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Concerning the Sons of Lycurgus

1 Demosthenes to the Council and the Assembly sends greeting.

I sent you the previous letter about matters that concern myself, stating what steps I thought in justice ought to be taken by you; in regard to these you will take favorable action when it seems good to you. The message I now address to you I should not like you to overlook or to hear it in a spirit of contentiousness, but with due regard to the justness of it. For it happens that, although sojourning in an out-of-the-way place, I hear many people censuring you for your treatment of the sons of Lycurgus. [2] Now I should have sent you the letter merely out of regard for those services that Lycurgus performed during his lifetime, for which you would all, like myself, be in justice grateful if you would but do your duty. For Lycurgus, having taken a post in the financial department of the government2 at the outset of his career and not being at all accustomed to draft documents pertaining to the general affairs of the Greeks and their relations with their allies, only when the majority of those who pretended to be the friends of democracy were deserting you, began to devote himself to the principles of the popular party, [3] not because from this quarter opportunity was offering to secure gifts and emoluments, since all such prizes were coming from the opposite party,3 nor yet because he observed this policy to be the safer one, since there were many manifest dangers which a man was bound to incur who chose to speak on behalf of the people, but because he was truly democratic and by nature an honest man. [4] And yet before his very eyes he observed those who might have assisted the cause of the people growing weak with the drift of events and their adversaries gaining strength in every way. None the less for all that, this brave man continued to adhere to such measures as he thought were in the people's interest and subsequently he continued to perform his duty unfalteringly in word and deed, as was clear to see. As a consequence his surrender was straightway demanded,4 as all men are aware. [5]

Now I would have written this letter, as I said at the outset, for the sake of Lycurgus alone, but over and above that, believing it to be to your interest to know the criticisms being circulated among those who go abroad, I became all the more eager to dispatch the letter. I beg of those who for private reasons were at odds with Lycurgus to endure to hear what in truth and justice may be said in his behalf; for be well assured, men of Athens, that, as things now are, the city is acquiring an evil reputation because of the way his sons have been treated. [6] For none of the Greeks is ignorant that during the lifetime of Lycurgus you honored him extraordinarily,5 and, though many charges were brought against him by those who were envious of him, you never found a single charge to be true, and you so trusted him and believed him to be truly democratic beyond all others that you decided many points of justice on the ground that “Lycurgus said so,” and that sufficed for you. This would certainly not have happened unless it had seemed to you that he was so honest. [7] Today, therefore, all men, upon hearing that his sons are in prison, while pitying the dead man, sympathize with the children as innocent sufferers, and reproach you bitterly after a manner that I, for one, should not dare to write down for, touching the reports which make me vexed at those who utter them, and which I contradict as best I can, trying to come to your defence, I have written these only to the extent of making it clear to you that many people are blaming you, since I believe it to be to your interest to know this, though to quote their words verbatim I judge would be offensive. [8] Apart from mere abuse, however, I shall reveal all that certain people say and which I believe it to your advantage to have heard. For, after all, no one has supposed that you laboured under a misunderstanding and deception concerning the truth so far as Lycurgus himself is concerned, for the length of time during which, where subject to scrutiny,6 he never was found guilty of any wrong toward you in either thought or deed and the fact that no human being could ever have accused you of indifference to any other action of his naturally eliminate the pretext of ignorance. [9]

So the explanation is left—what all would declare the conduct of vile men—that so long as you have use for each official you seem to be concerned for him but after that feel no obligation; for where else is one to expect that the gratitude due from you to the dead will be shown, when he observes the opposite treatment meted out to his children and his good name, which are the sole concerns of all men when facing death, that it may continue to be well with them? [10] And assuredly, to appear to do these things for the sake of money is also unworthy of truly honorable men, for it would be clearly inconsistent either with your magnanimity or with your general principles of conduct. For instance, if it were necessary to ransom the children from foreign captors by giving this sum out of the revenues, I believe you would all be eager to do it; but when I observe you reluctant to remit a fine which was imposed because of mere talk and envy, I do not know what judgement I can pass unless it be that you have launched upon a course of utterly bitter and truculent hostility toward the members of the popular party. If this be the case, you have made up your minds to deliberate neither righteously nor in the public interest. [11]

