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The Trouble With Speeches

The Birth of Political Rhetoric in an Ancient Democracy

"Phryne Goes to the Baths as Venus, Demosthenes Taunted by Aeschines." J. M. W. Turner via Wikimedia Commons

Greece has had a troubled history since the start of the debt crisis in 2009. The people of the country, quite understandably, feel resentful at having to defer to the bureaucratic power of the European Union: it represents an undignified loss of their autonomy and freedom. The current troubles have re-opened old, even ancient wounds. Greece—located on the eastern fringe of modern Europe—prides itself on being the “cradle of Western civilization,” the birthplace not only of many of our most important literary and artistic and scientific concepts (tragedy, comedy, history, philosophy, classical sculpture and architecture, mathematics, medicine, botany, and so on), but also of the political structure associated by most Westerners with individual liberty. Fifth-century Athens was one of the world’s first democratic societies. But the ancient Greeks, like their modern counterparts, experienced constant threats to the freedom that they saw as the primary component of their civilization.

Ancient Athens was democratic in a very different sense from modern democratic societies, like those of a contemporary European nation, or the United Kingdom, or the United States. In some ways, it involved far more active involvement by the citizens in the process of government: important decisions (such as whether to go to war or not) were made by the direct vote of all the citizens, not by elected representatives. Citizens actually did show up regularly to vote (in contrast to the United States, where it is common for half the electorate, usually the poorer half, not to attend the polling stations). Most government officials were appointed from the citizen body by lot, such that everybody whose name was in the lottery had a more or less equal chance of attaining a position of power (again in contrast to modern societies, in which those with advantaged economic and educational backgrounds have a far greater chance of attaining public office). On the other hand, the citizen body in ancient Athens was a tiny proportion of the total population: women, slaves, and resident aliens (“metics”) were excluded, such that perhaps only about 20 percent of people living in the city were citizens with a right to vote. And yet liberty within Athenian society was an essential element in the city’s self-image. The Athenians were aware of their difference from other Greek city-states, which had either a single ruler (a “tyrant”—not necessarily a bad word in an ancient context), or an aristocratic ruling party (an oligarchy—rule of the few).

Greek freedom was important in another sense, for the society of Greek-speakers as a whole. The city-states—including the dominant forces of Athens and Sparta, as well as many others—banded together to achieve freedom from oppression by non-Greek imperial powers. In 490 BCE, and again in 480 and 479 at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, the Greek cities, under the leadership of Athens, united to fight off invasions by the Persian Empire, led by Darius and his son Xerxes. It was thanks to this outside threat that the disparate Greek city-states began to unite together as “Greece”—at least for a few brief decades, before the infighting of the thirty-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta began.

The memory of the Persian Wars haunted later Greek imaginations, and helped to form an image of what it meant to be “Greek”—and, later, shaped what it meant to be “Western” or “European”—which was contrasted with an image of what it meant to be “Eastern” or “Oriental.” Edward Said’s influential study of Orientalism begins with Greek depictions of the Persian “other,” and argues that the modern European prejudice against the peoples of the Near East was inspired by a reading of the ancient Greek sources.1 Nineteenth-century historians were glad to find in the ancients apparent confirmation of the view that Easterners tend to be slavish, effeminate, and luxury-loving, lacking any of the backbone and spirit of free enterprise, which are supposedly characteristic of Western Man.

Against the background of all this dreadful ideological baggage, it is salutary to remember that Greece in general, and Athens in particular, has been free and independent for only a very tiny proportion of its history. In antiquity, “Greece” was a collection of city-states, in which people spoke many different dialects and were engaged in a constant struggle for dominance—a situation reflected in the first work of Greek literature, The Iliad, which is all about the conflict between two Greek chieftains or kings, Achilles and Agamemnon. Tyrants ruled most of the Greek city-states in archaic times, including Athens. Athens had political and military dominance in the Greek world for only the brief period—less than fifty years—between Plataea (479) and the Peloponnesian War (431); then Sparta and Thebes each in turn gained control, until Greece was united in defeat, overtaken by a series of foreign overlords.

