Aeschines Criticism - Essay

J. F. Dobson (essay date 1919)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aeschines,” in The Greek Orators, Books for Libraries Press, 1967, pp. 163-98.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1919, Dobson offers an overview of Aeschines's life, including evaluations of his public character, personality, and oratorical style.]


Aeschines was for twenty years a bitter enemy of Demosthenes. This enmity was perhaps the chief interest in his life; at any rate it is the dominant motive of his extant speeches. Demosthenes on his side could not afford to despise an enemy whose biting wit and real gift of eloquence assured him an attentive hearing, whether in the courts or before the ecclesia, and thus gave him an influence which the vagueness of his political views and the instability of his personal character could never entirely dissipate. Aeschines had no constructive policy, but he had just the talents which are requisite for the leader of a captious and malicious opposition. To the fact of the long-maintained hostility between these two men we owe a good deal of first-hand information about each of them, both as regards public and private life. It is true that we cannot accept without reservation the statements and criticisms made by either speaker about his rival; but in many cases they agree about facts, though they put different interpretations on them, and so, with care, we may arrive at a substratum of truth.

Aeschines was born about 390 b.c.1 His father Atrometus, an Athenian citizen of pure descent,2 was exiled by the Thirty, and fled to Corinth, with his wife. He served for some time as a mercenary soldier in Asia, and finally returned to Athens, where he kept a school. His wife, Glaucothea, filled some minor religious office, initiating the neophytes in certain mysteries, apparently connected with Orphism. Aeschines seems to have helped both his parents in their work, if we may suppose that there is a grain of truth mixed with the malice of Demosthenes:

‘You used to fill the ink-pots, sponge the benches, and sweep the schoolroom, like a slave, not like a gentleman's son. When you grew up you helped your mother in her initiations, reciting the formulas, and making yourself generally useful. All night long you were wrapping the celebrants in fawn-skins, preparing their drink-offerings, smearing them with clay and bran,’ etc.3

The whole of the description from which the foregoing passage is taken is an obvious caricature, and its chief value is to show that Demosthenes, if circumstances had not made him a statesman, might have been a successful writer of mediocre comedy; but it seems to point to the fact that Aeschines' parents were in humble circumstances, that he himself had a hard life as a boy, and did not enjoy the usual opportunities of obtaining the kind of education desirable for a statesman.4 After this, at an age when other aspirants to public life would have been studying under teachers of rhetoric, he was forced to earn his living. He was first clerk to some minor officials, then an actor—according to Demosthenes he played small parts in an inferior company, and lived chiefly on the figs and olives with which the spectators pelted him.5 He also served as a hoplite, and, by his own account, distinguished himself at Mantinea and Tamynae. In 357 b.c. he obtained political employment, first under Aristophon of Azenia, then under Eubulus, and later we find him acting as clerk of the ecclesia.

He married into a respectable family about 350 b.c., and in 348 b.c. he first appears in a position of public trust, being appointed a member of the embassy to Megalopolis in Arcadia. On this occasion he went out admittedly as an opponent of Philip, but came back a partisan of peace. The reasons for this change of view will be discussed later. His own explanation, that he realized war to be impracticable, is reasonable in itself.6 Two years later he was associated with Demosthenes in the famous embassies to Philip, which, after serious delays, resulted in the unsatisfactory peace of Philocrates. The peace was pronounced by Demosthenes to be unworthy of Athens,7 though he urged that, good or bad, it must be upheld; and besides uttering insinuations against the conduct of Aeschines as an ambassador, he prepared to prosecute him for betraying his trust by taking bribes from Philip. He associated with himself as a prosecutor one Timarchus. Aeschines prepared a counter-stroke. He prosecuted Timarchus on the ground that he was a person of notorious immorality, and, as such, debarred from speaking in public. Timarchus appears to have been found guilty. In 343 b.c. Demosthenes brought the action in which his speech de Falsa Legatione and that of Aeschines bearing the same title were delivered, and Aeschines was acquitted by the rather small majority of thirty votes. In the next year Aeschines prepared for reprisals, but when on the point of impeaching Demosthenes he in his turn was thwarted by a counter-move on his rival's part.8

In 339 b.c. Aeschines was a pylagorus at the Amphictyonic Council, and an inflammatory speech which he made there led to the outbreak of the Sacred War.

