Demosthenes (384 BC–322 BC) is generally considered the greatest of the Attic orators, and thus one of the greatest of all Ancient Greek orators. His writings provide an insight into the life and culture of Athens at this period of time.
Born the son of a wealthy sword-maker, Demosthenes was orphaned at the age of seven. His father left him well-provided-for, but his legal guardians defrauded him and squandered his inheritance. As soon as Demosthenes came of age, he prosecuted the trustees, who had attempted to defraud him. He succeeded in retrieving only a portion of his inheritance, however, and turned to the profession of writing speeches for use in private legal suits.
As a boy Demosthenes suffered from a speech impediment; he worked at a series of self-designed exercises to overcome it. A common story tells how he talked with pebbles in his mouth and recited verses while running. To strengthen his voice, he spoke on the seashore over the roar of the waves. It is unknown whether these vignettes are factual accounts of events in Demosthenes's life or merely legendary examples of his perseverance and determination.
Although Demosthenes continued in private law practice, he became increasingly interested in public affairs. By the time he was 25 years of age he became a prominent logographer and political orator (speech-maker). He had entered public life and devoted himself to the revival of public spirit in Athens and to the preservation of an independent Athenian society. Most of his major orations were directed against the growing power of King Philip II of Macedon, which he saw as a menace not only to Athens but to the autonomy of all independent Greek city-states. The theme of his first speech against Philip, known as the First Philippic (351 BC), was preparedness. Two years later Philip attacked Olynthus, an ally of Athens, and in three speeches, called the Olynthiacs, Demosthenes urged Athens to help its ally. When Olynthus was destroyed, Demosthenes was among those sent (346 BC) to negotiate peace between Athens and Philip.
During the next eight years, however, he continued his warnings against Macedonian encroachments. Among his orations of this period were the Second Philippic; a speech, known as On the False Embassy, against Aeschines, a rival orator and supporter of Philip; and the Third Philippic, considered the best of this group, demanding resolute action against Philip. Demosthenes's speaking style was relatively straightforward and generally without rhetorical flair. He made use of his body to accentuate his words, and as a result was able to project his ideas and arguments much more forcefully (later famous orators like Henry Clay would mimic this technique). Although Demosthenes's arguments were the products of careful study and preparation – he often declined to comment on subjects he had not studied beforehand – he was famous for his sharp wit, and his name has been used to imply a particularly venomous rejoinder.
Demosthenes continued to speak for Athenian independence even after the unification of the Greek city-states. In 336 BC the orator Ctesiphon proposed that Athens honour Demosthenes for his services to the city by presenting him, according to custom, with a golden crown. This proposal became a political issue, and in 330 BC on a legal technicality, Aeschines prosecuted Ctesiphon for having offered the crown. In his brilliant speech On the Crown, Demosthenes not only defended Ctesiphon but also attacked those who would have preferred peace with Macedon. As a result, Ctesiphon was acquitted and Aeschines forced into exile.
In 324 BC Demosthenes was convicted, probably unjustly, of accepting a bribe from Harpalus, to whom Philip's son, Alexander the Great, had entrusted huge treasures and who had absconded and found refuge in Athens. After Alexander's death in 323 BC Demosthenes again urged the Athenians to gain independence from Macedonian hegemony in what is known as the Lamian War, but Alexander's successor, Antipater, quelled all opposition and demanded that the Athenians turn over Demosthenes and other leading patriots to him. When the Athenian assembly adopted a decree condemning the patriots to death, Demosthenes escaped to a sanctuary on the island of Calauria, where he was later discovered yet committed suicide before his capture. The fame of his speeches continued down the ages, inspiring the Roman orator Cicero, among others, for his speeches against Mark Antony after the death of Julius Caesar. The historian Plutarch drew attention in his Life of Demosthenes to the strong similarities between the personalities and careers of Demosthenes and Marcus Tullius Cicero:
- The divine power seems originally to have designed Demosthenes and Cicero upon the same plan, giving them many similarities in their natural characters, as their passion for distinction and their love of liberty in civil life, and their want of courage in dangers and war, and at the same time also to have added many accidental resemblances. I think there can hardly be found two other orators, who, from small and obscure beginnings, became so great and mighty; who both contested with kings and tyrants; both lost their daughters, were driven out of their country, and returned with honour; who, flying from thence again, were both seized upon by their enemies, and at last ended their lives with the liberty of their countrymen.
- The text quoted from Plutarch is taken from John Dryden's translation, found here.
- Demosthenes, Speeches (in both Greek and English at Perseus)