Stories from Greek History - Ethelwyn Lemon

Demosthenes (B.C. 384–322)

Demosthenes, of whom I am now going to tell you, was not born in such a happy age as Themistocles. Athens was a more beautiful city certainly, with nobler buildings and statues in it than Themistocles had seen there, but its people were not so good. They had grown lazy as they grew richer, and would not go out to fight against the enemies of the Greeks as they did on the famous days of Thermopylae and Marathon. They liked to be told of all the glorious deeds that their forefathers had done, but that was enough. And they would rather spend their money in going to the theatre and to shows than give it to pay other soldiers to fight their battles for them.

When an orator reminded them, as Demosthenes often did, of all the Athenians had done long ago, they applauded him loudly. And after his speech was over they went home very proud of themselves, but they did nothing.

Times were sadly changed.

Demosthenes had not a happy childhood. He was a sickly little boy who could not do as other boys did, and was looked on as a milksop. He stammered in his speech, and that made other children laugh at him, so that he kept out of their way as much as he could.

His father died when Demosthenes was seven years old, and left great riches for his little son. But Demosthenes' guardians were bad men, who used much of the money for themselves, and did not take care of the rest. They did not pay people properly to teach and take care of the child, and so he grew up ignorant as well as sickly.

He was so shy that nobody liked him, and this made him still more shy.

His mother was fond of her delicate little son, but we hear so little of her that it seems probable that she did not live long after her husband's death. With her and his little sister he spent a quiet childhood, troubled, however, by the feeling that "something was going wrong."

He was too clever a child not to find out soon that his guardians were behaving badly; and often he promised himself that he would "pay them out" when he grew to be a man. And something that happened when he was about sixteen years old made him think of a way in which he could pay them out.

He heard his tutor talking about a great trial that was to take place, where a great orator called Callistratus would speak. He begged to be allowed to go to hear him, and his tutor arranged that he should sit in the hall where he could see and hear without being seen.

Callistratus made a grand speech, and pleased the people so well that they followed him through Athens in crowds after his speech was over. "What a fine thing it is to be a great orator," said Demosthenes to himself. "When I am a man I mean to be like Callistratus.. Then I can make speeches against my wicked guardians, and the people will punish them as they deserve."

But he knew he must work very hard at his books, and learn a great deal, before he could make such fine speeches as he had just heard. So from that day he set to work, listening whenever he could to the orators, making up speeches of his own, and learning a great deal of history. For every one who means to make good speeches needs to know history very well.

As soon as he was eighteen years old he began to speak in the law courts against his guardians. He had to speak often before he won his case. But though the guardians were punished, yet his money was almost all spent, and very little was left for him.

As he grew older he wanted to make political speeches, as our Members of Parliament do nowadays, when anybody who likes may come to listen. As you know, some people cheer the speaker and cry "hear, hear," because they like what he says. But others hiss him or laugh at him because they think he is speaking badly or talking nonsense.

Demosthenes did not talk nonsense, yet we are told when he made his first political speech to the people he sat down amid roars of mocking laughter.

This made him very unhappy, and he went away home alone, not with crowds following him as they had followed Callistratus a few years before. No doubt he was saying to himself, "It is no good, I shall never be a great orator," when some one tapped him on the shoulder. He looked round and saw a very old man smiling at him.

"You speak very like Pericles," said this kindly old man. (Now Pericles, you must know, was one of the finest orators that ever lived.) "But you are too timid. When the crowd shouts you must not give way as you did to-day."

But though Demosthenes tried not to mind the noisy crowd so much, he did not get on very well. Some time afterwards he was so miserable after making a speech that he pulled his gown over his head while he walked home, so that no one should see who he was, nor how unhappy he was.

But Satyrus, a great actor who knew him, followed him home, and went into his house with him.

"It is no use," said Demosthenes; "I work hard, and yet the people will listen to any drunken sailor rather than to me."

"That is true enough," said Satyrus, "but do you repeat to me now some lines from a drama of Euripides."

Demosthenes did as he was asked, making not a single mistake. But he said the lines in a dull way, and not as if he meant what he was saying, just as, in fact, some boys and girls whom you and I know repeat their poetry at school.

