Demosthenes was one of the most important historical figures from ancient Greek. A celebrated orator and statesman of his times, he is credited to have contributed considerably to the development of rhetoric and oration in ancient Athens. Orphaned at a young age, he was brought by his guardians who took advantage of the vast inheritance his father had left him. In spite of being an educated young man he could not speak well because of a speech impediment. However, he worked hard to overcome this impediment and became a great orator. He used his oratory skills to gain back from his guardians a portion of his inheritance. In addition to his oratory skills, he was also an excellent writer who used to write speeches for clients involved in judicial cases. A man of very high intelligence, he could handle all kinds of cases which earned him several wealthy and powerful clients. His judiciary experience made him an apt candidate for politics as well. He is best known for his orations that were directed against King Philip II of Macedon who had been formally in war with Athens. He gave many powerful speeches as the ambassador of Athens in opposing Macedon’s expansion into Athens. Demosthenes sought to safeguard his city from Macedon’s onslaught and preserve Athens’s freedom.
Childhood & Early Life
Demosthenes was born in 384 BC. His father, also named Demosthenes was a wealthy sword-maker belonging to the local tribe, Pandionis.
He was orphaned at the age of seven. His father had left him a hefty inheritance, but his legal guardians misused the wealth that was rightfully his.
He suffered from a speech impediment as a youngster and had to work hard to overcome it.
When he was 20, he sued his guardians for his inheritance but was able to retrieve only a portion of what his father had actually left him.
While fighting for his legal rights he began improving his oratory skills in order to effectively defend his case. From 364-361 BC, he delivered five orations against his guardians.
He underwent training to improve his oration. Different historians provide varying details of his training but it is widely accepted that he was trained under Isaeus.
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Demosthenes became a logographer—one who writes speeches for those involved in judicial cases—in 361 BC. He could manage any kind of cases and had many influential clients. His legal career paved the way for a political career later on.
He served as a trierarch in 363 and 359 BC. A trierarch was an officer who commanded a trireme, or a ship.
He continued practicing law from 355-541 BC. He also wrote speeches against individuals who tried to repeal tax exemptions. His speeches were in opposition of corruption and were directed against people accused of illegal activities.
He delivered his first political oration, ‘On the Navy’ in 354 BC. In this speech, he proposed reforming boards in order to fund the Athenian fleet.
In 352 BC, he gave the speech, ‘For the Megalopolitans’ followed by ‘On the Liberty of the Rhodians’ in 351 BC. He opposed Eubulus, the most powerful Athenian statesman in both of these speeches.
Athens had been at war with Macedonia since 357 BC. King Philip of Macedon had already seized Amphipolis and Pydna, and was trying to annex Athens. Demosthenes viewed the King as a danger to the independence of all Greek cities and launched a series of speeches directed against him.
He delivered the First Philippic in 351 BC in which he urged the Athenians to be ready for war and advocated the creation of a flexible military force to fight Philip’s army.
Philip II attacked Olynthus in 349 BC. Athens and Olynthus were allies and he urged Athens to help Olynthus through three speeches known as the ‘Olynthiacs’ delivered in 349 BC.
Demosthenes went to Peloponnese to detach certain cities from Macedon’s influence but was unsuccessful in doing so. He delivered the Second Philippic as a bitter attack against Philip in 344 BC.
He delivered the Third and Fourth Philippics in 341 BC.
Philip II was assassinated in 336 BC and Alexander III was made the new King of Macedon. Demosthenes celebrated the death of Philip II with his fellow Athenians.
Demosthenes is regarded as the most prominent orator of ancient Greek, best known for his speeches directed against King Philip II of Macedon, the worst enemy of Athens. He delivered four such speeches, known as the four Philippics in his attacks against the king.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was married to the daughter of Heliodorus, a prominent Athenian citizen. The name of his wife is not known. He had one daughter who died young and unmarried.
After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the new ruler demanded that Demosthenes be handed over to him. Demosthenes was sentenced to death but he managed to escape to a sanctuary in Kalaureia. However, he was soon discovered and he committed suicide by drinking poison in order to escape his capture.
The Athenians erected a statue in his honour years after his death and decreed that free meals be provided to his descendants in the Prytaneum.