Orfeas Katsoulis | Sep 22, 2022

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Demosthenes (in Greek, Δημοσθένης: Dēmosthénēs) was one of the most relevant orators in history and an important Athenian politician. He was born in Athens, in 384 BC and died in Calauria, in 322 BC.

His oratorical skills constitute the last significant expression of Athenian intellectual prowess, and provide access to the details of Ancient Greek politics and culture during the fourth century B.C. Demosthenes learned rhetoric by studying the speeches of earlier orators. He delivered his first judicial speeches at the age of twenty, when he demanded that his guardians turn over his entire inheritance to him. For a time, Demosthenes earned his living as a professional writer of judicial speeches and as a lawyer, drafting texts for use in lawsuits between private individuals.

Demosthenes became interested in politics during that time, and it was in 354 B.C. that he gave his first public political speeches. He devoted his years of physical and intellectual plenitude to opposing the expansion of the Macedonian kingdom. He idealized his city and fought to restore Athenian supremacy and motivate his countrymen to oppose Philip II of Macedon. He sought to preserve the freedom of Athens and to establish an alliance against Macedonia in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Philip's plans to expand his influence southward by conquering the Greek city-states. Two years before Philip's death, Demosthenes played a leading role in the uprising of Athens and Thebes against the Macedonian king and his son, Alexander III, at the Battle of Chaeronea, although his efforts were unsuccessful when the revolt was met with a vigorous Macedonian reaction. Moreover, to prevent a similar revolt against his own leader, Alexander's successor, Antipater the Diabodon Antipater, sent his men to put down Demosthenes. Demosthenes, however, committed suicide in order to avoid falling into the hands of Archias, Antipater's confidant.

The so-called Alexandrian Canon, compiled by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace, recognizes Demosthenes as one of the 10 greatest Attic logicians and orators. According to Longinus, Demosthenes "perfected to the utmost the tone of idealistic, passionate, abundant, prepared, rapid speech". Cicero hailed him as "the perfect orator" who lacked nothing and Quintilian praised him by addressing him as "lex orandi" ("the standard of oratory") and saying of him that "inter omnes unus excellat" ("he stands alone among the rest of orators").

Family, education and personal life

Demosthenes was born in 384 B.C., during the last year of the 98th Olympiad or the first of the 99th. His father, of the same name, belonged to the Pandionisian tribe (phylai) and lived in the Demo of Peania, on the outskirts of Athens.

He belonged to a wealthy merchant family, which earned him the scorn of the old aristocratic families. His father, Demosthenes of Peania, owned an arms factory. Aeschines, Demosthenes' greatest political rival, would later maintain that his mother, Cleobula, was of Scythian origin, although some modern scholars doubt this assertion. For his part, Demetrius of Magnesia, in his late work On Synonyms, claimed that she was Samian.

At the age of 7, Demosthenes was left an orphan. His father left him a fortune in trust, leaving him in the care of his uncles, Aphobos and Demophon, as well as a certain Theripides. His guardians squandered his fortune, either through mismanagement or malice, leaving the young Demosthenes in extreme poverty.

As soon as Demosthenes came of age, he demanded an audit of the accounts of the management carried out by his guardians. According to Demosthenes, the auditing of the accounts demonstrated the misappropriation of his estate. Although his father had left him an estate of almost fourteen talents, which would be roughly equivalent to about US$400,000 in today's dollars. Demosthenes said at the trial that his guardians had left him nothing except the house, fourteen slaves and thirty silver mines (30 mines equaled half a talent).

At the age of 20, Demosthenes sued his tutors, trying to recover his patrimony. During the trials he delivered five speeches: three against Aphobos between 363 BC and 362 BC and two against Ontenor between 362 BC and 361 BC. The court set the damages suffered by Demosthenes at ten talents (285,000 2008 U.S. dollars). When all the lawsuits were over, Demosthenes was only able to recover a portion of his entire inheritance.

Between 366 B.C., when he came of age, and 364 B.C., Demosthenes and his former guardians searched hard for a negotiated solution to the conflict, although they were unable to reach a settlement because neither side was willing to make concessions. At the same time, Demosthenes prepared for the trials by training his oratorical skills.

At the age of 16 Demosthenes had attended a trial of Callisthras of Aphidna (367 B.C.), being amazed by the talent of the orator. Callisthras was then at the peak of his career and won a lawsuit of considerable importance. Apparently this experience led him to decide to learn rhetoric.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, German philologist and philosopher, and Constantine Paparregopoulus, Greek historian, Demosthenes was a pupil of Isocrates. According to Cicero, Quintilian and the Roman biographer Hermippus, he was a pupil of Plato. Lucian, a Roman-Syrian rhetorician and satirist, lists the philosophers Aristotle, Theophrastus and Xenocrates among his teachers. However, all these claims are nowadays questioned.

