2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology; Historical figures

Bust of Demosthenes
Louvre, Paris, France
Born 384 BC
Died 322 BC
Island of Calauria, modern Poros

Demosthenes (384–322 BC, Greek: Δημοσθένης) was a prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens. His orations constitute the last significant expression of Athenian intellectual prowess and provide a thorough insight into the politics and culture of ancient Greece during the 4th century BC. Demosthenes learned Rhetoric by studying the speeches of previous great orators. He delivered his first judicial speeches at the age of twenty, in which he argued effectively to gain from his guardians what was left of his inheritance. For a time, Demosthenes made his living as a professional speech-writer ( logographer) and a lawyer, writing speeches for use in private legal suits.

Demosthenes grew interested in politics during his time as a logographer, and in 354 BC he gave his first public political speeches. He would go on to devote the most productive years of his life to opposing Macedon's expansion. He idealized his city and strove throughout his life to restore Athens' supremacy and motivate his compatriots against Philip II of Macedon. He sought to preserve his city's freedom and to establish an alliance against Macedon, in an unsuccessful attempt to impede Philip's plans to expand his influence southwards by conquering all the Greek states. After Philip's death, Demosthenes played a leading part in his city's uprising against the new King of Macedon, Alexander the Great. However, his efforts failed and the revolt was met with a harsh Macedonian reaction. To prevent a similar revolt against his own rule, Alexander's successor, Antipater, sent his men to track Demosthenes down. Demosthenes took his own life, in order to avoid being arrested by Archias, Antipater's confidant.

The Alexandrian Canon compiled by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace recognized Demosthenes as one of the 10 greatest Attic orators and logographers. According to Longinus, Demosthenes "perfected to the utmost the tone of lofty speech, living passions, copiousness, readiness, speed". Cicero acclaimed him as "the perfect orator" who lacked nothing, while Quintilian extolled him as "lex orandi" ("the standard of oratory") and underscored that "inter omnes unus excellat" ("he stands alone among all the orators").

Early years (384 BC–355 BC)

Family, education and personal life

Bust of Demosthenes (Musei Capitolini, Rome), Roman copy of a Greek original sculpted by Polyeuktos
Bust of Demosthenes ( Musei Capitolini, Rome), Roman copy of a Greek original sculpted by Polyeuktos

Demosthenes was born in 384 BC, during the last year of the 98th Olympiad or the first year of the 99th Olympiad. His father - also named Demosthenes - who belonged to the local tribe, Pandionis, and lived in the deme of Paeania in the Athenian countryside, was a wealthy sword-maker. Aeschines, Demosthenes' greatest political rival, maintained that his mother Kleoboule was a Scythian by blood, an allegation which is disputed by some modern scholars. Demosthenes was orphaned at the age of seven. Although his father provided well for him, his legal guardians, Aphobus, Demophon and Therippides, mishandled his inheritance.

As soon as Demosthenes came of age in 366 BC, he demanded that they render an account of their management. According to the orator, the account revealed the misappropriation of his property. Although his father left an estate of nearly fourteen talents, (somewhat over 3,150 golden pounds or 400,000 United States dollars) Demosthenes asserted that the guardians had left nothing "except the house, and fourteen slaves and thirty silver minae (30 minae = ½ talent)". At the age of 20, Demosthenes sued his trustees in order to recover his patrimony and delivered five orations himself: three Against Aphobus between during 363 BC and 362 BC and two Against Ontenor during 362 BC and 361 BC. The courts fixed Demosthenes' damages at ten talents. When all the trials came to an end, however, the orator succeeded in retrieving only a portion of his inheritance.

Between his coming of age in 366 BC and the trials that took place in 364 BC, Demosthenes and his guardians negotiated acrimoniously, but were unable to reach an agreement, as neither side was willing to make concessions. At the same time, Demosthenes prepared himself for the trials and improved his oratory skill. As an adolescent, his curiosity had been noticed by the orator Callistratus, who was then at the height of his reputation, having just won a case of considerable importance. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philologist and philosopher, and Constantine Paparregopoulus, a major Greek historian, Demosthenes was a student of Isocrates; Cicero, Quintillian and the Roman biographer Hermippus maintain that Demosthenes was a student of Plato. Lucian, a Roman-Syrian rhetorician and satirist, includes the philosophers Aristotle, Theophrastus and Xenocrates among his teachers. These claims are nowadays disputed. According to Plutarch, Demosthenes employed Isaeus as his master in Rhetoric, even though Isocrates was then teaching this subject, either because he could not pay Isocrates the prescribed fee or because Demosthenes believed Isaeus' style better suited a vigorous and astute orator such as himself . Curtius, a German archaeologist and historian, likened the relation between Isaeus and Demosthenes to "an intellectual armed alliance".

