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The Athenians’ Last Stand (I)

The European Greek World

SUMMER–WINTER 323 B.C.

News of Alexander’s death took several weeks to reach the cities of European Greece. The quickest path was across the Aegean from the ports of western Asia. Probably a ship that left those ports in mid-June, after the first reports from Babylon had arrived there, got to a European harbor by early July. Most likely that harbor was Piraeus, the busiest trade hub in the Aegean, the port that served the Greek world’s foremost democracy and greatest military power—the city of Athens.

Many lives, and the collective fate of the city, would be profoundly changed by the arrival of this news. The politicians of Athens, called rhētores, or “public speakers,” because they wielded influence by speaking in the citizens’ Assembly, had defined themselves by their relationship to Alexander and Macedonian power. Some, like Demosthenes and his fiery-tongued colleague Hyperides, resented that power and itched for the chance to resist it; others, like Demades, collaborated. The most senior statesman of the day, the philosophic Phocion,* stood somewhere between these extremes, grudgingly accepting Macedonian power because he thought Athens too weak to do anything else. All four men had made difficult choices over the preceding three decades, as Athens grappled with the reality of its newly humbled status. Now they faced other, harder decisions, as well as a fresh reckoning for those already made.

Not only political leaders but intellectuals as well would soon be called to account for their relations with Macedonian power. Many such thinkers, including the renowned Aristotle, had been drawn to Athens from other parts of the Greek world, attracted by the city’s liberal climate and by philosophic schools like the Academy of Plato. But the fate of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, had shown that the city’s liberality had its limits. To be on the wrong side of a political divide during dangerous times, as Socrates was perceived to be, could, even in the Greek world’s most pluralistic society, incur a death sentence.

Times were about to become dangerous once again. For the past fifteen years, the regime of Alexander and his chief agent in Europe, Antipater, though widely resented, had provided stability and certainty. It was the polestar by which the ship of state was steered. Without that fixed point of navigation, Athens was about to be set adrift amid treacherous currents and riptides. Its adult male citizens, who by their votes in the courts and Assembly decided all questions of policy, lacked a reliable compass. The speakers on whom they relied for counsel were divided on the question that had loomed throughout Alexander’s reign: whether to revolt from Macedonian control and make Athens again what it had often been, superpower of Europe.

Worse, the city’s two most trusted leaders were both off the scene. One had recently died: the brilliant administrator Lycurgus, who with fiscal reforms and a careful military buildup had made Athens stronger than at any time since the rise of Macedon. The other, Demosthenes, had inopportunely been driven into exile and deprived of his citizenship rights. This golden-tongued orator, the man who ordinarily would have been first to step forward in the Assembly in a time of crisis, was not there to offer the Athenians guidance just when they needed it most.

1. DEMOSTHENES (CALAURIA, JULY 323 B.C.)

For Demosthenes, this was an unbearable moment to be away from Athens. For much of his long career in politics, a career begun in boyhood with a rigorous program of public-speaking exercises, he had spoken out against the Macedonians, rallying his fellow citizens to stand up to the power to the north. In 338 he had prodded them into full-scale war, a war they had lost to Philip, Alexander’s father, on the fields of nearby Chaeronea. Athens had then stood together with Thebes, the two cities combining to put some thirty thousand soldiers in the field. Demosthenes himself had been one of them, a forty-six-year-old statesman donning infantry armor for the first time. Against Philip’s crack veterans, he and other green Athenian recruits never had a chance.

Thanks to Philip’s generosity, Athens retained its fabled democracy after its defeat, but lost the option of setting its own foreign policy. Like most other Greek states, it was forced to join the League, a Hellenic alliance pledged to support Macedonia and accept its leadership. Philip, and then his son Alexander, dominated the League and kept Athens in line. But even while watching his city forced to truckle to the Macedonians, Demosthenes had also seen it recover and even surpass its prewar strength. And now, at the very moment Athens was most ready for a fight, a piece of news had arrived more potent than a corps of infantry. Alexander was dead.

Sadly, Demosthenes had to celebrate this news alone. When it came, he was living in exile on Calauria (modern Poros), a tiny, rocky island between Attica, Athens’ home peninsula, and the Peloponnese. He had been ignominiously drummed out of Athens months earlier, exiled for the banal crime of taking illicit money. Hyperides, once his partner in opposing Macedon and his closest friend, had helped to secure his exile, using his fiery tongue to lead the prosecution at the corruption trial. Hyperides had won an easy conviction by playing the role of the injured member of a famous partnership gone sour. “You destroyed our friendship,” he told Demosthenes in front of a jury of fifteen hundred Athenians. “You made yourself a laughingstock.”

In exile, Demosthenes had found refuge on Calauria, in a grove sacred to Poseidon where the defenseless were supposedly protected from all harm. From here he could almost see the shores of his homeland, only thirty miles away but for him inaccessible. His empty days gave him time to ponder the upheavals no doubt taking place there. With Alexander’s death, his longtime rivals Demades and Phocion would be cast down, resented for their too-close embrace of Macedon. The city would put itself on a war footing. All would turn for leadership to Hyperides, the man who had often agitated for a military showdown. Hyperides, Hyperides—it would be his name, not that of Demosthenes, on every Athenian’s lips.

Once before, Demosthenes had seen the political game board overturned by a change of power in Macedon, and that time it was he who had benefited. King Philip, Alexander’s father, had been assassinated in 336, suddenly and at the height of his powers, only two years after routing the Athenians at Chaeronea. At Athens a public celebration was decreed, with a state-sponsored sacrifice and feast; Demosthenes appeared dressed splendidly in white, with his head garlanded, even though his daughter had just died and some said he ought to have worn mourning. The new Macedonian king, he told cheering throngs, was a bumbling teenager named Alexander, a nonentity who would quickly lose his father’s empire. The sense of vindication, of being on the right side of history, was exhilarating—for a few months. But then Alexander swung into action, and Athens sheepishly put its neck back into the yoke.

