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Antiphon is said to have been almost contemporary with Gorgias, but a little younger (Ps.-Plut., Lives of the Orators, Antiphon, § 9). He was born about 480 B.C. He took no part in public life, perhaps disdaining to serve the democracy owing to his strong aristocratic prejudices. He wrote many speeches for others, but himself never spoke in the assembly and very rarely in the public courts. Most of his speeches were written for private individuals, but we have a record on one ‘about the tribute of Samothrace,’ apparently composed on behalf of that community when appealing against their assessment. Having lived in comparative obscurity all his life, he stepped suddenly into brilliant light in 411 B.C., the year of the revolution of the Four Hundred. According to Thucydides his was the brain which had planned all the details of this anti-democratic conspiracy. The historian pays a striking tribute to his ability as an organiser:

‘It was Pisander who proposed this motion and in general took the most active steps for the subversion of the democracy; but the one who contrived the whole plot and the details of its working and who had given his attention to it longest was Antiphon, a man who must be placed in the first rank for his character, his ingenuity, and his powers of expression. He never put himself forward in the assembly, nor appeared, from choice, at any trial in the courts, but lay under the people's suspicion owing to a reputation for cleverness. He was, however, more capable than any other man of giving assistance to anybody who consulted him with regard to a case either in the courts or the assembly. Eventually, when the Four Hundred suffered reverse and were being harshly treated by the democracy, he was himself brought to trial, for participation in the revolution, and is known to have made the finest defence ever on record as having been delivered by a man on trial for his life.’ (Thuc., viii. 68).

During the short rule of the Four Hundred he seems to have been one of the leaders of the extreme party, as opposed to the followers of Theramenes, who advocated measures of conciliation. He went, with Phrynichus and eight other envoys, to negotiate peace with Sparta in the hope of thus securing the oligarchical government. Shortly after the failure of this embassy came the murder of Phrynichus and the fall of the Four Hundred, and the democracy was ready for revenge. Most of the ringleaders fled to Deceleia; Antiphon and Archeptolemus remained, were prosecuted for treason to the people, condemned and executed. Their property was confiscated, their houses razed to the ground, their descendants disfranchised for all time, and their bodies refused burial in the soil of Athens or any of her allies.

On the occasion of his trial the orator, who had spent the best years of his life in pleading by the lips of others in causes which did not interest him, justified his renown and far surpassed all expectation, delivering what was, in Thucydides' opinion, the finest speech of its kind ever heard up to that time. Aristotle preserves an anecdote telling how the poet Agathon congratulated the condemned man on his brilliant effort, and Antiphon replied that ‘he would rather have satisfied one man of taste than any number of common people’—οἱ τυγχάνοντες, a fine aristocratic term for great Athenian people (Eth. Eudem., in. 1232 b. 7).

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