It has also been said that Demosthenes paid Isaeus 10,000 drachmas (somewhat over 1½ talent) on the condition that the teacher should withdraw from a school of Rhetoric which he had opened, and should devote himself wholly to his new pupil. Another version credits Isaeus with having taught Demosthenes without charge. According to Sir Richard C. Jebb, a British classical scholar, "the intercourse between Isaeus and Demosthenes as teacher and learner can have been either very intimate or of very long duration". Konstantinos Tsatsos, a Greek professor and academician, believes that Isaeus helped Demosthenes edit his initial judicial orations against his guardians. Demosthenes is also said to have admired the historian Thucydides. In the Illiterate Book-Fancier, Lucian mentions eight beautiful copies of Thucydides made by Demosthenes, all in the orator's own handwriting. These references hint at the orator's respect for a historian he must have assiduously studied.

According to Pseudo-Plutarch, Demosthenes was married once. The only information about his wife, whose name is unknown, is that she was the daughter of Heliodorus, a prominent citizen. Demosthenes had also a daughter, "the first and only one who ever called him father", according to Aeschines' trenchant comment. The girl died young and unmarried a few days before Philip's death.

Career as logographer

"If you feel bound to act in the spirit of that dignity, whenever you come into court to give judgement on public causes, you must bethink yourselves that with his staff and his badge every one of you receives in trust the ancient pride of Athens."
Demosthenes (On the Crown, 210) - The orator's defense of the honour of the courts was in contrast to the improper actions of which Aeschines accused him.

In order to make his living, Demosthenes became a professional litigant and logographer, writing speeches for use in private legal suits. He was so successful that he soon acquired wealthy and powerful clients. The Athenian logographer could remain anonymous, allowing him to serve personal interests, even if it prejudiced the client. Aeschines accused Demosthenes of unethically disclosing his clients' arguments to their opponents. He attacked his political opponent, rhetorically querying: "And the born traitor--how shall we recognize him? Will he not imitate you, Demosthenes, in his treatment of those whom chance throws in his way and who have trusted him? Will he not take pay for writing speeches for them to deliver in the courts, and then reveal the contents of these speeches to their opponents?"

As an example, Aeschines accused Demosthenes of writing a speech for Phormion, a wealthy banker, and then communicating it to Apollodorus, who was bringing a capital charge against Phormion. Plutarch supported this accusation, pointing out that Demosthenes "was thought to have acted dishonorably".

Early politics (354 BC–350 BC)

Speech training

Demosthenes Practicing Oratory by Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ (1842–1923). Demosthenes used to study in an underground room he constructed himself. He also used to talk with pebbles in his mouth and recited verses while running. To strengthen his voice, he spoke on the seashore over the roar of the waves.
Demosthenes Practicing Oratory by Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ (1842–1923). Demosthenes used to study in an underground room he constructed himself. He also used to talk with pebbles in his mouth and recited verses while running. To strengthen his voice, he spoke on the seashore over the roar of the waves.

Even before he was 21 years of age in 363 BC, Demosthenes had already demonstrated an interest in politics. Then, in 363 BC, 359 BC and 357 BC, he undertook the function of the trierarch, being responsible for the outfitting and maintenance of a trireme. In 348 BC, he became a choregos, paying the costs of a theatrical production.

Although Demosthenes contended that he never plead in a single private case, it still remains unclear when and if Demosthenes abandoned the profitable but less prestigious profession of the logographer. According to Plutarch, when he first addressed himself to the people, he was derided for his strange and uncouth style, "which was cumbered with long sentences and tortured with formal arguments to a most harsh and disagreeable excess".

Nonetheless, some citizens discerned his talent. When he first left the ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) disheartened, an old man named Eunomus encouraged him, saying that his diction was very much like that of Pericles. Another time the ecclesia had refused to hear him and he was going home dejected, an actor named Satyrus followed him and entered into a familiar conversation with him.

As a boy Demosthenes had suffered from a speech impediment, an inarticulate and stammering pronunciation. This caused Aeschines to taunt him and refer to him in his speeches with the nickname "Batalus", ostensibly invented by his own pedagogues or by the little boys with whom he was playing. According to Plutarch, he also had a weakness in his voice, "a perplexed and indistinct utterance and a shortness of breath, which, by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke." Demosthenes soon undertook a disciplined program to overcome these shortcomings and improve his locution. He worked on his diction, his voice and his gestures. His zeal and perseverance have passed into a proverb. It is, however, unknown whether these vignettes are factual accounts of events in Demosthenes' life or merely anecdotes used to illustrate his perseverance and determination.

