Demosthenes, the Great Greek Orator

Demosthenes 384 – 322 BCE (62 yrs of age)

Demosthenes’ family business dealt with contracts in weapons, primarily manufacturing swords.  The great orator was born into a wealthy family but the death of his father at age seven leaves his uncles with control over the estate and legal guardianship over him.  He claims that the funds were depleted to the point that Demosthenes couldn’t afford to study under Isocrates, so instead, he studied with Isaeus (another Attic orator). 

Demosthenes overcame speech impediment practicing with pebbles in his mouth.
Demosthenes overcame a speech impediment practicing with pebbles in his mouth.

He blames his uncles for spending his inheritance on themselves rather than his education.  After studying with Isaeus and becoming more mature, he took his uncles to court.  He managed to win back some money, but more importantly, his peers took note of his abilities as a speechwriter. 

But he doesn’t stop at just writing speeches, he trains himself in the art of performance as well.  History also shows that he suffered from a speech impediment which he overcame by practicing with pebbles in his mouth.  He was determined to overcome his fault in that natural ability; he practiced with pebbles in his mouth and stood on the shore at Phalerum,” trying to make his voice heard above the waves” (Edwards 35). 

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The Death of Demosthenes
The Death of Demosthenes

Both his training with Isaeus and speech practice at the ocean eventually paid off in 355 BCE when he was hired to write “Against Androtion” (Edwards 36).  He continues to grow after his debut and becomes one of the main opponents to the threat of Phillip II.  Speaking out against Phillip II brought him to dispute matters on a personal level with Aeschines.  Demosthenes would have to constantly persuade the Athenians to wage war against Phillip II and attempt in finding allies.  Demosthenes delivers one of his strongest speeches, Third Philipic, “in which he spelled out Philip’s designs on Greece as a whole” (Edwards 38).  Even after the death of Phillip, Demosthenes continued his disdain for Macedonia and spoke out against Alexander the Great.  There is then a political scandal that results in Demosthenes being arrested. 

He manages to escape into exile only to return after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE.  Continuing to defy Macedonian advances, but Athens loss in the Lamian war leaves Demosthenes with no option but to run.  He takes refuge at the temple of Poseidon, but eventually kills himself with the poison concealed in his pen.  

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Middle Style

Michael Edwards holds that his greatest skill was the ability to vary his style to suit the context.  He is also noted to have been revered by both the Greeks and Romans as the greatest of the orators overall.  He wrote in “plain Attic Greek”, closer to the language of the layman rather than the high-class diction of Lysias (40).  Demosthenes developed a ‘middle style’ which was a mix between Lysian simplicity and “Thucydidean complexity” (42).

Demosthenes giving a great oration.
Demosthenes giving a great oration.

Critic Hans Wolff believes that many of his methods in forensic oratory “invoke skepticism” from the jury by misleading them in order to “keep the weaknesses of the actual position of his client concealed.”  He uses the same Konon speech by Demosthenes to identify a trait of Athenian law that “never aims to entice the jurors toward an open disregard of the law.”  If Demosthenes felt that the weight of evidence was more advantageous than his side, Demosthenes would then try to conceal the truth by distracting the jurors.  

In Hans Julius Wolff’s article, “Demosthenes as Advocate,” the author attempts to label Demosthenes as almost being the Greek equivalent to Cicero due to Demosthenes’ “talent at rousing political speeches.”  Both Cicero and Demosthenes are said to be advocates in the sense that they take a very political and intellectual approach to their orations.  Cicero imitates Demosthenes’ arrangements and speeches in his Philipics, and applies them to his political enemy.  So, in the very similar manner in which Demosthenes speaks out against Philip II’s plans, Cicero uses the speeches to attack Mark Antony of the Roman empire.  

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Demosthenes practicing his speeches at the Sea
Demosthenes practicing his speeches at the Sea

What would other rhetoricians say about Demosthenes?  I think that he would be flattered by Quintilian and Gorgias.  History has already recorded how Plutarch and Cicero thought highly of him.  One of his most admirable qualities was his personal drive to overcome his natural flaw in speech and develop his skills.  Despite his not being able to afford the school of his choice, he still made the initiative to study rhetoric which would have please Quintilian.  Aristotle would appreciate how he was able to manipulate the audience’s attention in order to persuade them. 

Even though he lacked the military experience, similar to Cicero, he still grew to be a great politician based on his reputation of fighting the good fight, or at least saying what was unexpected of him.  Plato would probably be his only real critique because of Aeschines’ lack of dialectical and his interest in persuading the audience by hiding knowledge. 

The timeline designed below is to help illustrate the oratory and international wars going on between Demosthenes and his rival, Aeschines.

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Demosthenes Works

Demosthenes’s clients were wealthy and he liked charging large sums for his services.  Edwards points out that Demosthenes’ “earliest public speeches are all protests against the heavy taxation burden placed on the wealthy” which was his own personal class status (44). 

First Olynthiac 349 BCE (Deliberative); Erotic Essay (Epideictic); On the Trierarchic Crown, after 361 (Deliberative; Against Macartatus 345 BCE (Forensic)

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