Demosthenes/Chapter 11

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We must now hurry on to the decisive catastrophe which sealed the fate of Greece and of its political independence. Its glory had been to have been represented by an aggregate of free states, of which Athens was immeasurably the first in culture and civilisation. Its weakness and curse had been perpetual and all but irremediable rivalries and jealousies, which went far to neutralise its collective strength in the face of a real peril. It was now on the eve of a revolution which the Greek mind, in spite of many a warning from Demosthenes, had never been able to bring itself to contemplate as possible. He had done his best, as we have seen, to retard it amid endless discouragements, and to the last we shall find him faithful to the cause of which he never once seems to have allowed himself to despair. In the train of events which culminated in Chæroneia we find him bearing a conspicuous and honourable part.

Philip's career, as we have just seen, had been temporarily checked; and at the close of the year 340 B.C. Athens might almost congratulate herself on all danger having passed away. In the spring of 339 B.C. the King met with another disaster. He had plunged into the wilds of Scythia, north of the Danube, and had carried off a vast booty of flocks and herds from the barbarous people; but on his return through Thrace he was attacked by the Triballi, one of the fiercest and most warlike of the tribes of that dangerous region. We know what it is for a regular and well-equipped army to have to march through an intricate and hostile country. The king of Macedon, encumbered as he was with spoil, was taken at a disadvantage, and if not actually defeated, he was at least worsted, lost his plunder, and was himself badly wounded. Thus the year 339 B.C. seemed one of good omen for Athens and for Greece. And thanks to the vigorous efforts of Demosthenes in the way of naval reform, the Athenian fleet was now supreme in the Ægean.

Meanwhile a new sacred war in behalf of the god and temple of Delphi was unfortunately breaking out. It arose out of incidents which may seem to us comparatively trifling. An Amphictyonic Council had assembled at Delphi in the autumn of 340 B.C., and Athens was represented by Æschines. The fruitful plain of Crisa, stretching inland from the Gulf of Corinth to the town of Amphissa, under the mountains of Parnassus, was the consecrated possession of the Delphic god. It was holy ground, and to till or to plant it had been forbidden with a tremendous curse. Part of it, however, adjacent to the town and port of Cirrha, had, almost with the sanction of Greek opinion, been occupied and brought into cultivation for a long period by the Locrians. Between them and the Phocians there had been a long-standing feud, which reached a climax in the recent Sacred War. The Locrians in that war had sided with Philip and the Thebans against their sacrilegious neighbours. Consequently, after the destruction of Phocis, they had a sore feeling towards Athens as the ally of the Phocians. One of their deputies, on the occasion of which we are speaking, rudely gave expression to this feeling, and went so far as to revile the Athenians, and to imply that an alliance with such a people was in itself equivalent to the guilt of sacrilege. Possibly the man may have wished to curry favour with the Thebans, to whose disgust some golden shields had just been set up by the Athenians in a new chapel at Delphi, with an inscription commemorating the victory of Athens over Persia and Thebes at Platæa a century and a half ago. This small incident was dwelt upon by the Locrian orator in violent and intemperate language. "Do not," said he, "permit the name of the Athenian people to be pronounced among you at this holy season. Turn them out of the sacred ground like men under a curse."

Æschines, the Athenian representative (he describes the affair himself in his great speech against Ctesiphon, or, we may say, against Demosthenes), savagely retorted. He pointed to the plain of Crisa, visible from the spot where they were assembled. "You see," he said, "that plain cultivated by the Locrians of Amphissa, covered with their farm-buildings. You have under your eyes the port of Cirrha, consecrated by your forefathers' oath, now occupied and fortified." Then he caused the ancient oracle, the oath with its dreadful curse, to be read out before the Council. "Here am I," he went on to say, "ready to defend the property of the god according to your forefathers' oath. I stand prepared to clear my own city of her obligations. Do you take counsel for yourselves. You are here to pray for blessings to the gods, publicly and individually. Where will you find voice or heart or courage to offer such a prayer if you let these accursed Locrians of Amphissa remain unpunished?"

The appeal of Æschines produced an instantaneous effect. The excitement was prodigious; and the Council in a moment of fury passed a resolution that on the morrow all the population of Delphi were to assemble with spades and pickaxes, and sweep away from the sacred plain every trace of the impious tillage and cultivation. Next day this mad proposal was actually carried into effect. The furious mob rushed across the plain into the town of Cirrha, and pillaged and fired the place. On their return, however, they were met by the Locrians of Amphissa with an armed force, and obliged to take refuge in Delphi. There was no bloodshed, even under these circumstances of provocation, as the aggrieved owners of the destroyed property were restrained by a sentiment of reverence for the Amphictyonic Council. Here is, indeed, a striking evidence of the respect felt for the traditions of the god of Delphi and his ancient temple, the centre of the religious life of Greece. Again, on the following day, the Council met, and after warm praise had been bestowed on Athens as the avenger of Apollo's rights, the people of Amphissa were denounced as having incurred the guilt of sacrilege; and it was finally decided that the Amphictyonic deputies should shortly assemble at Thermopylæ to consider how they were to be punished.