Satyrus waited till Demosthenes had ended, and then he began and said over again the same passage. What a difference there was; you would hardly have known it was the same piece. For his eyes flashed, his voice sounded now loud and angry, then soft and kindly, and at one part he waved his arms about as if he meant to hurt some one. And then he stopped, smiling at Demosthenes' wide open, surprised eyes; and

"Do you see what I want to tell you," he said. "Ah," cried Demosthenes, "I see, I see." After that he made himself a study down in the cellar of his house, and there he used to stay for hours, sometimes for days at a time, shouting aloud what he meant to say the next time he spoke to the people of Athens. His neighbours and friends soon found this out, and many laughed at him for taking so much trouble; but he let them laugh.

And as time went on it was, as we say, his turn to laugh. For he became so famous as an orator that people in distant lands heard of him, and feared him and his speeches more than they feared the generals and armies sent to fight them by the Athenians.

Later in his life he told a friend that he had made his voice stronger by putting pebbles in his mouth, and then standing on the seashore in a storm and trying to make himself heard above the roar of the waves. At other times he used to run up a hill, and while he was still panting from his run used to recite some speech or poem.

Such, hard work richly deserved the reward it won. For many hundreds of years Demosthenes has been talked of as the greatest orator the world has ever known.

When he was thirty-three years old, he made the first of many speeches against Philip, King of Macedon, the great enemy of Athens. Philip wished to make Athens a part of the kingdom of Macedon, and the patriotic party in Athens wished to keep Athens free, as she had been for so long. To the end of Philip's life, Demosthenes, who was one of this party, was Philip's enemy. He was always speaking against Philip, and always working against him, in every possible way.

He persuaded the Athenians to fight against Philip, but they did not win; and on the field of Chaeronea they met with a terrible disaster. Yet Philip thought much of Athens, because of her glorious history in the past, so he would not hurt the Athenians.

Still Demosthenes could never like him, or forgive him. When at last Philip was murdered (you will hear more about it in the next chapter), though Demosthenes was in mourning for his daughter, who had lately died, he put off his black clothes. He dressed himself magnificently, and put a wreath of flowers on his head to show his joy that Athens was free at last from her great enemy.

The Athenians held thanksgiving festivals throughout the city. One man only found fault with their gaiety—Phocion—a general and orator who rarely agreed with Demosthenes. Not that he liked Philip or believed in him. But he thought that the Athenians were too fond of pleasure, and that Demosthenes wasted time in telling them or expecting them to be like their forefathers. So when Phocion saw them all gaily dressed and making holiday, he reminded them gravely that the enemy's army was less by one man only.

Neither the Athenians nor the other Greeks would listen to him. They gladly heard Demosthenes, who worked hard and spoke often to persuade all the Greeks to join together against Alexander, Philip's son, of whom you will hear more in the next chapter.

Yet all the preparations came to nothing. When Alexander marched against Thebes, the city of Epameinondas and Pelopidas, the other Greeks were afraid, and left poor Thebes alone to fight the great enemy. The Thebans were. defeated utterly, and their fine old city pulled down, except the temples and the house of the great poet Pindar.

Demosthenes was bitterly disappointed at the defeat of Thebes, and perhaps even more because Athens had not gone to help the Thebans. He feared, too, that Athens might suffer as well as Thebes. And soon a messenger came from King Alexander, ordering the Athenians to send eight of their orators (Demosthenes among them) to him to be hostages for the Athenians' good behaviour. Now hostages are treated well by the victor only if the conquered city behaves well. And, in any case, they may be kept away from their homes for years, and no one likes to go as a hostage. Again, Alexander behaved so cruelly to the Thebans whom he had conquered, that it seemed as if he might treat even hostages badly. So Demosthenes made a speech to the people to persuade them not to send the men whom Alexander wanted. Instead, an Athenian named Demades,who was a friend of Alexander, went and begged the others off, and came back safely to Athens.

For the five years after this Demosthenes had a very quiet life. Then he had to fight a great case in the law-courts. It happened in this way.

