DEMOSTHENES (c.383-322 b.c. ). The greatest orator of the ancient world. He was born in the deme Pæania, in Attica. His father, a wealthy manufacturer, died when Demosthenes was but seven years old; his fortune and his children he left to the care of three guardians, who abused their trust. As soon as Demosthenes came of age he prosecuted at law these trustees and gained a verdict against them; but much of the property had already been squandered, and we cannot tell whether he was able to collect the amount awarded to him by the court. His success in this and some other civil causes fixed his resolution to devote himself to public life, and he set himself to master the law and politics of his country with a labor and perseverance almost without parallel. His first appearance before the people was a failure, but this spurred him to overcome his defects. His first care was to conquer the physical disadvantages under which he labored; his health was naturally feeble, his voice harsh and tuneless, and his action ungraceful. To improve his delivery, he took instruction from Satyrus, the actor, and did not disdain to study effects before a mirror. His feebleness of health he never fairly overcame; but he obviated the defects of his early training by the severest study pursued for months at a time without an interruption. Throughout his life he gave much time to the writing of speeches to be delivered by himself, or more often by others, in private suits; 33 such orations have come down to us under his name, but only 14 of these are now regarded as by Demosthenes. He was less effective in such suits than in his political speeches.
Demosthenes first took part in public affairs when about 25 years of age; from that time his history is the history of Athens. The states of Greece were miserably weak and divided and had recklessly shut their eyes to the dangerous encroachments which Philip of Macedon was already making on their liberties. The first period of Demosthenes' public life was spent in warning his countrymen to forego their mutual jealousies and unite their forces against the common enemy, whose crafty and grasping policy he exposed, about 351 b.c., in the oration known as the First Philippic, the most eloquent and the most effective of his speeches against Philip and in condemnation of the supineness of the Athenians. In 347 Philip became master of Olynthus, the last outpost of Athenian power in the north, which, in a series of splendid harangues—the three Olynthiacs—Demosthenes had implored his countrymen to defend. Peace was now necessary for Athens, and Demosthenes and Æschines (q.v.) were among the ambassadors sent to negotiate with the conqueror; but Macedonian gold had done its work, and Demosthenes, as incorruptible as he was eloquent, saw with despair that Philip was allowed to seize Thermopylæ, the key of Greece, and become a member of the Amphictyonic League. The peace, concluded in 346, lasted for six years, during which Philip's incessant intrigues were exposed and denounced by Demosthenes in orations hardly less remarkable for their political wisdom than for their eloquence. The most important were the second and third Philippics, and the speeches on The False Embassy and The Affairs of the Chersonese. When Philip entered upon a fresh course of aggression (340) and laid siege to Byzantium, he was baffled for a time through the assistance afforded by the Athenians to the besieged city at the instance of Demosthenes (339). In 338, when Philip threw Athens into consternation by passing Thermopylæ and seizing Elatea, Demosthenes brought about an alliance between his countrymen and Thebes. But the Macedonian phalanx proved invincible, and the battle of Chæronea (q.v.) laid Greece prostrate at the feet of the King. The Athenians were treated by Philip with the greatest consideration and accepted his terms of peace. Demosthenes pronounced the funeral oration over those who fell in the battle and urged the Athenians to repair their walls against their enemy, contributing to the expense from his own purse. For his services to Athens in the crisis before and after the battle of Chæronea Ctesiphon proposed that a golden crown be given to him; whereupon Æschines, Demosthenes' lifelong opponent, attacked Ctesiphon with the charge of having made an illegal proposal. Demosthenes defended Ctesiphon (330) in his oration On the Crown—essentially a review of his entire political career—which the almost unanimous verdict of critics has pronounced to be the most perfect masterpiece of oratory of ancient or modern times. Æschines was defeated and obliged to leave Athens and spent the remainder of his life in exile. In 324 the enemies of Demosthenes brought about his conviction on a charge of having received a bribe of 20 talents from Harpalus (q.v.), the absconding treasurer of Alexander. Unable to pay the fine imposed, he was thrown into prison, but succeeded in escaping. The death of Alexander the Great in the following year was followed by the triumphant return of the orator, and he was again at the head of affairs. But the disastrous issue of the Lamian War, waged by the Greeks against Antipater, was fatal to Demosthenes. Once more the power of Macedon prevailed. The surrender of Demosthenes was demanded by the conquerors. Finding escape impossible, the orator sought an asylum in the temple of Poseidon, in the island of Calaurea. Before his pursuers overtook him he died (322), as was generally believed, of poison administered by his own hand.
The personal character of Demosthenes is of the noblest. His bravery, the stainless purity of his public and private life (except in the Harpalus matter, if that conviction was in accord with the facts), his splendid and disinterested, if blind, patriotism, and his services as a statesman and administrator, entitle him to a place among the noblest men of antiquity. He has been rated among the foremost orators of the world by all critics since his own day.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 669-670.