Demosthenes, who is considered the most important orator of antiquity, is actually the greatest such man of all time, as many of his speeches have been studied by students of rhetoric for centuries.
Demosthenes became a statesman after he became an orator. At a young age he honed his oratorial skills by studying great orators from the past.
He became an orator at an early age for a very unusual reason — he wanted to take to court his legal guardians, who had badly mishandled his father’s wealth after his death.
Historians believe the fortune was equivalent to about 220 years of a laborer’s income at standard wages, or 11 million dollars today.
Demosthenes lived some years after the Golden Age of Athens, at a time when the great city was in a period of decline.
As a statesman, he constantly exhorted his fellow citizens to return to their former courage and self-reliance in order to bring Athens back to the glory days of old.
Early hardships and the study of great orators
Demosthenes was born in Athens in the year 384 BC. His father, who was a wealthy knife maker, was called Demosthenes as well and his mother was named Kleovouli.
At a very young age he experienced profound grief, first by losing his father, and then by seeing his guardians usurping his father’s wealth.
He decided to become skilled in rhetoric so that he could fight in court for his stolen fortune. One of his teachers was Callistratus of Aphidnae, who saw the potential of the young Athenian.
Demosthenes, incredibly, was not a natural speaker — and he also lacked confidence. More importantly, he had to overcome another obstacle as an orator: he had a lisp and could not pronounce l and r correctly. His lisp made him nervous as well, and he experienced stage fright in front of an audience.
He managed to stand in front of the court, though, at the age of 20 when he sued his legal guardians. He won the lawsuit, but amazingly he still could not get his inheritance back. To the benefit of many future rhetoricians and orators, Demosthenes was forced to earn money by writing speeches for use in private legal suits.
He worked hard to improve his speaking abilities by shouting to be heard above the crashing of the waves along a rocky shore; he was also known to speak for hours, repeating his speeches over and over.
Demosthenes eventually became a proficient lawyer and a noted orator. It was only then, however, that he chose to become a politician.
Demosthenes and politics
In 357 BC, Athens became involved in a Social War with some of her colonies. At the same time, the Sacred War broke out between Thebes and Phocis.
In 363 and 359 BC, Demosthenes assumed the office of the trierarch, being responsible for the outfitting and maintenance of a warship called a trireme.
During this period, he wrote the works “Against Androtion” and “Against Leptines,” two attacks on individuals who attempted to repeal certain tax exemptions.
In “Against Timocrates” and “Against Aristocrates,” he advocated the elimination of corruption. In all these speeches, he presented his ideas for the state, such as the importance of the navy, of alliances and of national honor.
In 354 BC Demosthenes delivered his first political oration, “On the Navy,” proposing the development of a new Athenian fleet.
In 351 BC Demosthenes gave his famous “First Philippic” speech, protesting Philip’s seizure of the Athens colony of Amphipolis in Macedonia. It was a rousing oration, calling on Athenians to resist Philip’s ambition.
Yet Philip was unstoppable, and in 348 BC he proceeded to conquer Olynthus and the entire Chalcidice along with the states of the Chalcidic federation that Olynthus had once led. Demosthenes was forced to ask for a compromise.
It is said that when the Athenian delegation went to Pella to negotiate a peace treaty, Demosthenes collapsed from fright when he saw Philip.
Second and Third Philippics
Philip II continued to advance southward, taking Phocis and moving towards Athens. It was time for Athens and its allies to stand back and accept Philip into the Council of the League.
In 344 BC, Demosthenes went to the Peloponnese to detach as many cities as possible from the Macedon influence, but to no avail. Peloponnesians saw the King of Macedon as the the guarantor of their freedom.
It was then that Demosthenes delivered the “Second Philippic,” an attack against Philip and his expansionist plans.
In 342 BC, he delivered the “Third Philippic,” a speech which is considered to be the best of his political orations. It was a resolute call to arms against Philip, telling the Athenians that it would be “better to die a thousand times than pay court to Philip.”
In 338 BC the Athenians made an alliance with several city-states including Euboea, Megara, Boeotia, Achaea, Corinth, Acarnania and other states in the Peloponnese, and they went to meet Philip’s army in Chaeronea.
In the famous battle — in which Demosthenes fought as a simple hoplite — Philip’s army obliterated the allied forces. Yet the King of Macedon made peace with Athens.
In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated and Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) was proclaimed the new King of Macedon. He was only 20 years old at the time.
This time, Demosthenes continued his struggle against Alexander, but without achieving anything. Yet most Athenians continued to have a great respect for him.
Exile and death
In 324 BC, Demosthenes was accused of taking 20 talents deposited in Athens by Harpalus, a refugee from Alexander’s Army.
The great orator was found guilty, fined 50 talents, and imprisoned. He escaped from prison, however, making it impossible for him to return to Athens.
The next year, when Alexander died, the power of the Macedonians seemed finally broken and a new alliance was formed against them.
The Athenians recalled Demosthenes from exile and provided money to pay his fine. But in 322 BC, Antipater, Alexander’s successor, advanced to Athens. Demosthenes and other orators again fled the city.
Not wanting to fall into the hands of the hated Macedonians, while fleeing Antipater’s soldiers in the temple of Poseidon in Calabria, Poros, Demosthenes killed himself by taking poison.
Forty-two years after his death, according to Plutarch, the Athenian Republic honored him as he deserved, by erecting a bronze statue of him.
At the base of the statue the famous epigram was engraved: “If, Demosthenes, you had as much power as you had brains, then the Greeks would never bow to the Macedonian sword.”