According to Plutarch, Demosthenes became a pupil of Iseo, another Attic orator, although at that time Isocrates was also teaching in the area, specializing in the problems of succession. The reason may have been either because he could not afford Isocrates' fees, or because he thought that Iseo's style fitted better with his more vigorous and astute manner. Ernst Curtius, a German archaeologist, described the relationship between pupil and teacher as "an intellectual armed alliance".

It has also been said that Demosthenes paid his teacher about 10,000 drachmas (about half a talent) on condition that he would leave the school of rhetoric he had opened and devote himself entirely to teaching Demosthenes. Another version says that Iseo did not charge Demosthenes anything for teaching. However, according to Richard C. Jebb, a classical British scholar, "the relationship between Iseo and Demosthenes as teacher and pupil could hardly have been either very intimate or of very long duration." Konstantinos Tsatsos, a Greek teacher and scholar, believes that Iseo assisted Demosthenes in the creation of his first judicial speeches against his tutors.

According to a biography of unknown author but attributed to Plutarch, which has come down to our days, Demosthenes married once. The only information that appears about his wife, whose name is unknown, is that she was the daughter of Heliodorus, an important citizen. He also had a daughter, "the first and only one who ever called him father," according to Aeschines, in an acid commentary. His daughter died young, before she was married, a few days after the death of Philip. His nephew Democrates was also a politician and orator.

In his speeches, Aeschines often used Demosthenes' pederastic relationships to attack him. The content of the attacks was not the fact that Demosthenes had relations with boys (something that at that time was neither rare nor socially unacceptable), but that his behavior as an erastase had been inappropriate, and that his way of acting did not benefit the boys (as was expected) but harmed them. In the case of Aristion, a young man from Platea who lived for a long time in the house of Demosthenes, Aeschines mocked his lack of sexual control and possible effeminate behavior. In the case of Cnosius, Aeschines makes another accusation of a sexual nature, although in this case he accuses Demosthenes of sleeping with his wife to get her pregnant. Athenaeus, on the other hand, shows us another point of view, arguing that it was the woman who slept with the young man in a fit of jealousy.

Aeschines also accused Demosthenes of getting money through his relationships with wealthy young men. He said that he cajoled Aristarchus, the son of Moscos, with the idea that he could make him a great orator. Apparently, while still under the tutelage of Demosthenes, Aristarchus killed and mutilated one Nicodemus of Aphidna, gouging out his eyes and tongue. Aeschines accused Demosthenes of complicity in the murder, using as an argument the fact that Nicodemus had previously sued Demosthenes, accusing him of desertion. He also accused Demosthenes of having been such a bad heresiarch to Aristarchus as to be unworthy of the name. His crime, according to Aeschines, was to have betrayed his erastene by appropriating his estate while pretending to be in love with the young man (he was said to have appropriated three talents - 86,000 2008 US dollars - from Aristarchus while the latter fled into exile to avoid trial). Thus, in return for the trust that Aristarchus and his family had placed in him, and in the words of Aeschines, "You entered a happy home...". In any case, the history of Demosthenes' relations with Aristarchus is more than doubtful, and no pupil of Demosthenes is known by that name.

Career as a logographer

At the end of the lawsuits against his tutors and as a way to make a living, Demosthenes dedicated himself to writing speeches to be used in private lawsuits of third parties. He excelled in his work, and gradually built up a portfolio of wealthy and powerful clients.

On the other hand, an Athenian logographer could remain anonymous and not be listed as such anywhere, which could sometimes cause such a professional to pursue his personal interests to the detriment of those of his client (the possible conflicts of interest of an anonymous person could not be examined). Aeschines also accused Demosthenes of unethical behavior in his work, saying that he had passed on to his clients' opponents some of the arguments they would use at trial.

For example, Aeschines accused Demosthenes of having written a speech for a certain Formion, a wealthy banker, and then having communicated it to Apollodorus, who was preparing charges against Formion. Plutarch supported this accusation, saying that Demosthenes "is believed to have acted dishonestly."

Public speaking training

Even before he was 21 years old in 363 B.C., Demosthenes had shown some interest in politics. In 363, 359 and 357 B.C. he held the post of trierarch, in charge of the maintenance and supply of a trireme. In 348 B.C. he took charge of a choregia, and paid the expenses of a theatrical production.

Although Demosthenes said that he never advocated in any private case, it is still unclear when Demosthenes abandoned the lucrative (though not so prestigious) profession of logographer, and if ever.

As a child, Demosthenes had an elocution defect in his speech. Aeschines made fun of it, and referred to him in his speeches by the nickname he was given, Battalus, which apparently could have been invented either by his pedagogues or by his own playmates.

According to Plutarch, during the first public speech of the young Demosthenes, the audience mocked his elocution problem (difficulty in pronouncing the

Demosthenes carried out a strict program to overcome these deficiencies and improve his speech. He worked on his diction, his voice and his gestures to the point that his eagerness and devotion became proverbial. However, it is uncertain whether these accounts are true facts of Demosthenes' life or mere anecdotes used to illustrate his perseverance and determination.