A new sacred war was thus in effect begun six years after the disastrous termination of the previous war in 346 B.C. That had ended in the destruction of a member of the Greek community; this was to end in the ruin and fall of Greece. The danger was not at once perceived at Athens. We cannot wonder at this. Æschines' vindication of his countrymen at the Council might well seem spirited and patriotic. Athens, through him, had stood forward as the champion of the god of Delphi. It was easy for him to argue that those who took a different view, and regretted the rash act to which the Amphictyons had been prompted by his oratory, were little better than the paid agents of those sacrilegious Locrians, who had allowed one of their speakers openly to insult Athens. Demosthenes, however—so he tells us—at once declared in the Assembly, "You are bringing war into Attica, Æschines—an Amphictyonic war." The popular sentiment at the time was in favour of Æschines, and this his political rival must have known and felt. Still, Demosthenes was able—a proof this of the high respect in which he was held—to persuade the people not to send any deputies to the special congress at Thermopylæ, which was to deliberate on the punishment of the Locrians. Thebes, too, allowed herself to be unrepresented. War was decided on; the Locrian territory was invaded, and a fine imposed on the Locrians, the payment of which, however, the army was not sufficiently powerful to compel.

The congress of which we have just spoken was not the regular Amphictyonic meeting. This was held in the autumn of 339 B.C. Philip by that time had returned to his kingdom. The meeting was now at Delphi; and Athens, as might be expected, took part in it. Æschines again was one of her representatives. It was on this occasion that the fatal step was taken of invoking the aid of Philip. It is not very difficult to understand how such a vote was carried. Macedon itself was a member of the Council; and so, too, were several states like Thessaly and Phthiotis, which now were simply Macedonian dependencies. Æschines, it may be from really corrupt motives, supported the vote. Accordingly Philip was elected general of the Amphictyonic army; and a request was forwarded to him that "he would march to the aid of Apollo and the Amphictyons, and not suffer the rights of the god to be invaded by the impious Locrians of Amphissa."

The die was now cast. The peril to Greece might possibly even yet have been warded off; but it was great and imminent. And Thebes and Athens, on whom all now depended, were still notoriously unreconciled. Philip, of course, instantly accepted the Council's invitation. He would enter Greece as the representative of a holy cause, as well as the head of a very powerful army. From Thermopylæ he marched straight through Phocis to Elateia, the chief Phocian town and the key to southern Greece. It was not sixty miles from the Athenian frontier. Here he halted and began to establish a regular camp. This was in itself alarming. His next step was to send a message to Thebes inviting the co-operation of the Thebans in an attack on Attica.

In a graphic passage in the most famous of his speeches, Demosthenes describes the impression made at Athens by the news that Philip was at Elateia.


"It was evening," he says, "when a messenger arrived with tidings for the Presidents that Elateia was taken. They rose instantly from the public supper-table; some drove the people from the stalls in the Forum, and set fire to the wicker-work in order to clear the space; others sent for the generals, and called the trumpeter. The whole city was in commotion. Next morning, at break of day, the Presidents convoked the Senate in the Senate House, and you repaired to the Assembly, and before the Senate could enter upon business, or draw up the decree to be submitted to you, all the people had taken their seats in the Pnyx. When the Senate had entered—when the Presidents had communicated the intelligence which had been brought to them—when the messenger had been introduced, and related his tidings,—the herald made proclamation, 'Who desires to speak?' But no one came forward. Again and again did the herald repeat the proclamation; our country's voice called out for a man to speak and save her; for the voice of the herald raised at the law's command should be regarded as the voice of our common country. Still not a man came forward."

