Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.) is regarded as the greatest of Greek orators and perhaps the greatest orator of all times. He saw clearly the significance of the rise of an autocratic Macedonia and its implications for traditional Athenian and Greek political freedom.

Demosthenes was the son of a wealthy manufacturer of weapons named Demosthenes of the deme of Paeania in Attica. The orator's father died when Demosthenes was 7 years old, and his estate was turned over to his two brothers, Aphobus and Demophon, and a friend, Therippides, who sorely mismanaged it.

Early Career

Though a sickly child, Demosthenes was determined to obtain redress from his guardians. In order to prepare himself, he studied rhetoric and law under Isaeaus, and though by age 20 only about one-tenth of the capital remained for him, he successfully prosecuted his guardians. The four speeches dealing with this business are preserved in "Against Aphobus" and "Against Onetor."

Though the legend about his declaiming with pebbles in his mouth and practicing by the seashore midst the thunder of the waves may be apocryphal, there is no doubt that Demosthenes rigorously prepared himself to overcome any physical disabilities; and though apparently not a good improviser, he was closely familiar with the writings of Thucydides, Plato, and Isocrates. Demosthenes spent 15 years as a professional speech writer (logographos) and ranged over a wide variety of subjects with a mastery of oratorical form and of technical legal details. Thirty-two of these private orations are preserved, though only a third of these are generally considered genuine.

In 355 B.C. Demosthenes found himself employed as an assistant to the public prosecutors in the assembly, in the courts, and in other public places. The speeches against Androtion, Timocrates, and Aristocrates show evidence of a mind of considerable ability. His first public appearance in 354 in "Against Leptines" defends the policy of exempting from special taxation citizens who had performed outstanding services to the state. "Against Aristocrates" (352) shows him dealing with foreign policy, while "On the Navy Boards" (354), "For Megalopolis" (352), and "For the Rhodians" (351) show a Demosthenes keenly interested in foreign affairs and pushing hard for administrative reforms.


Opponent of Macedon

The year 351 marks a turning point in Demosthenes's career since in a series of nine orations he began his famous "Philippics" (351-340), warning Athens of the threatening danger of an ever expanding Macedon and an ever imperialistically encroaching Philip. The "First Philippic" was succeeded by three "Olynthiac" speeches, centering on Olynthus, the strongest Greek city in the north, which was threatened by Philip. Demosthenes pleaded that the Athenians dispatch forces to help Olynthus out of its plight, but the Athenians were not convinced of the gravity of the situation and Olynthus fell in 348. Philip was not to be stopped as his attention was now directed southward. Once he became admitted to the Amphictyonic League in 346, Macedon became a Greek power with support in Athens itself.

Though Demosthenes supported the peace treaty with Philip in 346 in his oration "On the Peace," he soon saw that Philip had other plans. So in 344 in the "Second Philippic," in "On the Chersonese," and in the "Third Philippic" (341) he renewed his attack on Philip and his designs, while in "On the Embassy" (343) he attacked Aeschines, whom he accused of having betrayed the best interests of Athens. Gradually Demosthenes assumed the leadership of the opposition to the growing military and political aggrandizement of Philip, an opposition that developed into armed conflict and resulted in the crushing defeat of the Athenians and their allies at Chaeronea in 338. Demosthenes himself was among the defeated refugees.

Though defeated, Demosthenes was not broken in spirit. He continued to fight Philip, and for his services Ctesiphon proposed a golden crown be presented to him at the city Dionysia, a proposal that motivated Aeschines, Demosthenes's chief competitor, to bring charges against Ctesiphon on the grounds that an illegal proposal had been proferred. The trial took place in 330, and Demosthenes brilliantly defended Ctesiphon and himself in what is considered his masterpiece "On the Crown."


Decline of Leadership

Thereafter Demosthenes's leadership waned. He was charged with having received money from Harpalus, the governor of Babylon and the treasurer of Alexander the Great, who had absconded with funds to Athens on the basis of a false rumor that Alexander was dead. Harpalus was refused admission to Athens because of an army of 6,000 that he had with him.

Upon demand Harpalus dismissed his troops and was admitted, but Alexander demanded his surrender. Demosthenes retorted by proposing that Harpalus be kept in custody and that the funds he had be deposited in the Parthenon. When Harpalus escaped there was a shortage of 370 talents, and Demosthenes was accused of having accepted a bribe of 20 talents to assist in the escape. Charged and brought to trial, Demosthenes was fined 50 talents, but because he was unable to pay he went into exile.

It is still not clear whether Demosthenes was actually guilty of misconduct in the Harpalus incident or not. At any rate, Demosthenes tried to organize support against Macedon in the Peloponnesus; was recalled to Athens, which was subsequently occupied by Macedon; and was condemned to death but escaped to the Temple of Poseidon in Calauria, where he committed suicide in 322.


His Works

Sixty-one orations, six letters, and a book of 54 proems have been attributed to Demosthenes, though all are certainly not genuine. Private law court speeches include those against Aphobus and Onetor (363-362), "Against Dionysodorus" (323-322), "For Phormio" (350), and the first "Against Stephanus" (349). The subjects cover guardianship, inheritance, loans, mining rights, and forgery, among others.

The political law court speeches include "Against Androtion" (355), "Against Leptines" (354), "Against Timocrates" (353), "Against Aristocrates" (352), "Against Midias" (347), "On the Embassy" (343), "On the Crown" (330), and "Against Aristogeiton" (325-324). Topics covered include abolition of immunity from taxation for public-spirited citizens, embezzlement, assaulting a public official, bribery, and the private lives of Demosthenes and Aeschines.

Political speeches include "On the Navy Boards" (354), "For Megalopolis" (352), "For the Rhodians" (351), "First Philippic" (351), three "Olynthiacs" (349), "On the Peace" (346), "Second Philippic" (344), "On the Chersonese" (341), "Third Philippic" (341), "Fourth Philippic" (composite), "On the Halonnese" (342), and "On the Treaty with Alexander" (probably not by Demosthenes). The six "Letters" have been reinvestigated recently and the majority of them may be genuine. Both domestic Greek history and politics and foreign affairs are involved.


His Significance

Demosthenes is generally acknowledged to be Greece's greatest orator, though he never lacked for rivals in his lifetime. It has been said that he united in himself the excellences of his contemporaries and predecessors. More than a master of rhetorical form, Demosthenes was a man of superior moral and intellectual qualities who knew how to use language for its best effects.

Perhaps most significant of all was Demosthenes's ability to see the implications of the rise of Macedonian political and military power and to become the staunchest and most persistent defender of individual Greek freedom against the new power; but he was not farsighted enough to see that the Greek city-state was no longer a viable political unit and that it would be replaced by the Hellenistic imperial state.


Further Reading on Demosthenes

Books on Demosthenes appear less frequently than they did in the past. A number of older works are still worth consulting: Samuel H. Butcher, Demosthenes (1881); Arthur W. Pickard-Cambridge, Demosthenes (1914); Charles D. Adams, Demosthenes and His Influence (1927); and Werner W. Jaeger, Demosthenes: The Origin and Growth of His Policy (1938). Jonathan Goldstein, The Letters of Demosthenes (1968), provides a fascinating investigation into the question of the historical value and authenticity of the six letters attributed to Demosthenes.

Additional Biography Sources

Sealey, Raphael, Demosthenes and his time: a study in defeat, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.