Aeschines (c. 390-c.322 BC) was an Athenian political figure, three of whose orations survive. Early in his career he worked with Demosthenes to resist the expanding power of Philip of Macedon, but after the failure of an embassy to Philip in 346 BC, in which both Aeschines and Demosthenes participated, the two men became bitter enemies. Their rivalry culminated in the famous trial in 330, when Aeschines delivered Against Ctesiphon and Demosthenes responded with On the Crown. The verdict went overwhelmingly against Aeschines, and he was forced to leave Athens. History has not treated him well, and his inferiority to Demosthenes as an orator and politician is generally taken for granted.
life and WorksWe know little of Aeschines’ family or early life besides what we are told by Demosthenes, whose bias is obvious, but it is probably fair to say that he came from a poor but respectable family. We have no evidence that he formally studied rhetoric, or wrote speeches for others; rather he seems to have been a politician first and an orator only from necessity. He served in the army and had a career as an actor before becoming involved in politics. In 347/6 he served on the Council (with Demosthenes). The main issue facing Athens at this time was how best to stop the advance of Philip into Greece. After several strategies failed, the Athenians sent an embassy to Philip to negotiate peace. Both Aeschines and Demosthenes were members of the embassy, but in the process of dealing both with Philip and the Athenian assembly the two men became more and more hostile to one another, with Demosthenes opposing the eventual peace treaty and Aeschines supporting it. Relations between the two men over the next fifteen years are marked by three trials, which account for all three of Aeschines’ surviving speeches. He must have spoken often in the assembly, but no deliberative speech of his survives; perhaps none was ever published. In all three cases Demosthenes supported the other side, and in two of these we have his speech. The legal disputes began in 346/5, when the ambassadors underwent an accounting for their actions on the embassy. Timarchus, a politician allied with Demosthenes, charged Aeschines with treason, but Aeschines responded with a countersuit, claiming in Against Timarchus (1) that Timarchus was unfit to prosecute because he had been a prostitute, which was illegal for an Athenian citizen. This speech has traditionally been neglected, but recently there has been increased interest in it as a source for Athenian views of homosexuality (Dover 1978). Aeschines won the case against Timarchus, and the prosecution for treason was postponed until 343, when Demosthenes delivered On the False Embassy (19) and Aeschines responded with On the Embassy (2). Aeschines was narrowly acquitted of the charges, but his career suffered. The most famous episode in Aeschines’ life came after the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), when Philip decisively defeated Athens and its allies. In 336 Ctesiphon proposed in the assembly that Demosthenes be awarded a crown for his service to the city. On the basis of some relatively minor (though probably valid) legal points, Aeschines then charged Ctesiphon with making an illegal proposal. When the case was finally tried in 330, Aeschines (in Against Ctesiphon) raised his legal objections but devoted most of his speech to attacking the career and person of Demosthenes. The latter responded in On the Crown with an impassioned defense of himself and his service to Athens and a virulent attack on Aeschines’ family, character and policies. The verdict was so one-sided that Aeschines was fined and went into exile. He finished his life teaching rhetoric on the island of Rhodes.
SignificanceThe speeches of Aeschines, especially On the Embassy and Against Ctesiphon, have been read and studied primarily by those interested in the opposing speeches of Demosthenes, and indeed Aeschines’ entire career has been relegated to the shadow of that of his more famous opponent. With regard to rhetorical skill this is a fair assessment, for although Aeschines is skilled at attacking his opponents and arguing relatively minor points, he does not have Demosthenes’ ability to sound grand and noble themes or to raise larger issues of policy. As a result, his speeches often appear petty and mean. Because of his rhetorical inferiority, however, Aeschines’ political views may be unfairly judged. Since he never presents a comprehensive defense of his positions in the context of the overall goals of Athenian policy, most have judged his views inferior to Demosthenes’, but it is arguable that his policy of a less strident opposition to Philip and greater cooperation with Athens’ allies was the better one. In any case, it is unlikely that anyone could have stopped Philip in the end, and Aeschines seems to have been as honest as Demosthenes in his proposals. As is usually the case, however, claims of patriotism on one's own part and accusations of treason on one's opponent's, even if grossly misleading (at best), were politically opportune. Aeschines’ career ended in failure, but a balanced judgment would see him as a well-meaning and partially successful politician but a second-rate speaker, who had the misfortune to be pitted against one of the most brilliant orators the world has ever known.
Blass, Friedrich, Die attische Beredsamkeit.. 3rd ed. vol. 3.2 Leipzig 1898.
Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. London 1978.
Kennedy, George, The Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton 1963.
Kennedy, George, “Oratory” in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature. Ed. by P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (Cambridge 1985), pp. 498-526.
Kindstrand, Jan Fredrik, The Stylistic Evaluation of Aeschines in Antiquity. Uppsala 1982.
Aeschines (2), a leading Eretrian
Aeschines (3), an Argive
- father of Epiteles: Paus. 4.26.7
Aeschines (4), an Elean
- Olympic victor: Paus. 6.14.13