Some years before, Demosthenes had, at his own expense, rebuilt the city walls of Athens. For this and all that he had done for Athens, an Athenian named Ctesiphon had asked the people to give Demosthenes a golden crown. The people agreed gladly, and it was suggested that at the great festival of the year, when all the citizens and many distinguished visitors were together in the theatre, the herald should say aloud, for all to hear, that this golden crown was to be given to Demosthenes for his noble services to his country.

But before this was arranged, Aeschines, ail orator who hated Demosthenes, and who had taken King Philip's money to betray Athens, rose up and said that the laws forbade this. If the golden crown were given, he would bring a lawsuit against Demosthenes.

The people, however, had given the crown to Demosthenes, in the theatre at the great festival; and so long as Demosthenes was still the chief favourite at Athens, Aeschines did not dare to begin his lawsuit against him.

But in this year, when all that Demosthenes had lived for and hoped for seemed to fail, Aeschines thought it a good time to begin his attack.

Some day you will read his speech for yourselves; and afterwards you must read Demosthenes' speech in answer. It was a long speech; but of all the speeches Demosthenes ever made, it is the finest. No wonder he won his case, while Aeschines had to leave Athens, and live all the rest of his life in the island of Rhodes.

It was a glorious victory for Demosthenes, and one which he well deserved.

It would have been happy for him could he have died in the hour of his victory. For, six years later, he was charged with accepting a bribe from a dishonest servant of Alexander, named Harpalus, and with being careless in keeping a large sum of money that Harpalus had left in his care. There are so many different stories told about this money, that we cannot be sure of what really happened. Of one thing we are sure—that Demosthenes did not want, nor use, the money for himself. He wished the city to be rich enough to fight King Alexander again some day, and thought it fair to take Alexander's money to use in that way. For then, as now, men believed that "All's fair in love and war."

But the Athenians said that Demosthenes must pay a very heavy fine as a punishment. He was not a rich man, and he could not pay it. So he was thrown into prison. He soon escaped from prison to Aegina, not far from Athens. There he sat often on the seashore, looking over towards Athens, with tears in his eyes; for he loved his city so much that he could not be happy away from her. Fortunately, he had not to stay away long.

Alexander died in the Far East, and the Greeks joined together again to fight for their freedom. Demosthenes helped them as he had done before, and as eagerly as if he were not in exile. The Athenians were so pleased that they invited him to come home again. They went down to the harbour in crowds to welcome him home, so that his return was like that of a conquering hero. Some work was given him to do by which he earned as much money as the fine had been. So he was able to pay the fine at last.

But the end was near.

Though Alexander was dead, his generals were not, and they came to fight against the Greeks. The Greeks fought very bravely, but were defeated. Antipater, the general of the Macedonians, sent his soldiers to live in Athens to keep the people in order. He ordered Demosthenes and Hypereides, the orators who had been Alexander's greatest enemies, to be put to death. Demosthenes left the city, and fled to the temple of Poseidon, in Calauria.



Antipater sent an actor named Archias after Demosthenes to kill him. But it was not lawful to kill any one in a temple, so Archias tried to persuade Demosthenes to come out. Since he could not, he said he would take him out by force.

Then Demosthenes said: "Wait until I have written a letter to my friends at home; then I shall come with you."

So he sat down and took his pen, which he had with him, and which he had filled with a strong poison, and began to write. He had a habit of biting his pen while he was thinking what he should write; and now, as he bit the pen, he sucked in the poison.

Archias was tired of waiting, and sent the soldiers in to hurry Demosthenes out. But he followed them in, and saw that Demosthenes was leaning on the altar with his head covered. When Archias spoke to him he uncovered his head, and rose up as if to go with Archias. The poison had done its work, and as he tried to walk out of the temple, he fell with a groan near the altar, and died.

Forty years after, the Athenians set up a bronze statue of him in the city, and passed a law that his eldest son should be treated as a guest of the city, and dine with the officials of Athens in the public hall, which they called the Prytaneum.

But the most lasting memorial of the great orator is in his own golden words, which scholars read and study all over the world to this very day.