In 337 b.c., the year after the battle of Chaeronea, the proposal of Ctesiphon to confer a crown on Demosthenes for his services to Athens gave Aeschines a new weapon with which to strike at his enemy. He impeached Ctesiphon for illegality. The case was not actually tried till 330 b.c., when Aeschines, failing to obtain a fifth of the votes, was fined a thousand drachmae, and, being unable or unwilling to pay, went into exile. He retired to Asia Minor, and lived either in Ephesus or Rhodes. He is said by Plutarch to have spent the rest of his life as a professional Sophist, that is to say, no doubt, as a teacher of rhetoric; but we have no further information about his life or the manner or date of his death.


Aeschines cannot be considered as a statesman, since he had no definite policy. He was, as he admitted himself, an opportunist. ‘Both individual and state,’ he says, ‘must shift their ground according to change of circumstances, and aim at what is best for the time’; and though he claims to be ‘the adviser of the greatest of all cities,’ he never had in public matters any higher principle than this following of the line of least resistance.

It is necessary, however, to consider whether he was actually the corrupt politician that Demosthenes makes him out to be.

Athenian opinion with regard to corrupt practices was less strict than ours; Hyperides admits that there are various degrees of guiltiness in the matter of receiving bribes; the worst offence is to receive bribes from improper quarters, i.e. from an enemy of the State, and to the detriment of the State.9

This principle implies a corollary that to receive bribes for doing one's duty and acting in the best interests of one's country is a venial offence, if indeed it is an offence at all; in which case a man's guilt or innocence may be a matter for his individual conscience to determine.

Demosthenes definitely accused Aeschines of changing his policy in consequence of bribes received from Philip. It is known that at the beginning of his public life he was an opponent of Macedon, and we have his own account of his conversion on the occasion of the embassy to Megalopolis:

‘You reproach me for the speech which I made, as an envoy, before ten thousand people in Arcadia; you say that I have changed sides, you abject creature, who were nearly branded as a deserter. The truth is that during the war I tried to the best of my ability to unite the Arcadians and the rest of the Greeks against Philip; but when I found that nobody would give help to Athens, but some were waiting to see what happened and others were marching against us, and the orators in the city were using the war as a means of meeting their daily expenses, I admit that I advised the people to come to terms with Philip, and make the peace which you, who have never drawn a sword, now say is disgraceful, though I say that it is far more honourable than the war.’10

After the conclusion of the peace of Philocrates the accusations were more definite. Demosthenes asserts that Aeschines had private interviews with Philip when on the second embassy, and that for his services he received certain lands in Boeotia;11 he recurs to this charge in the de Corona, many years later. Aeschines does not deny or even mention this charge either in the speech On the Embassy or in the accusation of Ctesiphon. Demosthenes, having, apparently, little direct evidence, tries to establish his case by emphasizing the relations of Aeschines with the traitor Philocrates; but this is a weak argument, for though Aeschines at one time boasted of these relations, on a later occasion he repudiated them, and even ventured to rank Demosthenes himself with Philocrates.12 Perhaps we should attach more importance to the other fact urged by Demosthenes, that Aeschines from time to time urged the city to accept Philip's vague promises of goodwill; but before we condemn him on this ground we must recollect that Isocrates, a man of far greater intelligence than Aeschines, and of undoubted honesty, had come so completely under the spell of Philip's personality as to place a thorough belief in the sincerity of his professions.13 Aeschines may have been duped in the same manner.

But the most severe condemnation of Aeschines' policy is contained in his own speeches.

During a visit to the Macedonian army in Phocis he was guilty of a gross piece of bad taste by joining with Philip in dancing the paean to celebrate the defeat of Phocis. He admits the charge, and maintains that it was even a proper thing to do.14 His conduct at the Amphictyonic Council was far more serious.15 He was invited to make a speech, and as he began, was rudely interrupted by a Locrian of Amphissa. In revenge it ‘occurred to him’ to recall the impiety of the Amphissians in occupying the Cirrhaean plain. He caused to be read aloud the curse pronounced after the first Sacred War, and by recalling the forgotten events of past generations worked up his audience to such a pitch of excitement that on the following morning—for it was too late to take action that night—the whole population of Delphi marched down to Cirrha, destroyed the harbour buildings, and set fire to the town. Though this action undoubtedly plunged Greece into an Amphictyonic War, Aeschines, quite regardless of the awful consequences, can only dwell upon the remarkable effects of his own oratory.


