Demosthenes was born in Athens to a wealthy
sword maker who died in 377 B.C. When he
reached his majority and discovered that his
guardians had misused their power and brought
his estate to near bankruptcy, Demosthenes made
his first public speech in a lawsuit against his
guardians and won some damages. This was surprising,
since he suffered from a severe speech impediment;
stammering made his words hardly
distinguishable, and he was often the object of
Demosthenes, however, overcame this hardship.
To improve his speech, he would go to the
beach and shout over the roar of the waves or talk
with his mouth full of pebbles. To avoid distractions,
he built himself a place underground and remained
there for months, training himself to speak
properly. He even went so far as to shave half his
head so that he would not be tempted to make a
public appearance before he was ready.
All Demosthenes’ efforts paid off. At age 25, he
entered public life as an influential orator, speechwriter,
and politician.He wrote speeches for clients
in law courts, but those he wrote for the general
public concerning important political and social
issues are among his best works. He became not
only a leading speaker in Athens’ assembly, but also
a spokesman for the military and for Athens’ need
to be prepared for war. So effective was he as an orator
and political leader that he was eventually
forced into exile to escape prosecution for treason.
Demosthenes’ death was as illustrious as his life.
Tracked down at a temple where he was hiding, he
asked for permission to write a letter. The guards
granted him this right, not knowing that he had
poison hidden in his pen, and after finishing his
last letter, he bit his pen and died.
About 60 of Demosthenes’ orations survive
today. Most of them, such as Against Polycles and
Against Apatourius, denounce political figures,
while others, such as Against Aristocrates, criticize a
particular social class. His Erotic Essay reflects on
the nature of physical attractiveness and the often
destructive effect it has on people.
Demosthenes’ best-known works are the eloquent
speeches in which he bids Athenians to unite
against King Philip of Macedon, who was then
conquering Greece. These speeches became known
as Philippics (351, 344, and 341 B.C.), the work for
which he is most widely famed.
One of Demosthenes’ best orations was On the
Crown, which he wrote to defend Ctesiphon, another
orator, against Aeschines’ claim that Ctesiphon
had broken the law by suggesting that
Demosthenes be given a golden crown in honor of
his speeches for Athenian freedom. As a result of
this speech, Aeschines, Demosthenes’ opponent in
the assembly, was forced into exile.
Demosthenes wrote On the Crown using short,
concise sentences and avoiding excessive literary
figures that might have confused or distracted his
listeners.He makes his thoughts clear by using repetition
and explanation. The logically sound structure
of the speech is combined with highly
emotional appeals, as when Demosthenes refers to
Aeschines as a “bombastic phrase-monger.”
In Ancient Greece, an oration was not only a
piece of literature but also a performance. Thus,
to make his argument more visual, Demosthenes
presents different documents as evidence and invites
witnesses who support his point. He denunciates
Aeschines by alluding to his mother’s
promiscuous behavior. A brilliant politician and
spokesman, Demosthenes characterizes Aeschines
as an incompetent, disrespectful fool, while portraying
himself as noble and wise: “I saw a man enslaving
all mankind, and I stood in his way.”
It is this image of Demosthenes that remains: a
hero who dared to stand up against the overwhelming
political powers and who appealed to
his people with passionate, patriotic speeches. In
Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator, Ian Worthington
says that Demosthenes is “regarded as the best
of the Greek orators whose works have survived
today.” For contemporary readers, Demosthenes’
speeches are an invaluable source of knowledge
about Ancient Greek society and culture.
English Versions of Works by Demosthenes
On the Crown. Edited by Harvey Yunis. Cambridge,
U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
On the False Embassy (Oration 19). Edited by Douglas
M. MacDowell. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Works about Demosthenes
Gibson, Graig. Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes
and His Ancient Commentators. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2002.
Johnstone, Christopher Lyle, ed. Theory, Text, Context:
Issues in Greek Rhetoric and Oratory. Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1996.
Worthington, Ian, ed. Demosthenes: Statesman and
Orator. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.