Some citizens, however, did notice his talent. The first time he left the Ekklesia (the Athenian assembly) in grief, an old man named Eunomo encouraged him by saying that his diction was very similar to that of Pericles. On another occasion, after the Ekklesia refused to listen to him and while he was going home having been rejected, an actor named Satyrus followed him and entertained him in a friendly conversation.

Increased political activity

Although it is believed that he continued his private legal practice as a logographer, the fact is that from 354 B.C. onwards Demosthenes became increasingly interested in public affairs, becoming famous for his speeches dealing with the restoration of the public spirit in Athens and the preservation of Greek culture at a time when the city-state model was under threat.

In 355 B.C. he wrote Against Androtius and in 354 B.C., Against Leptinus, two fierce attacks against individuals who sought to eliminate tax exemptions. In Against Timocrates and Against Aristocrates he advocated the elimination of corruption, denouncing measures that he saw as dishonest or contrary to Athenian traditions. All these speeches offer some initial examples of his ideas on foreign policy, such as the importance of the fleet, alliances, or national honor.

A supporter of Eubulus, in 354 B.C. Demosthenes delivered in favor of the latter his first political speech, On the Symmorities, in which he defended moderation while proposing the reform of the symmorities as a source of financing for the Athenian fleet, advocating increased obligations with respect to the triarchies.

However, he soon broke with Eubulus, whom he attacked in 352 BC (On Syntax), while speaking out against Athenian foreign policy with the speech For the Megalopolitans (353 BC), which drew the attention of the Athenians to the danger posed by the power of Sparta, after the debacle of Thebes. He also opposed Eubulus in 351 BC, with the speech For the Freedom of the Rhodians. Eubulus was by then the most influential politician in Athens, a situation he maintained in the period between 355 and 342 BC, and was against intervention in the internal affairs of other Greek polis.

Although none of his first speeches were successful, Demosthenes gradually made a place for himself within the group of important political personalities while, on the other hand, breaking with the political faction of Eubulus (the faction to which Aeschines belonged). At that time Demosthenes was planting the foundations of his future political successes, which would lead him to become the leader of his own party. His arguments showed his desire to articulate the needs and interests of Athens.

In 351 B.C., Demosthenes felt strong enough to show his vision on the most important foreign policy issue facing Athens at the time: the stance the city should take towards Philip II of Macedon. As Jacqueline de Romilly, a philologist member of the French Academy, comments, the threat of Philip would give Demosthenes a focus and a raison d'être. Demosthenes' political career is virtually the history of Athenian foreign policy.

First Philoepic and the Olintics (351 - 341 B.C.)

Demosthenes directed his energies against the growing power of King Philip II of Macedon, whom he saw as a threat not only to Athens but to all Greek city-states.

Much of his best speeches were directed against the growing power of King Philip II of Macedon. Since 357 B.C., when Philip besieged Amphipolis and Pidna, Athens and Macedonia had been formally at war. In 352 B.C. Demosthenes described Philip as his city's greatest and worst enemy. The speech would be a preview of the fierce attacks that Demosthenes would launch against the Macedonian king during the years that followed. A year later he criticized those who underestimated Philip's power and warned that he was as dangerous as the king of Persia himself.

In 352 B.C. Athenian troops successfully engaged Philip at Thermopylae, but the Macedonian victory over the Phocians at the Battle of Saffron Field dealt a severe blow to Demosthenes.

His first speech against Philip, known as the First Philippic (351-350 B.C.), had as its theme the preparation and reform of the social fund of Athens, the main pillar of Eubulus' policies. He exhorted the Athenians to awaken from their false security and called for the war to be extended to Thrace, but was unsuccessful.

From that moment until 341 BC, all the speeches of Demosthenes referred to the same subject: the fight against Philip. In 349 B.C., to complete his domination of the Aegean Sea, Philip marched against Olynthus, an ally of Athens and the last city of Chalkidiki that remained to be dominated. Olinto asked Athens for help, and Demosthenes pronounced on this occasion the three Olintides, in which he asked Athens for help for his ally. In all three speeches, Demosthenes criticized his countrymen for doing nothing, and urged Athens to help Olynthus against the "barbarian."

Despite Demosthenes' warnings, the Athenians engaged in a futile war in Euboea and offered no military support to Olynthus. The subsequent treaty, the peace of Philocrates, was unbearable for him, who considered it no more than a respite between two battles.

The Case of Meidias (348 B.C.)

In 348 B.C. a peculiar case occurred: Meidias, a wealthy Athenian, publicly slapped Demosthenes, who at the time held an office in the Coregia, a great religious festival in honor of the god Dionysus. Meidias was a friend of Eubulus and supported the military campaign in Euboea. He was also an old enemy of Demosthenes who had violently entered his house in 361 B.C., together with his brother Thrasylochus, to seize it.

