Authors: Demosthenes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek orator and politician.

384 BCE

Athens, Greece

October 12, 322 BCE

Calauria, Greece

Biography

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.

By Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Nonfiction (Orations): Kat’ Androtiōnos, 355 BCE (Against Androtion, 1852) Peri tēs Ateleias pros Leptinēn, 355 BCE (Against the Law of Leptines, 1852) Peri tōu summoriōn, 354 BCE (Symmories, 1852, also known as On the Navy Boards) Kata Timokratous, 352 BCE (Against Timocrates, 1852) Kat’ Aristocratous, 352 BCE (Against Aristocrates, 1852) Kata Philippou A, 351 BCE (First Philippic, 1570) Uper tēs Rodiōn Eleutherias, 351 BCE (For the Rhodians, 1852) Olunthiakos A, Olunthiakos B, 349 BCE (First and Second Olynthiacs, 1570) Olunthiakos G, 348 BCE (Third Olynthiac, 1570) Peri tēs Eirēnes, 346 BCE (On the Peace, 1744) Kata Philippou B, 344 BCE (Second Philippic, 1570) Peri tēs Parapresbeias, 343 BCE (On the Embassy, 1852) Kata Philippou G, 341 BCE (Third Philippic, 1570) Peri tōu en Cherronēsōi, 341 BCE (On the Affairs of the Chersonese, 1744) Peri tōu Stephanou, 330 BCE (On the Crown, 1732) The Orations, 1852 Bibliography Adams, Charles Darwin. Demosthenes and His Influence. New York: Cooper Square, 1963. In addition to chapters on the life and oratory of Demosthenes, Adams includes important chapters on the influence of Demosthenes in antiquity, modern Europe, and on English and American oratory. Gibson, Craig A. Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes and His Ancient Commentators. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A study of the influence of ancient commentators on contemporary understanding of Demosthenes. Offers a fascinating look at the process of ancient scholarship. Hansen, Mogen Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Examining the years 403-322 BCE, which coincide with the political career of Demosthenes, Hansen focuses on a crucial period of Athenian democracy. He discusses how, for Athenians, liberty was both the ability to participate in the decision-making process and the right to live without oppression from the state or from other citizens. Jaeger, Werner W. Demosthenes: The Origin and Growth of His Policy. New York: Octagon Books, 1977. Systematic attempt to reconstruct the origin and growth of Demosthenes’ policy, considering his youth, education, early career, turn to politics, and the development of his political thought. Kennedy, George A. Art of Persuasion in Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Standard handbook on Greek rhetorical theory and practice that offers perceptive analyses of Demosthenes’ major orations and places them in their proper historical and rhetorical contexts. Murphy, James J., ed. Demosthenes’ "On the Crown": A Critical Case Study of a Masterpiece of Ancient Oratory. Davis, Calif.: Hermagoras Press, 1983. Includes Plutarch’s biography of Demosthenes, an analysis of Demosthenes’ oratorical career by George Kennedy, John J. Keaney’s excellent translation of "On the Crown," and an examination of the background, style, and argument of the speech. Pearson, Lionel. The Art of Demosthenes. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1981. Concerned with Demosthenes the orator, Pearson attempts to provide analysis and exposition of the speaker’s technique, including his command of argumentation and his skill in narrative. Both forensic and deliberative speeches are examined. Pickard-Cambridge, A. W. Demosthenes and the Last Days of Greek Freedom. 1914. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1979. A sympathetic but balanced and reliable view of Demosthenes’ life and career set in its historical and political context. Contains a chronological table (404-322 BCE), illustrations, maps, and diagrams of battles. Sealey, Raphael. Demosthenes and His Time: A Study in Defeat. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Places Demosthenes in his political context. Worthington, Ian, ed. Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator. New York: Routledge, 2001. A collection of essays assessing how Demosthenes became so well regarded and whether his reputation is justified.

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