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

Demosthenes and Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)

When Alexander the Great succeeded the throne after his father Philip of Macedon was assassinated (in 336 BC), there was a lot of optimism that peace would prevail between Athens and Macedonians. However, that hope was quickly dashed when Alexander the Great took an even more aggressive stand than his father. By 334 BC, Alexander had brought Thebes to kneel. The young Macedonian king even ordered for Demosthenes and his allies to surrender.

Luckily for Demosthenes and Athens, Alexander the Great found himself preoccupied with campaigns across Persia and the Indian subcontinent.

Demosthenes versus Aeschines


Demosthenes’ strong criticism of his chief adversary Greek statesman Aechines.

Even after Demosthenes and Athens appeared to be safe from Alexander the Great’s military conquests, there were still some Athenian statesmen that longed for a foreign intervention in Athens. One of such politician was Aeschines who did everything in his power to discredit Demosthenes. By going after allies of Demosthenes, Aeschines hoped to get the orator on trial.

Around 330 BC, the showdown between Aeschines and Demosthenes had reached a boiling point. In his defense and the defense of Athens’ foreign policy of the past two decades, Demosthenes is said to have delivered arguably his greatest speech titled “On the Crown”. In that speech, he held nothing back, accusing Aeschines of being in cahoots with the Macedonians.

In the speech, he also called his opponent out for taking bribes as well being a coward and a traitor.  In the speech, he eloquently revealed to Athenians how sound his actions were in making Athens strong in the face of aggression from Philip and Alexander.

By the end of the trial, Demosthenes had successfully convinced the jury that his policies meant well for the overall good of Athens. Aechines was defeated and had to commit himself into exile.

Why did Demosthenes flee Athens?

Similar to the fate that Aechines suffered, Demosthenes also found himself going into exile 337 BC. The renowned orator had been convicted of a very serious offense before he decided to flee the country.

The crime that Demosthenes allegedly committed was stealing some monies (20 talents) that belonged to Harpalus, an aristocrat of Macedon and ally of Alexander the Great.  Following the guilty verdict, he was fined (about 50 talents) and then sent to prison. It was during his time behind bars that he escaped, fleeing Athens, never to return until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.

Brief return to Athens

With the death of Alexander the Great, the influence Macedon held in Athens also died. The new crop of leaders allowed Demosthenes to make a return to Athens on the condition that he paid his fine.

It did not take too long for Demosthenes to again commit himself into exile. This came after Antipater, the main successor of Alexander, reestablished Macedon’s influence in Athens.

How did Demosthenes die?

Rather than be captured by Antipater’s agents, Demosthenes chose to commit suicide by drinking poison. Prior to his death, his friend-turned-enemy Greek statesman Demedes succeeded in getting the court to pass a death sentence on Demosthenes.

With Demosthenes death in 322 BC, the gains that Athenians were making in their democracy also died.

Demosthenes’ oratory skills and characteristics

In a very hostile environment such as the Athenian Assembly, Demosthenes’ ability to captivate his audience bears testimony to just how magnificent of an orator he was. Very few speakers survived that long when making a speech before the Assembly. This was because they were either ridiculed or shouted down. That hardly happened in Demosthenes’ case. The orator oozed confidence, which was in turn backed by his well-spoken convincing speeches.

The Athenian-born orator knew how to defuse tension with his intelligent wits. He could also mount strong defense against his opponents who sought to malign him in the public.

His extensive knowledge in the history of Athens allowed him to make his speeches even more credible and moving. He often cited the visions of great Athenian democrats such Solon and Cleisthenes. He called on his fellow statesmen to never depart from Athens’ strong belief in democracy and the rule of law. By having strong democratic foundations, Demosthenes was full of belief that Athens could steer clear of tyrants and other self-serving despots.

The fast-moving nature of the political landscape of Athenian society meant that Demosthenes also had to develop the ability of thinking on his feet in order to come out with a rebuttal to his opponents. Some of his greatest speeches were made impromptu – another important fact that bears testimony to his oratory prowess.

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