Demosthenes decided to file a lawsuit against his wealthy opponent and wrote the judicial speech Against Meidias. The speech provides valuable information about Athenian law at that time and especially about the Greek concept of Hybris or excessive ambition, which was treated in that city as a crime that was not only against the city but against society itself. Demosthenes argues that the democratic state perishes if the rule of law is undermined by rich and unscrupulous men, and that all citizens acquire power and authority in all affairs of state thanks to "the force of the laws".

According to philologist Henri Weil, Demosthenes eventually dropped the charges against Meidias for political reasons, and never delivered Against Meidias, although Aeschines maintained that Demosthenes had been bribed to drop them.

Peace of Philocrates (347-345 B.C.)

In 348 B.C., Philip II conquered Olinto and razed it to the ground. He then continued to advance and conquered Chalkidiki and all the states of the Chalkidic League formerly led by Olinto. After these Macedonian victories, Athens turned to that state in search of peace. Demosthenes was in favor of signing a treaty with Philip II. In 347 B.C. an Athenian delegation was sent to Pella with the aim of negotiating a peace treaty and Demosthenes was among the twelve ambassadors sent (346 B.C.) to meet with Philip, a delegation that also included Aeschines and Philocrates. According to Aeschines, in his first meeting with Philip, Demosthenes would have fainted from fear.

The ekklesia officially accepted the harsh terms that Philip had imposed. However, when the Athenian delegation arrived at Pella to receive the oath from Philip necessary to consider the treaty agreed upon, Philip was in the midst of a military campaign. Philip was deliberately delaying the time of negotiation and possible agreement because he hoped to keep under his sovereignty all those Athenian possessions he could conquer before ratifying the treaty. Demosthenes, anxious at the delay, insisted that the embassy should travel to the place where Philip was, and get the oath without delay, but nevertheless the Athenian envoys (including both he and Aeschines) remained at Pella until Philip's return from his successful campaign in Thrace. Finally peace was sworn at Pheres, but Demosthenes accused the rest of the envoys of having acted negligently for economic interests.

Just after the signing of the Peace of Philocrates, Philip crossed Thermopylae and conquered Phocis, while Athens remained inactive and sent no aid to the region. Supported by Thebes and Thessaly, Macedonia took control over the Phocis votes in the Amphictyony, a religious organization formed to support the great 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 being among those who supported this option, as he indicates in his speech On Peace.

Second and Third Philippics (344 - 341 B.C.)

Among his speeches of this period are the Second Philippic, the speech known as On the False Embassy, against Aeschines, and the Third Philippic in which he demanded resolute action against Philip (341 B.C.). Of these, the Philippics are considered political speeches, while On the False Embassy is a speech delivered in the judicial sphere.

In 344 B.C. Demosthenes traveled to the Peloponnese, with the aim of gaining alliances and removing as many cities as possible from Macedonian influence, although his efforts were generally unsuccessful. Most of the Peloponnesians saw Philip as the guarantor of their freedom, and even sent a joint embassy to Athens to complain about Demosthenes' activity. In response to this embassy, Demosthenes delivered the Second Philippic, a vehement attack on the person of Philip. In 343 B.C. Demosthenes delivered On the False Embassy, directed against his political rival Aeschines, who was facing a charge of high treason. Aeschines was finally acquitted by a narrow margin of thirty votes, in a jury whose number could have been as high as 1,501.

In 343 B.C. Macedonian forces were conducting a new military campaign in the Epirus region and, in 342 B.C., Philip made an incursion into Thrace. He also negotiated with the Athenians some modifications of the terms agreed upon in the Peace of Philocrates.

As the Macedonian army approached the Thracian Chersonese, an Athenian general named Diopeites ravaged the maritime district of Thrace, inciting Philip's response. The Athenian assembly met to study the situation and Demosthenes delivered his speech On the Chersonese, with which he convinced the Athenians not to call Diopeites back to Athens. Also in 342 B.C. he delivered the Third Philippic, which is considered to be the best political speech of his entire career. Using the full power of his eloquence, Demosthenes demanded from the Athenian assembly a firm response against Philip, asking the Athenian people for an energetic show of force. He told them that it would be "better to die a thousand deaths than to pay tribute to Philip". Following this speech Demosthenes took control of Athenian politics and was able to considerably weaken the pro-Macedonian faction led by Aeschines, becoming the most influential political leader in Athens.

Thanks to this, Demosthenes would get the peace treaty annulled, military allocations increased and the navy reinforced, and he made Thebes, a city long hostile to Athens, an ally.

Battle of Chaeronea (338 B.C.)

The Fourth Philippic (340 B.C.), was actually a declaration of war that led to another Greek defeat at the hands of the Macedonians: Largely due to the efforts of Demosthenes, Philip's attempt in 340 B.C. to capture Byzantium (present-day Istanbul) was delayed.