Increased political activity

Between 354 BC and 350 BC, Demosthenes continued practicing law privately, while, at the same time, he became increasingly interested in public affairs. He mainly remained a judicial orator, but started involving himself in the politics of the Athenian democracy. In 355 BC he wrote Against Androtion and a year later Against Leptines, two fierce attacks on individuals who attempted to repeal certain tax exemptions. The subject of Against Timocrates and Against Aristocrates is the need to crack down on corruption. Demosthenes denounced measures regarded as dishonest or unworthy of Athenian traditions. All these speeches offer early glimpses of his general principles on foreign policy, such as the importance of the navy, of alliances and of national honour.

"While the vessel is safe, whether it be a large or a small one, then is the time for sailor and helmsman and everyone in his turn to show his zeal and to take care that it is not capsized by anyone's malice or inadvertence; but when the sea has overwhelmed it, zeal is useless."
Demosthenes (Third Philippic, 69) - The orator warned his countrymen of the disasters Athens would suffer, if they continued to remain idle and indifferent to the challenges of their times.

In 354 BC, Demosthenes delivered his first political oration, On the Navy. The orator espoused moderation and proposed the reform of "symmories"(boards) as a source of funding for the Athenian fleet. In 352 BC, he delivered For the Megalopolitans and a year later On the Liberty of the Rodians. In both speeches, the orator opposed Eubulus, the most powerful Athenian statesman of the period 355 BC to 342 BC, who was against any intervention in the internal affairs of the other Greek cities.

Although none of his early orations were successful, Demosthenes established himself as an important political personality and broke with Eubulus' faction, a prominent member of which was Aeschines. He laid the foundations for his future political successes and for becoming the leader of his own party. His arguments revealed his desire to articulate Athens' needs and interests.

In 351 BC, Demosthenes felt strong enough to express his view concerning the most important foreign policy issue facing Athens at that time: the stance his city should take towards Philip II of Macedon. According to Jacqueline de Romilly, a French philologist and member of the Académie française, the threat of Philip would give Demosthenes' stances a focus and a raison d'être. From this point on, Demosthenes' career is virtually the history of Athenian foreign policy.

Confronting Philip

First Philippic and the Olynthiacs (351 BC–349 BC)

Philip II of Macedon: victory medal (niketerion) struck in Tarsus, 2nd c. BC (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris). Demosthenes saw the King of Macedon as a menace to the autonomy of all Greek cities.
Philip II of Macedon: victory medal (niketerion) struck in Tarsus, 2nd c. BC ( Cabinet des Médailles, Paris). Demosthenes saw the King of Macedon as a menace to the autonomy of all Greek cities.

Most of Demosthenes' major orations were directed against the growing power of King Philip II of Macedon. Since 357 BC, when Philip seized Amphipolis and Pydna, Athens had been formally at war with the Macedonians. In 352 BC, Demosthenes characterized Philip as the very worst enemy of his city; this speech presaged the fierce attacks that Demosthenes would launch against the Macedonian king over the ensuing years. A year later he criticized those dismissing Philip as a person of no account and warned them that he was as dangerous as the King of Persia.

In 352 BC, Athenian troops successfully opposed Philip at Thermopylae, but the Macedonian victory over the Phocians at the Battle of Crocus Field shook the orator. The theme of the First Philippic (351 BC-350 BC) was preparedness and the reform of the theoric fund, a mainstay of Eubulus' policy. In his rousing call for resistance, Demosthenes asked his countrymen to take the necessary action and asserted that "for a free people there can be no greater compulsion than shame for their position".

"Only money we must have, and without money nothing can be done that ought to be done."
Demosthenes (First Olynthiac, 20) - The orator took great pains to convince his countrymen that the reform of the theoric fund was necessary to finance the city's military preparatios.

From this moment until 341 BC, all of Demosthenes' speeches referred to the same issue, the struggle against Philip. In 349 BC, Philip attacked Olynthus, an ally of Athens. In the three Olynthiacs, Demosthenes criticized his compatriots for being idle and urged Athens to help Olynthus. He also insulted Philip, calling him a "barbarian". Despite Demosthenes' warnings, the Athenians engaged in a useless war in Euboea and offered no military support to Olynthus.

Case of Meidias (348 BC)

In 348 BC a peculiar event occurred: Meidias, a wealthy Athenian, slapped in public Demosthenes, who was at the time a choregos at the Greater Dionysia, a large religious festival in honour of the god Dionysus. Meidias was a friend of Eubulus and supporter of the unsuccessful excursion in Euboea. He also was an old enemy of the orator; in 361 BC he had broken violently into the house of Demosthenes, with his brother Thrasylochus, to take possession of it.

