Last reviewed: June 2018
Greek orator and politician.
October 12, 322 BCE
Born in 384 BCE, Demosthenes (dih-MAHS-thuh-nees) was the greatest of the Greek orators, an Athenian patriot who used his skill at declamation to arouse the citizens of Athens to regain their civic pride and to resist the efforts of Philip II of Macedon to conquer Greece. Bust of Demosthenes.
Bust of Demosthenes.
When Demosthenes was seven his father, who bore the same name, died. His mother, Cleobule, was left with very little money to care for him and his sister, since the executors of the estate embezzled most of it. Demosthenes was an awkward child, with little strength, and he was handicapped by a speech defect that he later overcame (although probably not by putting pebbles in his mouth, as legend has it). He received a good education of the standard sort and special instruction in rhetoric. He then went on to the study of law with a famous probate lawyer of the time, Isaeus.
In 360 BCE Demosthenes was commander of a ship in the Athenian fleet, but his first ventures into public life were as a lawyer, and one of his important early cases was one initiated by himself in which he unsuccessfully attempted to win back some of the money that had been embezzled from his father’s estate. Then, as one trained both in law and rhetoric, Demosthenes went on to the profession of writing speeches to be delivered orally in court. The experience that he acquired stood him in good stead when he began in 355 BCE to attempt to influence the political life of Athens by his speeches in the general assembly.
His most famous orations were the three Philippics, and the most celebrated of the three was the third, delivered in 341 BCE In his speeches he warned the people of Athens that civic reform and a revival of civic spirit were needed if Athens was to hold its place in the world. He cited cases of corruption in public administration and demanded action. When Philip of Macedon seemed to have the subjugation of Athens as one of his objectives, Demosthenes warned the people of Athens that democracy could not survive if Philip were to conquer them. He urged the necessity of taxes, of military service, of a strong fleet, and of continued attention to political and military affairs. He also traveled throughout Greece, attempting to form an alliance of the various cities against Macedon.
In 338 BCE Philip scored a final victory against the allied city-states at the battle of Chaeronea. Demosthenes then worked to secure funds from Persia, Philip’s next target, in order to build up anti-Macedonian forces. When Philip died in 336 BCE and Alexander became king of Macedon, the Athenian cause was recognized as hopeless for the time being. Demosthenes restricted his campaign against Macedon. In order to restore confidence in Demosthenes as a public leader, his friend Ctesiphon proposed that Demosthenes be given a gold wreath or crown. This act was denounced as illegal by Aeschines, whom Demosthenes had accused in 343 BCE of accepting bribes, and Aeschines brought suit. In one of his most famous orations, On the Crown, Demosthenes defended his record and won the case.
Demosthenes then concentrated on developing the internal strength of Athens, but his work was halted when he was found guilty of appropriating to himself some gold that had been in possession of a deserter from Alexander’s forces who had been captured by the Athenians. Demosthenes’ guilt was never actually established. He was imprisoned because he could not pay the fine, but he escaped and went into exile. When Alexander died in 323 BCE Demosthenes was recalled to Athens and acclaimed. At the battle of Crannon in 322 BCE Athens was defeated by the Macedonians, and Demosthenes fled to the island of Calauria, where he took poison to avoid being captured by the soldiers of Antipater, the Macedonian leader.