In 341 B.C. Demosthenes was sent to Byzantium, where he sought the renewal of the alliance with Athens. Thanks to his diplomatic maneuvers, Abydos also joined the cause. On the other hand, these events worried Philip and increased his animosity against Demosthenes. The Athenian assembly, however, disregarded Philip's complaints against Demosthenes' conduct and denounced the peace treaty, which in fact meant a declaration of war.

In 339 B.C. Philip made his last and greatest move in pursuit of the conquest of southern Greece, assisted by the support of Aeschines in the framework of the Amphictyony. During the Council meeting, Philip accused the city of Amphisa, in Socrida, of having invaded consecrated ground. The presiding officer of the Council, a Thessalian named Cotiphus, proposed the convocation of the Congress of Amphictyony to impose an exemplary punishment. Aeschines agreed with this proposal and maintained that the Athenians should participate in the Congress, although Demosthenes reversed Aeschines' initiatives and Athens eventually abstained. After the failure of the first military excursion to Socrates, the summer session of the Amphictyony gave command of the league forces to Philip, and asked him to lead a second excursion.

Philip decided to act immediately. In the winter of 339-338 BC he crossed Thermopylae and entered Amphissa, where he quickly defeated the population of the city. Following this significant victory, Philip entered Phocis in 338 BC and then headed southeast down the Cephysus River valley to besiege and capture the city of Elateia, where he restored the fortifications.

Meanwhile, Athens set about forging an alliance with the cities of Euboea, Megara, Achaia, Corinth, Acarnania, as well as with other less important states of the Peloponnese. In any case, the most desired alliance for Athens was with the city-state of Thebes.

In order to achieve this alliance, Athens sent Demosthenes to the city of Boeotia. Philip, for his part, also sent his own delegation with the opposite purpose, but he did not succeed in preventing Demosthenes from making Thebes join his cause. The complete speech of Demosthenes to the Theban people has not come down to us, so we do not know the arguments he used to convince Thebes to join the alliance. In any case, the alliance came at a price: Politically, Theban control of Boeotia was officially recognized. Militarily, Thebes got supreme command of the allied land troops, and joint command with Athens of the navy at sea. In addition, Athens would pay two-thirds of the total military cost of the campaign.

While the Athenians and Thebans were preparing for war, Philip made a last attempt to appease his enemies, proposing a new peace treaty that was not accepted. After this, and after a series of small clashes between the two sides that ended with minor victories for the Athenian side, Philip managed to bring the confederate phalanxes to an open field confrontation in a plain near the city of Chaeronea. Despite the alliance between Thebes and Athens, Philip defeated the allied armies in the battle of 338 B.C. During the battle Demosthenes participated as a mere hoplite, and some sources even speak of a less than honorable behavior. According to Plutarch, Demosthenes deserted the battlefield and "did nothing honorable, nor did his behavior measure up to his speeches".

Such was Philip's hatred of Demosthenes that, according to Diodorus Siculus, the king mocked the Athenian politician's misfortunes after the battle. However, the fellow Athenian orator and politician Demades is said to have made the following remark to the king:

According to Diodorus, Philip reacted to these words and immediately stopped his attitude.

After his victory, Philip was only severe with Thebes, which he came to control directly by appointing Macedonian rulers. Athens was treated more magnanimously, forcing him only to dissolve his naval league and give up his possessions in Thrace, while in return guaranteeing him independence. Despite all this, Demosthenes continued to speak out against Macedonia, even after the defeat at Chaeronea.

Confrontation with Alexander. Speech "On the Crown".

After the battle of Chaeronea, Philip imposed a severe punishment on the city of Thebes, although he was quite lenient in imposing on Athens the conditions of a peace agreement. Demosthenes defended the fortification of Athens and was chosen by the ekklesia to deliver the funeral address for the citizens killed in the war against Macedonia.

In 336 B.C. Philip was assassinated during the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra of Macedon to King Alexander of Epirus. After his death, the army proclaimed his firstborn son, Alexander, king. Meanwhile, cities such as Athens and Thebes saw in this change of leader an opportunity to regain their full independence, and Demosthenes was among the Athenians who took a more active role in leading the Athenian revolt. According to Aeschines, "it was only the seventh day after the death of his daughter, and although the mourning ceremonies had not been completed, he put a wreath of flowers on his head and white robes about his body, and stood there, making offerings in thanksgiving, violating all decency."

Demosthenes also sent messengers to the general Attalus, father of Philip's last wife, whom he considered an internal opponent to Alexander's throne. In any case, Alexander moved quickly to Thebes, which submitted soon after seeing him appear in front of its gates. When the Athenians learned that Alexander had moved so quickly to Boeotia they panicked and begged for mercy from the new king of Macedonia. Alexander, for his part, merely admonished them, and imposed no punishment for the uprising.

In 335 BC Alexander felt strong enough to take on Thrace and Illyria. While he was fighting in the north, the Thebans and Athenians rebelled once again, believing rumors that had spread about Alexander's possible death. Darius III of Persia financed the Greek cities that rose up against Macedonia, and it is said that Demosthenes may have received some 300 talents (about $8.5 million) on behalf of Athens, for which he later faced charges of misappropriation.