Something of the personal characteristics of Aeschines may be gathered from his own writings and those of Demosthenes. He must have been a man of dignified presence, for even if he only played minor parts, as Demosthenes so frequently asserts, he acted, on occasion, in good company, as his enemy, in an unguarded moment, admitted. The conditions under which Greek tragedy was performed required a majestic bearing even in a tritagonist, and the taunt of Demosthenes, who calls him ‘a noble statue,’ makes it certain that Aeschines did not fall short of these requirements.16 The words of Demosthenes probably imply that the dignity was overdone, that the statuesque pose of the ex-actor appeared pompous and exaggerated in a law-court. Aeschines himself condemned the use of excited gestures by orators. He urged the necessity of restraint, and often insisted that an orator should, while speaking, hold his hand within his robe.17 This declared prejudice on his part gave Demosthenes his opportunity for a neat retort—‘You should keep your hand there, not when you are speaking, but when you go on an embassy.’18 On this occasion Demosthenes scored a point, but where wit and repartee were in question, the honours generally rested with Aeschines.

Another striking characteristic of Aeschines was his magnificent voice, which he used with practised skill; Demosthenes, who had serious natural disabilities as a speaker, envied him bitterly, and in consequence was always trying to ridicule his delivery. Conscious, no doubt, of his natural advantages, to which Demosthenes had once paid a more or less sincere tribute, Aeschines was apparently unmoved by these taunts; but he seems to have been deeply injured when Demosthenes compared him to the Sirens, whose voices charm men to their destruction. His indignation can find no repartee; he can only expostulate that the charge is indecent, and even if it were true, Demosthenes is not a fit man to bring it; only a man of deeds would be a worthy accuser; his rival is nothing but a bundle of words. Here, recovering himself a little, he delivers himself of the idea that Demosthenes is as empty as a flute—no good for anything if you take away the mouthpiece.

In the case of other orators I have laid but little stress on personal characteristics, because as a rule the orator must be judged apart from his qualities as a man. In considering Isaeus, for instance—an extreme case, certainly—personal qualities and peculiarities are of no importance at all. But so many personal traits appear in the writings of Aeschines that we cannot afford to neglect them; they form important data for our estimate of him, both as a speaker and a public character. There is some excuse, then, for dealing at greater length with his personality than with that of any other of the Attic orators. The question of his public morality has already to some extent been discussed;19 an examination of his more private qualities may possibly throw further light on the question of his culpability.

He was, as we saw, to some extent a self-made man; he had at least risen far above the station in which he was born. All through his speeches we find traces of his pride in the position and the culture which he has attained—his vanité de parvenu, as M. Croiset styles it. He is proud of his education, and boasts of it to excess, not realizing that he thus lays himself open to the charge of having missed the best that education can give. Demosthenes is just, though on the side of severity:

‘What right have you,’ he asks, ‘to speak of education? No man who really had received a liberal education would ever talk about himself in such a tone as you do; he would have the modesty to blush if any one else said such things about him; but people who have missed a proper education, as you have, and are stupid enough to pretend that they possess it, only succeed in offending their hearers when they talk about it, and fail completely to produce the desired impression.’20

Aeschines considered … want of education, almost as a cardinal sin, and could never conceive that he himself was guilty of it. He displays his learning by quotations from the poets, which are sometimes, it must be admitted, very appropriate to his argument, and by references to mythology and legend, which are sometimes frigid. His use of history betrays a rather superficial knowledge of the subject; it is hardly probable that he had studied Thucydides, for instance. Still, he possessed a fair portion of learning; what leads him astray is really his lack of taste. He is at his best in the use of quotation when he adduces the lines of Hesiod on the man whose guilt involves a whole city in his own ruin—the passage will be quoted later.21 The verses give a real sting to his denunciations, and the opinion which he expresses on the educational influence of poetry is both solemn and sincere. But he cannot keep to this level. His much boasted education results generally in an affectation of a sort of artificial propriety in action and language, and a profession of prudery which is really foreign to his nature. He professes an admiration for the self-restraint of public speakers in Solon's time, and during the greatness of the republic, and speaks with disgust of Timarchus, who ‘threw off his cloak and performed a pancration naked in the assembly.’22 In the opening of the same speech he makes a strong claim to the merit of ‘moderation’; in the prosecution of Timarchus his moderation consists in hinting at certain abominable practices, which he does not describe by name.

