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Aeschines was for twenty years a bitter enemy of Demosthenes. This enmity was perhaps the chief interest in his life; at any rate it is the dominant motive of his extant speeches. Demosthenes on his side could not afford to despise an enemy whose biting wit and real gift of eloquence assured him an attentive hearing, whether in the courts or before the ecclesia, and thus gave him an influence which the vagueness of his political views and the instability of his personal character could never entirely dissipate. Aeschines had no constructive policy, but he had just the talents which are requisite for the leader of a captious and malicious opposition. To the fact of the long-maintained hostility between these two men we owe a good deal of first-hand information about each of them, both as regards public and private life. It is true that we cannot accept without reservation the statements and criticisms made by either speaker about his rival; but in many cases they agree about facts, though they put different interpretations on them, and so, with care, we may arrive at a substratum of truth.

Aeschines was born about 390 B.C.1 His father Atrometus, an Athenian citizen of pure descent,2 was exiled by the Thirty, and fled to Corinth, with his wife. He served for some time as a mercenary soldier in Asia, and finally returned to Athens, where he kept a school. His wife, Glaucothea, filled some minor religious office, initiating the neophytes in certain mysteries, apparently connected with Orphism. Aeschines seems to have helped both his parents in their work, if we may suppose that there is a grain of truth mixed with the malice of Demosthenes:

“You used to fill the ink-pots, sponge the benches, and sweep the schoolroom, like a slave, not like a gentleman's son. When you grew up you helped your mother in her initiations, reciting the formulas, and making yourself generally useful. All night long you were wrapping the celebrants in fawn-skins, preparing their drink-offerings, smearing them with clay and bran, etc.

The whole of the description from which the foregoing passage is taken is an obvious caricature, and its chief value is to show that Demosthenes, if circumstances had not made him a statesman, might have been a successful writer of mediocre comedy; but it seems to point to the fact that Aeschines' parents were in humble circumstances, that he himself had a hard life as a boy, and did not enjoy the usual opportunities of obtaining the kind of education desirable for a statesman.3 After this, at an age when other aspirants to public life would have been studying under teachers of rhetoric, he was forced to earn his living. He was first clerk to some minor officials, then an actor— according to Demosthenes he played small parts in an inferior company, and lived chiefly on the figs and olives with which the spectators pelted him (de Cor., § 262, p. 249 below). He also served as a hoplite, and, by his own account, distinguished himself at Mantinea and Tamynae. In 357 B.C. he obtained political employment, first under Aristophon of Azenia, then under Eubulus, and later we find him acting as clerk of the ecclesia.

He married into a respectable family about 350 B.C., and in 348 B.C. he first appears in a position of public trust, being appointed a member of the embassy to Megalopolis in Arcadia. On this occasion he went out admittedly as an opponent of Philip, but came back a partisan of peace. The reasons for this change of view will be discussed later. His own explanation, that he realized war to be impracticable is reasonable in itself (de Leg., § 79; p. 168 below). Two years later he was associated with Demosthenes in the famous embassies to Philip, which, after serious delays, resulted in the unsatisfactory peace of Philocrates. The peace was pronounced by Demosthenes to be unworthy of Athens,4 though he urged that, good or bad, it must be upheld; and besides uttering insinuations against the conduct of Aeschines as an ambassador, he prepared to prosecute him for betraying his trust by taking bribes from Philip. He associated with himself as a prosecutor one Timarchus. Aeschines prepared a counter-stroke. He prosecuted Timarchus on the ground that he was a person of notorious immorality, and, as such, debarred from speaking in public. Timarchus appears to have been found guilty. In 343 B.C. Demosthenes brought the action in which his speech de Falsa Legatione and that of Aeschines bearing the same title were delivered, and Aeschines was acquitted by the rather small majority of thirty votes. In the next year Aeschines prepared for reprisals, but when on the point of impeaching Demosthenes he in his turn was thwarted by a counter-move on his rival's part (Aesch., Ctes., §§ 222-225.).

In 339 B.C. Aeschines was a pylagorus at the Amphictyonic Council, and an inflammatory speech which he made there led to the outbreak of the Sacred War.

In 337 B.C., the year after the battle of Chaeronea, the proposal of Ctesiphon to confer a crown on Demosthenes for his services to Athens gave Aeschines a new weapon with which to strike at his enemy. He impeached Ctesiphon for illegality. The case was not actually tried till 330 B.C., when Aeschines, failing to obtain a fifth of the votes, was fined a thousand drachmae, and, being unable or unwilling to pay, went into exile. He retired to Asia Minor, and lived either in Ephesus or Rhodes. He is said by Plutarch to have spent the rest of his life as a professional Sophist, that is to say, no doubt, as a teacher of rhetoric;5 but we have no further information about his life or the manner or date of his death.

1 See Timarchus, § 49, where Aeschines states, in 346 B.C., that he is rather over forty-five years old.

2 Aesch., de Leg., § 147. Demosthenes (de Cor., 129 sqq.) asserts that he was originally a slave named Tromes (Coward), but changed his name to Atrometus (Dauntless).

3 However, his elder brother, Philocrates, was elected general three times in succession, and his younger brother, Aphobetus, was sent as an ambassador to the Great King.—Aesch., de Leg., § 149.

4 See de Pace (passim) delivered in the same year.

5 Dem., ch. 24,περὶ Ῥόδον καὶ Ἰωνίαν σοφιστεύων κατεβίωσεν”.

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