Alexander reacted immediately and razed Thebes to the ground. He did not attack Athens, but demanded that all politicians of the anti-Macedonian faction be exiled, Demosthenes being at the top of the list. According to Plutarch, a special embassy from Athens led by Phocion, an opponent of the anti-Macedonian faction, was able to persuade Alexander to withdraw this demand.

Demosthenes, for his part, and in spite of the misfortunes he had suffered in his clashes against Philip and Alexander, was still respected by the people of Athens. In 336 B.C. the orator Ctesiphon proposed to Athens to honor Demosthenes for his services rendered by granting him, according to tradition, the golden crown. However, the existence in Athens of a large Promacedonian party meant that Demosthenes' position was always subject to opposition, and the proposal became a controversial political issue that led, in 330 B.C., to Aeschines using a legal technicality to prosecute Ctesiphon. The reason for the prosecution was that he had offered the crown to Demosthenes after committing a series of irregularities in the offer.

In his most brilliant speech, On the Crown, Demosthenes defends Ctesiphon and vehemently attacks all those who preferred peace with Macedonia. He was not sorry for his past actions nor for his political ideas and insisted that, when in power, the constant aim of all his actions was the extolling of the honor and ascendancy of his people, and that on all occasions and in everything he did he preserved his loyalty to Athens. He finally defeated Aeschines, even though the legal objections raised by his enemy to the bestowal of the Crown were probably valid.

This was to be his most famous speech, in which he made a comprehensive defense of his entire career, defending Ctesiphon and attacking the Promacedonian party. His eloquence and logic were so convincing that Ctesiphon was acquitted and Aeschines, humiliated, was forced into voluntary exile.

The case of Hárpalo

In 324 B.C. Demosthenes' political influence began to wane because of a new case in which he was accused of corruption.

In 324 B.C. a Macedonian aristocrat named Harpalus, whom Alexander had appointed governor of Babylon and entrusted with a large amount of treasure, escaped from Macedonia, fleeing with the loot, and seeking refuge in Athens. Demosthenes demanded that Harpalus be captured, and eventually Harpalus was imprisoned despite the opposition of Hyperides, a politician of the anti-Macedonian faction who was a former ally of Demosthenes. The ekklesia, following a proposal by Demosthenes, decided to confiscate Harpalus' money, which was entrusted to a committee chaired by Demosthenes. When the committee counted the treasure they found that there was only half the money that Harpalus had declared he had, but they did not publicly reveal the shortfall. Later, when Harpalus escaped, the Areopagus conducted an audit at the end of which it accused Demosthenes of having embezzled 20 talents (US$570,000 in 2008 dollars). During the trial against him, Hyperides argued that he had not disclosed the huge deficit because he had been bribed by Harpalus.

Demosthenes was sentenced to pay a fine of 50 talents (1.4 million 2008 US dollars), which he was unable to raise, so he was sentenced to prison, although he escaped before long. It is still unclear whether or not the accusations against him were well-founded although, in any case, the Athenians soon overturned the sentence. Demosthenes fled to Aegina until Alexander's death.

A year later, the death of Alexander the Great provoked a rebellion throughout Greece against Antipater, Alexander's successor as Macedonian governor of Greece, a fact that Demosthenes took advantage of to end his exile and triumphantly enter Athens, while demanding a new war against Macedonia. Demosthenes again insisted the Athenians in the pursuit of their independence from Macedonia, which would become the so-called Lamiaca War. Antipater, however, put down the rebellion and put down the opposition to his power, after which he demanded that the Athenians hand over Demosthenes and Hyperides, along with other anti-Macedonian politicians. Demades, then head of the Promacedonian party, succeeded in getting the ekklesia to bow to Antipater's demands by voting and passing a decree condemning the political agitators to death.

Demosthenes escaped to a sanctuary on the island of Calauria, where he was finally discovered by Archias, a confidant of Antipater. Demosthenes committed suicide in the temple of Poseidon in Calauria before being captured by deceiving Archias: pretending to go to write a letter to his family, he took the opportunity to take poison hidden in a reed. When he noticed that the poison was beginning to take effect he said to Archias: "Now, when you please, you can begin to play the role of Creon in the tragedy, and take this unburied body of mine from here. But I, thanks be to Neptune, for my part, while I am yet alive, arise and leave this sacred place; though Antipater and the Macedonians have left almost nothing, save the temple, undefiled." After saying these words, he fell beside the altar and passed away.

Political career

The historical figure of Demosthenes has been the subject of conflicting opinions and different assessments over the centuries.

