The Predicament of Demosthenes' Generation and the Speeches against Aeschines
When Demosthenes (384-322) ventured into Athenian politics in the 350s, Athens was still the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful Greek polis. The territory of Attica had been peaceful and secure for nearly two generations following the upheavals of defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Athens' institutions of democratic government were stable to an extent that was previously unequaled. Yet the Athenians were falling ever further behind in their ceaseless attempt to rebuild their great fifth-century empire and to equal, thereby, the wealth, power, and prestige of their forebears. Even at its height in the 370s, the naval alliance that the fourth-century Athenians arduously constructed was a pale imitation of the fifth-century empire. It kept Athens engaged throughout the Aegean and in much of the Greek world, yet by mid century, Athens' largest allies had defected, and its hold on the rest of its overseas assets had begun to weaken. Nevertheless, fourth-century Athenians never abandoned the claim to panhellenic leadership which their forebears first staked out during the Persian Wars and maintained as sacred tradition ever since.
Philip II ascended the Macedonian throne in 359 and quickly secured his position as king and unified the Macedonian homeland. Acquiring resources in money and manpower, he expanded and reorganized the Macedonian army, turning it into the largest and most powerful force in the Mediterranean world. He began attacking neighboring territories, not least the Greeks directly to the south and southeast of Macedonia. The threat posed by Philip was unlike any the Greeks had encountered before. In the early fifth century, Greek cities led by Athens and Sparta allied to defeat the Persians in several decisive battles, which chased the invaders back to their distant homeland. In the fifth century the Athenian empire kept the Persians at a distance; in the fourth the Persian Kings were less able to intervene in Greece, and shifting but workable arrangements of coexistence were negotiated with the leading Greek cities. But the Macedonians were too close to be chased away. As a commander, Philip was tireless, fearless, enterprising, shrewd. For him, conquest was not an end in itself but a step towards entrenched dominion through puppet regimes, dynastic marriages, established institutions. Unlike the Persians, the Macedonian royal family had been hellenized for several generations. As a young man, Philip had spent several years as a hostage in Thebes. His knowledge of Greek affairs was deep.
If Greek states were to cooperate to check Macedonian expansion, Athens had both the incentive and the burden to lead. Because Athens had allies and interests in the north of Greece, it suffered the consequences of Philip's conquests from the beginning, but during the first decade of his reign, Athenian resistance was inconsistent and ineffective. In 352, Philip advanced on Thermopylae (the gateway to central and southern Greece), a move that threatened Attica. The Athenians dispatched an emergency expedition to hold the place against him, a successful but makeshift operation. When Philip conquered Chalcidice in 348 and Athens saw its ally Olynthus enslaved and its own citizens captured, fighting there against Philip, the need for concerted action became palpable. Yet the Greeks were riven by conflicting interests, allegiances, and agendas both between the various cities and within them. Neither Athens nor any other Greek city, nor any individual or clique, was in a position to organize the sort of cooperation that might have made resistance, or some other response, effective. Unity of purpose and action had to be built up city by city, and within cities, faction by faction. That, in essence, is the predicament that faced Demosthenes' generation of Athenians.
To respond to this predicament, the Athenians relied on their regular democratic procedures, which required politicians to argue against each other for the support and approval of the people, who alone decided what was to be done. This took place not only in the Assembly but in the courts as well, which provided the forum for the speeches in this volume. There existed a range of charges that citizens could legitimately use to challenge in court their opponents' political standing and the soundness of their opponents' policies. Beyond treason (prosecuted by eisangelia), politicians were liable to attack for misconduct in an office they may have held (euthynai, as in Dem. 19) or for breaches of more technical aspects of public procedure (e.g., graphe paranomon, as in Dem. 18). In such contests, political matters were debated alongside, and sometimes in preference to, matters of law.
There being no judicial authority to interpret and impose standards of relevance, advocates could defend themselves and attack their opponents within their allotted time with any argument whose relevance they could establish in the minds of the jurors. In practice everything that the litigants had ever done, or could plausibly be said to have done, was fair game. So too were their social status, family background, personal habits, and, most importantly, their motives: litigants in Athenian political trials constantly upheld their loyalty to the people and accused their opponents of corruption. From the people's point of view, such contests made sense. The people had the opportunity to reconsider their decisions and reassess their leaders. By fighting among themselves for the approval of the people, using words rather than arms, the politicians were obliged to acknowledge the supremacy of the people. Because Athenian democracy possessed little in the way of political parties or advocacy groups, policies had no viability apart from the particular politicians who advanced them. Endorsing and discarding those politicians was in itself a primary means of establishing policy.