"Just think. The instant this court rises, each of you will walk home, one quicker, another more leisurely, not anxious, not glancing behind him, not fearing whether he is going to run up against a friend or an enemy, a big man or a little one, a strong man or a weak one, or anything of that sort. And why? Because in his heart he knows, and is confident, and has learned to trust the State, that no one shall seize or insult or strike him."
Demosthenes (Against Meidias, 221) - The orator asked the Athenians to defend their legal system, by making an example of the defendant for the instruction of others.

Demosthenes decided to prosecute his wealthy opponent and wrote the judicial oration Against Meidias. This speech gives valuable information about Athenian law at the time and especially about the Greek concept of hybris (aggravated assault), which was regarded as a crime not only against the city but against society as a whole. The orator underscored that a democratic state perishes, if the rule of law is undermined by wealthy and unscrupulous men, and asserted that the citizens acquire power and authority in all state affairs due "to the strength of the laws". According to philologist Henri Weil, Demosthenes dropped his charges for political reasons and never delivered Against Meidias, although Aeschines maintained that Demosthenes received money to drop the case.

Peace of Philocrates (347 BC–345 BC)

In 348 BC, Philip conquered Olynthus and razed it to the ground. In the wake of this Macedonian victory, which also included the conquest of the entire Chalcidice and all the states of the Chalcidic federation that Olynthus had once led, Athens sought to make peace with Macedon. Demosthenes was among those who orientated themselves towards a compromise. In 347 BC, an Athenian delegation, comprising Demosthenes, Aeschines and Philocrates, was officially sent to Pella to negotiate a peace treaty. In his first encounter with Philip, Demosthenes is said to have collapsed because of his fright.

Philip imposed his own harsh terms that the ecclesia officially accepted. Nevertheless, when an Athenian delegation travelled to Pella to put Philip under oath for the final conclusion of the treaty, the King of Macedon was campaigning abroad. He expected that he would hold safely any Athenian possessions which he might seize before the ratification. Being very anxious about the delay, Demosthenes insisted that the embassy should travel to the place where they would find Philip and swear him in without delay. Despite his suggestions, the Athenian envoys, including himself and Aeschines, remained in Pella, until Philip successfully concluded his excursion in Thrace.

Finally, peace was sworn in Pherae, but Demosthenes accused the other envoys of venality. Just after the conclusion of the Peace of Philocrates, Philip passed Thermopylae, and subdued Phocis; Athens made no move to support the Phocians. Supported by Thebes and Thessaly, Macedon took control of Phocis' votes in the Amphictyonic League, a Greek religious organization formed to support the greater temples of Apollo and Demeter. Despite some reluctance on the part of the Athenian leaders, Athens finally accepted Philip's entry into the Council of the League. Demosthenes was among those who recommended this stance in his oration On the Peace.

Second and Third Philippic (344 BC–341 BC)

Satellite image of the Thracian Chersonese and the surrounding area. The Chersonese became the focus of a bitter territorial dispute between Athens and Macedon. It was eventually ceded to Philip in 338 BC.
Satellite image of the Thracian Chersonese and the surrounding area. The Chersonese became the focus of a bitter territorial dispute between Athens and Macedon. It was eventually ceded to Philip in 338 BC.

In 344 BC Demosthenes travelled to Peloponnese, in order to detach as many cities as possible from Macedon's influence, but his efforts were generally unsuccessful. Most of the Peloponnesians saw Philip as the guarantor of their freedom and sent a joint embassy to Athens to express their grievances against Demosthenes' activities. In response to these complaints, Demosthenes delivered the Second Philippic, a vehement attack against Philip. In 343 BC Demosthenes delivered On the False Embassy against Aeschines, who was facing a charge of high treason. Nonetheless, Aeschines was acquitted by the narrow margin of thirty votes by a jury which may have numbered as many as 1,501.

In 343 BC, Macedonian forces were conducting campaigns in Epirus and, a year later, Philip campaigned in Thrace. He also negotiated with the Athenians an amendment to the Peace of Philocrates. When the Macedonian army approached Chersonese (now known as the Gallipoli Peninsula), an Athenian general named Diopeithes ravaged the maritime district of Thrace, thus inciting Philip's rage. Because of this turbulence, the Athenian Assembly convened. Demosthenes delivered On the Chersonese and convinced the Athenians not to recall Diopeithes. During the same year, he delivered the Third Philippic, which is considered to be the best of his political orations. Using all the power of his eloquence, he demanded resolute action against Philip and called for a burst of energy from the Athenian people. He told them that it would be "better to die a thousand times than pay court to Philip". Demosthenes now dominated Athenian politics and was able to considerably weaken the pro-Macedonian faction of Aeschines.

Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC)

The battle of Chaeronea (map designed by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering) took place the autumn of 338 BC and resulted in a significant victory for Philip, who established Macedon's supremacy over the Greek cities.
The battle of Chaeronea (map designed by Marco Prins and Jona Lendering) took place the autumn of 338 BC and resulted in a significant victory for Philip, who established Macedon's supremacy over the Greek cities.