Now, as Demosthenes well knew, there was no second Alexander to take the place of the first, only a handful of quarrelsome generals likely to tear one another to pieces. The long Athenian nightmare of intimidation by Macedon might truly end, as it had seemed to do after Philip’s demise. His city could win back the honor it had lost at Chaeronea, could beat the Macedonian army and prove to the world that Greeks were masters of barbarians, not the other way around. For Demosthenes regarded the Macedonians as barbarians, a brutish and boorish people, despite the Argeads’ claims of Greek ancestry and their buying up of Greek artists and poets. “Macedon!” he had sneered to the Assembly in one of his fiery Philippics. “A place where you can’t even procure a decent slave!”

Demosthenes could not stand and watch as a great historical moment passed him by. He made up his mind to win his way back to Athens. Eloquence and argument, always his most potent weapons, were now his best hope. He began a series of letters to the Athenians pleading for recall and offering to reconcile with his opponents. In the four letters that have survived, Demosthenes becomes by turns wheedling, outraged, self-righteous, and coldly calculating. At one moment he protests his innocence; at the next he grandly refuses to dwell on past hurts. He reaches out obliquely to Hyperides, though never mentioning his former ally by name. He tries, in every way his forty-year legal career had taught him, to convince his countrymen: Bring me back.

It was a short hop for these letters to be ferried over to Troezen, the nearest major port, where ships could easily be found making ready to sail for Athens.

2. PHOCION (ATHENS, JULY 323 B.C.)

At Athens, news of Alexander’s death had put the city into an uproar. A man named Asclepiades was the first to bring the report; the Council of Five Hundred was quickly alerted and the people’s Assembly summoned into session. No one could be sure whether to trust the news. There had been false reports before, including one twelve years earlier, in 335, that sparked a disastrous rebellion by the city of Thebes. In the Assembly many shouted that this time Alexander was dead, and they demanded action. It was Phocion, the city’s cautious senior statesman, who stepped to the speaker’s platform to dispel the sense of urgency. “If Alexander is dead today, he will still be dead tomorrow, and the day after that,” he told the crowd. “We can deliberate then with more calmness and not make mistakes.”

It was the same advice Phocion had given through six decades as general and politician, though the people had rarely listened. His approach toward Macedon was too moderate, too watchful of consequences, to suit their rages and passions. Once Demosthenes had taunted him by saying, “If the people ever lose their heads completely, Phocion, they will kill you.” “Yes, and they’ll kill you after they regain their sanity,” Phocion replied. Demosthenes and that crowd—they were always beating the drum for war, never thinking of the price to be paid. Now Demosthenes was off the scene, but Hyperides, an even more rash war hawk, had the ear of the Athenians. They would make the same mistakes they had made at Chaeronea, unless Phocion and his allies could stop them.

Phocion had just barely stopped them in 335, after the false report of Alexander’s death ignited the rebellion of Thebes. Demosthenes had urged Athens to support the revolt, not just with money but with an army. The Assembly thrilled with anger and excitement and was on the point of casting the die for war, but Phocion stepped forward to urge restraint. He turned angrily on Demosthenes and thundered a line from Homer’s Odyssey: “Rash fool, why wilt thou stir the wrath of a savage?” Those words had been spoken by Odysseus’ crew to stop their captain from taunting the blinded Cyclops. Odysseus did not heed the warning; he boastfully yelled to the monster his own name, up to then cleverly concealed. As a result, the entire crew later drowned in a storm sent by Poseidon, who, unbeknown to Odysseus, was the Cyclops’ father. Phocion had made his point: it was the people who would pay the price, not Demosthenes, should they join the Theban revolt and the revolt fail. The Assembly pulled back at the last minute.

The speaker’s platform of the Pnyx at Athens, from which Demosthenes and Phocion addressed the citizen body (here captured in a nineteenth-century albumen print) (Illustration credit 3.1)

Alexander’s revenge on Thebes was terrible. After capturing the city, he let loose the full wrath of the Macedonian army, allowing his troops to slaughter thousands in their very houses. More than thirty thousand survivors were executed or sold into slavery; an entire Greek city-state suddenly ceased to exist. From across the thirty-five miles that separated them from Thebes, the Athenians looked on in horror at the fate that could have been theirs.

Phocion had carried the day on that occasion; but had he saved Athens or doomed Thebes? Perhaps the rebellion had failed only because Phocion robbed it of support. Some Athenians may have even suspected he was serving Macedon’s interests more than those of his homeland. Indeed, only a few days after the Theban cataclysm, Phocion gave ample grounds for this kind of suspicion. In a tense crisis played out before thousands in the Assembly, he showed that his politics could go beyond restraint and caution, into the realm of appeasement.

While the rubble of Thebes was still settling, Alexander, his fury not yet slaked, demanded the surrender of ten Athenian orators who had supported the rebellion. Demosthenes’ name was of course at the head of the list. This was a stern test of Athens’ famously liberal ideals. The city had never before, in its century and a half as a democracy, seen its freedom of speech threatened by a foreign power. But it had also never seen the obliteration of a Greek state as important, and as close by, as Thebes.

In the hush at the start of the Assembly session, the eyes of all turned to Phocion. With his triumph only days earlier in the debate over Thebes, Phocion had taken first place in the people’s esteem, and he was now in a position either to save or to cast out his chief rivals. True to his severe nature, Phocion gave the Assembly stern advice: Cast them out. Or, better yet, he said, the men on the list could go voluntarily to Alexander, sacrificing themselves to save their city as the mythical daughters of Erechtheus had once done. Their inevitable death sentences would repay them, Phocion implied, for the troubles they had caused with their demagogy. At his peroration, he grabbed his close friend Nicocles—no doubt planted in the crowd for this purpose—and pulled the man up to the rostrum. “Athenians,” he declared, “these men”—he pointed to Demosthenes and his partisans, in the crowd below him—“have so led their city astray that, even if it were my friend Nicocles here whose name was on that list, I would tell you: Give him up.”

But Phocion had overplayed his hand. He had advised the Athenians not only to avoid provoking the Macedonian Cyclops but to feed it a banquet of men. With jeers of derision—a powerful weapon of protest in the Assembly—the Athenians drove him off the speaker’s platform.

