctness of his strategy, then Greece, and most probably all of Europe, would have been conquered by the Persians. It was not the right moment to start a discussion about the validity of oracles or the existence of gods while death was just two steps away. The fight against superstition would have to wait. At this point the Athenians have to be convinced in any way to make a life decision. And he wouldn’t have convinced them if he hadn’t talked to them in a language they would understand. If he hadn’t appealed to their emotions using the tool of reason! This is one of the reasons why until today the whole world remembers and admires Themistocles for being a political genius.

Next time you find yourself in the difficult position of having to face the irrationality of some of your colleagues, friends or family, remember that in panic situations it is the absurd that feeds our emotions and prevails always. Unless you can present your reasonable plan in the language of emotion. You can’t eradicate the irrational, but you can use it as medicine. You can make an indigestible plan durable for the “stomach” of irrational people. Just like Themistocles did.


Photo source:

Giuseppe Bossi (1777-1815) – La sepoltura di Temistocle –

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