In 341 BC Demosthenes was sent to Byzantium, where he renewed the alliance between that city and Athens. Thanks to the orator's diplomatic manoeuvres Abydos also entered into an alliance with Athens. These developments worried Philip and increased his anger towards Demosthenes. The Athenian Assembly, however, laid aside Philip's grievances against Demosthenes' conduct and denounced the peace treaty, an action equivalent to an official declaration of war. In 339 BC Philip made his last and most effective bid to conquer southern Greece, assisted by Aeschines' stance in the Amphictyonic Council. During a meeting of the Council, Philip accused the Amfissian Locrians of intruding on consecrated ground. The presiding officer of the Council, a Thessalian named Cottyphus, proposed the convocation of an Amphictyonic Congress to inflict a harsh punishment upon the Locrians. Aeschines agreed with this proposition and maintained that the Athenians should participate in the Congress. Demosthenes reversed, however, Aeschines' initiatives and Athens finally abstained. After the failure of a first military excursion against the Locrians, the summer session of the Amphictyonic Council gave command of the league's forces to Philip and asked him to lead a second excursion. Philip decided to act at once; in the winter of 339 BC– 338 BC, he passed through Thermopylae, entered Amfissa and defeated the Locrians. After this significant victory, Philip swiftly entered Phocis in 338 BC. He then turned south-east down the Cephissus valley, seized Elateia, and restored the fortifications of the city.

At the same time, Athens orchestrated the creation of an alliance with Euboea, Megara, Achaea, Corinth, Acarnania and some other states in the Peloponnese. However, the most desirable ally for Athens was Thebes. Therefore, Demosthenes was sent to the Boeotian city by Athens; Philip also sent a deputation, but the Athenian orator succeeded in securing an alliance with Thebes. Demosthenes' oration before the Theban people is not extant and, therefore, the arguments he used to convince the Thebans remain unknown. In any case, the alliance came at a price; Thebes' control of Boeotia was recognized, Thebes was to command solely on land and jointly at sea, and Athens was to pay two thirds of the campaign's cost.

While the Athenians and the Thebans were preparing themselves for war, Philip made a final attempt to appease his enemies, proposing in vain a new peace treaty. After a few trivial encounters between the two sides, which resulted in minor Athenian victories, Philip drew the phalanx of the Athenian and Theban confederates in a plain near Chaeronea, where he defeated them. Demosthenes fought as a mere hoplite. Such was Philip's hate for Demosthenes that, according to Diodorus Siculus, the King after his victory sneered at the misfortunes of the Athenian statesman. However, the Athenian orator and statesman Demades is said to have remarked: "O King, when Fortune has cast you in the role of Agamemnon, are you not ashamed to act the part of Thersites (an obscene soldier of the Greek army during the Trojan War) ?" Stung by these words, Philip immediately altered his demeanour.

Last political initiatives and death

Confronting Alexander and delivering On the Crown

Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, from a 3rd century BC original Greek painting, now lost. In 336–335 BC, the King of Macedon crippled any attempt of the Greek cities at resistance and shattered Demosthenes' hopes for Athenian independence.
Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, from a 3rd century BC original Greek painting, now lost. In 336–335 BC, the King of Macedon crippled any attempt of the Greek cities at resistance and shattered Demosthenes' hopes for Athenian independence.

After Chaeronea, Philip inflicted a harsh punishment upon Thebes, but made peace with Athens on very lenient terms. Demosthenes encouraged the fortification of Athens and was chosen by the ecclesia to deliver the Funeral Oration. In 337 BC, Philip created the League of Corinth, a confederation of Greek states under his leadership, and returned to Pella. In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra of Macedonia, to King Alexander of Epirus. After Philip's death, the army proclaimed Alexander, then aged 20, as the new King of Macedon. Greek cities like Athens and Thebes saw in this change of leadership an opportunity to regain their full independence. Demosthenes celebrated Philip's assassination and played a leading part in his city's uprising. According to Aeschines, "it was but the seventh day after the death of his daughter, and though the ceremonies of mourning were not yet completed, he put a garland on his head and white raiment on his body, and there he stood making thank-offerings, violating all decency." Demosthenes also sent envoys to Attalus, whom he considered to be an internal opponent of Alexander. Nonetheless, Alexander moved swiftly to Thebes, which submitted shortly after the King's appearance at its gates. When the Athenians learned that Alexander had moved quickly to Boeotia, they panicked and begged the new King of Macedon for mercy. Alexander admonished them but imposed no punishment.