Demosthenes stepped up next, ready to deliver the speech of—and for—his life. Just as Phocion had done with his quotation from the Odyssey, Demosthenes drew on Greek legend to make his case. He reminded the Athenians of one of Aesop’s tales, concerning a time when sheep were at war with wolves. The sheep held their own for a while, thanks to their alliance with the dogs, but one day the wolves asked the sheep to betray that alliance and surrender the dogs, promising peace in exchange. The sheep accepted the offer. But then, without their guardians, they were devoured by the wolves, one by one. It was a story Aesop had once used to save his own neck, when an angry barbarian king had demanded his surrender. Now Demosthenes gave it his own embellishment. Alexander, he said, was not just a wolf but a monolycus, a “lone wolf,” the most rapacious and savage kind, an implacable killer.

The Assembly reached an impasse. The citizens would not throw their orators to the wolves, but they also would not court destruction by defying Alexander. A compromise was needed, and it was the notoriously supple and corrupt Demades who provided it. Demades, perhaps paid off by Demosthenes and the others on the list, proposed that an embassy, led by himself and Phocion, be sent to negotiate with Alexander. Perhaps the king would rescind his demand if approached by men who had treated his father’s regime with reverence and had even, in the case of Demades, collaborated.

The Assembly enacted Demades’ proposal, and the compromise succeeded. Mollified by the words of trusted envoys, Alexander revoked his proscription. He demanded only that one man from the ten on his list go into exile. Demades and Phocion returned to Athens in triumph; the political capital they had won made them the new leading lights in the Assembly. Demosthenes and his partisans were saved, but their policy failure left them weakened. Their voices grew more muted than before and less eagerly heard by their fellow citizens.

Thus, in 335, the question of how to deal with the Macedonians had been settled on Phocion’s terms, not those of Demosthenes. The new superpower was not to be defied but bargained with, deferred to, accepted. And so it had gone for the twelve years following. When the Spartans, following in the path of Thebes, went to war in 331 to destroy Macedonian control, Athens stayed neutral, and Demosthenes stayed silent. Without the support Athens could have provided, Sparta’s armies were soon crushed.

Phocion grew old, and his city grew wealthy. In 323, after twelve years of the Pax Macedonica, Phocion could look back with satisfaction at the course he had charted. He had steered his countrymen away from the shoals on which first the Thebans, then the Spartans, had wrecked themselves. Now in his late seventies, he had good hopes of finding an honorable grave in his native soil, rather than a grim pyre on some Balkan battlefield. But then the news arrived that Alexander was dead, and everything changed.

3. ARISTOTLE (ATHENS, JULY 323 B.C.)

Phocion was only one of many in Athens who had linked their fortunes to Macedonian power. The philosopher Aristotle had made Athens his home for the past twelve years, arriving, not coincidentally, just after the affair of Thebes. Under the leadership of pro-Macedonian politicians, Athens had been a congenial place for Aristotle to pursue his studies, for he was known to be the former teacher of Alexander and a close friend of old man Antipater, Alexander’s surrogate in Europe. Now Athens would likely go to war against Antipater, and Aristotle would be on the wrong side.

Nicomachus, Aristotle’s father, had cast his family’s lot with the Macedonians many decades earlier, when he became court physician to the Argead royal family. He was a Greek doctor living in Stagira, a Greek city close to Macedon’s borders, when KingAmyntas learned of his skills and brought him to Pella, the Macedonian capital. Aristotle likely spent much of his childhood in Pella; he may well have played there with Philip, a boy just his own age, and formed a bond with the future king that would one day lead to the most famous tutoring assignment in history.

In 367, when Aristotle was seventeen, he left Macedonia and moved to Athens, to study at Plato’s renowned philosophic institute. He stayed in Athens for the next two decades, years that saw growing Athenian mistrust of Macedon—mistrust that spiked in 351 when Demosthenes launched a series of vitriolic speeches against Philip, by then the Macedonians’ king. Aristotle, as a noncitizen, could not enter the Pnyx, where the Assembly met, but he could listen from an adjoining hillside as the man he had grown up with was vilified. Athens’ mistrust of Philip turned to rage in 347, after the Macedonians destroyed its ally Olynthus, a northern Greek city that stood in their expansionist path. Plato died that same year, and Aristotle left Athens, partly because leadership of the Academy had changed but also because the city had become an uncomfortable place for friends of Philip’s regime.

Aristotle crossed the Aegean to Atarneus, a Greek city in western Anatolia, where a man named Hermias, an admirer of Plato and a patron of philosophy, had come to power. Hermias helped support Aristotle’s scientific work, and a warm friendship sprang up between the philosopher and the potentate—a bond greatly strengthened after Aristotle married Hermias’ niece and adopted daughter, Pythias. Aristotle, now forty, had reached what seemed an ideal haven for his studies, surrounded by fellow scientists and protected by a powerful father-in-law, in a land far from the tensions of Europe. But Macedonian power was still growing, and reaching toward Asia. Philip, by now the most powerful ruler in Europe, was laying plans for an attack on the Persian empire (the plans that would later be executed by his son Alexander). Hermias, whose territory lay in the path of this invasion, made a secret pact to aid Philip. Quite possibly he colluded with his son-in-law Aristotle, whom he knew to be a fellow supporter of the Macedonian cause.

The Persians somehow got wind of Hermias’ machinations. They captured him by trickery and tortured him to get information. Aristotle, perhaps fearing he would be named as a co-conspirator, had by this time gone to Lesbos, safely offshore, to study marine life in the lagoons there. Eventually he received a message from Hermias, who by then was dead, saying that in his last hour he had done “nothing unworthy of philosophy,” meaning he had not implicated others, even on the rack. Aristotle was deeply grieved by his father-in-law’s fate and moved by his courage. He composed a hymn in honor of Hermias’ virtue and had a cenotaph put on display at the religious center of Delphi, where it would be seen by visitors from all Greece—reverent tributes that, he little guessed, would come back to harm him long afterward.

Aristotle spent several years completing field research on Lesbos and then returned to Macedonia, at King Philip’s express invitation, to become tutor to Prince Alexander. So began a student-teacher pairing that would become enshrined in Western myth as a longed-for alliance of supreme power and supreme intellect. But whatever the truth about this relationship—evidence suggests it was in fact slight—a warm friendship grew between Aristotle and Antipater, Philip’s trusted general and right-hand man. Antipater was at this time in his fifties, already the father of ten children, author of a historical treatise, hero of many wars, and an accomplished counselor and diplomat. To Aristotle, about fifteen years younger, he must have looked like an ideal soldier-statesman, a man whose noble nature was written in his loyal service to King Philip. In later life Aristotle maintained a warm correspondence with Antipater, and a few snippets of their letters survive, speaking, in the words of the great Aristotle scholar Werner Jaeger, “the language of unhesitating mutual trust.”

