Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington
Oxford University Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780199931958

Demosthenes (384-322 BC) profoundly shaped one of the most eventful epochs in antiquity. His political career spanned three decades, during which time Greece fell victim to Macedonian control, first under Philip II and then Alexander the Great. Demosthenes' courageous defiance of Macedonian imperialism cost him his life but earned for him a reputation as one of history's outstanding patriots. He also enjoyed a brilliant and lucrative career as a speechwriter, and his rhetorical skills are still emulated today by statesmen and politicians. Yet he was a sickly child with a challenging speech impediment, who was swindled out of much of his family's estate by unscrupulous guardians. His story is therefore one of triumph over adversity. (from the publisher’s page for the book)

Fourth century B.C. Greece can be a confusing study because of the changing fortunes of the various city/states, shifting alliances, and many grudges culminating in conflicts. After Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C. there was a continual change in the balance of power. When Athens regained its strength it returned to previous heavy-handed ways with their confederacies, triggering the so-called Social War. Athens defeat in 356 B.C. left it in financial ruin, unfortunately timed near the start of Philip II of Macedon’s expansionist policies. The history of Philip (and his son Alexander) is intertwined with that of Demosthenes. Worthington makes clear what he aims to do in this book:

In all that time [the last 100+ years of books on Demosthenes] the pendulum of Demosthenes’ political reputation has swung to the extremes. He has been lauded as Greece’s greatest patriot, courageously and steadfastly defying the imperialism of Philip, and condemned as an opportunist who misjudged situations and contributed directly to the end of Greek freedom. In this new biography I aim to determine which of these two people he was: self-serving cynic or patriot—or arguably a combination of both. (x)

Part of the reason for the shifting view of Demosthenes is the “gossipy and at times sensation biography that Plutarch wrote of him.” Despite leaving a substantial body of work with his speeches, Worthington emphasizes that oratory does not equal history. In his speeches, Demosthenes exaggerates and lies about events and motivations. The surviving rebuttal speeches engage in the same behavior. No wonder it’s possible to shape the reputation of Demosthenes as desired, just as he would shape his own speeches for the desired effect.

Demosthenes was orphaned at the age of seven. His estate was squandered by the “unscrupulous guardians” mentioned above. He turned to speech writing to make his living, later becoming a renowned orator despite a speech defect and shortness of breath. His rise to prominence in Athenian politics shows a calculating, self-serving streak. He supported certain politicians, like Eubulus, when he needed them, only to oppose them when he found his defining cause—opposing Philip II of Macedonia. Eubulus embodied the reality of the day, reforming Athens’ finances and urging caution during the city’s weakened state after losing the Social War. Since troops were so costly, Eubulus urged avoiding conflicts. Even though Demosthenes was slow to mention Philip in his speeches, focusing more on inter-Greek squabbles, once he started he didn’t let up. The contrast between the styles of the two men—strong, brawling Philip versus the orator Demosthenes—hides part of what made Philip successful while at the same time providing a distinction between Macedonia and Athens. When Philip took the throne he had several crises to address, which he did swiftly and successfully. Macedonia's contrast with slow, deliberative Athens was stark:

In less than a year, Philip had rescued Macedonia from four very real threats to its border security and internal stability. In the process, he displayed a masterful combination of speed, diplomacy, and deception, which set a pattern for his reign and which Demosthenes later contrasted unfavorably to the indifference of the Athenians and slowness of the Assembly in making its decisions. (57)

Demosthenes admitted later that even he had been fooled by Philip, taking the ruler at his word in a particular instance. He seemed to have learned from the mistake and set out to oppose Philip at every possible turn. The Athenians, though, were indifferent to Philip’s encroachment on the Greek peninsula at first, worn out (physically and fiscally) by war. Demosthenes’ pleadings to stand up against Philip were largely ignored as he constantly lost debates in the Assembly. Athens wasn’t going to find many allies against Philip at the start. They had squandered any goodwill in their heavy-handed treatment of other cities. Philip also positioned himself as a friend of Greece, taking the side of the league of states formed to protect the oracle at Delphi. He was also maneuvering to enter a sporadic war (one of the “sacred wars”) which would relieve cities of their involvement. Philip successfully took advantage of inter-Greek hatred throughout his career, proving to be a shrewd strategist beyond just the battlefield.

Demosthenes fought a losing battle in his opposition against Philip for various political reasons. His early calls for military preparation clashed with leaders wanting to save money. He criticized Athens for its moral decline and its unwillingness to participate in the services required under a democracy. The venality of its leaders became a constant theme in his speeches. Demosthenes probably didn’t help his case by understating Philip’s weaknesses—I found it an interesting question as to how much he believed in his rhetoric. Even if his early advice had been followed it is questionable whether or not Athens, in its weakened state financially and militarily, could have been successfully stopped Philip. They would have had to go it practically alone—“many Greeks still saw no threat to them from Philip, and they had little desire to side with Athens, whose unpopularity as a leader had been illustrated by the revolt of its allies in the Social War. (150)

Even when Athens decided to do something there was little agreement on the best approach. Some of the disagreements boiled down to legitimate concerns while other came from ineptitude. Athens sent several embassies to discuss peace with Philip but the question of what kind of peace would benefit Athens caused division. When other cities capitulated to Philip, handing him strategically important sites, Athens was probably doomed at that point. All of Demosthenes’ oratorical skill couldn’t squelch the division within the Athenian assembly and the inter-Greek squabbles. Worthington includes parts of Demosthenes speeches and places them in context to events. They are powerful exhortations for action and it’s easy to see why Demosthenes finally swayed the Assembly to his side. Even with the Assembly doing as he requested, Athens (including Demosthenes) misjudged Philip’s military strengths.