I am amazed if none of you thinks that it is a disgraceful thing for the people of Athens, who are supposed to be superior to all men in understanding and culture and have also maintained here for the unfortunate a common refuge in all ages, to show themselves less considerate than Philip, who, although naturally subject to no correction, [12] nursed as he was, in licence, still thought that at the moment of his greatest good fortune7 he ought to be seen acting with the greatest humanity and did not venture to cast into chains the men who had faced him in the battle line, against whom he had staked his all, nor demand to know, “Whose sons are they and what are their names?”8 For unlike some of your orators, as it appears, he did not consider it would be either just or creditable to take the same action against all, but, taking into his reckoning the additional factor of station in life,9 he assorted his verdicts accordingly. [13] You, however, though Athenians and partners in a culture which is thought capable of making even stupid people tolerable, in the first place—and of all your actions this is the most heartless—hold the sons in chains as a penalty for offences which certain parties allege against the father10; in the next place, you claim this action to be equality before the law, just as if you were inspecting equality in the field of weights or measures and not deliberating about men's ethical and political principles. [14] In testing these, if the actions of Lycurgus seem honest and public-spirited and inspired by loyalty, then it is justice that his sons should not only meet with no harm at your hands, but with all the benefits imaginable; yet if his actions seem quite the opposite, he ought to have been punished while he lived, and these children should not thus incur your anger on the ground of charges someone prefers against the father, because for all men death is an end of responsibility for all their offences. [15] Consequently, if you are going to be so minded that those who have conceived some grudge against those who espouse the cause of the people will not be reconciled even with dead men, but will persist in maintaining their enmity against the children, and if the people, in whose cause every friend of democracy labours, shall remember their gratitude only so long as they can use a man in the flesh and thereafter shall feel no concern, then nothing will be more miserable than to choose the post of champion of the people. [16]

If Moerocles11 replies that this view is too subtle for his understanding, and that, to prevent them from running away, he put them in chains upon his own responsibility, demand of him why in the world he did not see the justice of this proceeding when Taureas, Pataecus, Aristogeiton and himself,12 though they had been committed to prison, were not only not in chains but would even address the Assembly. [17] If, on the other hand, he shall say that he was not then archon, he had no right to speak, at any rate according to the laws.13 Accordingly, how can it be equal justice when some men are in office who have no right even to speak and others are in fetters whose father was useful to you in numerous ways? [18] I certainly cannot figure it out unless you mean to demonstrate this fact officially—that blackguardism, shamelessness and deliberate villainy are strong in the State and enjoy a better prospect of coming off safely, and that, if such men happen to get into a tight place, a way out is discovered, but to elect to live in honesty of principle, sobriety of life and devotion to the people will be hazardous and, if some false step is made, the consequences will be inescapable. [19]

Furthermore, the fact that it is unjust to entertain concerning Lycurgus the opposite opinion to the one you held while he lived, and that justice demands that you should have more regard for the dead than for the living, and all such considerations I shall pass over, for I assume them to be universally agreed upon. Of the children of others, however, whom you recompensed for their fathers' good services I would gladly see you reminded; for instance, the descendants of Aristeides, Thrasybulus, Archinus and many others.14 Not by way of censure have I cited these examples, [20] for so far am I from censuring as to declare it my belief that such repayments are in the highest degree in the interest of the State, because you challenge all men by such conduct to be champions of the people, when they observe that, even if during their own lives envy shall stand in the way of their receiving merited honors, yet their children, at any rate, will be sure to receive their due rewards at your hands. [21]

Is it not absurd, therefore, or rather even disgraceful, toward certain other men to keep alive the goodwill justly due them, in spite of the fact that the times of their usefulness are long past and after this interval you learn of their good deeds by hearsay and have not assumed them from things of which you have been eye-witnesses, but toward Lycurgus, whose political career and death are so recent, [22] you do not show yourselves so ready to display even pity and kindness as you were at all other times toward men whom you never knew and by whom you used to be wronged, and, worse still, your vengeance is visited upon his children, whom even an enemy, if only he were fair-minded and capable of reason, would pity? [23]