In 340 Aristotle’s royal teaching commission ended, but just what he did for the next five years—the years that saw Philip’s defeat of Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea and Alexander’s total destruction of the latter city—is unclear. Perhaps he remained in Macedonia and used his influence to soften anger against Athens, for the Athenians at some point honored him with a stone inscription thanking him for advocacy at Philip’s court. It was one of two such inscribed tributes Aristotle is known to have received. Much later he went to Delphi with his grandnephew Callisthenes and conducted a remarkable research project: together, the two men compiled a list of victors in the quadrennial Pythian Games going back as far as records existed. The gratitude of the governing board of Delphi was recorded on a splendid engraved stone, along with instructions that their list, an invaluable chronological resource, be publicly displayed in a temple. This honorific stone was found in the nineteenth century, in fragments, lying in an unlikely place, at the bottom of an ancient well.

After the crushing of Thebes and the cowing of Alexander’s opponents, Aristotle returned to Athens, where in his twenties and thirties he had studied with Plato in a grove sacred to the hero Academus. Now reaching his fifties, he was ready to become the kind of teacher and guide Plato had been for his younger self. But leadership of the Academy was already spoken for; and in any case, Aristotle was no longer entranced by the abstractions he had once debated there, the Forms of things like Goodness and Justice shining down from a distant realm. Increasingly, he wanted to focus on the world around him, the world accessed by experiment rather than Zen-like contemplation. Aristotle set up a new school in a different grove, the Lyceum, and started lecturing to different students. In time, he had a building constructed there and filled it with maps, specimens, and documents—a place to study things that are, rather than those that could or should be.

For twelve years Aristotle lectured in the Lyceum, addressing his students in the morning and the general public in the afternoon. He taught biology, geography, political science, rhetoric, physics, and the science of the human soul. Once he even spoke on comic and tragic drama, art forms invented by the Athenians, explaining how they worked and how to perfect them. He spoke from outlines, and it is these notes that have come down to us as his “writings,” for he had long before this ceased to write for publication. The written word, as far as Aristotle was concerned—in this he agreed with Plato—was powerless to convey knowledge.

During these twelve years, while the Athenians followed Phocion’s policy of entente with Alexander, Aristotle had not needed to worry that he was, in Athenian eyes at least, a Macedonian. The dark looks he must have received from Demosthenes’ partisans did not matter, for he was a friend of Antipater and anyone who harmed him would have to answer to that powerful general or even to Alexander himself.

But now Alexander was dead, and Aristotle’s umbrella of security was deteriorating. His friendship with Antipater was now a mark against him, and those active in politics were quick to use it. Dark charges were flung at him in the Assembly: it was alleged that more than twenty years earlier, he had informed on wealthy citizens of Olynthus and had thus given Philip a pretext to seize their estates. An Athenian named Himeraeus, a fierce anti-Macedonian, took it upon himself to ascend the Acropolis, wrench up the stone tablet recording the city’s gratitude to Aristotle, and hurl it down onto the rocks below. In Delphi, meanwhile, the stone inscribed with praises for Aristotle and Callisthenes was similarly destroyed, broken up and tossed down the well from which it was eventually recovered.

Aristotle wrote to Antipater about the annulment of his Delphic honors, and, by purest chance, a quotation from that letter survives. “I don’t care too much, but I don’t not care,” Aristotle told his oldest friend. It is the candid confession of a thoughtful man, near the end of life, watching his reputation get systematically destroyed.

One other quotation survives from Aristotle’s letters to Antipater, also (to judge by the content) from the period following Alexander’s death. “It’s dangerous for an immigrant to stay in Athens,” Aristotle wrote.

4. HYPERIDES (ATHENS, JULY 323 B.C.)

But there were others in Athens, among them the fiery rhetorician Hyperides, in whose eyes Alexander could not have picked a better time to die. Athens was ready for war as never before. Better yet, from Hyperides’ perspective, the leadership of the city had recently changed, leaving him the sole head of the anti-Macedonian cause. His former partner Demosthenes had been drummed out months before, denounced by Hyperides himself at a sensational corruption trial. After decades of standing in Demosthenes’ shadow, Hyperides would finally get to call the shots—and those shots would be aimed right at the heart of Macedon.

Events seemed to have come together as if guided by gods who were favoring the city’s fortunes. Both resources and opportunity for revolt had arrived at just the same moment, without Athens doing anything to summon them. To understand how this happened, to see the moment of Alexander’s death as Hyperides saw it, requires us to look back about two years from July 323. The chain of events that seemed to promise total victory for Athens began then, when Alexander, forced to halt by the mutiny of his troops, had begun his long trek back from the far-off land of India.

Harpalus Arrives in Athens

By invading India, Alexander seemed to many to have left the known world behind, and during his absence some of his satraps acted as though he would not return. Alexander had given them small armies, but many began to hire Greek mercenaries as well, an obvious effort to build power. They extorted money from their subjects to pay for these troops, or skimmed off cash from imperial treasuries. Alexander returned from India very displeased by what he found. He ordered all satraps to release their mercenaries and took steps to punish abuses. Those who had committed the worst offenses fled before Alexander’s agents arrived, and among these was one who was in especially grave trouble, an old and close friend of Alexander’s, a highborn Macedonian named Harpalus.

Harpalus is a unique figure in Alexander’s inner circle, no soldier but a hedonist, a sensualist, and a lover of women. Disabled from birth, he was useless on the battlefield but nonetheless stood high in Alexander’s affections. Even after Harpalus stole imperialfunds and ran away from the Asian campaign, in its early stages, Alexander forgave his old friend, sent envoys to cajole him back to Asia, and put him in charge of the empire’s largest treasury, in Babylon. Here, in a city famous for loose morals and sensual delights, Harpalus lost his bearings. He spent wildly on his own pleasures and on gifts for imported Greek courtesans. When Alexander returned from the East, Harpalus was terrified. Once before he had obtained pardon, but this time escape was his only hope.