Plutarch, for example, praises Demosthenes for his character. Rebutting the historian Theopompus, the biographer insists that Demosthenes maintained "the same party and political direction which he had from the beginning, kept them constant to the end; and was so far from abandoning them while he lived that he came to prefer to give his life rather than betray his principles." On the other hand, Polybius a Greek historian of the Mediterranean world, was highly critical of the policies advocated by Demosthenes. Polybius accuses him of having launched unwarranted verbal attacks against great men of other cities, unjustly branding them as traitors to the Greeks. The historian maintained that Demosthenes measured everything according to the interests of his own city, imagining that the Greeks should have their vision centered on Athens. However, and according to this historian, the only thing that the Athenians managed to achieve thanks to their opposition to Philip was the defeat at Chaeronea, "and if it had not been for the king's magnanimity and his care for his own reputation, their misfortunes would have been even greater, thanks to the policy of Demosthenes".

Paparrigopoulos extols Demosthenes' patriotism, but criticizes him for being short-sighted. According to his criticism, Demosthenes should have understood that the ancient Greek states could only survive unified under the leadership of the Macedonian kingdom. He therefore accuses Demosthenes of having misjudged events, opponents and opportunities, and of having failed to foresee the inevitable triumph of Philip. He criticizes him for having overestimated Athens' ability to revive and challenge Macedonia. His city had lost most of its allies in the Aegean, while Philip had consolidated his control over the Macedonian region and controlled great mineral wealth.

Chris Carey, professor of Greek at University College London, concludes that Demosthenes was a better orator than strategist and politician, although he also stresses that "pragmatists" such as Aeschines and Phocion did not have a vision inspiring enough to rival that of Demosthenes. The orator asked the Athenians to choose between what is just and honorable and put it before their own safety and the preservation of the city. The people, for their part, preferred Demosthenes' activism to the point that the sour defeat of Chaeronea was received as a price worth paying in the attempt to retain freedom and influence over the peninsula.

On the other hand, according to fellow Greek professor Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, success is a poor criterion for judging the actions of people like Demosthenes, who were motivated by the political ideal of freedom. Philip had asked Athens to sacrifice its freedom and democracy, while Demosthenes sought to revive the city's brilliant past. He sought to revive those enduring values and thus become an "educator of the people" (in Werner Jaeger's words).

The fact that Demosthenes fought in the battle of Chaeronea as a mere hoplite, as well as his flight from the battlefield, indicates that he lacked military capacity. According to the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, the difference between political and military offices was strongly marked at the time when Demosthenes lived. Hardly any politician, with the exception of Phocion, was at the same time a good orator and a competent general. Demosthenes was very competent in the field of politics and ideas, but not in the field of war. The contrast, on the other hand, between Demosthenes' intellectual capacity and his deficiencies in terms of vigor, stamina and military knowledge or skill, is illustrated in the inscription that his fellow citizens placed at the base of his statue.

Public speaking skills

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Greek historian and professor of rhetoric, Demosthenes represents the final stage in the development of Attic prose. This author states that Demosthenes brought together the best characteristics of the basic styles; he habitually used the middle or normal type style and applied the archaic style and that of plain elegance when necessary. In each and every one of the three styles he was better than his specialized masters.

Demosthenes is considered an accomplished orator, adept in all the techniques of oratory that he uses in his work together. In his initial judicial speeches, the influence of his early masters is obvious, but it does not mask his marked and original style, which also appears.

According to Harry Thurston Peck, belonging to the classical school, Demosthenes "does not increase knowledge; his aim is not elegance; he does not seek brilliant ornaments; he rarely touches people's hearts with gentle appeals, and when he does, he produces only an effect that could improve any third-rate orator. He had no sharpness, grace, or vivacity, as we understand these terms. The secret of his power is simple, since it lies essentially in the fact that his political principles were bound up with his own spirit." In his judgment, Peck agrees with Jaeger, who said that impending political decisions imbued Demosthenes' speeches with a fascinating artistic power.

Demosthenes was able to combine succinct messages with extensive explanations, harmonizing with his task. His language is simple and natural, he does not use strange or artificial words. According to Jebb, Demosthenes was an artist capable of making his own art obey him, while Aeschines stigmatized his intensity, attributing to his rivals strings of absurd and incoherent images.

Dionysius states that Demosthenes' only weakness was his lack of a sense of humor, although Quintilian saw this deficiency as a virtue. However, the main criticism leveled against Demosthenes seems to have rested mainly on his refusal to speak extempore; having often refused to comment on matters he had not previously studied. In any case, he devoted elaborate preparation to all his speeches and thus his arguments are the products of careful study of each issue. He was also famous for his capacity for satire.

According to Cicero, Demosthenes saw the way of delivering the message (gestures, voice, etc.) as more important than the style. Although he did not have the voice of Aeschines, or the improvisatory capacity of Demades, he used his body very efficiently to accentuate his words, managing to project his ideas and arguments with greater force. However, such staging was not well received by everyone in antiquity: Demetrius of Phalerus and the comedians ridiculed the "theatricality" of Demosthenes, while Aeschines was of the opinion that Leodamas of Acharnas was superior to him.