Demosthenes tried to defer the blame for the Greek loss to Philip in several ways. He blamed the Assembly for failing to take his early recommendations to prepare militarily and stand up to Philip. He accused other leaders as venal, helping Philip for a price. He reasserted that his was the right policy for liberty and democracy but fate was against him. There’s little doubt he believed much of these claims, generating his veneration as a true patriot, even if his rhetoric was inflated. To say his recommendations caused Athens to lose its freedom is an overstatement—without a few lucky breaks they were doomed to fall to Philip’s superior forces. Philip masterfully ruled Greece and Alexander followed suit. Demosthenes did change his policies at times, early in his career for political gain, but later changes seemed to be based on an acceptance of political reality (or at least what he thought things to be). Constantly championing unpopular positions in addition to leaving himself open to criticism and ridicule points to an honest conviction that his policy against Philip was the right one.

Despite the inflated rhetoric of Demosthenes against Philip, the Macedonian ruler turned out to be a relatively gentle ruler of Athens. In addition to admiring their culture, he needed Athens' support (or at least needed their inaction against him). Any rule other than their own was going to chafe Athenians, though. Demosthenes remained silent for many years after Athens’ subjugation, or at least there are fewer speeches from this period, but he did not stay completely out of politics. He was involved in the Harpalus (Harpalos) affair, much to his detriment. Harpalus, Alexander’s long-time friend and treasurer, absconded with a tremendous amount of money and turned to Athens for protection. Demosthenes initially recommended imprisoning Harpalus and impounding his money, probably in the view to avoid the wrath of Alexander. When Harpalus returned to Athens as a suppliant, Athens had no choice but to accept him. Some of his money went missing (or more likely he had exaggerated how much he had), which led to charges against Demosthenes, who had been in charge of the funds temporarily, for embezzlement. In a politically charged trial that had little to do with the funds, he was found guilty. Demosthenes chose self-exile instead. The death of Alexander threw Greece into new upheavals as many cities revolted against Macedonia. Demosthenes returned to Athens a hero. The Greek defeat in the following Lamian War meant retribution for anyone viewed as a leader. Demosthenes fled but committed suicide once he was caught. His reputation has been debated ever since thanks to the failure of his policies. His rhetorical reputation, though, has rarely been in doubt (despite initial Greek dislike, linking his policies to his speech).

The complexity of Athenian (and Greek) history of this era makes for a challenging task, one that Worthington does well. He overcomes the many convolutions of events, despite the limitation of a linear presentment, by arranging the history in nice bite-size chunks. This allows for helpful references back and forth in the narrative. If pressed for a way to improve the book for the average reader I would suggest the inclusion of Demosthenes’ family tree. Since he spent several years challenging his relatives’ (and potential relatives’) plundering of his estate, a graphic representation would help sort out the complex relationships of everyone involved. I attempted one but, despite Worthington’s helpful descriptions, I’m not sure I got everything right.

This is a minor quibble, though, for a book that does an extremely good job of presenting a complex man in tumultuous times. Very highly recommended.

Bust of Demosthenes (British Museum, London)
(Roman copy after a Greek original)
Picture source


Barry Strauss authored The Biggest Loser at The New Criterion. The article is now behind their paywall, but it was where I first heard about the book and the reason I bought it. The article's subtitle is "Why the failings of Demosthenes prove his historical importance," which neatly encapsulates the thrust of the book. Here are the final few paragraphs of the article:
Demosthenes failed but he bought time for democracy. He died in 322 B.C. but Athenian democracy survived at least for another sixty years, albeit with short intervals of Macedonian-imposed oligarchy. If the Athenians had simply rolled over in the face of Philip without fighting, the pro-Macedonian party would have come to power much sooner in Athens and weakened democracy from within. Thanks to Demosthenes, Athens went down fighting, and it kept fighting for generations longer than it might have otherwise. Athenians knew it and they honored his memory.

Worthington quotes the Athenian decree establishing posthumous public honors for Demosthenes and privileges for his descendants. The text resolves that Demosthenes “performed the best public actions in the cause of liberty and democracy.” Worthington understands the case against Demosthenes. He looks down wryly on the abuse of Demosthenes’ name by various politicians who have appropriated it. But his balanced and reasoned argument makes the case for Demosthenes’ shining legacy:
in our world of ordinary people standing boldly, defiantly and bravely against tyrannies and totalitarian regimes, one cannot help but liken some of them to Demosthenes.

That’s what it comes down to in the end. That “great loser,” Demosthenes, fought for freedom and failed. Yet his words remind us what the fight is for and his deeds show us that although those who fight it may lose, they are no losers.

The Wikipedia page for Demosthenes.

The book's publicity page at Oxford University Press.

Works by Demosthenes at Project Gutenberg.

Article on Demosthenes at

Plutarch's biography of Demosthenes, translated by John Dryden (at The Internet Classics Archive). If you search the index they also have the speeches of Demosthenes.


George said...

Not that long ago, Greece was disputing the right of its neighbor to be called the Republic of Macedonia: after all, "Macedonia" was part of the Hellenic heritage, not to be appropriated by a collection of Slavs. What would Demosthenes have thought of that?

Dwight said...

Ha! Too funny.

Demosthenes wouldn't have cared what anyone else called themselves--they were barbarians and thus inferior to the Greeks. Which is a major reason he seriously underestimated Philip's capabilities.