Looking for Interpreter Zero: The Irony of Themistocles

Themistocles and his historians reflect a range of attitudes to language, identity and loyalty, giving us a sense of attitudes towards interpreters far back in time and memory.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Themistocles was a rare example of a Greek who could speak a foreign language …[1]

This sense of a common tongue was the decisive criterion for determining who were Greeks [2]

Herodotus (484-425 BCE) tells the story of the cradle of western civilisation in The Histories of the Persian Wars, relating the stories of the Greeks and their neighbours - those they called Barbarians - and giving detailed information about the peoples of the Mediterranean as well as the lead up to the wars, before giving an account of the wars themselves. “By combining oral accounts of the past with his own observation of surviving monuments, natural phenomena and local customs, he produced a prose narrative of unprecedented length, intellectual depth and explanatory power.”[3]

Histories shows an awareness of the need for language intermediaries, drawing a distinction between linguists and the ‘interpreters’ of dreams or oracular pronouncements and citing instances of interpreters at work. There were Greek-speaking communities in Egypt, for instance.  The Pharaoh Psammetichus had allowed them to settle and had honoured all of his commitments to them.  He had even “intrusted to their care certain Egyptian children whom they were to teach the language of the Greeks. These children, thus instructed, became the parents of the entire class of interpreters in Egypt.”[4] Interpreters apparently made up one of the seven professional classes in Egypt, the other six were: priests, warriors, cowherds, swineherds, tradesmen and boatmen.[5]

These references reflect an awareness of difference but not a systematic approach to it.[6]   It could be that interpreters were a fact of life, mentioned only when part of Herodotus’s personal experience or to illustrate particularly striking anecdotes, like the story showing how staunchly people will defend their own customs:

That people have this feeling about their laws may be seen by very many proofs: among others, by the following. Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked - "What he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died?" To which they answered, that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said - "What he should give them to burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?" The Indians exclaimed aloud and bade him forbear such language. Such is men's wont herein; and Pindar was right, in my judgment, when he said, "Law is the king o'er all." [7]

The interpreters in Histories are anonymous, as is often the case in general accounts.  However, there is one figure who is central to the account whose story raises issues relating to language difference, middlemen, treachery, rhetoric and identity: the Athenian statesman and general, Themistocles (c. 524-459 BCE). 

In 491 BCE, as part of his manoeuvres prior to the first Persian invasion of Greece, the Persian king, Darius (550-486 BCE) sent messengers to a number of Greek cities demanding that they send him earth and water to indicate their submission to him.  These messengers did not always fare well:

They were thrown, at Athens, into the pit of punishment, at Sparta into a well, and bidden to take therefrom earth and water for themselves, and carry it to their king. [8]

Later accounts of the treatment meted out to Darius’s messengers give Themistocles a central role.  Plutarch (45-120 BCE) certainly made strong use of the incident, with Themistocles at the scene. He may have had sources other than Herodotus, or other reasons to stress the significance of Greek language and identity; he certainly emphasises the treacherous nature of intermediaries.

Praise is given to his [Themistocles’s] treatment of the linguist in the company of those who were sent by the King to demand earth and water as tokens of submission: this interpreter he caused to be arrested, and had him put to death by special decree, because he dared to prostitute the speech of Hellas to Barbarian stipulations. [9]

The Greek-speaking interpreter was executed because he was prepared to use his language in the service of the other.  In times of war, in other words, middlemen cannot be deemed neutral.  Not all accounts of the incident share Plutarch’s view: Aelius Aristides, writing in the second century CE, takes a more temperate position, reporting that Themistocles

… slew the interpreter, accusing him of loaning his voice, like some other commodity, to the Persian for use against the Greeks.  Yet why was it terrible for the Athenians to learn what was said, and when they had learned, then to take counsel? For the interpreter had neither made the proposals nor used compulsion on them. [10]

This early instance of killing the messenger was echoed down the centuries.  In times of conflict, intermediaries can be sanctioned when their association with the other is viewed as treason – instances include Caesar’s interpreter, Procillus [11] or La Malinche[12]

During the Persian Wars, Themistocles had other occasions to use language to signal difference and the duty of loyalty to one’s own people. In August 480 BCE when fighting Xerxes’s army, he was said to have had Greek inscriptions – that would have been incomprehensible to the Persians - carved on rocks around Artemisium, urging the enemy’s Ionian allies to desert and re-join their fellow-Greeks.  For Herodotus

Themistocles, in putting up these inscriptions, looked, I believe, to two chances - either Xerxes would not discover them, in which case they might bring over the Ionians to the side of the Greeks; or they would be reported to him and made a ground of accusation against the Ionians, who would thereupon be distrusted, and would not be allowed to take part in the sea-fights. [13]

Themistocles also played on Greek-speakers’ sense of identity in rallying the city-states to fight the Barbarians. He was a strong advocate of Athenian naval power, which played a key role in the 480 BCE Battle of Salamis, a turning point in the war.  His role was acknowledged and celebrated.

