Demosthenes – Great Athenian Orator and Statesman
Demosthenes (384-322 BC) was the greatest orator in Athens, Ancient Greece.
He was also an Athenian statesman, whose life’s major theme was his support of Athenian liberty and opposition to the rising imperial power of kingdom of Macedon, a state just to the north of Athens.
Demosthenes lived in the golden age of Athens and was a contemporary of Plato and Aristotle.
His father died when Demosthenes was just seven years and left him a good inheritance, but the boy’s guardians squandered most of the sum due to him. He is said to have undertaken his first studies in rhetoric and law as a preparation for suing the guardians for the lost money.
According to the ancient biographer, Plutarch, Demosthenes had an underground study where he could exercise his voice. Plutarch also reported that Demosthenes had a lisp (“an inarticulate and stammering pronunciation”) that he treated by practicising declamation while running or by speaking with pebbles in his mouth.
Demosthenes’ first important speeches, the Philippics (351, 341 BC) and the Olynthiacs (349 BC), were directed against Philip II, the ruler of Macedon, the danger that Philip and Macedon posed for Athens and the need for military preparedness on the part of Athens.
According to Plutarch, the subjects of Demosthenes’ speeches never varied for the decades that he was in politics: “The object which he chose for himself in the commonwealth was noble and just, the defense of the Grecians against Philip.”
Goaded on by Demosthenes, the Athenians finally clashed militarily with Philip on behalf of their fellow Greek state which had appealed to Athens for help. However, the Athenians were defeated.
Demosthenes had an enemy, an Athenian orator named Aeschines. Demosthenes suspected Aeschines being too soft on Philip of Macedon when negotiating with him. He indicted Aeschines for betraying Athens. Demosthenes’ brilliant speeches in this case have survived to this day (published as “The False Legation”). Aeschines narrowly escaped conviction.
In 340 BC, war broke out again between Athens and Macedon. It ended in the total defeat of Athens and her allies in the Battle of Chaeronea (338).
A proposal made to present Demosthenes with a golden crown was opposed by Aeschines and his pro-Macedon supporters. A trial was held with the underlying aim of discrediting Demosthenes. Instead, Demosthenes declaimed his oratorical masterpiece, On the Crown, in which he totally vindicated himself against the accusations of Aeschines.
In 336, Philip of Macedon was assassinated and was succeeded by his son, Alexander the Great. Alexander turned out to be more than an implacable foe to Athens and her allies than his father had been.
In 324, Demosthenes was accused of embezzlement. He was convicted and exiled.
With the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Demosthenes was recalled to Athens, where he made a final effort to end the threat of Macedon. Unfortunately, Macedon (under its new ruler, Antipater) again crushed Athens and her allies. Demosthenes was said to have fled the field of battle and was sentenced to death. He escaped but, seeing Antipater’s soldiers coming to arrest him, committed suicide.
Demosthenes was both a great statesman and a great orator. As a statesman, he rallied the often fickle Athenian citizenry to oppose the the military power of Macedon. As an orator, he wrote speeches of genius, whose rhetorical techniques have been studied by every generation since his death.