Because he had sent them grain during a shortage years before, Harpalus had received honorary citizenship from the Athenians, and so, in the spring of 324, he fled Babylon for Athens. He sailed for Piraeus, the Athenian harbor, with a fleet of thirty warships, a powerful force of six thousand mercenary soldiers, and a fortune in embezzled money. He let it be known by messengers that he would use this army and these funds to help Athens revolt from Macedonian control.

But did Athens want to revolt? As Harpalus and his fleet waited off Attica for permission to dock, the Assembly met to consider its options. Debate proceeded along familiar lines: the war hawks spoke in favor of admitting Harpalus, while the entente party, Phocion and his ilk, argued that the danger to Athens would be too great. Demosthenes, unaccountably, switched sides from his customary alignment. The man who had roused his countrymen to fight at Chaeronea fifteen years before, and who had urged them to fight at Thebes, now said that the time was not ripe for war. He said that Harpalus should be sent away, and his support carried the motion.

Hyperides and the other hawks were aghast at this seeming betrayal, and at the thought that Harpalus’ flotilla, with its fabulous cargo of military might, would be allowed to pass Athens by. As Harpalus raised sail and headed for Taenaron, at the tip of the Peloponnese, it must have seemed to Hyperides that Athens was destined always to be under the thumb of Macedon and never regain its former glory. But there were other reasons, arising from just the place Harpalus was heading, for Hyperides and his partisans to live in hope.

Leosthenes at Taenaron

Alexander’s order disbanding personal armies produced a wave of unemployed Greek mercenaries. Alexander intended to hire many himself, but before he could do so, some crossed the Aegean and landed in Taenaron, where sheer distance from Macedonia, and the buffer provided by Sparta, placed them beyond Alexander’s control. Mercenaries returning from all parts of Asia found safe haven in this no-man’s-land. In a short time Taenaron was bustling with thousands of them, enough for a sizable army, were they to come together under one leader. And just such a leader emerged in Taenaron in 324: a swashbuckling captain named Leosthenes, an Athenian who had spent his life among the Macedonians—his father had been exiled from Athens decades earlier and had gone to the court of King Philip—but who had, for reasons unknown, become a die-hard foe of Alexander.

Some at Athens, including Hyperides, noted with interest that the captain general of the Taenaron troops was Athenian (by birth at least). For they were aware by early 324 of an edict Alexander was about to issue at that summer’s Olympic Games and of the disastrous effect it would have on their city. Hyperides and the war hawks at Athens kept in secret contact with Leosthenes as they awaited the edict’s announcement. They could foresee that its terms, if not softened by Alexander, might very well push Athens into war with Macedon, despite any arguments that Phocion and the entente party might raise.

The Exiles’ Decree and Harpalus’ Return

The Olympic Games of the summer of 324 were unusually crowded. The ranks of attendees were swollen by more than twenty thousand Greek exiles, people thrown out of their home cities for various misdeeds or banished by political enemies. These exiles came not so much to watch the games as to hear the reading of a letter from Alexander, the contents of which had already been rumored in Greece for several tense months. The pronouncement it contained is known today as the Exiles’ Decree.

The Olympics were not normally a venue for edicts, but this was no ordinary edict. It represented Alexander’s first attempt to set policy for the entire Greek world, not by way of hirelings or puppets, but with his own words. Such arbitrary use of power violated the charter the Greeks had made with Philip fifteen years earlier. They were supposed to make their own laws by votes of the League, not receive them from a distant dictator. But the exiles in the stadium at Olympia had come to cheer this edict. By its terms they would be returned to their homes, homes not seen, in some cases, for decades.

Also in the crowd that day was Demosthenes, himself (though he could not know it) soon to become an exile. He too had come to hear the letter read and then to do all in his power to get Athens exempted from its terms. His city had sent him as its envoy in a bid to keep its proudest overseas possession, the island of Samos. Athens had exiled the native Samians several decades earlier, replacing them with its own citizens in a forcible landgrab. Under the new decree these refugees would be returned and Athens would give the place up.

Alexander had entrusted the reading of his letter to Nicanor, a Greek who enjoyed high standing in the Hellenic world—he was (almost certainly) Aristotle’s nephew and adopted son—and high rank in Alexander’s army as well. As the crowd hushed, Nicanor took his place at the center of the stadium and declaimed his message. “King Alexander thus addresses the exiles from the Greek cities: It is not we who have caused your flight, but we shall be the cause of your return.” A roar went up from the crowd, the voices of twenty thousand exiles celebrating in unison their miraculous deliverance. Demosthenes and his fellow Athenian envoys, however, had little cause to cheer. Their concern was not the public form of the decree but whether Alexander, through his representative Nicanor, was willing to bargain in private.

Demosthenes had another matter to negotiate with Nicanor as well, less momentous perhaps but more urgent: the problem of Harpalus. The Macedonian renegade had returned to Athens some weeks before, though he was turned away on his first approach. This time Harpalus came as a suppliant, seeking protection under religious law, with only two ships and a modest sum of money (still a fortune by Athenian standards). He had gained admittance to the city, probably by bribing the harbormaster in charge of keeping him out. Messengers had soon arrived from the Macedonians, demanding that Harpalus be handed over and his stolen cash returned. On Demosthenes’ advice, the Athenians put Harpalus under house arrest until terms of extradition could be arranged. The embezzled money, seven hundred talents (according to Harpalus’ accounting), was moved to the treasury for safekeeping, and a negotiating team was selected, with Demosthenes at its head.

Demosthenes found himself in the same role Demades and Phocion had played twelve years earlier, when his own fate was hanging in the balance. Now it was he who advised against confrontation, who sought a moderate path, who agreed to sup with the Macedonian devil. He met with Nicanor in a private enclave at Olympia. What passed between them was kept secret, but the route to a solution was clear enough, since Athens wanted Samos and Macedon wanted Harpalus. Some sort of trade-off was arranged, though final say over the fate of Samos was reserved for Alexander himself.

There was yet another delicate issue that was no doubt discussed at that meeting. For the previous year, the Athenians (and other Greeks) had debated whether to worship Alexander as a god. Most of them found it a repugnant idea, and they punished one of its sponsors, Demades, with a heavy fine. But Demosthenes was a pragmatist, not a religious purist. When he returned to Athens from Olympia, he told the Athenians, “Let him be the son of Zeus, and of Poseidon too if he wants,” disguising with dismissive irony his obvious capitulation. If he had bargained with Nicanor over divinization, as seems likely, he at least got a good price. Athens had been granted a stay of the Exiles’ Decree, a pause in which to present its case to Alexander in Babylon. The policy of entente, this time as practiced by Demosthenes, had borne fruit once again.