Modern Greece dates back only to 1821, when the Greeks finally threw off the yoke of Ottoman rule. The poet Byron, who died trying to fight in the Greek war of independence, movingly links this modern war with the ancient battle of Marathon, the earlier moment when Greece achieved freedom from Eastern oppression, ventriloquizing the voice of a native Greek bard, a modern Homer:

 The mountains look on Marathon—.
And Marathon looks on the sea;.
And musing there an hour alone,.
I dream’d that Greece might yet be free..
For, standing on the Persians’ grave,.
I could not deem myself a slave.2 

But “slaves,” or at least colonial subjects of a larger imperial power, are what the Greeks usually were. Before the Ottomans, Greece had been, for a thousand years, under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Before the Byzantines, the Romans ruled Greece; and before them, Macedonia.

The Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 BCE, is in this context the most important turning-point in Greek history. That was the moment when Philip of Macedon invaded the Greek province of Boeotia and achieved a decisive victory, wiping out even the Sacred Band of Thebes, a military group that had previously been considered invincible (thanks to their mutual loyalty and courage). A famous statue commemorating them, the Lion of Chaeronea, stands in the modern town of Chaeronea, discovered and re-erected by English travelers in 1818, at the time of the modern Greek struggle for independence. The ideal of Greek liberty was influential and inspiring both to the Greeks themselves and to other Western cultures, largely because it flourished so briefly, and ended so soon.

The Battle of Chaeronea is an essential moment in the nostalgic, idealizing vision of Greek liberty: it was the ultimate great heroic fight for Greek Liberty against a Barbarian Emperor. These are the terms in which we still remember that historical turning point, because they are the terms used by the loudest and most influential voice in Greek politics at the time: that of Demosthenes, the last and the greatest spokesman for ancient Athenian liberty.

Demosthenes—an Athenian lawyer, speechwriter, ambassador, politician, and demagogue—made a pile of money from his skill in the law courts, and then launched a new political career founded on hostility to Philip of Macedon: he constantly urged his fellow citizens to fight off the foreign invader.3 His life story, traced in Ian Worthington’s oddly stodgy new biography, should make for gripping reading. His childhood and youth, about which we know far more than for any other ancient historical figure, are fascinating in themselves, and vividly narrated by Plutarch in his wonderful Life of Demosthenes—to be recommended as a more lively and better-written version than that of Worthington.

Our hero’s father, also named Demosthenes, was a prosperous small-business owner, who employed more than fifty slaves manufacturing weapons and furniture. The father died when Demosthenes Junior was only seven years old, and left provisions in his will that the estate should be managed by his relatives, one of whom was also supposed to marry the dead man’s widow, and another, his daughter. The guardians were supposed to oversee Demosthenes’s education and ensure that when he grew up he would receive full control of the workshops, along with the profits. But the guardians betrayed the trust, kept the money for themselves, and ruined the business, leaving the boy almost destitute. According to some versions of the story, they also failed to provide for his education, although this seems implausible, since Demosthenes himself acknowledges that his guardians failed to pay the tutor’s fees only temporarily. Demosthenes was, we are told, a sickly child, afflicted with a speech impediment, though this may be the stuff of biographical legend, since it makes such an appealing story to imagine that the greatest orator of all antiquity was once a poor crippled boy with a stutter. But perhaps it is true, and by means of pure will the stuttering boy managed, against all odds, to mold his voice into the most powerful weapon of Greece at the time.

According to Plutarch, Demosthenes was inspired by hearing a famous orator speaking in the marketplace, and resolved to learn how to do the same himself. He trained with the help of theater actors as well as tutors of rhetoric, and is said to have cured himself of the stutter by all kinds of wonderful devices: filling his mouth with pebbles before speaking, or delivering his speeches while running uphill at top speed, or speaking directly to the crashing waves of the sea (to prepare for the noise of the Assembly). He would shut himself up and shave his head while studying his presentation, to prevent himself leaving his cave before his speech was fully prepared. The hard work paid off: Demosthenes was able to take his guardians to court and sue them for his inheritance.

