Demosthenes: the renowned Greek statesman and one of the greatest orators of all time

Demosthenes orator

Demosthenes, the famed Athenian orator | Demosthenes was one of the greatest statesmen and orators of ancient Greek times.

Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator and statesman, is most famous for eloquently crafting his speech to whip up strong Athenian opposition to two great kings of the era – Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. It’s been said that such was his determination to excel in public speaking and oratory that he spent countless hours locked up in his room refining his skills, including his voice.

According to the famous Greek historian Plutarch, Demosthenes’ goal was to be the best orator of his era. Plutarch said that Demosthenes shaved half of his head as a way to prevent him from going out until he had fully mastered his craft.

World History Edu present a complete life story of Demosthenes, a renowned Greek statesman and arguably the greatest orator of ancient Greek era.

Biography

Demosthenes was said to be born around 384 BC in Athens, ancient Greece. At the age of seven, he lost his father, a wealthy sword maker. The young Demosthenes was placed in the care of a guardian called Aphobus who is said to have denied Demosthenes a large chunk of his deceased father’s properties.

Why Demosthenes became an orator

Historians have noted that Demosthenes immersed himself in oratory and social and legal rhetoric as a means to compensate for his slight physical disability. He most likely took that path because he believed he could use those oratory skills to mount a strong legal challenge against guardians and family members who took away his inheritance.

He knew that his fragile body was not cut out for the traditional gymnastic education that Greek children engaged in. In addition to studying legal rhetoric, he studied logical reasoning and philosophy in general.

Demosthenes’ speech defect

Demosthenes stammered and was prone to being inarticulate as a child. His years of practice helped him overcome those speech defects. | Image: Demosthenes Practising Oratory by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy (1842–1923).

Ancient Greek historian Plutarch stated that Demosthenes was born with a slight speech defect. The biographer goes on to say that Demosthenes surmounted his stammering by deploying crafty techniques as well as years upon years of sheer practice. One technique that the future Greek statesman used was placing stones/pebbles in his mouth and then practicing long speeches in his study. It’s also been stated that he benefited greatly from practicing in front of a mirror.

Demosthenes’ lawsuits against his former guardians

Bent on claiming his birth right and his deceased father’s estate, Demosthenes mounted a strong legal suit against his former guardians, including Aphobus, in 363 BC. His years of painstakingly practicing before the mirror had paid off as he won those lawsuits. His speeches in the court, which were nothing short of spectacular, helped establish his profile as a great orator.

Did you know: Initially, Demosthenes was ridiculed and snubbed at by listeners while he gave speeches in the public Assembly (Ekklēsia)?

Calls for democratic systems and foreign policy

Demosthenes’ career as an orator effectively lifted off when he started working as a speech writer. In ancient Greece, persons involved in a lawsuit had to make their submissions by giving a speech. As a result the profession of speech writing (i.e. logography) of flourished. Demosthenes put his expertise in oratory to good use by writing speeches for people. He thus became one of the greatest logographers of his era.

The acclaimed orator and logographer had many influential and wealthy people come to him to aid them in writing speeches. As a result, he had cemented his standing in the social and political life of Athens by the age of 30.

In 354 BC, the orator showed Athens just how a fantastic orator he was by giving a rousing speech before the popular Assembly (Ecclesia). His speech, which was titled “On the Navy Boards”, helped convince the Assembly to invest heavily into the navy prowess of Athens as means of deterring the Persians from attacking Athens or its allies. The speech also encouraged Athenians to maintain the city-state as an independent nation while at the same time be ready to build alliances with other Greek city-states if and when the need arises.

Demosthenes orator

Demosthenes orator in the speech “On the Crown”

Why Demosthenes opposed Philip of Macedon

Undoubtedly inspired by the likes of Athenian lawgiver Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles (all of who were renowned advocates of democratic systems), Demosthenes was one of the few influential people in 4th century BC Athens that were opposed to the influence monarchs of Macedon wielded over the city-state.

Demosthenes tried to raise the public’s awareness over what he termed as a flawed Athenian foreign policy towards Philip of Macedon. His goal was to inspire Athens to preserve its democratic systems and freedom at all cost.

Beginning around the mid-4th century BC, King Philip of Macedon’s foreign policy had started causing a bit of unease among Athenian democrats. Many of those Athenians, including Demosthenes, considered Philip’s expansionary policy as a huge threat to Athens. Under the leadership of the ambitious Philip, the powerhouse to the north had begun capturing a number of Greek city-states near its southern border.

An opponent of Macedonian imperialism

Perhaps the last straw that prompted Demosthenes to go against King Philip came in 356 BC when the latter annexed a large part of Thrace.  Under the pretext of securing Athens control in those cities, Philip established a strong Macedonian presence. Gradually, the likes of Arcadia and Sparta were beginning to feel the weight of Philip’s expansionary policies. Those two city-states even appealed to Athens to come to their aid against Philip.

In 351, Demosthenes made a speech titled “First Philippic” that was critical of Philip of Macedon. He bemoaned Athens’ reluctance to ready itself to resist Philip’s insatiable appetite for more Greek territories. In a campaign that lasted for close to three decades, Demothenes gave speeches after speeches to expose Macedonia’s imperialist foreign policies. Examples of those speeches were the “Olynthiacs” in 349 BC that came after Philip’s Macedonian army had come within a touching distance of the city of Olynthus.

Demosthenes quotes | In “Second Olynthiac”, the Greek orator denying accusations that he gained power by injustice and falsehood.

The Peace of Philocrates in 346 BC

Another significant accomplishment of Demosthenes came in the spring of 346 when he was a member of the Athenian delegation that signed a peace treaty with Philip of Macedon. Demosthenes saw the treaty, which was known as the Peace of Philocrates, as a means to reduce the mounting tensions between Athens and Macedon. He also believed that Athens was buying itself some time in order to properly prepare itself for a military confrontation with the Macedonians.

Although he was not particularly pleased with the terms of the treaty, he still encouraged Athenians to abide by the terms.  This view of his was made in his 346 BC speech called “On the Peace”.

Did you know: During the peace negotiations between Athens and the Macedonians in 346 BC, King Philip of Macedon did indeed acknowledge the articulateness of Demosthenes?

Head of Athens navy

Demosthenes tried to create a coalition of Greek city-states to counter the imperlistic policies of Macedon. This need was created after Philip of Macedon reneged on many of terms of the peace treaty in 346 BC.

He was critical of fellow statesmen like Aeschines who kept assuring Athenians that Philip was an ally. In speeches like “Second Philppic” (344 BC) and “The False Legation” (343 BC), he discredited Aeschines of taking bribes and completely spreading disinformation about Macedon-Greek relationship.

His speech titled “Third Philippic” did the world of good in exposing Philip’s true intentions to the Athenians. Around that same period, he rose to become the head of Athens navy. In that position, he committed significant amount of resources to preparing Athens for an all-out war with Macedon. Part of his strategy was to strike an alliance with many Greek city-states, including old enemies of Athens.

The battle at Chaeronea in 338 BC

The Athens-led Greek coalition that opposed Philip was feared for their navy prowess. However, Philip maintained an upper hand over Athens when it came to the army and land forces. With vastly superior cavalry, it came as no surprise that Philip emerged the victor over the Athenian-coalition forces at the battle at Chaeronea in 338 BC.

In that particular battle, a defeated commander Demosthenes is said to have retreated back to Athens, where he gave a funeral oration for the Greek soldiers that died in the battle. Shortly after the battle, Athens and Philip signed a peace deal.

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