Hyperides, who hated Alexander as either a man or a god, had once again seen his cause betrayed by Demosthenes’ inexplicable compliance. The fortunes of the anti-Macedonian party seemed once again to be at low ebb. But the turbulent eddies of Athenianpolitics had taught Hyperides never to trust in the status quo; things would always change. And in the summer of 324, quite suddenly, they did.

The Bribery Scandal at Athens

Shortly after Demosthenes’ return from Olympia, Harpalus escaped from his guards and fled Athens. Who helped him escape, and why, are unclear; many stood to gain from the disappearance of the most wanted man on earth. No one was ever blamed or charged, so presumably all factions were content to see him go. But the money Harpalus left behind was a different matter. These seven hundred talents, stolen from Alexander’s treasury and seized by Athens as contraband, had been held in escrow for weeks, but when state officials went to examine the stash, they found only three hundred fifty. Athens went into full crisis mode. Charges and countercharges flew around the city, as politicians accused one another of pocketing the loot. And among those most sternly accused was Demosthenes.

The influence of money on politics had always been accepted, even joked about, as a fixture of Athenian democracy. One public speaker laughed at a poet who had won an award for reciting his verses, saying that he could earn ten times as much, from King Philip, for keeping quiet. But the missing half of Harpalus’ embezzled funds caused deep anxiety. This was money that belonged to Alexander; the Macedonians had already demanded it back; Athens’ fate, especially the question of control of Samos, lay in Alexander’s hands. Someone would have to pay the price for the money’s disappearance, and Demosthenes was among those selected. The man’s recent changes of stance, his sudden willingness to oppose revolt and support Alexander worship, the suspicious sore throat that he claimed prevented him from debating a provocative measure in the Assembly—all this evidence seemed to show that Demosthenes had been bribed.

Hyperides had reason to welcome the idea that his old friend and ally, more recently the turncoat who had abandoned him, might finally fall from grace. Hyperides’ fight for freedom from Macedon—once Demosthenes’ fight too—might flourish, along with his own political fortunes, if his great colleague was forced from the scene. So Hyperides joined those attacking Demosthenes as a liar and a taker of bribes. He made it clear to the public that he had split from his onetime partner, and they elected him to lead the prosecutorial team.

After a six-month investigation produced the expected indictments, including that of Demosthenes, Athens prepared to watch a thrilling spectacle of political blood sport. Hyperides, the second-greatest orator of the day, was about to turn all his rhetorical weapons on the greatest, his own lifelong friend.

“Don’t you dare talk to me of friendship,” Hyperides fumed in his speech (partly recovered from a tattered roll of papyrus that turned up in Egypt in 1847). “You yourself destroyed that friendship when you took money to oppose your country’s interests and changed sides. You made a laughingstock of yourself. You cast shame on those who, in former times, chose to go along with your policies. To think that together we might have been most glorious in the eyes of the people … But you have overturned all that.” Hyperides spared nothing in his caricature of Demosthenes’ venality. He reduced the man’s career to one long quest for bribes. Demosthenes had supported the Theban revolt, said Hyperides, only because he was bought and paid for by Persian gold. Then he had doomed that revolt to failure by pocketing money meant for Thebes.

The rhetorical jabs hit their mark. Demosthenes was convicted, along with only one other defendant, Demades, long notorious both for corruption and for aiding the Macedonians. It was a catastrophe for Demosthenes’ political career and a deep humiliation. The Athenians fined him fifty talents, a sum he would be unable to pay unless he revealed that he did in fact have Harpalus’ missing money. When he did not pay, he was imprisoned, but friends, and no doubt bribes, helped him get out of jail and into exile.

At about the same moment, word arrived from Babylon. Alexander had rejected the pleas of the Athenian envoys. Samos was to be returned to the Samians. Athens hoped to petition him a second time but never got the chance. Three months later, he was dead.

5. THE OUTBREAK OF WAR (ATHENS AND NORTHERN GREECE, AUTUMN 323 B.C.)

Even after reports of Alexander’s death were confirmed, revolt was not an easy choice for the Athenians. Those with money and property, who would principally foot the bill for the war, did not want to fight. Their lot had improved in the last twelve years, and promised to get better yet if the Pax Macedonica were sustained. Then there were the arguments of Phocion to reckon with. Phocion, as usual, did not think Athens strong enough for war. An experienced military man, now almost eighty with more than forty years of generalship, Phocion had the ear of those disinclined to take risks. Hyperides, who chafed for war, had often despaired at Phocion’s cautiousness. “When will you ever advise Athens to fight?” he challenged the old man before the Assembly. “When I see the young men willing to keep in formation, the rich to pay war taxes, and the politicians to stop stealing from the treasury,” the high-minded Phocion replied, lording it over those implicated in the recent bribery scandal.

Now, though, Hyperides had a way to trump Phocion’s caution. Into the Assembly he brought Leosthenes, the mercenary captain of Taenaron, who had secretly been on the Athenian payroll for several months. Here was a general who had all the swagger Phocion lacked, who commanded thousands of mercenaries, men with experience fighting under, or against, the Macedonians. And here was the money to pay for that army: the stash of 350 talents still left on the Acropolis. Alexander’s stolen hoard, though mysteriously reduced by half, could now at last serve the purpose for which Harpalus had brought it, revolt from Macedon.

The Athenians were wild with enthusiasm. In a flurry of votes the Assembly elected Leosthenes a state military commander, mobilized all citizens up to age forty, and dispatched envoys to the rest of Greece to seek alliances. The goal of the coming war, according to the Assembly’s decrees, was “the common freedom of the Greeks and the liberation of the garrisoned cities,” the places guarded by hated Macedonian detachments. A team was sent to northern Greece to make common cause with the powerful AetolianLeague. The Aetolians had just as much reason as the Athenians to stop enforcement of the Exiles’ Decree: some years earlier they had seized a neighboring city and expelled its inhabitants, just as the Athenians had expelled the Samians. The Aetolians promised to add their troops to Leosthenes’ core force of five thousand Athenian infantry and five hundred cavalry, plus almost twice as many hired mercenaries.

