Biography of Demosthenes


DEMOSTHENES, the greatest orator of Greece, and in fact of the ancient world, was a native of Athens. The date of his birth is doubtful, though various scholars have assigned it to the year 382 B.C. or 385 B.C. His father, a wealthy manufacturer, died early, leaving his fortune and children to the care of three guardians, who cruelly abused their trust. As soon as Demosthenes came of age, he determined to prosecute at law these unfaithful stewards. He gained his case, but much of his property had been squandered, and he only recovered enough to save him from poverty. His success in this and some other civil causes, fixed his resolution to devote himself to public life, and he set himself to master the law and politics of his native country, with a labor and perseverance almost without a parallel. His first care was to conquer the physical disadvantages under which he labored. His health was naturally feeble, his voice harsh and tuneless, and his action ungraceful. To strengthen his lungs, he used to climb steep hills, reciting as he went, or declaim on the shores of the sea in stormy weather. To improve his delivery, he took instructions from Satyrus, the actor, and did not even disdain to study effects before a mirror. His feebleness of health he never fairly overcame, but he obviated the defects of his early training, by the severest study, pursued for months at a time without an interruption.

Demosthenes first began to take part in public affairs in the 106th Olympiad, when he was between 27 and 30 years of age, and from that time until the time of his death, his history is the history of Athens. The states of Greece were at this time miserably weak and divided, and had recklessly shut their eyes to the dangerous encroachments which Philip of Macedona was even now making on their common liberties. The first period of Demosthenes' public life, (extending over ten years from 356 B.C.,) was spent in warning his countrymen to abate their jealousies, and unite their forces against the common enemy, whose crafty and grasping policy he so nobly exposed in 351 B.C., in the oration known as the First Philippic. Three years later, Philip became master of Olynthus, the last outpost of Athenian power in the north, which, in a series of splendid harangues - the three Olynthics - Demosthenes had implored his countrymen to defend. Peace was now necessary for Athens; and Demosthenes was among the ambassadors sent to negotiate with the conqueror; but Macedonian gold had done its work, and Demosthenes, as incorrupt as he was eloquent, saw with despair that Philip was allowed to seize Thermopylae, the Key of Greece, and become a member of the Amphictyonic League. Peace lasted for six years, during which Philip's incessant intrigues were exposed and denounced by Demosthenes in orations hardly less remarkable for their political wisdom, than for their matchless eloquence. The most important of these were the second, third and fourth Philippics, and the speeches under the "Misconducted Embassy" and "The Affairs of the Chersonese." When war broke out 340 B.C., Demosthenes introduced several important reforms into the army and navy, and showed such powers of vigorous admimstration, that Philip was baffled for a time. The struggle was closed in 338 B.C., by the battle of Chaeronea, which laid Greece prostrate at the feet of the Macedonians. Only once after that event did Demosthenes appear on the scene of his previous triumphs. But on that occasion he delivered, in defence of his friend Ctesiphon, his oration "For the Crown," which the almost unanimous verdict of critics has pronounced to be the most perfect master-piece of oratory that ancient or modern times have seen. Aeschines, his life-long enemy, against whom this speech was delivered, was so overcome by it that he quitted Athens, and spent the remainder of his life in exile. In 324 B.C., Demosthenes was accused of taking part in a revolt against the Macedonian domination, and thrown into prison, whence he escaped and fled into exile. The death of Alexander the Great in the following year, brought a gleam of hope and sunshine to the Athenians; and Demosthenes, recalled from exile, was again at the head of affairs. Once more the power of Macedon prevailed. Demosthenes was demanded up by the conquerors. Finding escape impossible, the hunted orator sought refuge in the temple of Neptune, in the island of Calausea. Before his pursuers overtook him, he had died, as was generally believed, of poison administered by his own hand. His death took place in 322 B.C.

The personal character of Demosthenes is one which it is scarcely possible either to praise or admire too much. His dauntless bravery, the stainless purity of his public and private life, his splendid and disinterested patriotism, and his services as a statesman and administrator, entitle him to a place among the highest and noblest men of antiquity. On his merits as an orator it is hardly necessary to speak. Suffice it to say, that the intelligent of all ages subsequent to his own, have, with scarcely a dissenting voice, assigned to him the highest place. Homer is not more clearly the prince of ancient poets, than is Demosthenes the prince of ancient orators.