Rhetorical legacy

Demosthenes' fame endured through the centuries. Scholars at the Library of Alexandria carefully edited the manuscripts of his speeches, and the schoolmen of ancient Rome studied his art as part of their own training in rhetoric. Juvenal hailed him as being largus et exundans ingenii fons (a 'long and overflowing fountain of wit'). Cicero's speeches against Mark Antony also mentioned the Philippics.

For his part, Plutarch made a mention in his Life of Demosthenes emphasizing the strong similarities between the personalities and political careers of Demosthenes and Marcus Tullius Cicero:

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Demosthenes maintained a good reputation for his eloquence. His texts were the most studied and read of all ancient orators, with perhaps Cicero as the only real competitor. The French author and jurist Guillaume du Vair praises his speeches for their elegant style and artistic composition; John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, and Jacques Amyot, French Renaissance writer and translator, see Demosthenes as a magnificent, even "supreme" orator.

In modern history, orators like Henry Clay have imitated the technique of Demosthenes. His ideas and principles survived and inspired characters and political trends of our time. Demosthenes was a source of inspiration for the authors of the Federalist Articles (a series of 85 articles defending the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America) and for the main orators of the French Revolution. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was among those who idealized Demosthenes and even wrote a book about him. For his part, Friedrich Nietzsche often composed his sentences according to the paradigms of Demosthenes, whose style he admired.

During World War II, French resistance fighters identified themselves with Demosthenes, and gave Adolf Hitler the name Philippi. Demosthenes was recognized as the symbol of independence and was used as a synonym for resistance against tyrannical oppression. He was also a source of inspiration for writers of modern literature such as Mary Renault or Orson Scott Card.

On the other hand, the Demosthenian Literary Society, a society belonging to the University of Georgia, is named in honor of Demosthenes, being a tribute to his rhetorical ability and the way he improved his oratorical skills.

It seems that Demosthenes published most, if not all, of his speeches. After his death, the texts of his works survived him, being kept in Athens and in the Library of Alexandria. In Alexandria the texts were incorporated into the body of classical Greek literature that was preserved, catalogued and used by scholars of the Hellenistic period. From then until the fourth century copies of his speeches multiplied, so that they were in a relatively good position to survive the dark period between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. Finally, a total of sixty-one speeches of Demosthenes have come down to us. Friedrich Blass, of the German Classical School, believes that the orator wrote nine more speeches, but that they have not survived.

Modern editions of the speeches are based on manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D. The authorship of at least nine of the sixty-one speeches is disputed.

Fifty-six prologues and six letters have also come down to us. The prologues were openings to speeches by Demosthenes, and were compiled for the Library of Alexandria by Callimachus, who believed in Demosthenes' authorship. Modern scholars, however, are divided: some reject them, while others, such as Blass, believe them to be authentic. The letters are written under Demosthenes' name, but their authorship has been hotly disputed.


  1. Demosthenes
  2. Demóstenes
  3. ^ Murphy, James J. Demosthenes. Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 4 August 2016.
  4. ^ Longinus, On the Sublime, 12.4, 34.4* D. C. Innes, 'Longinus and Caecilius", 277–279.
  5. ^ H. Weil, Biography of Demosthenes, 5–6.
  6. ^ a b Aeschines, Against Ctesiphon, 171. Archived 20 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ E. Badian, "The Road to Prominence", 11.
  8. Longino, De lo sublime, 34, 4.
  9. ^ Weil, pp. 5-6.
  10. ^ Badian, p. 11.
  11. ^ Eschine, Contro Ctesifonte, 171.
  12. a et b Lucien de Samosate 2015, p. 435.
  13. Pour une biographie de Démosthène voir : Auguste-Aimé Boullée, Vie de Démosthène, 1834 (lire en ligne).
  14. Eschine le lui reprochera plus tard
  15. Aulu-Gelle, Les Nuits attiques, III, 13 : « Démosthène, pendant sa jeunesse, lorsqu'il était disciple de Platon, ayant entendu, par hasard, l'orateur Callistratos prononcer un discours dans l'assemblée du peuple, quitta l'école du philosophe pour suivre l'orateur. Démosthène, dans sa première jeunesse, allait souvent à l'Académie, où il suivait assidûment les leçons de Platon. Un jour Démosthène, sortant de chez lui pour se rendre, selon sa coutume, à l'école de son maître, voit un nombreux concours de peuple ; il en demande la cause : on lui répond que cette multitude court entendre Callistratos. Ce Callistratos était un de ces orateurs publics d'Athènes que les Grecs appellent démagogues. Démosthène se détourne un instant de sa route pour s'assurer si le discours qui attirait tant de monde était digne d'un tel empressement. Il arrive, il entend Callistratos prononcer son remarquable plaidoyer sur Orope. Il est si ému, si charmé, si entraîné, qu'aussitôt, abandonnant Platon et l'Académie, il s'attache à Callistratos »

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