The story would be uplifting enough if it ended there. But in the course of training for a single personal fight, Demosthenes also prepared himself to be a great lawyer—and, in the end, a great advocate for the whole of Greece. He was a successful private speechwriter (first for individual cases similar to his own, and then taking on a wider range of advocacy work), and then became increasingly influential in politics. He began to make a name for himself politically, arguing that the Greeks should trust their abilities to fight back against Philip, and still more in the Olynthiac speeches in 349, in which he worked hard to present Philip as a super-villain—themes that recurred even more vehemently in his later public speeches.

Demosthenes also participated as ambassador on behalf of the whole city of Athens, in various attempts to negotiate peace with Philip. In 339, he spoke vehemently in favor of the idea that the most powerful Greek states of the time, Athens and Thebes, ought to form an alliance and hold out against Philip—a policy that was highly controversial at the time, and that accrued further criticisms and recriminations in later years. The strategy failed, and Philip won at Chaeronea—a rout in which a huge number of the Greek soldiers were slaughtered. But Demosthenes, who fought in the battle along with perhaps six thousand other citizens of Athens, survived.

In the aftermath of the battle, Demosthenes encountered biting criticisms from his fellow Athenians. There were the predictable accusations of cowardice at Chaeronea (survivors always get a bad rap), and more substantive suggestions that the advice he had given, to hold out for freedom against Philip, actually led to a worse deal for Athens (and other Greeks, most notably the Thebans) than they might have gotten by more conciliatory rhetoric. But enough of his fellow Athenians saw things Demosthenes’s way that he was chosen to deliver the funeral oration for those who died at Chaeronea. In this speech, he warmed to the great theme that he would pick up later in On the Crown: the idea that a struggle for freedom is in itself a kind of victory, regardless of the outcome. The dead preferred “to die nobly than to live and see Greece suffer misfortune.”

Perhaps unfortunately for Demosthenes, the Macedonian conquest was not really as bad for Athens as he had warned. Democratic government was allowed to continue, so that the people were, in a sense, still free, despite being colonial subjects. But things were very different for other Greek city-states, most notably Thebes. Philip was assassinated in 336, and his son, Alexander, crushed the rebellious Thebans, slaughtering their male citizens and taking some thirty thousand inhabitants prisoner.

Enzie Shahmiri Portraits and Fine Art/Flickr 
"Demosthenes Practicing his Declamation" (1870), Jean Lecomte Du Nouÿ

It was hard for Athenians of this period to know what to make of their recent history, and hence of their current cultural identity. Should they see the Macedonian conquest as a historical inevitability—and the attempts to resist, recommended by Demosthenes, as merely expensive failures, costly in terms of both wealth and Greek lives? Or should they view themselves as a free people, whose heroism was more important than their specific political status, whose essential battles had always been fought for the high ideal of liberty, and whose current situation under Macedon was merely a historical contingency? The highly politicized trial of Ctesiphon in 330 BCE, for his support of Demosthenes, hinged on precisely these issues. Ctesiphon had proposed that Demosthenes be honored with a crown; but his archenemy, the equally brilliant orator Aeschines, countered that Demosthenes’s policies over the past seventeen years had actually done enormous damage to his country. Aeschines took Ctesiphon to court, and contended that the attempt to award a crown to Demosthenes was illegal, since he still held public office at the time, and also because the proposal was made in the theater rather than the public Assembly (the proper place for the pronunciation of honors).