And it is said that when the next Olympic festival was celebrated, and Themistocles entered the stadium, the audience neglected the contestants all day long to gaze on him, and pointed him out with admiring applause to visiting strangers, so that he too was delighted, and confessed to his friends that he was now reaping in full measure the harvest of his toils in behalf of Hellas. [14]

His post-war career was chequered: he was accused of bribery, sacrilege and association with the Spartan traitor, Pausanias, and exiled from Athens in 471 BCE.  After stays in Argos and Corfu he settled in Persia, where Artaxerxes I – heir to Xerxes - (reigned 465–424 BCE) mae him welcome.[15]

It is unquestionably ironic that Themistocles, one of the first to exploit the significance of Greek language and identity should have seen out his days in disgrace in enemy country.  It is interesting to note that he took his linguist’s savvy into exile with him.  At his first meeting with King Artaxerxes, he spoke through an interpreter.  He requested a year’s leave to learn Persian so that he could communicate directly with the ruler, saying that speech was

like embroidered tapestries, since like them this too had to be extended in order to display its patterns, but when it was rolled up it concealed and distorted them. Wherefore he had need of time. The King at once showed his pleasure at this comparison by bidding him take time, and so Themistocles asked for a year, and in that time he learned the Persian language sufficiently to have interviews with the King by himself without interpreters. [16]

His point was that he wanted to speak for himself as “interpreters compress one’s words and consequently the patterns, the subtleties and intricacies of one’s thought, are lost”.[17]  In Plutarch’s account, he did learn Persian: the fighter praised for executing a fellow Greek who spoke the enemy’s tongue went over to that enemy himself.  Perhaps Themistocles wanted to ensure that his discussions with Artaxerxes were held in private, or he wanted to flatter his new ruler by learning his language, or then again, it could be that he was a knowing traitor who wanted to use the Barbarian’s language when dealing with his affairs rather than sullying his own. 

His ploy was successful. He was appointed governor of Magnesia in Asia Minor and never returned to Greece.  He may have left his homeland in disgrace but by the time Herodotus concluded Histories, the war hero’s reputation had been restored.  In the words of Thucydides, he

was a man who exhibited the most indubitable signs of genius; indeed, in this particular he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled.. [18]

Themistocles and his historians also reflect a range of attitudes to language, identity and loyalty, giving us a sense of attitudes towards interpreters far back in time and memory.  They range from implicit recognition to acknowledgement and blame as people negotiate difference in times of peace, upheaval or war. 

You can find all chapters of Looking for Interpreter Zero here.


[1] Harrison, T.. 1998. Histos 2 pp 1-45, pp 11-12
[2] Anson, E.M. 2009. Glotta Bd 85, pp 5-30, p 6
[3] Price, S., Thoneman, P.2011. The Birth of Classical Europe. Penguin, London. p 117
[4] Herodotus 2.154
[5] Herodotus 2.164
[6] Harrison, pp 11-12
[7] Herodotus 3.38
[8] Herodotus 7.133
[9] Plutarch Vit Them 6.2
[10] Mairs, R. 2011.  Translator, Traditor: The Interpreter as Traitor in Classical Tradition.  Greece and Rome,   Vol 58 No1. pp 64-81, p 70
[11] https://aiic.net/page/8699/loo...
[12] https://aiic.net/page/6570/loo...
[13] Herodotus 8.22
[14] Plutarch 17.2
[15] Cartwright, M. (2016, March 03) ThemistoclesAncient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Themist...
[16] Plutarch 29.3
[17] Levine Gera, D.  2007.  Themistocles’ Persian Tapestry. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 57 No 2. pp. 445-457. p 452
[18] Thuc 138

Recommended citation format:
Christine ADAMS. "Looking for Interpreter Zero: The Irony of Themistocles". aiic-usa.com March 1, 2019. Accessed July 8, 2020. <http://aiic-usa.com/p/8766>.