‘I pray you, Gentlemen, to forgive me if, when forced to speak of certain practices which are not honourable by nature, but are the established habits of the defendant, I am led away into using any expression which resembles the actions of Timarchus. … The blame should rest on him rather than on me. It will be impossible to avoid all use of such expressions, … but I shall try to avoid it as far as possible.’23

Notice again the hypocritical reticence or ‘omission’ (paraleipsis)—a rhetorical device familiar to readers of Cicero—which insinuates what it cannot prove:

‘Mark, men of Athens, how moderate I intend to be in my attack on Timarchus. I omit all the abuses of which he was guilty as a boy. So far as I am concerned they may be no more valid than, say, the actions of the Thirty, the events before the archonship of Euclides, or any other limitation which may ever have been established.’24

‘I hear that this creature’ (an associate of Timarchus) ‘has committed certain abominable offences, which, I swear by Zeus of Olympus, I should never dare to mention in your presence; he was not ashamed of doing these things, but I could not bear to live if I had even named them to you explicitly.’25

In spite of the prosecutor's modesty, particular references to the offences of Timarchus are frequent enough throughout the speech; the reticence is assumed for the purpose of insinuating that only a tithe of the offences are really named. The whole tone of the speech, therefore, is disingenuous and dishonest.

On the other hand, the orator's tribute to the judges' respectability is at times overdrawn. They are informed that ‘Timarchus used to spend his days in a gambling-house, where there is a pit in which cock-fights are held, and games of chance are played—I imagine there are some of you who have seen the things I refer to, or if not, have heard of them.’26 No large assembly could ever take quite seriously such a compliment to its innocence, and it must have been meant as a lighter touch to relieve the dark hues around it. Such playful sallies are not infrequent, and, like this one, are often quite inoffensive.27

A far more serious arraignment of the character of Aeschines is brought by Blass, who, having made a very careful study of the speech against Timarchus, finds a strong presumption, on chronological grounds, that the majority of the charges are false. It is certainly remarkable that the charges of immorality rest almost entirely on the statements of the prosecutor. He expresses an apprehension that Misgolas, a most important witness, will either refuse to give evidence altogether, or will not tell the truth. To meet trouble half-way like this is a very serious confession of weakness, which is confirmed by the orator's further comment on the state of the case. He has, he says, other witnesses, but ‘if the defendant and his supporters persuade them also to refuse to give evidence—I think they will not persuade them; at any rate not all of them—there is one thing which they never can do, and that is to abolish the truth and the reputation which Timarchus bears in the city, a reputation which I have not secured for him; he has earned it for himself. For the life of a respectable man should be so spotless as not to admit even the suspicion of offence.’28

Blass considers that the minor charges, directed against the reckless extravagance with which Timarchus had dissipated his inherited property, are better substantiated; but these alone would have been hardly enough to secure his condemnation.

Against Blass' theories we must set the little that we know about the facts. Timarchus was certainly condemned and disfranchised.29 Now an Athenian jury was not infallible, and whether in an ordinary court of justice or, as for this case, in the high court of the ecclesia, political convictions might triumph over partiality; nevertheless, a man who was innocent of the charge specifically brought against him, especially if he had not only committed no real political offence, but had played no part in political affairs—a man, moreover, who had the powerful influence of Demosthenes behind him—might reasonably expect to have a fair chance of being acquitted. Aeschines himself was acquitted a few years later on a political charge, though his political conduct required a good deal of explanation, and he had all the weight of Demosthenes not for him, but against him.

Aeschines might well feel a legitimate pride at the high position to which he had climbed from a comparatively humble starting-point; but to reiterate the reasons for this pride is a display of vanity. He likes to talk of himself as ‘the counsellor of this the greatest of cities,’ as the friend of Alexander and Philip. ‘Demosthenes,’ he says, ‘brings up against me the fact of my friendship with Alexander.’30 Demosthenes retorts that he has done nothing of the sort. ‘I reproach you, you say, with Alexander's friendship? How in the world could you have gained it or deserved it? I should never be so mad as to call you the friend of either Philip or Alexander, unless we are to say that our harvesters and hirelings of other sorts are “friends” and “guests” of those who have hired their services.’31

And again—‘On what just or reasonable grounds could Aeschines, the son of Glaucothea, the tambourine-player, have as his host, or his friend, or his acquaintance, Philip?’32 Demosthenes' estimate of the position is probably the truer one; Aeschines, with all his cleverness, was not the man, as Isocrates was, to meet princes on terms of equality.