Moreover, I am amazed if any one of you is ignorant of this fact also, that it is not to the interest of our political life, either, for this to become public knowledge, that those who have established friendship in a certain other quarter15 are sure to prosper in all things and fare better and, if some mishap occurs, the ways of escape are easier, but those who have attached themselves to the cause of the people will not only fare worse in other respects but for them alone of all men calamities will remain irremediable. Yet it is easy to demonstrate the truth of this, [24] for who of you does not know the incident of Laches16 the son of Melanopus, whose lot it was to be convicted in a court of law precisely as the sons of Lycurgus in the present instance, but his entire fine was remitted when Alexander requested it by letter? And again, that it happened to Mnesibulus17 of Acharnae to be similarly convicted, the court condemning him just as it has the sons of Lycurgus, and to have the fine remitted, and rightly too, for the man was deserving? [25] And none of those who are now making such an outcry declared that by these actions the laws were being nullified. Quite rightly so, for they were not being nullified, if it be true that all our laws are enacted for the sake of just men and for the preservation of honest men, and that it is expedient neither to render the calamities of the unfortunate perpetual nor for men to show themselves void of gratitude. [26] And furthermore, if it is expedient for these principles to hold true, as we would declare, not only were you not nullifying the laws where you released those men, but you were preserving the lifework of those men who enacted the laws, first, by releasing Laches in compliance with the request of Alexander and, secondly, by restoring Mnesibulus to his rights because of the sobriety of his life. [27]

Beware of demonstrating, therefore, that to acquire some outside friendship18 is more profitable than to give one's self in trust to the people and that it is better to remain in the ranks of the unknown than to become known as a man who in public life consults the interests of you, the majority. For although it is impossible for one who recommends policies and administers the commonwealth to please everyone, yet if a man, actuated by loyalty, has at heart the same interests as the people, he has a right to security of person. Otherwise you will teach everyone to serve the interests of others rather than those of the people and to shun recognition for doing any of those things that are to your advantage. [28] In short, it is a reproach common to all citizens, men of Athens, and a misfortune of the State as a whole, that envy should be thought to be stronger among you than the grace of gratitude for services performed, and the more so because envy is a disease but the Graces19 have been assigned a place among the gods. [29]

Furthermore, I am not going to omit the case of Pytheas20 either, who was a friend of the people down to his entrance into public life but after that was ready to do anything to injure you. For who does not know that this man, when, under the obligation to serve you, he was entering upon public life, was being hounded as a slave and was under indictment as an alien usurping the rights of a citizen and came near being sold by these men whose servant he now is and for whom he used to write the speeches against me, [30] but since he is himself now practising what he then accused others of doing, is in such easy circumstances as to keep two mistresses, who have escorted him—and kind it is of them—on the way to death by consumption,21 and to be able to discharge a debt of five talents more easily than he could have produced five drachmas previously, and besides all this, with the permission of you, the people, not only participates in the government, which is a common reproach to all, but also performs on your behalf the ancestral22 sacrifices at Delphi? [31]

