Themistocles was an Athenian politician and military strategist who was pivotal in the Greek defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece by Xerxes in 480 BCE. Athens’ great naval strength was in large part due to Themistocles’ influence, as he pushed the Athenians to invest in sea power and to fight Persians in the Aegean. He was the mastermind of the Battle of Salamis, where the Greek coalition navy lured the massive Persian fleet into a narrow strait and delivered a shocking defeat upon Xerxes’ forces. As usually happens, the Greek victory was attributed to sound strategy, stout sailors, and divine aid. Yet, the latter divine component, according to some stories, was gained through unorthodox means. According to legend, Themistocles conducted a human sacrifice in order to cultivate the favor of the gods for his cause.
Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), the great Greek-Roman biographer, preserved the tale about the human sacrifice of Themistocles in his famous work, the Parallel Lives. He attributed the tale to Phanias of Lesbos (flourished 300 BCE), whom Plutarch described as “a philosopher well read in history” (Life of Themistocles, 13.3).
As the story goes, Themistocles had been preparing an average, human-less, sacrifice in the runup to the Battle of Salamis. A certain prophetic man called Euphrantides, however, had something else in mind to catch the attention of the gods. Central to Euphrantides’ vision was a trio of Persian captives, who presumably came from the upper echelons of society, as they had been wearing elegant clothes and expensive jewelry at the time of their capture. Rumor suggested that the three prisoners were relatives of Xerxes, yet Plutarch admitted that their presumed royal rank was more speculation than proven fact.
When the three Persian prisoners were brought forward, Euphrantides reportedly began crying out for a human sacrifice. He pointed out omens that, according to him, suggested that the gods were eager for the sacrifice to take place. Such omens included the flames of the sacrificial fire rising visibly higher as the Persians neared the altar, and a sneeze—long considered a sign of divine favor or agreement—that rang out from the crowd as the human sacrifice was being discussed. Euphrantides’ mystical charisma, along with the omens that he pointed out, was evidently enough to convince the people to go along with his idea of a human sacrifice.
Themistocles reportedly had some reservations about the sacrifice, but as the people were on Euphrantides’ side, he let the sacrifice commence. Euphrantides was said to have directed the ceremony, but Themistocles or others present had the grisly job of carrying out the sacrifice. The proceedings were mainly catered toward the god Dionysus (or Bacchus), for the prophet claimed that particular deity would be easily swayed by the human sacrifices. Plutarch wrote:
“Themistocles was much disturbed at this strange and terrible prophecy, but the common people, who, in any difficult crisis and great exigency, ever look for relief rather to strange and extravagant than reasonable means, calling up Bacchus with one voice, led the captives to the altar, and compelled the execution of the sacrifice as the prophet had commanded” (Life of Themistocles, 13.3).
It has long been debated whether to categorize the idea of Ancient Greek human sacrifices as legendary or historical. Sporadic descriptions of ancient Greeks conducting human sacrifices can be found in Greek histories and lore, but little archeological evidence has been found to prove the stories true. In 2016, however, the skeleton of a possibly sacrificed ancient Greek individual was found buried at a shrine of Zeus on Mount Lykaion. The skeleton serves as a rare piece of evidence that may back up the legends of ancient Greek human sacrifice. Yet, even so, such sacrifices must have been fairly anomalous in the wider Greek practice of religion.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Themistocles Performing a human sacrifice before the battle of Salamis, created c. 1915, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.