ca. 384-322 B.C.
Greek public speaker and statesman
Demosthenes, a native of the city of Athens, was considered by ancient writers to be Greece’s greatest speechwriter and orator*. Demosthenes also took a leading role in the political life of Athens in the years prior to the conquest of Greece by Philip II, King of Macedonia, and his son, Alexander the Great.
When Demosthenes was 7 years old, his father died after naming three guardians to care for his family and his estate. In Demosthenes’ opinion, these guardians did not fulfill their duty. At the age of 18, he sued them for having wasted or stolen his father’s estate. Demosthenes wrote and delivered his own speeches to the court—and won the case. His success convinced him to become a speechwriter. He spent the next few years deeply involved in legal cases.
There was no legal profession in ancient Greece. People who went to court had to present their own arguments to the jury, and those who needed help hired speechwriters. Able to write strong, persuasive speeches, Demosthenes proved to be a master of rhetoric*. With great skill, he blended half-truths, attacks on his opponents, emotional appeals, and vivid, direct language into powerful speeches. Demosthenes wrote speeches for clients involved in private lawsuits and in public criminal trials, and he delivered some in court himself. Demosthenes published some of his speeches as advertisements to attract new clients. His abilities were widely praised, but although his reputation grew, he also made enemies.
Around 355 B.C., Demosthenes entered politics by making speeches to the governing body of Athens, the assembly. The assembly met outdoors on a windy hillside where some speakers had difficulty making themselves heard. According to legend, Demosthenes trained himself to speak clearly and loudly by practicing his speeches with pebbles in his mouth.
When Philip of Macedonia began his assault on Greece, Demosthenes delivered the Philippics, speeches that attacked Philip as corrupt, and urged Athens to resist him. Some of these speeches were abusive and insulting. In modern terms, they could be called “mud-slinging.” Since Demosthenes was fighting for his country’s independence, however, he felt entitled to use all the weapons of rhetoric that he possessed.
Despite the opposition of Demosthenes and others, Greece fell to Philip and Alexander. Demosthenes’ enemies seized the opportunity to criticize his politics and his honor. Accused of stealing public funds, Demosthenes went into exile. Following the death of Alexander, the Greeks launched a rebellion against Macedonian rule, and the Athenians welcomed Demosthenes back. But the strong Macedonian forces crushed the revolt and declared Demosthenes an outlaw. To avoid capture, he took his own life with poison.
* orator public speaker of great skill
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
Fourteen of Demosthenes’ political speeches survive, as well as at least 30 speeches intended for the courts. Most of these were written for clients who sought Demosthenes’ services, not for himself. These speeches reveal him to be an inspired writer and a passionate defender of Athenian liberty. (See also Law, Greek; Oratory.)