So, when it is possible for all to behold object-lessons of such a kind and on such a scale, from which everyone would conclude that it does not pay to espouse the cause of the people, I begin to fear that some day you may become destitute of men who will speak on your behalf, especially when of the friends of the people some are being taken away by man's natural destiny,23 by accident, and by the lapse of time, such as Nausicles, Chares, Diotimus, Menestheus, and Eudoxus,24 and also Euthydicus, Ephialtes and Lycurgus,25 and others you citizens have cast forth, such as Charidemus, Philocles26 and myself, [32] men to whom not even you yourselves believe others to be superior in loyalty, though if you think certain others are equally loyal I feel no jealousy,27 and it would be my desire, provided only that you will deal fairly with them and that they shall not meet with the treatment accorded us, that their number may be legion. When however, you give the public such object-lessons as the present, who is there who will be willing to give himself to this line of duty with sincere intentions toward you? [33] Yet surely you will find no dearth of those who will at least pretend to do so, for in the past there has been none. Heaven forbid that I should live to see them unmasked like those men, who, though now openly pursuing policies they then repudiated, feel before none of you either fear or shame! You should ponder these facts, men of Athens, and not treat loyal men with disdain nor be persuaded by those who are leading the country on the way to bitter hatreds and cruelty. [34] For our present difficulties require goodwill and humanity far more than dissension and malice, an excess of which certain persons turn to their advantage, pursuing their business28 to your detriment with the expectation of returns, of which I pray that their calculations may cheat them. If any one of you ridicules these warnings he must be filled with a profound simplicity. For if, observing that things have happened which no one could have expected, he imagines things could not happen now which have happened already before now, when the people were set at variance with those who spoke in their behalf by men suborned for the purpose, has he not taken leave of his senses? [35]

If I were present in person I should be trying to explain these matters to you by word of mouth, but since I am in such a plight as I pray may be the lot of anyone who has uttered falsehoods against me to my ruin, I have sent my message in the form of a letter, in the first place, having supreme regard for your honor and your advantage and, in the second, because the same goodwill that I felt toward Lycurgus during his lifetime I believe it right to show that I feel also toward his sons. [36] If it has occurred to anyone that I have a great abundance29 of troubles of my own, I should not hesitate to say to him that I am as much concerned to defend your interests and to forsake none of my friends as I am about my own deliverance. Therefore, it is not out of the abundance of my troubles that I do this, but, actuated by one and the same earnestness and conviction, I devote my efforts to furthering both these interests of mine and those of yours with a single purpose, and the abundance I possess is of such a kind as I pray may abound for those who plot any evil against you. And on these topics I have said enough. [37]

This complaint, inspired by goodwill and affection, though now in outline only, I would gladly enlarge upon a little later in a long letter, which, if only I am alive, you may expect, unless justice shall be done me by you before that time, you who, O—what shall I say so as to seem neither to offend nor to fall short of the truth ?—you all too unfeeling men, who neither before the rest of the world nor before yourselves feel shame, who upon the same charges upon which you acquitted Aristogeiton have banished Demosthenes, [38] and the privileges which those who dare to set your authority at naught are permitted to have without your leave you do not grant to me, to enable me, if I can, by calling in the sums owing me and levying contributions30 upon my friends, to adjust my obligations to you and not, with old age and exile as the guerdon of my past toils in your behalf, be seen wandering from place to place on alien soil, a common reproach to all who have wronged me. [39]

Although it was my wish that my return home might come about by way of an ordinance31 of gratitude and magnanimity on your part and that for myself I might secure a dismissal of the false charges unjustly lodged against me, asking only for immunity from imprisonment for such time as you have granted for the payment of the fine, yet these requests you do not grant and you demand, as it is reported to me, “Well, who is preventing him from being here and transacting this business?” [40] It is knowing how to feel shame, men of Athens, it is faring in a way unworthy of my public services in your behalf, and it is the loss of my property through those men on whose account I was persuaded in the first place to become surety for their payments in order that they might not have to pay double the sum of which they were unable to pay the original amount.32 From these men, could I but return with your goodwill, I might possibly recover part, even if not all, so as not to live sordidly the rest of my life, but if I come on such terms as those who talk in this way demand of me, I shall be the victim at one and the same time of ignominy, destitution and fear. [41]

