Demosthenes was born in 384 and died in 322 BC, Greek: Δημοσθένης, Dēmosthénēs) was a prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens. Demosthenes orations constitute a significant expression of ancient Athenian intellectual prowess and provide an 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. Demosthenes delivered his 1st judicial speeches at the age of 20, 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 1st public political speeches. Demosthenes went on to devote his most productive years to opposing Macedon’s expansion. Demosthenes idealised his city and strove throughout his life to restore Athens’ supremacy and motivate his compatriots against Philip II of Macedon. Demosthenes 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 in this region, 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 recognised Demosthenes as 1 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, and Quintilian extolled him as “lex orandi” (“the standard of oratory”) and that “inter omnes unus excellat” (“he stands alone among all the orators”).
During the last year of the 98th Olympiad or the 1st year of the 99th Olympiad. Demosthenes’s 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 disputed by some modern scholars. Demosthenes was orphaned at the age of 7. 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 they render an account of their management. According to Demosthenes, the account revealed the misappropriation of his property. Although his father left an estate of nearly 14talents,(very roughly 3,000 pounds in gold or 400,000 current United States dollars)Demosthenes asserted his guardians had left nothing “except the house, and 14 slaves and 30 silver minae” (30 minae = ½ talent). At the age of 20, Demosthenes sued his trustees in order to recover his patrimony and delivered 5 orations — 3 Against Aphobus during 363 BC and 362 BC and 2 Against Ontenor during 362 and 361 BC. The courts fixed Demosthenes’ damages at 10 talents. When all the trials came to an end, he only succeeded in retrieving 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, for 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; according to Cicero, Quintillian and the Roman biographer Hermippus, he was a student of Plato. Lucian, a Roman-Syrian rhetorician and satirist, lists 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 drachmae (somewhat over 1.5talents) on the condition that Isaeus should withdraw from a school of Rhetoric which he had opened, and should devote himself wholly to Demosthenes, 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 scarcely 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 8 beautiful copies of Thucydides made by Demosthenes, all in Demosthenes’ own handwriting. These references hint at his 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 also had a daughter, “the first and only one who ever called him father”, according to Aeschines’ in a trenchant remark. Demosthenes’s daughter died young and unmarried a few days before Philip’s death.
In his speeches, Aeschines often uses the pederastic relations of Demosthenes to attack him. The essence of these attacks was not that Demosthenes had relations with boys, but that he had been an inadequate pederast, one whose attentions did not benefit the boys, as would have been expected, but harmed them instead. In the case of Aristion, a youth from Plataea who lived for a long time in Demosthenes’ house, Aeschines mocked him for lack of sexual restraint and possibly effeminate behavior: “Allegations about what [Aristion] was undergoing there, or doing what, vary, and it would be most unseemly for me to talk about it.” Another relationship which Aeschines brings up is that with Cnosion. Aeschines’s allegation, in this case, was also of a sexual nature. This time, however, he blamed Demosthenes for involving his wife by putting her in bed with the youth so as to get children by him. Athenaeus, however, presents matters in a different light, claiming that his wife bedded the boy in a fit of jealousy.
Aeschines often asserted that Demosthenes made money out of young rich men. Demosthenes claimed that he deluded Aristarchus, the son of Moschus, with the pretence that he could make him a great orator. Apparently, while still under Demosthenes’ tutelage, Aristarchus killed and mutilated a certain Nicodemus of Aphidna, gouging out his eyes and tongue. Aeschines accused Demosthenes of complicity in the murder, pointing out that Nicodemus had once pressed a lawsuit accusing Demosthenes of desertion. Aeschines also accused Demosthenes of having been such a bad erastes to Aristarchus so as not even to deserve the name. Aristarchus’s crime, according to Aeschines, was to have betrayed his eromenos by pillaging his estate, allegedly pretending to be in love with the youth so as to get his hands on the boy’s inheritance. This he is said to have squandered, having taken 3 talents upon Aristarchus’ fleeing into exile so as to avoid a trial. Thus, in payment for the trust that Aristarchus and his family put in him, “You entered a happy home […] you ruined it.” Nevertheless, the story of Demosthenes’ relations with Aristarchus is still regarded as more than doubtful, and no other pupil of Demosthenes is known by name.
“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.
To make his living, Demosthenes became a professional litigant and logographer, writing speeches for use in private legal suits. Demosthenes 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. Aeschines queried of Demosthenes: “And the born traitor—how shall we recognise 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, stating that Demosthenes “was thought to have acted dishonorably”.
Demosthenes used to study in an underground room he constructed himself. Demosthenes 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 turned 21 in 363 BC, Demosthenes had already demonstrated an interest in politics. In 363, 359, and 357 BC, he assumed the office of the trierarch, being responsible for the outfitting and maintenance of a trireme. In 348 BC, he became a choregos, paying the expenses of a theatrical production.
Although Demosthenes said he never pleaded a single private case, it remains unclear when and if Demosthenes abandoned the profitable but not so prestigious profession of logography. According to Plutarch, when Demosthenes 1st 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”.
Some citizens however discerned his talent. When he first left the ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) disheartened, an old man named Eunomus encouraged him, saying his diction was very much like that of Pericles. Another time, after the ecclesia had refused to hear him and he was going home dejected, an actor named Satyrus followed him and entered into a friendly conversation with him.
As a boy Demosthenes had a speech impediment — an inarticulate and stammering pronunciation. Aeschines taunted him and referred to him in his speeches by the nickname “Batalus”, apparently invented by Demosthenes’ pedagogues or by the little boys with whom he was playing. According to Plutarch, he had a weakness in his voice of “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 programme to overcome these shortcomings and improve his locution. Demosthenes worked on his diction, his voice and his gestures. Demosthenes’s zeal and perseverance have passed into 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.
Demosthenes continued practicing law privately while he was becoming increasingly interested in public affairs. Demosthenes mostly remained a judicial orator, but started participating in the politics of the Athenian democracy. In 355 BC he wrote Against Androtion and, in 354 BC, Against Leptines — 2 fierce attacks on individuals who attempted to repeal certain tax exemptions. In Against Timocrates and Against Aristocrates he advocated eliminating 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 1st political oration, On the Navy, in which he 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, in 351 BC, On the Liberty of the Rhodians. In both speeches he opposed Eubulus, the most powerful Athenian statesman of the period 355 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. Demosthenes laid the foundations for his future political successes and for becoming the leader of his own party. Demosthenes’s 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. Henceforth, Demosthenes’ career is virtually the history of Athenian foreign policy.
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 7th 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 his 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. Aeschines 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. Demosthenes did not attack Athens, but demanded the exile of all anti-Macedonian politicians, Alexander first of all. According to Plutarch, a special Athenian embassy led by Phocion, an opponent of the anti-Macedonian faction, was able to persuade Alexander to relent.
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 vehemently attacked those who would have preferred peace with Macedon. Demosthenes 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. Demosthenes finally defeated Aeschines, although his enemy’s legal objections to the crowning were probably valid.
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