Demosthenes (384-322 BC) has been recognized since at least the first century BC as the greatest of the Attic orators. Although the nationalistic and militaristic tenor of his message is less highly regarded today than in some earlier ages, his mastery of so many different rhetorical styles and his ability to blend them into a powerful ensemble cannot be denied. Long periodic sentences are sometimes thought to be the most characteristic feature of Demosthenes’ style, but his true greatness is his ability to write in any style and to vary his style both to suit the topic and to give variety and vigor to his speeches. To read Demosthenes is to put yourself in the hands of a self-assured master-craftsman of the fullest range of Greek prose. With the possible exception of Plato he has no equal.
LifeDemosthenes was born into a wealthy Athenian family, but his father died when he was seven and his guardians mismanaged (or perhaps defrauded) his estate, to the extent that when Demosthenes reached majority he received almost nothing. He thus launched a series of suits against the guardians to recover his patrimony, beginning with Against Aphobus (27). He won this suit, but he had to keep suing in order to collect. In the course of these trials he gained a reputation as a successful speaker and became sought after by others. He began to write speeches for (and presumably also give legal advice on) a wide range of private suits, including inheritance, shipping loans, assault and trespass. His clients included one of the richest men in Athens, the banker Phormio; the speech For Phormio (36) involves a dispute over twenty talents, equivalent perhaps to ten million dollars today. Demosthenes’ vivid characterization of the honest, hard-working Phormio and his malicious and extravagant opponent proved so convincing that the jurors refused to listen to the other side and took the highly unusual step of voting immediately for Phormio. In 355 Demosthenes became involved in his first major public cases, involving legal charges against individuals on matters of public interest, such as proposing an illegal decree. Although these speeches, Against Androtion (22) and Against Leptines (20), addressed legal issues, it was clear to all that they formed part of ongoing political struggles between leading figures in the city. Public figures regularly found themselves in court on such matters and in these cases the Athenian courts were forums for discussion of public policy just as much as the assembly. About this time Demosthenes also began to publish speeches on public issues which he delivered in the assembly. From this point on, although he continued from time to time to write speeches for private disputes, Demosthenes’ primary interest was public policy, especially relations between Athens and the growing power of Macedon. His strategy throughout was to increase Athens’ military readiness, to oppose Philip's expansion, and to support other Greek cities in their resistance to it. Most notable in support of these objectives were the three Olynthiacs (349 BC) urging support for the city of Olynthus (which soon fell to Philip) and the four Philippics (351-341 BC), urging greater opposition to Philip at various points. But Philip continued his conquest of Greece and in 338 the Greek forces were defeated at the battle of Chaeronea, usually taken to mark the end of the independence of the Greek cities. After Chaeronea Demosthenes continued to urge resistance to Philip, but his efforts were largely ineffectual and his successes and failures during this period are more a matter of internal Athenian politics. Most notable are his decisive victory with On the Crown(330 BC) and his defeat and subsequent exile in the rather shadowy Harpalus affair (324-323 BC), from which no speech of his survives. On the Crown was delivered on behalf of Ctesiphon, a minor figure who in 336 proposed that a crown be awarded Demosthenes for his service to the city. Aeschines then brought suit against Ctesiphon for proposing an illegal decree. The verdict was so one-sided that Aeschines was fined and went into exile. This was Demosthenes’ greatest triumph. The last years of his life, however, resulted in notable defeats, first in the Harpalus affair, and then in his final days when he was condemned to death (at the instigation of pro-Macedonian forces) and committed suicide.
WorksAbout sixty speeches and a collection of letters have come down to us under Demosthenes’ name, but the authenticity of many of these has been challenged. Sometimes it is alleged that a speech is of too poor quality to be by Demosthenes, though this reason is less often accepted today, and most of the public speeches and many of the private speeches are now thought to be authentic. The most significant exceptions are a group of speeches (45, 46, 49, 50, 52, 53, 59 and possibly 47 and 51) that were delivered by Apollodorus and are now commonly thought to have been composed by him (Trevett 1992). Demosthenes’ best known works are his public speeches, especially the Philippics, the Olynthiacs, Against Meidias, and his masterpiece On the Crown. In the last of these he uses his entire repertory of rhetorical devices to defend his life and career. He dismisses the legal points briefly, as being of minor concern, and then ranges widely over recent Athenian history, arguing that on each occasion his policy was the best and Aeschines’ was disastrous. His direct personal attack on Aeschines life and family may be a bit harsh for modern taste, but the effectiveness of his blend of facts, innuendoes, sarcasm, rhetorical questions and other devices is undeniably skillful. Demosthenes’ private speeches, though less often read, are still of great interest for the picture they give of many aspects of Athenian life as well as for their vigorous style and methods of argument. To mention just a few: For Phormio (see above) is one of several having to do with banking, Against Conon (54) alleges an assault by a several young rowdies spurred on by their father, and Against Neaira (59, often attributed to Apollodorus) recounts the life of a non-Athenian woman and her various relationships with different Athenian men.
SignificanceDemosthenes played an important role in Athenian public affairs for some thirty years, and his advocacy of the vigilant defense of Greece against foreign invaders has given inspiration to many others in later times. Cicero pays tribute to his predecessor by borrowing the title Philippics for his attacks on Marc Antony. But Demosthenes’ rhetorical accomplishments have had the greatest influence on posterity. There has been a reaction in recent times against the tendency to see all Attic oratory as inferior preparation for Demosthenes; other orators are now being assessed more in their own terms. And because of the relatively low standing of rhetoric in our time, Demosthenes is less read than formerly. But he still represents the greatest achievement of Greek oratory and stands as one of the greatest orators of any time.
Blass, Friedrich, Die attische Beredsamkeit. 3rd ed. vol. 3.1 Leipzig 1893.
Bonner, Robert J. Lawyers and Litigants in Ancient Athens. Chicago 1927.
Carey, C. & R. A. Reid, Selected Private Speeches. Cambridge 1985.
Carey, Christopher, Greek Orators VI: Apollodorus Against Neaira: [Demosthenes] 59. Warminster 1992.
Goodwin, William Watson, Demosthenes, On the Crown. Cambridge 1904.
Jackson, Donald F. & Galen O. Rowe, “Demosthenes 1915-1965,” Lustrum 14 (1969) 5-109.
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.
MacDowell, Douglas M. Demosthenes, Against Meidias (Oration 21). Oxford 1990.
Pearson, Lionel, Six Private Speeches. Norman, OK 1972.
Pearson, Lionel. The Art of Demosthenes. Meisenheim am Glan 1976.
Ronnet, Gilberte, Etude sur le style de Demosthene dans les discours politiques. Paris 1951.
Schindel, Ulrich, ed. Demosthenes. Darmstadt 1987.
Sealey, Raphael, Demosthenes and his time a study in defeat. New York 1993.
Trevett, J. C. Apollodorus the son of Pasion. Oxford 1992.
- hated by Alexander: Paus. 2.33.5
- not bribed by Harpalus: Paus. 2.33.3
- banished from Athens, then recalled: Paus. 1.8.2
- second exile and death: Paus. 1.8.3
- his tomb in Calauria: Paus. 2.33.3
- honoured in Calauria and other parts of Greece: Paus. 2.33.5
- his statue: Paus. 1.8.2