Most Athenians rushed to get behind Hyperides and the war party, but Phocion remained cool. Some citizens tauntingly asked him whether he was impressed by the city’s armed forces. In reply Phocion invoked a comparison from the Greek athletic games. “They are good enough for the stadion,” he said, referring to a sprint of about two hundred yards, “but it’s the dolichos of war I fear”—a footrace several miles in length. Athens was throwing all its ships, soldiers, and money into a single attack force, he said; were these defeated, there would be no reserves to draw on. He might have added rowers to this list, the power supply of Greek battleships. In the end it was rowers, more than any other resource, on which the outcome of the war would hang.

Despite his contrarian views, Phocion’s long military record made him valuable to the Athenians. They could not leave him without a command. They appointed him to lead the home guard, the force that would meet a seaborne invasion of Attica were the Macedonians somehow to get past Athens’ expert navy. In that post, within sight of Athens’ walls, Phocion could help the war effort without getting in the way of Leosthenes. For the two men disliked and mistrusted each other and had sparred bitterly in the Assembly. In a recent debate Leosthenes had challenged Phocion, a man twice his age, to say what good he had done for the Athenians in all his many generalships. “Do you think it no boon that they’re buried here, in civilian graves?” the old man replied.

6. ARISTOTLE (ATHENS, AUTUMN 323 B.C.)

While Athens was bustling with mobilization for war, a quieter scene was taking place in the Lyceum outside the city’s east gate. Aristotle was making ready to leave.

The wolf pack of Athenian public life, those who advanced or got rich from denouncing others, had been drawing ever-tighter circles around him. Now that Alexander was dead, they were snarling and baying for his blood. They hated Aristotle for his ties to old man Antipater and the Macedonian elite, ties recently revealed by the fact that Nicanor, Aristotle’s adopted son, had been chosen to read out the Exiles’ Decree. But they chose to attack the philosopher on private and religious, not political, grounds. It was Aristotle’s devotion to his father-in-law, Hermias, the petty king tortured and killed by the Persians almost twenty years earlier, that gave his enemies the means to blacken his name.

Hermias was easily demonized by Athenian gossip. He was rumored (perhaps falsely) to be a barbarian and a eunuch, and a former slave, yet he had philosophic ambitions and was friends with many of Plato’s former students. He thus conjured up stereotypes of both the effeminate Asian and the effete, high-minded intellectual, a grotesque combination. Above all, he had taken the Macedonian side when war loomed between Philip and the Persians. Aristotle’s marriage to this man’s daughter, Pythias—long dead, but called to mind by their daughter, also named Pythias—could be exploited as proof of moral baseness and philo-Macedonian tendencies.

Aristotle had set up a cenotaph for Hermias in Delphi, inscribed with verses of his own composition. A cruel parodist by the name of Theocritus, an inveterate Macedonian hater, now came forward with a mock epitaph in the same meter:

               For Hermias the eunuch, the slave of Eubulus,

               Empty-headed Aristotle built this empty tomb.

               He honored the lawless ways of the belly, and so moved his home

               From the Academy to rivers running with filth.

The second two lines ostensibly describe Hermias but are framed ambiguously so as to refer to Aristotle as well. Theocritus knew a good smear opportunity when he saw one. He neatly grafted onto Aristotle—hardly intemperate in his personal habits—a caricature of Hermias as a corpulent, depraved barbarian.

Aristotle’s other tribute to Hermias, a fourteen-line poem celebrating the courage of his dead father-in-law, brought even more trouble down on the philosopher’s head. The poem took the form of a hymn addressed to Virtue, personified as a goddess, the shining ideal for which Hermias, according to the final two lines, had died. Like all such hymns, the poem was set to music, and Aristotle saw that it was regularly performed, on some anniversary perhaps, by students at his philosophic school. But such a ritual was easily distorted by enemies into a weird, cultic rite of worship. One such attacker, a religious official named Eurymedon, used the poem to indict Aristotle for impiety, claiming it showed a belief in new gods. The charge was eerily similar to the one the Athenians had used to indict Socrates, and put him to death, nearly eight decades earlier.

Aristotle wrote a defense speech for his trial—the first Greek known to have done so, rather than relying on a hired speechwriter—but in the end chose not to find out whether Athenian juries were more enlightened than in the days of Socrates. Writing to his friend Antipater that he “would not let the Athenians sin twice against philosophy,” he gathered up his family and left. He headed for an estate on the island of Euboea that had once belonged to his mother. It was a place he had seldom if ever seen, but the city that had been his childhood home, Stagira, had been destroyed long before, a casualty of Macedon’s imperial ambitions. Why he did not go to Macedonia itself, where Antipater would have gladly received him, is unclear.

The Lyceum, his students, his researches, all he had built over the past twelve years, Aristotle left in the hands of Theophrastus, a brilliant botanist who had studied with him since his time in Asia Minor. He could only hope that this young man, who like him had lived well off the patronage of Hermias, would escape calumnies and racial hatred, the dark forces now making his own life in Athens impossible.

7. THE HELLENIC WAR (NORTHERN GREECE, AUTUMN 323 B.C.)

Leosthenes’ primary objective was the pass at Thermopylae, the narrow corridor between mountains and sea that connected central Greece with the North. The place was not only strategically but symbolically important. Here, more than 150 years earlier, the Greeks had fought off for days a huge Persian invasion force led by King Xerxes. After all hope of holding the pass was lost, most of the Greeks pulled out, but a band of three hundred Spartans, along with eleven hundred allies from other Greek cities, remained and fought until almost all were slain. Thermopylae had thereafter become a shrine to Hellenic freedom. The monument erected there reminded the Greeks of the high cost of standing up to aggressors. Now, it seemed, they were prepared once again to pay that price.

To underscore what was at stake, the Greeks dubbed their fight against Antipater “the Hellenic War.” The name cast the fight as a sequel to that glorious struggle against the Persians. Once again, the Greek cities were in league, fighting to defend their shared Hellenism. Their opponents, by simple logic, must be “barbarians.” No matter that the Macedonians too had cloaked themselves in the mantle of Hellenism, portraying their invasion of the Persian empire as retribution for the invasion by Xerxes. The coming war, the Greeks hoped, would redraw the racial boundaries that recent decades had blurred.

