Demosthenes Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Law and politics Greek orator{$I[g]Greece;Demosthenes} The life of Demosthenes and his career as an orator were consumed by his titanic struggle with Philip II of Macedonia and by his efforts to recall Athenian spirit and vigor to its former greatness. The single-mindedness, sincerity, and intense patriotism of Demosthenes—combined with his consummate genius and mastery of oratorical technique—make him one of the most notable personalities of antiquity.

Early Life

Demosthenes (dih-MAHS-thuh-neez) was born in Athens in 384 b.c.e., the son of Demosthenes, an Athenian citizen of the deme of Paeania, and Cleobule, the daughter of Gylon. The elder Demosthenes, the owner of a lucrative weapons workshop, died when his son was only seven, bequeathing him a substantial fortune. Most of this patrimony, however, was embezzled by the child’s three guardians, Aphobus, Demophon, and Theryppides, who handed over to the young Demosthenes, when he came of age, only a fraction of his inheritance. As a boy, Demosthenes had witnessed the orator Callistratus win a stunning victory in the courtroom and had thereupon vowed to become an orator himself. He had turned his attention to the art of oratory and studied with Isaeus, an orator known for his acumen in cases involving questions of inheritance. This early training was now to bear fruit: Demosthenes, at only eighteen years of age, brought a series of actions against his guardians and secured a decisive victory. It is unlikely, however, that he recovered more than a little of what was owed him.

Employing his knowledge of the law and oratory, Demosthenes turned to professional speech writing (logography) and enjoyed success as a composer of orations for others. His own speaking debut before the Assembly, however, met with little approval from the people, for he was short of breath, weak in voice, and hampered by some sort of speech impediment. Chagrined, Demosthenes then began the legendary regimen of oratorical training that has become for subsequent generations a paradigm of the efficacy of hard work and perseverance in overcoming the defects or shortcomings of nature. He pronounced periods with pebbles in his mouth, declaimed to the waves over the roar of the sea, spoke while running up hill, and shaved one side of his head so that his humiliating appearance would confine him to his underground practice studio for several months at a time.

By the age of thirty, with physical impediments overcome and oratorical skills honed nearly to perfection, Demosthenes found himself increasingly involved in legal cases whose character was essentially political in nature. In 354 he delivered his first major speech before the Assembly, wherein he countered the rumored threat of war against Athens by the king of Persia, cautioned against rash action, and proposed an elaborate revision of the method for outfitting the navy. In this speech, as well as others written and delivered during this period, Demosthenes tended to support the conservative program of Eubulus, leader of the dominant party in Athens at the time, who advocated peace abroad and financial security at home. The impact of these orations thrust Demosthenes dramatically into the arena of politics and statesmanship, from which he retired only at his death.

Life’s Work

It was to the north that Demosthenes directed his attention, troubled, like many of the Greeks, by the startling and unexpected ascendancy of Philip II of Macedonia in Thrace and Thessaly. Henceforth the story of Demosthenes’ life was to be the drama of his all-consuming struggle to persuade the Athenians and the rest of the Greeks to oppose the Macedonian threat to their freedom. Encroaching southward, Philip had run roughshod over Athenian interests and sources of supply in Amphipolis and the Thermaicus Sinus.

Alarmed by these acts of aggression, in 351 Demosthenes delivered the impassioned Kata Philippou A (First Philippic, 1570), rousing his fellow citizens to take notice of the threat posed by Philip and calling them to military preparedness. This speech, injected with a newfound vigor and intensity, made clear his rejection of the policy of Eubulus and established the orator as leader of the opposition to Macedonia’s infringement on Athenian and Greek liberty.

Philip’s subsequent advance on Olynthus spurred the orator to respond with three stirring speeches, known as the Olunthiakos (Olynthiacs) in 349 and 348, aimed at securing aid for Olynthus. Demosthenes urged the Athenians to resist the onslaught of Philip with all of their physical and financial resources, going so far as to propose that the Theoric Fund (the public dole that paid for the poor’s admission to the theater) be made available for the necessities of war. The Athenians did respond—but too late and with too little assistance. Olynthus and several of the confederate towns were razed by Philip in 348.

Seeing that Athens was weak, vulnerable, and in need of time to collect its resources and strength, Demosthenes acceded to peace talks with Philip. In February of 346, he, along with several other ambassadors, including Aeschines and Philocrates, was sent to negotiate a treaty. Demosthenes’ rhetorical collapse before Philip proved to be one of the most embarrassing ordeals in the orator’s life and marked the beginning of enmity between him and Aeschines, to whom Philip apparently directed his reply. Nevertheless, it was Demosthenes who had been able to detect Philip’s real intentions; thus, he condemned the terms of the treaty to his fellow citizens. Aeschines, on the other hand, rashly assured the Athenians of Philip’s goodwill. Demosthenes’ worst fears were realized when Philip, dallying before taking the final oath of ratification, secured more...

(The entire section is 2410 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Adams, Charles Darwin. Demosthenes and His Influence. New York: Cooper Square, 1963. In addition to chapters on the life and oratory of Demosthenes, Adams includes important chapters on the influence of Demosthenes in antiquity, modern Europe, and on English and American oratory.

Gibson, Craig A. Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes and His Ancient Commentators. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A study of the influence of ancient commentators on contemporary understanding of Demosthenes. Offers a fascinating look at the process of ancient scholarship.


(The entire section is 438 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born in 384 b.c.e., Demosthenes (dih-MAHS-thuh-nees) was the greatest of the Greek orators, an Athenian patriot who used his skill at declamation to arouse the citizens of Athens to regain their civic pride and to resist the efforts of Philip II of Macedon to conquer Greece.

When Demosthenes was seven his father, who bore the same name, died. His mother, Cleobule, was left with very little money to care for him and his sister, since the executors of the estate embezzled most of it. Demosthenes was an awkward child, with little strength, and he was handicapped by a speech defect that he later overcame (although probably not by putting pebbles in his mouth, as legend has it). He received a...

(The entire section is 653 words.)