None of these considerations do you take into account but, grudging me the paltry words of a decree and an act of kindness,33 you will allow me to perish, if it so happen, through your inaction, for I could appeal to no others but you. In that day you will say that I have been shamefully mistreated, I know for a certainty, when it will do neither you nor myself any good, for assuredly you do not expect that I have funds apart from my real and personal property, from which I am separated; the rest of my assets I wish to assemble if in a spirit of humanity instead of spitefulness you will but give me leave to attend to this business unmolested.34 [42] Neither will you ever show that I received money from Harpalus, for neither was I tried and proved guilty nor did I take money, and if you are looking for excuse to the notorious decision of the Council or to the Areopagus,35 recall to mind the trial of Aristogeiton36 and hide your heads in shame37; because I have no milder injunction for those who have committed this offence against me. [43] For surely you will not claim it was just, after information was laid in the very same words by the same Council, for that man to be exonerated and me to be ruined; you are not so void of reason. For I do not deserve it; I am not that kind of a person nor worse than he, though I am unfortunate, thanks to you, I admit, for why not unfortunate when on top of my other calamities I must compare myself with Aristogeiton, and to make matters worse, a ruined man with one who has secured acquittal? [44]

And do not assume from these words that it is anger that moves me, because I could not feel that way toward you. To those who are wronged, however, it brings a certain relief to tell their sorrows, just as it relieves those in pain to moan, because toward you I feel as much goodwill as I would pray you might have toward me. I have made this plain in everything and shall continue to do so, [45] for I have been resolved from the beginning that it is the duty of every man in public life, if only he be a fair-minded citizen, so to feel toward all his fellow-citizens as children ought to feel toward their parents, and, while praying that he may find them perfectly reasonable, yet to bear with them in a spirit of kindliness as they are38; because defeat under such circumstances is judged among right-minded men to be an honorable and befitting victory. Farewell.

1 Eight citations of this letter by Hermogenes, Aristeides and others may be found in Walz's Rhetores Graeci. It is also cited by Harpocration and by Antiatticista in Bekker's Anecdota. It seems to have been known also to Photius and to the author of the Etymologicum Magnum. References to all of these will be found in the footnotes. In spite of these evidences of authenticity the majority of editors reject the letter. By Blass it is defended and of all six letters it certainly has the strongest case.

2 Lycurgus managed the finances of Athens efficiently for twelve years (338-326), for one legal term of four years as treasurer and for two terms through others. During this period the income of the State was doubled and a large building program was carried through. In politics Lycurgus was associated with Demosthenes. Though he ranked as one of the ten Attic orators, his style was rather forceful than polished. One speech, Against Leocrates, is extant and his Life in Ps. Plut. Vit. 10 Orat., whose author seems to have made extensive use of the decree in his honor, I.G. 2. 456. Cf. also I.G. 2. 333, 1493-1496.

3 The Macedonians.

4 The surrender of Lycurgus, along with that of Demosthenes and others, was demanded after the fall of Thebes in 335 B.C. Alexander was persuaded by the Athenian orator Demades to relent.

5 In addition to offices of trust Lycurgus several times received the honor of a crown and of statues at the public expense.

6 There was a board of thirty men at Athens who acted as accountants and auditors. Ten of the thirty were called εὔθυνοι; any official who handled public money could be charges before them with bribery or misappropriation of funds. All accounts were subject to their inspection. Cf. Aristot. Ath. Pol. 48.3-4; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 53.2.

7 The battle of Chaeronea, 338 B.C.; the Greeks magnified its importance. Their liberty was lost by degrees, not suddenly.

8 An Athenian citizen was identified by three items: his own name, his father's name, and his deme.

9 Antiatticista cites this passage under ἀξία: ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀξίωμα Bekker, 1. p. 77. 17-18. Ἀξία equals Latin dignitas, the degree of distinction possessed by virtue of birth or achievement or both.

10 The precise accusation is not known; it seems to have been concerned with the administration of the treasury.

11 Moerocles was archon in 324 B.C. His surrender had been demanded by Alexander in 335 B.C., which indicates his importance.

12 Nothing specific is known about these imprisonments, but it need not be assumed that all four men were under sentence at a single time. See next note. Taureas and Pataecus are unknown. For Aristogeiton see the two speeches against him.

13 If Moerocles ordered the two sons of Lycurgus to be imprisoned but left Taureas, Pataecus and Aristogeiton at liberty, the charge against him is criminal partiality. If he denies that he was archon at the time and so lacked the authority to order these men to be detained in prison, then the minor charge still stands against him of addressing the Assembly while technically a prisoner himself. As a prisoner he would be subject to partial ἀτιμία or diminution of his rights as a citizen.