"You stand revealed in your life and conduct, in your public performances and also in your public abstinences. A project approved by the people is going forward. Aeschines is speechless. A regrettable incident is reported. Aeschines is in evidence. He reminds one of an old sprain or fracture: the moment you are out of health it begins to be active."
Demosthenes (On the Crown, 198) - In On the Crown Demosthenes fiercely assaulted and finally neutralized Aeschines, his formidable political opponent.

In 335 BC Alexander felt free to engage the Thracians and the Illyrians. While he was campaigning in the north, the Thebans and the Athenians rebelled once again, believing in the rumors that Alexander was dead. Darius III of Persia financed the Greek cities that rose up against Macedon, and Demosthenes is said to have received about 300 talents on behalf of Athens and to have faced accusations of embezzlement. Alexander reacted immediately and razed Thebes to the ground. He did not attack Athens, but demanded the exile of all anti-Macedonian politicians, Demosthenes first of all, a request turned down by the ecclesia.

Despite the unsuccessful ventures against Philip and Alexander, the Athenians still respected Demosthenes. In 336 BC, the orator Ctesiphon proposed that Athens honour Demosthenes for his services to the city by presenting him, according to custom, with a golden crown. This proposal became a political issue and in 330 BC, Aeschines prosecuted Ctesiphon on charges of legal irregularities. In his most brilliant speech, On the Crown, Demosthenes effectively defended Ctesiphon and attacked vehemently those who would have preferred peace with Macedon. The orator was unrepentant about his past actions and policies and insisted that, when in power, the constant aim of his policies was the honour and the ascendancy of his country; and on every occasion and in all business he preserved his loyalty to Athens. He finally defeated Aeschines, although his enemy's legal objections to the crowning were probably valid.

Case of Harpalus

In 324 BC Harpalus, to whom Alexander had entrusted huge treasures, absconded and sought refuge in Athens. Demosthenes, at first, advised that he be chased out of the city. Finally, Harpalus was imprisoned despite the dissent of Hypereides, an anti-Macedonian statesman and former ally of Demosthenes. The ecclesia, after a proposal of Demosthenes, decided to take control of Harpalus' money, which was entrusted to a committee presided over by Demosthenes. When the committee counted the treasure, they found they only had half the money Harpalus had declared he had. Nevertheless, they decided not to disclose the deficit. When Harpalus escaped, the Areopagus conducted an inquiry and charged Demosthenes with mishandling 20 talents. During Demosthenes' trial, Hypereides argued that the defendant did not disclose the huge deficit, because he was bribed by Harpalus. The orator was fined and imprisoned, but he soon escaped. It remains unclear whether the accusations against him were just or not. In any case, the Athenians soon repealed the sentence.

"For a house, I take it, or a ship or anything of that sort must have its chief strength in its substructure; and so too in affairs of state the principles and the foundations must be truth and justice."
Demosthenes (Second Olynthiac, 10) - The orator faced serious accusations more than once, but he never admitted to any improper actions and insisted that it is impossible "to gain permanent power by injustice, perjury, and falsehood".

After Alexander's death in 323 BC, Demosthenes again urged the Athenians to seek independence from Macedonian control in what became known as the Lamian War. However, Antipater, Alexander's successor, quelled all opposition and demanded that the Athenians turn over Demosthenes and Hypereides, among others. Following his request, the ecclesia adopted a decree condemning the most prominent anti-Macedonian agitators to death. Demosthenes escaped to a sanctuary on the island of Calauria, where he was later discovered by Archias, a confidant of Antipater. The orator committed suicide before his capture by taking poison out of a reed, pretending he wanted to write a letter to his family. When Demosthenes felt that the poison was working on his body, he said to Archias: "Now, as soon as you please you may commence the part of Creon in the tragedy, and cast out this body of mine unburied. But, O gracious Neptune, I, for my part, while I am yet alive, arise up and depart out of this sacred place; though Antipater and the Macedonians have not left so much as the temple unpolluted." After saying these words, he passed by the altar, fell down and died. Years after Demosthenes' suicide, the Athenians erected a statue to honour him and decreed that the state should provide meals to his descendants in the Prytaneum.


Political career

Bust of Demosthenes, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln
Bust of Demosthenes, Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln

Plutarch lauds Demosthenes for not being of a fickle disposition. Rebutting historian Theopompus, the biographer insists that for "the same party and post in politics which he held from the beginning, to these he kept constant to the end; and was so far from leaving them while he lived, that he chose rather to forsake his life than his purpose". On the other hand, Polybius, a Greek historian of the Mediterranean world, was highly critical of Demosthenes' policies. Polybius accused him of having launched unjustified verbal attacks on great men of other cities, branding them unjustly as traitors to the Greeks. The historian maintains that Demosthenes measured everything by the interests of his own city, imagining that all the Greeks ought to have their eyes fixed upon Athens. According to Polybius, the only thing the Athenians eventually got by their opposition to Philip was the defeat at Chaeronea. "And had it not been for the king's magnanimity and regard for his own reputation, their misfortunes would have gone even further, thanks to the policy of Demosthenes".