Thus Athenian democracy always provided a stage for lively public argument. But when Macedon's threat to Athens' leading role in Greece, and possibly to its security too, could no longer be avoided, the stakes were raised. Debate intensified beyond the norm. As was the case with the Persians a century and a half earlier, the danger that threatened was equaled by the glory, and the reward, of dispatching it. Demosthenes was competing with Aeschines, a fellow-citizen and political rival whose speeches in response also survive. Both men sought the same thing: to have the people endorse him and repudiate his opponent. Both were experienced politicians, savvy in the language and practices of Athenian democracy. Both fought tooth and nail. With regard to the historical record, in 343 Demosthenes narrowly failed to defeat Aeschines, but he attained his political objective nonetheless (On the Dishonest Embassy); in 330 Demosthenes' victory was overwhelming (On the Crown). On these occasions Demosthenes generated a war of words so intense and absolute that his two speeches are among the liveliest, most extraordinary examples of combative political argument ever produced. Of the two, On the Crown is the more compelling: Demosthenes delivered it in his own defense with his career on the line, and it is his most effective statement of opposition to Macedon.
The Hallmarks of Demosthenes' Career and Legacy
Demosthenes' career is marked above all by the two features that became his legacy: opposition to the Macedonian kings Philip and Alexander and rhetorical art. The latter had its roots in Demosthenes' career before politics but found its true calling when it was put in service of the former.
Demosthenes was born into a wealthy and probably aristocratic Athenian family, a typical background for a political career. He never sought prestige in military command, which was common for political leaders of fourth-century Athens. Demosthenes' ancient biographers show great interest in his rhetorical training before entering public life. They mention teachers (Plato, Isaeus, contemporary actors) and record colorful anecdotes—practicing with pebbles in his mouth, speaking against the roar of the waves, and many more. These and similar claims are unreliable; their authors, all of whom lived later than Demosthenes, most several hundred years later, had little or no access to the facts, and there was a tradition of using legend to fill in the lives of great men.
Yet Demosthenes' earliest speeches (27-31), composed in his early twenties to prosecute his former guardians for squandering his patrimony, are such refined productions that they imply the best rhetorical training. Demosthenes then pursued a successful career as a logographos, a professional speechwriter who, in return for compensation, composed speeches for others to deliver in court. Preserved speeches from the mid 350s to the early 340s attest this activity, on behalf of both clients involved in private suits and citizens prosecuting high-profile political cases. These are first-rate productions and demonstrate the rhetorical virtuosity that reached its full powers later on.
Demosthenes' conspicuous background in rhetoric and speechwriting must have been inconvenient for a political career. Though all politicians in Athens had to speak effectively to the mass audiences of the Assembly and courts, there existed a popular prejudice against certain activities, such as rhetorical training, speechwriting, and publishing written texts, that were associated in the public mind with sophists. Such activities were held to indicate a potentially dangerous abuse of public discourse, and politicians tended to shun them. Nevertheless, Demosthenes launched his career in politics in the mid 350s by addressing the Assembly on various topics and prosecuting political cases on his own. To overcome the popular prejudice, he relied on sheer talent and energy, and he fastened on the menace posed by Philip and made it his crusade.
A series of speeches delivered from 351 to 341, known in antiquity as Philippics, reveals Demosthenes' vehement, persistent opposition to Philip, though the earliest in this series are more noteworthy for their rhetorical brilliance than for their effect on Athenian policy. Demosthenes broke through to prominence in 346 in connection with the Peace of Philocrates. But it was the speech of 343, On the Dishonest Embassy, that positioned him in Athens' public sphere as the strongest advocate for creating a Greek alliance to stop Macedonian expansion by force. From that point Demosthenes became Athens' leading politician and the architect of the policy that put Athens at the head of a Greek alliance against Philip. Philip's defeat of the Greeks at Chaeronea in 338 brought Demosthenes' policy to a crushing end, yet Demosthenes' career outlived the defeat, which reveals the depth of popular support he enjoyed. Under Macedonian hegemony, Demosthenes remained a staunch opponent of Philip and then of Alexander and sought the means to oppose them. But that hegemony ensured that Demosthenes could no longer harangue the people to resist as he had before Chaeronea, when Athens, as he put it, "was still in a position to choose the best policy" (18.320).
On the Crown immortalized both the purposes behind Chaeronea and Demosthenes' own moment of glory as Athens' leader in the clash with Philip. In the next generation, to symbolize Athens' continued aspirations towards independence as Macedonian hegemony wore on, the Athenians erected a statue of Demosthenes in the center of the city and honored his descendants. The image of Demosthenes as the hero of Greek freedom became fixed in later Greek culture through the influence of his speeches, which were collected and incorporated into the body of prized and closely studied literary documents of classical Athens. Demosthenes' speeches, with pride of place given to those against Philip and those against Aeschines, now spoke from the written page and found a second life as a model of language at its most powerful and engaging. Demosthenes became the single most important author in the rhetorical world of later antiquity (first century BCE-fourth century CE), and, especially in On the Crown, was emulated and studied alongside Homer, Sappho, and Plato as representing the best in Greek literature. Demosthenes was a central figure in the revival of classical learning in modern Europe. Since then, Demosthenes' fortunes have been mixed, reflecting both changing attitudes towards classical rhetoric and the shifting climate of political opinion. Recently he has been perceived less as a hero of democratic freedom than as a foolhardy opponent of historical necessity. Both perceptions reduce the man and his work. As On the Crown reveals, Demosthenes was an energetic politician, devoted to his city, and a speaker and writer of astonishing imagination.