On all these counts, Aeschines was probably right. It was indeed illegal to award a crown to someone holding public office, and Demosthenes did fit this category. The law against crowning in the theater seems to have been broken on numerous previous occasions; but here, too, in strict legal terms, Aeschines was correct. Yet the most important issue, and the one that made the trial into a vast political spectacle—attended by onlookers from all over Greece—was whether Demosthenes had been right to urge Greece to hold out against Macedon. His own claim, in On the Crown, is that this policy, despite its ultimate failure, was more noble than any mere victory could have been: “But you were not wrong, no, you were not, Athenians, to take on danger for the sake of the freedom and safety of all—I swear by your forefathers who led the fight at Marathon, by those who stood in the ranks at Plataea, by those who fought aboard ship at Salamis and Artemisium, and by the many other brave men who lie in the public tombs, all of whom the city buried, deeming them all equally worthy of the same honor....” It is striking that the battles Demosthenes cites—Marathon, Salamis, and so on—were victories for Athens. Chaeronea, a terrible defeat for Athens, Thebes, and Greek freedom, is put in the same category as the glorious successes of the past. It is rather like listing the Charge of the Light Brigade as a victory for the British, because the needlessly massacred men died with courage.

Demosthenes argued that his life’s work was devoted service to the cause of Greek freedom, or rather, the freedom of all humanity. “Seeing that man trying to enslave all humankind, I stood up against him, and constantly warned and exhorted you not to give way.... I was the one, alone out of all the speakers and statesmen, who did not desert my patriotic post in the time of peril.” The rhetoric is truly splendid, and it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Demosthenes won the trial. The speech, often said to be the greatest speech by the greatest orator of antiquity, entirely won over the audience. But it moves a very long way from actual argument. For one thing, Demosthenes exaggerates the power of speech, in a world where military and economic power struggles were becoming far more obvious agents of historical change. Worthington claims that the battle of Chaeronea was the “inevitable ... culmination of Philip’s imperialistic policy.” If this is true, then Demosthenes can hardly be seen as much of a hero: he talked big, but the outcome would have been the same regardless. It is perhaps unsurprising that Alexander the Great, when he took over from his father, Philip, seems to have taken no notice of Demosthenes; he had bigger fish to fry.

But if Demosthenes’s honed and honeyed words did have any political power, they did far more harm than good. Demosthenes’s less hawkish opponents, including Aeschines and Isocrates, argued for years that a policy of negotiation with Philip would result in a better outcome for Greece. They each had an agenda of their own, but they also had a point. Demosthenes’s enemies argued, perfectly plausibly, that the Athenian and Theban deaths at Chaeronea, and later the slaughter of the people of Thebes by Alexander, could all be blamed on Demosthenes—whose policies obviously did not prevent Macedonian domination, and also caused needless Greek deaths. In On the Crown, Demosthenes manages to make it seem as if the choice was between dying for freedom and living enslaved. But the choice, for Greeks throughout this period, was far less simple. Total autonomy for all Greek states was impossible. The real questions were how to avoid being obliterated (by Macedonian or Persian emperors), and how to maintain some rights and freedoms and cultural pride, despite the rapidly changing face of world politics.

In his later years, Demosthenes himself acknowledged that Macedonian supremacy was now unavoidable, that resistance was futile. He made what was seen by his political enemies as a hypocritical volte-face, and urged a policy of conciliation with Alexander—recommending that the Athenians should recognize Alexander as a god. In the Harpalus Affair, he was accused of taking bribes—not for the first time—and was brought to trial in 323. The trial became yet another retrospective assessment of Demosthenes’s career in politics, which this time around went rather worse for the orator. One of the prosecutors accused him of having fled the battlefield of Chaeronea out of cowardice, and also, rather more importantly, of having pursued policies through which “all Greece has fallen into danger, misfortune and disgrace.” Demosthenes was fined and left the city in disgrace.

