Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER XX

Letters and Arts in the Fourth Century

I. THE ORATORS

THROUGH all this turmoil literature reflected the declining virility of Greece. Lyrical poetry was no longer the passionate expression of creative individuals, but a polite exercise of salon intellectuals, a learned echo of schoolday tasks. Timotheus of Miletus wrote an epic, but it did not accord with an argumentative age, and remained as unpopular as his early music. Dramatic performances continued, but on a more modest scale and in a lower key. The impoverishment of the public treasury and the weakened patriotism of private wealth reduced the splendor and significance of the chorus; more and more the dramatists contented themselves with unrelated musical intermezzi in place of choruses organically united with the play. The name of the choragus disappeared from public notice, then the name of the poet; only the name of the actor remained. The drama became less and less a poem, more and more a histrionic exhibition; it was an era of great actors and small dramatists. Greek tragedy had been built upon religion and mythology, and required some faith and piety in its auditors; it naturally faded away in the twilight of the gods.

Comedy prospered as tragedy decayed, and took over something of the subtlety, refinement, and subject matter of the Euripidean stage. This Middle Comedy (400-323) lost its taste or courage for political satire precisely when politics most needed a “candid friend”; possibly such satire was forbidden or the audience was weary of politics now that Athens was ruled by second-rate men. The general retirement of the fourth-century Greek from public to private life inclined his interest from affairs of state to those of the home and the heart. The comedy of manners appeared; love began to dominate the scene, and not always by its virtue; the ladies of the demimonde mingled on the boards with fishwives, cooks, and bewildered philosophers—though the honor of the protagonists and the dramatist was saved by a marriage at the end. These plays were not coarsened by Aristophanes’ vulgarity and burlesque, but neither were they vitalized by his exuberance and his imagination. We know the names, and have none of the works, of thirty-nine poets of the Middle Comedy; but we may judge from their fragments that they did not write for the ages. Alexis of Thurii wrote 245 plays, Antiphanes 260. They made hay while the sun shone, and died with its setting.

It was a century of orators. The rise of industry and trade turned men’s minds to realism and practicality, and the schools that once had taught the poems of Homer now trained their pupils in rhetoric. Isaeus, Lycurgus, Hypereides, Demades, Deinarchus, Aeschines, Demosthenes were oratorpoliticians, leaders of political factions, masters of what the Germans have called the Advokatenrepublik. Similar men appeared in the democratic interludes of Syracuse; the oligarchic states did not suffer them. The Athenian orators were clear and vigorous in language, averse to ornate eloquence, capable, now and then, of noble patriotic flights, and given to such dishonesty of argument and abusiveness of speech as would not be tolerated even in a modern campaign. The heterogeneous quality of the Athenian Assembly and the popular courts had a debasing as well as a stimulating effect upon Greek oratory, and through it upon Greek literature. The Athenian citizen enjoyed bouts of oratorical invective almost as much as he enjoyed a prize fight; when a duel was expected between such word warriors as Aeschines and Demosthenes, men came from distant villages and foreign states to hear them. Often the appeal was to pride and prejudice; Plato, who hated oratory as the poison that was killing democracy, defined rhetoric as the art of governing men by addressing their feelings and passions.

Even Demosthenes, with all his vigor and nervous intensity, his frequent ascent to passages of patriotic fervor, his withering fire of personal attack, his clever and relieving alternation of narrative and argument, the carefully rhythmic quality of his language, and the overwhelming torrent of his speech—even Demosthenes strikes us as a little less than great. He laid the secret of oratory in acting (hypocrisis), and so believed this that he rehearsed his speeches patiently, and recited them before a mirror. He dug himself a cave and lived in it for months, practicing secretly; in these periods he kept one half of his face shaved to deter himself from leaving his retreat.1 On the rostrum he contorted his figure, whirled round and round, laid his hand upon his forehead as in reflection, and often raised his voice to a scream.2 All this, says Plutarch, “was wonderfully pleasing to the common people, but by well-educated persons, as, for example, by Demetrius of Phalerum, it was looked upon as mean, humiliating, and unmanly.” We are amused by Demosthenes’ histrionics, amazed by his self-esteem, confused by his digressions, and appalled by his ungracious scurrility. There is little wit in him, little philosophy. Only his patriotism redeems him, and the apparent sincerity of his despairing cry for freedom.

The historic climax of Greek oratory came in 330. Six years before, Ctesiphon had carried through the Council a preliminary proposal to award Demosthenes a crown or wreath in appreciation not only of his statesmanship but of his many financial gifts to the state. To keep this honor from his rival, Aeschines indicted Ctesiphon on the ground (technically correct) of having introduced an unconstitutional proposal. The case of Ctesiphon, repeatedly postponed, finally came to trial before a jury of five hundred citizens. It was, of course, a cause célèbre; all who could came, even from afar, to hear it; for in effect the greatest of Athenian orators was fighting for his good name and his political life. Aeschines spent little time attacking Ctesiphon, but turned his assault upon the character and career of Demosthenes, who replied in kind with his famous speech On the Crown. Every line of the two orations still vibrates with excitement, and is hot with the hatred of enemies brought face to face in war. Demosthenes, knowing that offense is better than defense, charged that Philip had chosen the most corruptible of the orators as his mouthpieces in Athens. Then he etched in acid a life portrait of Aeschines:

I must let you know who this man really is who embarks upon vituperation so glibly . . . and what is his parentage. Virtue? You renegade!—what have you or your family to do with virtue? . . . Where did you get your right to talk about education? . . . Shall I relate how your father was a slave who kept an elementary school near the Temple of Theseus, and how he wore shackles on his legs and a timber collar round his neck, or how your mother practiced daylight nuptials in an outhouse? . . . You helped your father in the drudgery of a grammar school, grinding the ink, sponging the benches, sweeping the room, holding the position of a menial. . . . After getting yourself enrolled on the register of your parish—no one knows how you managed it, but let that pass—you chose a most gentlemanly occupation, that of clerk and errand-boy to minor officials. After committing all the offenses with which you reproach other people, you were relieved of that employment. . . . You entered the service of those famous players, Simylus and Socrates, better known as the Growlers. You played small parts to their lead, picking up figs and grapes and olives, and making a better living out of those missiles than by all the battles you fought for dear life. For there was no truce or armistice in the warfare between you and your audience. . . .

Compare, then, Aeschines, your life and mine. You taught reading, I attended school. You danced, I was choragus. . . . You were a public scribe, I a public orator. You were a third-rate actor, I a spectator at the play. You failed in your part, and I hissed you.3

It was a powerful speech; not a model of order and courtesy, but so eloquent with passion that the jury acquitted Ctesiphon by a vote of five to one. In the following year the Assembly voted Demosthenes the disputed crown. Aeschines, unable to pay the fine that was automatically levied upon so unsuccessful a persecution, fled to Rhodes, where he made a precarious living by teaching rhetoric. An old tradition says that Demosthenes sent him money to alleviate his poverty.4

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