Demosthenes/Chapter 1

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Demosthenes by William Jackson Brodribb



Athens in the fifth century B.C. was at the head of the Greek world. Her empire, like our own, was a "government of dependencies." In its nature it was somewhat precarious. Although it was not specially oppressive, it was in many quarters an object of extreme jealousy. When Athens attempted the conquest of Sicily, it was felt that this was but a step towards ulterior and more dangerous designs. It was a most hazardous attempt, under existing circumstances. On the sea, indeed, Athens was all-powerful; but she had formidable enemies on land very near her—Thebes to the north, Sparta to the south. After her great reverse in Sicily, she was hardly a match for Sparta at the head of the Peloponnese. She still struggled on, and even won some victories, till the long contest, known as the Peloponnesian War, came to an end in 405 B.C. with the decisive battle of Ægos-potami. There, in the waters of the Hellespont, almost her entire fleet was captured by the Spartan admiral, Lysander.

Sparta now succeeded to the headship of Greece. She retained it down to the year 371 B.C. During this period she contrived to make herself thoroughly hated. Her system was to rule by means of oligarchical factions in the different states. These factions she supported by military garrisons. There was a garrison for a time in the Cadmea, or the citadel of Thebes. It was forced into the city, and subsequently maintained there with a flagrant disregard of justice and equity. The Spartan king Agesilaus coolly asserted that if it was for Sparta's interest it was right. Altogether, the Spartan rule was much more galling than the Athenian had been. Sparta, indeed, always seems to have been a more selfish state than Athens. It is true that Athens in her greatness had been spoken of as "a despot city;" but there was at the same time a feeling that she worthily represented Greece. This could hardly be said of Sparta. She was now cultivating friendly relations with Persia, and had procured the conclusion of a peace with that power, the terms of which were by no means honourable to Greece. This was the peace of Antalcidas in 387 B.C.—one of the landmarks, so to say, in Greek history. It had ever been a Greek tradition that the freedom and independence of the Greeks in Asia ought to be upheld. By the peace of Antalcidas they were put under the dominion of Persia. Athens would hardly have yielded such a point, and in the days of her maritime supremacy she could and would have made it impossible. Sparta was responsible for this disgraceful concession. She made matters worse by seeking to convert her headship of Greece into a downright despotism. In doing this she wrought infinite mischief, and may be almost said to have prepared the way for the subsequent calamities of Greece and its subjection to Macedon. She endeavoured persistently to break up the Greek world into a number of petty dependencies, which she might hold under her absolute control. Her systematic policy was to reduce Greece to a collection of separate towns and even villages, each of which should be completely in her own power. The idea which lay at the root of Greek strength and greatness was, that Greece should be made up of federations, with the leading cities at the head of them. In the face of a common foe these federations, it was hoped and believed, would be attracted to each other, and would feel that they had a common cause. This was Panhellenism. Sparta, by her methods of rule, weakened this idea, and thereby undermined the foundations of the Greek world. The feebleness and disunion of Greece in the fourth century B.C., which were so favourable to Macedon, were, in part at least, due to Sparta's influence. In one instance she inflicted the most direct and positive mischief upon Greece. At the head of the Gulf of Torone, in the peninsula of Chalcidice, was the prosperous city of Olynthus, round which had grown up a confederacy of Greek towns that might have been an effectual barrier against Macedon, or any other northern power. This confederacy Sparta, true to her policy, broke up in 379 B.C., and thus gave a heavy blow to Greek interests on the coasts of Macedon and Thrace. But for this, the Ægean and the Propontis might never have known the presence of Macedonian cruisers, and Philip's kingdom might have remained a poor and barbarous territory. Olynthus, indeed, to a certain extent recovered herself, and became again a flourishing and independent city; but the mischief which had been already done was past remedy.

With the great battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. Sparta's ascendancy ceased. Thebes was now raised by the illustrious Epameinondas into the first place in Greece. North of the Peloponnese she could do as she pleased. She had Thessaly quite under her control, and Macedon was little better than a dependency. Her next step, after Leuctra, was to strengthen herself in the Peloponnese, and to complete the humiliation of Sparta. This was done by the founding of the two cities Megalopolis and Messene, under the direction of Epameinondas. Sparta, as we have seen, aimed at breaking up and dissolving federations; Thebes, on the contrary, formed the Arcadian townships, forty in number, into a confederacy, of which Megalopolis, the Great City, was made the centre. Messene was then founded on Mount Ithome, and became the rallying-place of a population which had long been unwillingly subject to Sparta. What had hitherto been Spartan territory was actually annexed to it. Sparta's limits were thus greatly narrowed. On the north and on the west she was confronted by independent communities, and her position in the Peloponnese was wellnigh destroyed. Though Thebes soon fell back from the pre-eminence to which the genius of Epameinondas had lifted her, Sparta was never able to regain her ancient prestige.