"The man who deems himself born only to his parents will wait for his natural and destined end; the son of his country is willing to die rather than see her enslaved, and will look upon those outrages and indignities, which a commonwealth in subjection is compelled to endure, as more dreadful than death itself."
Demosthenes (On the Crown, 205) - During his long political career Demosthenes urged his countrymen to defend their city and to preserve their freedom and their democracy.

Paparregopoulus extols Demosthenes' patriotism, but criticizes him as being short-sighted. According to this critique, Demosthenes should have understood that the ancient Greek states could only survive unified under the leadership of Macedon. Therefore, Demosthenes is accused of misjudging events, opponents and opportunities and of being unable to foresee Philip's inevitable triumph. He is criticized for having overrated Athens' capacity to revive and challenge Macedon. His city had lost most of its Aegean allies, whereas Philip had consolidated his hold over Macedonia and was master of enormous mineral wealth. Chris Carey, a professor of Greek in UCL, concludes that Demosthenes was a better orator and political operator than strategist. Nevertheless, the same scholar underscores that "pragmatists" like Aeschines or Phocion had no inspiring vision to rival that of Demosthenes. The orator asked the Athenians to choose that which is just and honorable, before their own safety and preservation. The people preferred Demosthenes' activism and even the bitter defeat at Chaeronea was regarded as a price worth paying in the attempt to retain freedom and influence. According to Professor of Greek Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, success may be a poor criterion for judging the actions of people like Demosthenes, who were motivated by the ideal of political liberty. Athens was asked by Philip to sacrifice its freedom and its democracy, while Demosthenes longed for the city's brilliance. He endeavored to revive its imperilled values and, thus, he became an "educator of the people" (in the words of Werner Jaeger).

The fact that Demosthenes fought at the battle of Chaeronea as a hoplite indicates that he lacked any military skills. According to historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his time the division between political and military offices was beginning to be strongly marked. Almost no politician, with the exception of Phocion, was at the same time an apt orator and a competent general. Demosthenes dealt in policies and ideas, and war was not his business. This contrast between Demosthenes' intellectual prowess and his deficiencies in terms of vigor, stamina, military skill and strategic vision is illustrated by the inscription his countrymen engraved on the base of his statue:

Had you for Greece been strong, as wise you were,

The Macedonian had not conquered her.


Oratorical skill

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric, Demosthenes represented the final stage in the development of Attic prose. Dionysius asserts that the orator brought together the best features of the basic types of style; he used the middle or normal type style ordinarily and applied the archaic type and the type of plain elegance where they were fitting. In each one of the three types he was better than its special masters. He is, therefore, regarded as a consummate orator, adept in the techniques of oratory, which are brought together in his work. In his initial judicial orations, the influence of both Lysias and Isaeus is obvious, but his marked, original style is already revealed.

According to the classical scholar Harry Thurston Peck, Demosthenes "affects no learning; he aims at no elegance; he seeks no glaring ornaments; he rarely touches the heart with a soft or melting appeal, and when he does, it is only with an effect in which a third-rate speaker would have surpassed him. He had no wit, no humour, no vivacity, in our acceptance of these terms. The secret of his power is simple, for it lies essentially in the fact that his political principles were interwoven with his very spirit." In this judgement, Peck agrees with Jaeger, who said that the imminent political decision imbued the orator's speech with a fascinating artistic power. Demosthenes was apt at combining abruptness with the extended period, brevity with breadth. Hence, his style harmonizes with his fervent commitment. His language is simple and natural, never far-fetched or artificial. According to Jebb, Demosthenes was a true artist who could make his art obey him. For his part, Aeschines stigmatized his intensity, attributing to his rival strings of absurd and incoherent images. Dionysius stated that Demosthenes' only shortcoming is the lack of humor, although Quintilian regards this deficiency as a virtue. The main criticism of Demosthenes' art, however, seems to have rested chiefly on his known reluctance to speak extempore; he often declined to comment on subjects he had not studied beforehand. However, he gave the most elaborate preparation to all his speeches and, therefore, his arguments were the products of careful study. He was also famous for his caustic wit.

According to Cicero, Demosthenes regarded "delivery" (gestures, voice etc.) as more important than style. Although he lacked Aeschines' charming voice and Demades's skill at improvisation, he made efficient use of his body to accentuate his words. Thus he managed to project his ideas and arguments much more forcefully. Nonetheless, his delivery was not accepted by everybody in antiquity: Demetrius Phalereus and the comedians ridiculed Demosthenes' "theatricality", whilst Aeschines regarded Leodamas of Acharnae as superior to him.