He used his time in exile to try to unite other Greek cities against the Macedonians, and eventually was welcomed back to Athens, later that same year, after the death of Alexander. But any renewed hopes of Athenian autonomy from Macedonian rule were dashed yet again, when Antipater, one of the generals who took control after Alexander’s death, imposed harsh new terms on the Greeks under his rule, and began to hunt down the ringleaders who had spoken against the empire, including Demosthenes. The orator fled, but he was captured on the island of Poros, in a temple. He said that he wanted to write a last letter to his family, but as he picked up his pen he bit into the end of it—as if thinking what to say—and swallowed the poison that he had kept inside the reed. He died, as he had lived, by the pen.

Worthington’s final assessment of Demosthenes is deeply sympathetic. He suggests that we can see him as a hero for our own times: an ordinary civilian, “standing firmly, defiantly, and bravely against tyrannies and totalitarian regimes.” Worthington also works hard to argue that Demosthenes was mostly innocent of the worst charges made against him, including bribery and corruption, flip-flopping, hypocrisy, and masking his own self-serving ambitions with rhetorical claims to care about freedom and the public good. In this narrative, Demosthenes may have begun his career motivated largely by the desire for revenge, compounded by self-interest, avarice, and ambition, but he became, in his long-standing resistance to Philip, the voice of the people.

But none of this is convincing about Demosthenes’s true “intentions” (Worthington’s word). The case is stated rather than proved. We are told, twice, in as many pages and in almost identical language, that “Demosthenes the democrat shines through the rhetoric” of the proposals for postmortem honors put forward by the orator’s nephew. But rhetoric is not a dark mirror through which the historian, armed with cleaning rag and Windex, discerns the truth. The positions, posturing, lies, and half-truths of Athenian oratory in this period are themselves at the center of the historical story. The success of Demosthenes is a marker of how very difficult it was for Greeks to imagine themselves as colonial subjects.

Demosthenes’s motivations were presumably mixed, as human motives tend to be. It is perfectly possible, even likely, that he believed some of his own claims, and thought of himself as the savior of Greece. It is also possible that he did not believe a word of it, but had a sharp eye for the main chance. We cannot gain any access to his inner psychology from the sources we have—speeches composed for law courts and the public assembly. What we can know, from reading his texts, is how brilliantly he manipulates rhetorical and theatrical tropes. Worthington, who claims to want to know “what made him tick,” is far too optimistic about the possibility of finding out, and too little interested in the specifics of how language can be manipulated as a weapon.

The more important question is not about Demosthenes’s intentions but about the effect of his words. On this question, more critical scholarly studies of his life and work are more persuasive (such as Raphael Sealey’s Demosthenes and His Time: A Study in Defeat). The Greeks tried to hold out against imperial domination; when they failed, they liked to kid themselves that their defeat was more noble than any victory could have been. The relevance of the story of Demosthenes for our own times is as a reminder of how much freedom can be a construction of the mind, of speech, and of our imaginations; and how these constructions themselves have military and economic consequences. Contemporary commentators have blamed Greece’s current troubles partly on “delusions of grandeur and a fatal sense of entitlement,” which made the country vulnerable to new threats both to its economic stability and its freedom. Pride, loss, self-deceit, cowardice, and failure: those are terms that Demosthenes’s great enemy Aeschines—who went into voluntary exile after his defeat in the Crown trial, and lived a quiet life teaching rhetoric on Rhodes—would have understood very well. 

Emily Wilson is associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint (Harvard University Press).

  1. Orientalism was first published in 1978 but remains a definitive contribution to the subject of western perceptions of the Middle East. 

  2. This comes from Byron's long, semi-comic poem of love and misadventure, "Don Juan" (Canto 3.86), during our hero's stay in Greece, where he falls in love with a beautiful pirate's daughter (Haidee), and enjoys parties at her house in the absence of her father—at one of which the resident poet sings this song.  The serious political nostalgia stands somewhat apart from the main narrative, marked off by a different meter and very different tone.

  3. Demosthenes's speeches against Philip are called the "Philippics," a term borrowed by Cicero in his own attacks against the supposed tyrant of his own day—Mark Antony.