Athens, from some cause or other, had much more elasticity and power of recovery than Sparta. There was a life and sprightliness about her citizens which made them quickly forget calamities and rise to new hopes and aspirations. So it was with them after Leuctra. Athens at once was fired with the ambition of winning back her old empire; and she actually succeeded in again becoming the head of a powerful confederacy. The disgust which Sparta had provoked throughout the Greek world was no doubt a great help to Athens. Once more her fleet sailed supreme over the Ægean. As a matter of course, the chief islands joined her alliance. A synod of deputies from her allies and dependents obeyed her summons, and contributions were voted for the common cause. She had able men—such as Timotheus, Iphicrates, and Chabrias—to command her forces. At the time of Philip's accession to the throne of Macedon in 359 B.C., Athens was the first state in Greece. She was not specially well fitted for war on land, and was in this respect inferior to Thebes, which could send out an army in the highest efficiency. But by sea she was, beyond comparison, the first power. Rhodes, Chios, Cos, and the important cities of Perinthus and Byzantium, were her allies. Samos, off the coast of Lydia, and Thasos, Lemnos, Imbros in the north of the Ægean, had been recently conquered by her; she was in possession of the Thracian Chersonese, of Pydna and Methone on the coast of Macedon, and of Potidæa and other towns in the peninsula of Chalcidice. The waters of the Ægean were thus an Athenian lake. But she could not hold together this confederation. She had no proper control over her generals. They were not in fact the servants of the state, but men of the "Condottieri" type. As a rule, they commanded mercenaries, for whom they could not provide pay without systematically plundering the allies. These generals really maintained their troops by means of "forced benevolences." It could hardly be expected that all this would be patiently endured. In 358 B.C. the Social War, as it was termed, broke out—Rhodes and Byzantium, it would seem, leading the revolt. It lasted two years. The efforts of Athens appear to have been rather fitful and wanting in vigour. When a rumour came that Persia was about to support the revolted allies with a fleet of 300 ships, Athens gave up the struggle and acknowledged their independence. The confederation, of which for a brief space she had been the head, was thus at an end.

This was a great blow to Athens. She was still powerful by sea, but she was very much impoverished, a large part of her revenue having been lost to her through the secession of several of her richest allies. Was it not now best for her to rest from her ambition, and to think no more of "a spirited foreign policy"? So argued one of her citizens, the famous orator Isocrates. He complains that his countrymen "were so infatuated that while they themselves wanted the means of subsistence they were undertaking to maintain mercenaries, and were maltreating their allies and levying tribute from them, in order that they might provide pay for the common enemies of mankind." By these he means the generals, of whom also Demosthenes, his political opponent, says, in one of his speeches, that "they go ranging about and behaving everywhere as the common enemies of all who wish to live in freedom according to their own laws." Athens, he contends, might recover from the losses and disasters of the Social War, if she would only eschew for the future a meddling and aggressive policy, be prepared for self-defence, and devote herself to commerce and to the arts of peace. In this way she would, with the great natural advantages she possessed, very soon again become rich and prosperous. This was the advice of Isocrates. It might well seem sensible and timely. And, as a matter of fact, it suited the temper of many of the citizens. There was a disposition to shrink from personal efforts, and, if war became a necessity, to leave it more and more to mercenaries. In such a mood there were dangers, as the event proved, to the cause both of Athens and of Greece.

A peace party was the natural result. It was in power at Athens for some years after the conclusion of the Social war, the critical period during which Philip of Macedon was step by step advancing to the position he ultimately attained. It had the advocacy of the speeches and pamphlets of Isocrates, who had the command, not undeservedly, of the public ear. It was thus supported by the ablest journalism of the day. Again, it had an eminently respectable man as one of its leaders. This was Phocion, whose integrity was proverbial. Forty-five times was he chosen general, and he gained several victories for Athens. He was alone sufficient to give strength to a political party. Another of its leaders was Eubulus, a man of very inferior type. His great aim was to put the people in a good humour. There was a singular arrangement at Athens by which the State defrayed the cost of the public amusements and dramatic exhibitions for the benefit of the poor citizens. A regular fund was provided for this purpose, and after a time the surplus of the annual public revenue was added to it. It had formerly been the law that this surplus should always during war be paid into the military chest for the defence of the State. Eubulus actually induced the people to pass a law making it a capital offence to propose that this fund should be so applied on any future occasion. Consequently, the only method of meeting the costs of war was the exaction of a property tax from the rich. War under these circumstances could not but involve very serious and sorely-felt sacrifices. We may form some idea of the pressure of the burden by supposing the case of an income tax of 4s. or 5s. in the pound among ourselves. No ministry, it is clear, could venture to declare war except under the most palpable necessity, if such a tax were inevitable. Eubulus accordingly conciliated the rich by doing his utmost to save them from the dreaded burden. He was, as we should say, prime minister of Athens for sixteen years. His position must have been a very strong one, acceptable, as we have just seen, to rich and poor alike. There can hardly be a doubt that his policy impaired the Athenian character, and made the work of Demosthenes peculiarly difficult.

Athens thus entered on a great contest under unfavourable conditions. She was still, from her extensive trade, the richest city in Greece, and she had the means of sending out formidable fleets. But her citizens liked ease and comfort, and preferred their cheerful city life to foreign service. Her dominions, too, were rather vulnerable, not being guarded by any regular troops. If they were attacked, they had to be defended by mercenaries, commanded by the sort of general who has been described. Then, too, her commerce, with which her prosperity was closely bound up, might be harassed by an enterprising enemy, and her supplies of corn from the Black Sea endangered. Thus, in fighting Macedon she was perhaps at some disadvantage, though we may be inclined to think that a little more energy and vigour would have carried her successfully through the struggle. The truth is, she was not for a long time alive to the real danger, and was consequently remiss in seizing opportunities. There was a party which urged alliance with Thebes. But Thebes was more hateful to an average Athenian than Sparta had ever been. Such a party seemed untrue to the old traditions of Athens. Hence it was always comparatively weak. Had the danger from Macedon been distinctly foreseen, the alliance would perhaps have been effected. Athens and Thebes united might, it can hardly be doubted, have confined Philip to his own hereditary kingdom and have saved Greece.