His vanity about his speeches and the effect which they produced is attested by the various occasions on which he quotes them, or refers to them. He gives a summary of a speech which he made as an envoy to Philip;33 a speech delivered before the ecclesia is epitomized;34 a speech made before ‘thousands and thousands of Arcadians’ is mentioned.35 The notorious speech delivered to the Amphictyons is quoted at some length,36 and its disastrous effect described, the speaker's delight in his own powers blinding him completely to the serious and far-reaching consequences of his criminal indiscretion.

His private life, in spite of some damaging admissions in the Timarchus, seems to have been satisfactory according to Athenian standards. Demosthenes accused him of offering a gross insult to an Olynthian lady. Whether or not the statement was an entire fiction, we are not in a position to judge. Aeschines indignantly denies the charge, and asserts that the Athenian people, when it was made, refused to listen to it, in view of their confirmed respect for his own character:

‘Only consider the folly, the vulgarity of the man, who has invented so monstrous a lie against me as the one about the...

(The entire section is 9799 words.)

Charles Darwin Adams (essay date 1919)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Speeches of Aeschines, William Heinemann, 1919, pp. vii-xxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Adams provides a biographical sketch of Aeschines, concentrating on his political career and his feud with Demosthenes.]


Our knowledge of the family and life of Aeschines comes from his own speeches and those of Demosthenes. The brief biographies which have come down to us are late and untrustworthy. At the time of the speech On the Embassy we hear of Aeschines' father as an old man of ninety-four years. He was in the court-room, and Demosthenes, speaking to a jury some of whom, at least, were...

(The entire section is 3077 words.)

Galen O. Rowe (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Portrait of Aeschines in the Oration on the Crown,” in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 97, 1966, pp. 397-406.

[In the following essay, Rowe contends that Demosthenes succeeded in his major attack on Aeschines by representing him as a comic impostor.]

The separate techniques of character assassination employed by Demosthenes and Aeschines in their famous oratorical duel were distinguished by Ivo Bruns who, with obvious disapproval, noted that Demosthenes' portrait of his enemy had little factual basis; Aeschines, on the other hand, he praised for skilfully exploiting his opponent's weaknesses in such a...

(The entire section is 3516 words.)

Cecil W. Wooten (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Clarity and Obscurity in the Speeches of Aeschines,” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 109, Spring, 1988, pp. 40-43.

[In the following essay, Wooten analyzes Aeschines's varied uses of distinct, enumerated arguments to achieve advantage over his opponents.]

One of the most striking features of the oratory of Aeschines is what Hermogenes calls eukrineia or distinctness.1 In the system of Hermogenes this is one of the two sub-types of style that create saphēneia or clarity. Distinctness involves an approach whose function, according to Hermogenes, is “to determine what aspects of the case the judges should consider first and...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

Edward M. Harris (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “When Was Aeschines Born?” in Classical Philology, Vol. 83, No. 3, July, 1988, pp. 211-14.

[In the following essay, Harris reveals a possible rhetorical deception on the part of Aeschines regarding the relative ages of Misgolas and Timarchus.]

At first glance, the answer to this question appears to be rather simple, for Aeschines himself states quite plainly in his speech against Timarchus (l. 49) that he was then forty-five years old: since the speech was delivered in 346/45 b.c., he would have been born in 391/90 or 390/89.1 But this is not all that Aeschines says in the passage. He goes on to remind the court that many men do not look as old...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)

Edward M. Harris (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Family, Early Career, and Start in Politics,” in Aeschines and Athenian Politics, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 17-40.

[In the following excerpt, Harris examines Aeschines's family background and his careers as a public secretary and an actor, explaining how he overcame certain disadvantages to enter politics.]

Even in the case of the most important figures in antiquity, the information we possess about their early lives is scant at best. We do not know the year of birth for many famous people, and little is told to us about their education and early activities. Occasionally we are fortunate enough to have a few anecdotes about the childhood and youth...

(The entire section is 20251 words.)