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Demosthenes

Updated on November 2, 2009

Demosthenes was ancient Greek orator and statesman. Born Attica, Greece, 384 B.C. Died on the island of Calauria (now Poros), in the Aegean Sea, 322 B.C.

Demosthenes was the greatest of the Greek orators, and his works represent the highest achievement in Greek rhetoric. His prose is lucid and forceful, combining dignified simplicity and polished elegance. As a statesman, he was the foremost champion of Greek liberty and independence. His service to his country and his integrity in public life became legendary.

Because of Demosthenes' stature as orator and statesman, many legends grew up around him. As a youth, he apparently stammered or had some speech defect. According to tradition, he overcame it by placing pebbles in his mouth so that he would be forced to speak slowly. In other stories he strengthened his weak voice by practicing speaking as he ran up a hill, and he learned to address audiences by going to the seashore and shouting at the waves. His fine writing style was attributed to copying the works of the historian Thucydides.

Early Life

When Demosthenes was seven years old, his father died. His guardians embezzled the property left to him, and by the time he was 18 he was almost penniless. He studied law and rhetoric so that he might bring his guardians to court, and in 363 B.C. he won a case against them. His public career began in 355 B.C. when he became an assistant to official prosecutors in the law courts. In 354 B.C. he gave his first major speech, Against Leptines, urging exemption from taxation for those who had greatly benefited the state.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Demosthenes saw that Philip II, who had become King of Macedon in 359 B.C., was growing dangerously powerful. He recognized that Philip would soon present a threat not only to Athenian democracy but to the liberty of all Greece. Demosthenes tried to make the Athenians aware of their peril and to arouse them to action.

Greatest Works

Demosthenes' ten greatest political speeches were composed and delivered between 351 B.C. and 341 B.C. Among his finest early speeches are the First Philippic and the three Olynthiacs. In them he denounced Philip's aggressive policy against other Greek cities and proposed that the Athenians check Philip before he overran Athens. In later speeches, such as On the Embassy and the Second Philippic, Demosthenes tried to rally the Athenians by contrasting their irresolution with Philip's concentration on achieving his goal. The Third Philippic, probably his best oration, emphasizes the importance of preserving Athens as the sole hope for maintaining the political liberties of the Greeks.

Demosthenes was unable to stop Philip or his successor, Alexander the Great. But he remained prominent in public affairs after Greece fell under Alexander's domination. When a group of Athenians proposed to award Demosthenes the honor of a golden crown, his political enemy, Aeschines, opposed the plan. In reply to Aeschines, Demosthenes delivered his most famous court speech, On the Crown (330 B.C.), a defense of his political and military career. This speech is a prose masterpiece and an eloquent record of the Greek spirit of political independence.

In 323 B.C., after the death of Alexander the Great, Demosthenes urged an attack against Macedonian power. The attack failed, and Demosthenes fled to Calauria, where, to avoid capture, he poisoned himself. Demosthenes' keen understanding of Greece's political situation and his courageous devotion to liberty were unequaled. His works offer a model of rhetorical prose, as well as information about himself and the times in which he lived.

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