Discovering Demosthenes' Art
Demosthenes' art, so concentrated that it infuses with the author's purpose the whole and all the parts, is agonistic rather than epideictic; that is, form serves strictly the purpose at hand, which is to defend himself and destroy his opponent, and is not elaborated for its own sake or for any other reason. Features of Demosthenes' art that depend on the particular order or choice of words in Greek are inevitably lost or at best approximated in translation. These include prose rhythm, wordplay, and certain figures of speech (artful arrangements of words that maintain their natural meanings). More important for the engaging character of Demosthenes' speeches are his figures of thought—ways of making a point so as to cast it in a certain light, regardless of the particular order or choice of words—and these can be translated directly. A few examples, mainly from On the Crown, are offered below to indicate the phenomenon and to encourage the reader to take notice of the form in which Demosthenes casts his thought.
Amplification, a hallmark of Demosthenes' style, is the use of two words in place of one ("chosen and preferred," 18.2); it makes the thought seem important without complicating it. The impression of spontaneity, which enhances sincerity, is created by parenthesis (19.125), by breaking off a thought (18.3) or sentence (18.126), by correcting oneself (18.130). Strong emotion is conveyed by repeating words (18.208) and by exclamations and oaths, which are frequent. Demosthenes uses second-person pronouns to address his opponent or the audience (apostrophe), directing, as it were, a three-cornered dialogue that isolates Aeschines as it forces the audience to pay heed (18.124-125).23 Vocatives, frequent and strategically placed, add intensity to apostrophe (18.143, 243). Demosthenes peppers the speeches with questions (18.282-283), for example, to suggest outrage (18.139) or to hammer home a point ("what should the city have done?" 18.62-72). A brief, artificial dialogue of objections and answers (hypophora) occurs in numerous forms (18.24, 101, 180, 19.158). Demosthenes recreates monologues, such as his address to the people (18.174-178), Philip's to his allies (18.40).
Demosthenes' invective, sometimes cast in set pieces (18.126-131, 258-262), ridicules Aeschines in order to render him unworthy of the audience's confidence. These passages call attention to themselves and can hardly be missed. More subtle is Demosthenes' irony. It expresses—indirectly, for such is the means of irony—Demosthenes' Olympian self-assurance, the view that Aeschines' attempt to impugn his illustrious record of public achievement is the transparently futile exertion of a contemptible, self-deluded charlatan. Irony surfaces, for instance, when Demosthenes shifts suddenly from Athens' grandeur to Aeschines' abjection (18.180, 209). Demosthenes mocks Aeschines for pretending to have enjoyed the hospitality of the Macedonian kings and then incites the audience to mock Aeschines along with him (18.51-52). Aeschines' trained voice and career as an actor provide Demosthenes with a rich lode (18.242, 259, 267, 313). Demosthenes' irony provides one of the greatest pleasures in reading the speech and must have proved decisive in keeping the original audiences keenly engaged.
In both speeches, Demosthenes' argument derives its punch from the quasi-historical narrative of events in which it is embedded. Quasi-historical, because while the narrative comprehends a core of indisputable, commonly accepted facts, Demosthenes aims not at objectivity or disinterested truth but at compelling the audience to draw strong moral inferences. By depicting the protagonists in action—Aeschines colluding, Demosthenes resisting—Demosthenes supplies the basis for his fiercely expressed judgments condemning the traitor and defending himself. Since everything Demosthenes says about the conflict with Macedon is subordinated to his polemical purpose, he distorts the facts where he can, casts them in a light favorable to his case where necessary, and otherwise omits them if they are inconvenient. He thereby builds up a story of absolute good versus absolute evil, in which he and his audience are the heroes who, even in defeat, nobly faced down Philip, Aeschines, and the rest of the Greek traitors.
Note on the Text
The text used for the translation of On the Crown is that printed in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics edition. Major commentaries on the speech On the Crown include Fox 1880, Weil 1883, Goodwin 1901, Blass and Fuhr 1910, Wankel 1976, Usher 1993, and Yunis 2001. The spurious documents preserved in the manuscript tradition of On the Crown have been excerpted and translated in Appendix 1.
The text used for the translation of On the Dishonest Embassy is that printed in the Teubner edition, though I have consulted and profited from the commentary of Paulsen 1999 and the text and commentary of MacDowell 2000. Other important commentaries on the speech On the Dishonest Embassy include Shilleto 1874 and Weil 1883.