Rhetorical legacy

Phryne Going to the Public Baths as Venus and Demosthenes Taunted by Aeschines by J. M. W. Turner (1838).
Phryne Going to the Public Baths as Venus and Demosthenes Taunted by Aeschines by J. M. W. Turner (1838).

Demosthenes' fame continued down the ages. The scholars at the Library of Alexandria carefully edited the manuscripts of his speeches, while Roman schoolboys studied his art as part of their own oratorical training. Juvenal acclaimed him as "largus et exundans ingenii fons" (a large and overflowing fountain of genius) and Cicero was inspired by Demosthenes for his speeches against Mark Antony, which were called Philippics too. Plutarch drew attention in his Life of Demosthenes to the strong similarities between the personalities and careers of Demosthenes and Marcus Tullius Cicero:

The divine power seems originally to have designed Demosthenes and Cicero upon the same plan, giving them many similarities in their natural characters, as their passion for distinction and their love of liberty in civil life, and their want of courage in dangers and war, and at the same time also to have added many accidental resemblances. I think there can hardly be found two other orators, who, from small and obscure beginnings, became so great and mighty; who both contested with kings and tyrants; both lost their daughters, were driven out of their country, and returned with honour; who, flying from thence again, were both seized upon by their enemies, and at last ended their lives with the liberty of their countrymen.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Demosthenes had a reputation for eloquence. He was read more than any other ancient orator; only Cicero offered any real competition. French author and lawyer Guillaume du Vair praises his speeches for their artful arrangement and elegant style, while John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury, and Jacques Amyot, a French Renaissance writer and translator, regard Demosthenes as a great or even the "supreme" orator.

In modern history, famous orators like Henry Clay would mimic Demosthenes' technique. His ideas and principles survived, influencing prominent politicians and movements of our times. Hence, he constituted a source of inspiration for the authors of the Federalist Papers (series of 85 articles arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution) and for the major orators of the French Revolution. Georges Clemenceau was among those who idealized the Athenian orator and wrote a book about him. For his part, Nietzsche often composed his sentences according to the paradigms of Demosthenes, whose style he admired. During World War II, the fighters of the French Resistance identified themselves with Demosthenes, while they gave Adolf Hitler the name of Philip. Therefore, the Athenian statesman was recognized as the symbol of independence and as a synonym of resistance against any tyrannical oppression. He also constituted a source of inspiration for writers of modern literature, such as Mary Renault and Orson Scott Card.


Demosthenes must have written down and published most of his orations. After his death, texts of his speeches survived in Athens and the Library of Alexandria. In Alexandria these texts were incorporated into the body of classical Greek literature that was preserved, catalogued and studied by scholars of the Hellenistic period. From then until the fourth century CE, copies of his orations multiplied and they were in a relatively good position to survive the tense period from the sixth till the ninth century CE. In the end, sixty-one of Demosthenes' survived till the present day. Friedrich Blass, a German classical scholar, believes that nine more speeches were recorded by the orator, but they are not extant. Modern editions of these speeches are based on four manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh century CE. The authorship of at least nine of the sixty-one orations is disputed.

Fifty-six prologues and six letters are also extant. The prologues were openings of Demosthenes's speeches. They were collected for the Library of Alexandria by Callimachus, who believed that Demosthenes composed them. Modern scholars are divided: some of them reject them, while others, such as Blass, believe they are genuine. The letters are written under Demosthenes's name, but their authorship has been fiercely debated.

Demosthenes' orations 
Political orations Olynthiacs 1-2-3 | First Philippic | On the Peace | Second Philippic | On the Halonnesus | On the Chersonese | Third Philippic | Fourth Philippic | Reply to Philip | Philip | On Organisation | On the Navy | For the Megalopolitans | On the Liberty of the Rodians | On the Accession of Alexander
Judicial orations On the Crown | On the False Embassy | Against Leptines | Against Meidias | Against Androtion | Against Aristocrates | Against Timocrates | Against Aristogiton 1-2 | Against Aphobus 1-2-3 | Against Ontenor 1-2 | Against Zenothemis | Against Apatourius | Against Phormio | Against Lacritus | For Phormio | Against Pantaenetus | Against Nausimachus and Xenopeithes | Against Boeotus 1-2 | Against Spudias | Against Phaenippus | Against Macartatus | Against Leochares | Against Stephanus 1-2 | Against Evergus and Mnesibulus | Against Olympiodorus | Against Timotheus | Against Polycles | On the Trierarcic Crown | Against Callipus | Against Nicostratus | Against Conon | Against Callicles | Against Dionysodorus | Against Eubulides | Against Theocrines | Against Naeara
Epideictic orations Funeral Oration | Erotic Essay


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