Just as in the war against Xerxes, however, the Boeotians, those dwelling in the region around Thebes, held aloof from the Greek cause. They had benefited from the destruction of the regional superpower and now occupied its former land. Were the Macedonians to be defeated, Thebes would be refounded, and the Boeotians would forfeit their spoils. Leosthenes had to fight these holdouts first in order to effect a juncture with Aetolian forces to their north, a sizable contingent of seven thousand men. Once this was accomplished, the combined Greek armies moved into position at Thermopylae. It was the most potent force assembled in Greece since the time of the Persian Wars—more than thirty thousand soldiers, and many of them, unlike in earlier fights against the Macedonians, battle-hardened veterans.

On came Antipater, with a force much smaller than that of the Greeks, perhaps only thirteen thousand. His manpower had been badly drained over the years as Alexander, from Asia, had several times demanded fresh recruits. His best hope lay in his cavalry,always Macedon’s most potent striking weapon, and in the similarly powerful cavalry of the Thessalians, the stalwart Greek allies on his southern border. On his march through Thessaly, Antipater levied enough cavalrymen that he was satisfied he could beatLeosthenes with his horse. Then he hastened to Thermopylae to seek battle.

Movements of forces in the first phase of the Hellenic War, resulting in the siege of Lamia (Illustration credit 3.2)
Click here to view a larger image.

But Leosthenes had been in secret contact with the Thessalians, urging them to throw their support to the Greek cause. They were Greeks too, his messengers argued, despite their long alliance with Macedon. They could swing the fortunes of war at the critical moment and crush Antipater for good. As the two armies formed their lines and made ready to join battle, the Thessalians declared who they were. Their cavalry galloped over to Leosthenes’ side of the field, defecting to the Greeks.

Leosthenes now held the upper hand, and both sides knew it. Antipater tried a ruse to make his forces appear greater, filling the back lines of his cavalry ranks with troops mounted on donkeys, but such measures could only buy him time. After a brief trial engagement, Antipater bowed to necessity. He led a retreat to a nearby Thessalian city, Lamia, and took it by surprise attack. Then he shut himself and his troops behind its formidable walls.

Lamia was too strongly fortified for the Greeks to storm, though they made several attempts. Its walls were thick and topped by batteries of the Macedonians’ superb missile-firing weapons. Some Greek troops, including the Aetolians, became discouraged and departed for home. But Leosthenes’ fallback strategy was a promising one. Building a perimeter wall and a ditch around the town, he settled in for a siege. He would wait for hunger to take its inevitable toll on the men inside. It was not a glorious tactic but routine and reliable. All Leosthenes had to do was finish his wall, hold his position, and interdict all supplies, and within a few months the war would be won.

8. DEMOSTHENES (SOUTHERN GREECE AND ATHENS, WINTER 323 B.C.)

Back in Athens, Leosthenes’ victory was celebrated with festivals and sacrifices to the gods. The city’s new general had achieved a coup that had eluded the Greeks for three decades, the intimidation of a Macedonian army in open battle. Antipater had flinched, and had now put himself in a very tight spot indeed.

Those who had supported the war crowed over the success of their policy. One of them twitted Phocion for his caution, asking whether he would be pleased to have done what Leosthenes did. “Naturally I would,” said the old warrior, unshaken, “but I’m also pleased with my former advice.” Phocion had a more skeptical view of Leosthenes’ position than the rest of the city. In reply to the buoyant dispatches that kept arriving from Lamia, he is said to have asked, with weary irony, “I wonder, will we ever stop winning?”

With old man Antipater bottled up in Lamia and Leosthenes proving his brilliance, the Athenians sent out new diplomatic missions in the autumn of 323. Sieges, if pursued to conclusion, were lengthy affairs and required huge commitments of money and manpower. Hyperides was dispatched to the Peloponnese to lobby for greater support. Thousands of troops would need to be paid for many more months of service, and the coffers of Athens, even after Harpalus’ stolen money had topped them off, were not adequate for the job.

On his way south, Hyperides was reunited with someone he never expected to see again, in life at any rate.

Demosthenes, the fallen Athenian statesman, had followed the war through letters that reached him on Calauria. He knew from informants that envoys of Athens would soon make their way to the Peloponnese. He may even have known that his ally-turned-persecutor, Hyperides, was among those envoys. If so, he chose to forget his wounds and reach out to his old friend. Calauria was separated from the Peloponnese by a narrow channel, only a few hundred feet wide; perhaps, he must have reckoned, the gulf between himself and Hyperides could be crossed as easily.

Demosthenes left Calauria and intercepted Hyperides en route, offering to lend his rhetorical talents to the Athenian diplomatic mission. Officially, Hyperides should never have considered such an offer. The Athenians had stripped Demosthenes of citizen rights such that he wasn’t allowed to vote, never mind serve in government. But Athenian rules, always pliable, were even more easily bent in wartime, and breaches were also more easily healed. Hyperides embraced as a partner the man whose conviction he had secured only months before.

Demosthenes had found his route back home. When the Athenians learned of his efforts on their behalf, they happily recalled him from exile and sent a state warship to pick him up. The entire city turned out for his landing in the harbor of Piraeus. Demosthenes used the occasion to publicly thank the gods and invoked the memory of Alcibiades, the great Athenian military leader of the previous century. Recalled from banishment after winning great victories as a privateer, Alcibiades had sailed into Piraeus leading two hundred captured galleys, yet not even he, Demosthenes claimed, had been so wholeheartedly welcomed back into the body politic.

It was a total restoration, beyond what the great orator had pleaded for from exile, beyond what he could have expected or hoped. In his letters from Calauria, he had sought a mere extension of the due date for his fifty-talent fine; he said he would try to collect fees owed to him and make a partial, initial payment. The Athenians had refused even that modest request. Now they eagerly took care of the entire sum on his behalf. By decree of the Assembly, Demosthenes was appointed to a minor religious office and awarded a salary of exactly fifty talents.

With victory over Macedon seemingly imminent, money, and forgiveness, could be freely extended. Athens was ready to reclaim its ancient glory, with its most illustrious leader back at the helm.

* “Foe-see-on” is the best of several possible pronunciations.

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