14 At times the Athenian Assembly bestowed extravagant gifts upon the children of famous men, as may be learned from Plut. Arist. 27. At other times it acted heartlessly, if we may believe Dem. 19.280 ff. Archinus was one of the restorers of democracy in 403 B.C., but the greater share of the credit went to Thrasybulus.

15 That is, with the Macedonian court.

16 Laches is known from an inscription as a syndic of the deme Aexonê (I.G. 2. 1197, p. 560, 13 f.).

17 Mnesibulus is not otherwise known.

18 Of the Macedonians.

19 A verbal play on χάριτες, “feelings of gratitude” or “Graces.”

20 Pytheas was a presumptuous politician of no formal education; he accused Demosthenes of receiving twenty talents from Harpalus; after Alexander's death he joined Antipater during the siege of Lamia, 322 B.C.

21 The Greek word φθόη was peculiar enough to prick the interest of Harpocration, who cites this passage.

22 The point is that Pytheas himself lacked ancestors of note.

23 That is, death by disease.

24 Nausicles and Diotimus are mentioned in the Dem. 18.114; both are known from inscriptions to have held important commands. The surrender of Diotimus was demanded by Alexander in 335 B.C. Chares held important commands between 367 and 335 B.C. Menestheus was given command of one hundred galleys in 335 B.C., 17. 20. Eudoxus seems to be otherwise unknown.

25 Din. 1.33 names Euthydicus as one whom Demosthenes claimed as a friend. Ephialtes was one of the ten whose surrender was demanded by Alexander in 335 B.C. He died in 334 while fighting on the side of the Persians against the Macedonians. For Lycurgus see above sect. 2 note.

26 For Charidemus, leader of mercenaries, see Dem. 23, Introduction. There is extant a speech of Deinarchus Against PhiloclesDin. Phil.). The latter was associated with Demosthenes in admitting Harpalus to Athens with his illicit treasure. His exile was brief.

27 This is one of several similar colloquialisms signifying “I don't mind.”

28 Antiatticista cites this passage under ἐργολάβος Bekker's Anecdota 1. p. 94. 3-4.

29 In this passage there is a running play of words based upon the common expression ἐκ τῆς περιουσίας, “out of one's abundance.” Note περίεστι . . . ἐκ τοῦ περιόντος . . . περίεστι . . . περιγένοιτο

30 Harpocration cites this passage under the verb ἐρανίζω. Photius and the Etymologicum Magnum cite the verb only.

31 Cf. Dem. 18.13 ἐν ἐπηρείας τάξει καὶ φθόνου, “by way of spite and jealousy.” For the meaning cf. sect. 41 of this letter.

32 It was the law at Athens that the amount of a debt owed to the State should be doubled if not paid when due. Demosthenes had made a bad loan, which rendered it impossible to pay his fine of fifty talents.

33 See Dem. L. 3.39 “by way of an ordinance of gratitude and magnanimity on your part.”

34 Demosthenes was condemned to be held in prison until his fine should be paid; he insists that he must enjoy liberty if he is to collect the funds necessary for payment.

35 According to Plut. Dem. 26, the orator himself moved that the charges should be referred to the Areopagus, which promptly condemned him.

36 Aristogeiton was acquitted, according to Demosthenes, upon the same evidence. See Dem. L. 3.37.

37 Eight references to this passage may be found in Walz's Rhetores Graeci, which has an index.

38 This advice for children was possibly a commonplace. It is voiced by Epicurus, Vatican Collection 62.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (12):
    • Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, 48.3
    • Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, 53.2
    • Demosthenes, On the False Embassy, 280
    • Demosthenes, On the Crown, 114
    • Demosthenes, On the Crown, 13
    • Demosthenes, Against Aristocrates
    • Dinarchus, Against Demosthenes, 33
    • Dinarchus, Against Philocles, 1
    • Demosthenes, Letters, 3.37
    • Demosthenes, Letters, 3.39
    • Plutarch, Aristeides, 27
    • Plutarch, Demosthenes, 26
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