In this crisis Demosthenes gave his counsel. It was to the following effect:—

"I said," he tells us, "that the dismay of those who suppose that Philip could still count on the Thebans must proceed from an ignorance of the real state of the case. If that were so, it would not be at Elateia—it would be on our own frontier—that we should hear of Philip. That he had come to make things ready for him in Thebes I knew well. But mark, I said, how the matter stands. Every man in Thebes whom money can buy, every man whom flattery can gain, has long ago been secured. But he is totally unable to prevail upon those who have withstood him from the beginning, and who are opposing him still. What, then, has brought Philip to Elateia? He hopes, by a military demonstration in your neighbourhood, and by bringing up his army, to raise the courage and confidence of his friends, and to strike terror into his enemies, so that they may be frightened or coerced into surrendering what hitherto they have been unwilling to concede. If, then, I said, we choose at this crisis to remember every ill turn which the Thebans have done us, and to distrust them and treat them as enemies, in the first place we shall be doing the very thing which Philip most desires; and next, I fear that, his present adversaries embracing his cause, they will all fall on Attica together. If you will be advised by me, and regard what I am about to say as matter for reflection rather than for disputation, I believe that my counsel will obtain your approbation, and be the means of averting the peril which now threatens the State. What, then, do I advise? First, shake off this panic—or rather change the direction of your fears from yourselves to the Thebans, for they are far nearer ruin than ourselves. The danger is theirs before it is ours. Next, let all citizens of military age and all your cavalry march to Eleusis, and show yourselves to the world in arms, that the Thebans who are on your side may be as bold as their adversaries, and speak out in the cause of right, with the assurance that, if there is at Elateia a force at hand to support the party who have sold their country to Philip, your forces are no less at the disposal of those who would fight for freedom, and ready to succour them in case of attack. Make no conditions with the Thebans. It would be unworthy on such an occasion. Simply declare your readiness to succour them, on the assumption that their peril is imminent, and that you are in a better position than they to forecast the future. If they accept our offer and adopt our views, we shall have attained our object, and pursued a policy worthy of our country. If anything should mar the project, they will have only themselves to blame, and we shall have nothing to blush for in our part of the transaction."


Such was the counsel of Demosthenes in this great crisis. It was instantly adopted by the Assembly without a dissentient voice. The matter did not stop here." Not only did I make a speech," Demosthenes tells us, "but I proposed a decree. Not only did I propose the decree, but I went upon the embassy. Not only went I on the embassy, but I prevailed on the Thebans." At Thebes the orator had to confront the envoys of Philip, backed up by the Philippising party and by the old Theban animosity towards Athens. Each embassy was heard, according to Greek custom, before the Theban Assembly. Philip had eloquent advocates who suggested plausible reasons why he should be allowed to march through Bœotia and to humble the old enemy of Thebes. Unfortunately, we have not the reply of Demosthenes. We know, however, from the historian of the time, Theopompus, that he rose to the occasion, and convinced the wavering Thebans, by an impressive appeal, to every Greek and patriotic sentiment, that it was their duty and interest to accept the offered alliance. It was a signal triumph—one, too, achieved under extreme difficulties.

It must, indeed, have been a proud moment for Demosthenes when he saw his country's army march across the Attic frontier and enter Bœotia at the Theban invitation. All distrust and jealousy had now passed away; and the two states, between whom there had been long and bitter rivalry, had at last made up their mind to co-operate in a common cause. As it had been at Byzantium, so was it now at Thebes. The Athenian soldiers received a hearty welcome, and were hospitably entertained in the houses of the city.


"With such cordiality," says Demosthenes in his speech on the Crown, "did they welcome you, that while their own infantry and cavalry were quartered outside the walls, they received your army within their city and their homes, among their wives and all that they held most precious. On that day the Thebans gave you, in the face of all mankind, three of the highest testimonials—the first of your valour, the second of your justice, and the third of your good conduct. For in choosing to fight with you rather than against you, they judged that you were better soldiers, and engaged in a better cause than Philip; and by intrusting to you that which they in common with all mankind regard with the most jealous watchfulness, their children and their wives, they manifested their confidence in your good conduct. The result showed that they were well warranted in their trust; for after the army entered their city, not a single complaint, well or ill founded, was made against you, so orderly was your behaviour. And when your soldiers stood side by side with their hosts in two successive engagements, their discipline, their equipments, their courage, were such as not only to challenge criticism, but to command admiration."


Two slight successes, indeed, were won by the united armies of Thebes and Athens. Of the campaign we have no detailed narrative, and of the final battle we have but an imperfect and unsatisfactory description. It would have been most interesting to have had such an account of it as Xenophon has given us of Leuctra and Mantineia. It was fought near Chæroneia, close to the borders of Phocis,—a town of little importance, but memorable from its historical associations. More than two centuries afterwards, a great victory was won there by Sulla over an army of Mithridates. It was, too, the birthplace of Plutarch, and to it he retired from Rome in his old age. On this occasion it would seem that as to numbers the forces were evenly matched. But the Greek army was without a general of any marked ability. Phocion, by far the best Athenian officer, was absent with the fleet in the Ægean. A commander of the first order—a man, for example, of the calibre of Epameinondas—might have turned the scale, and no doubt would have done so had there been a powerful contingent from Sparta and the Peloponnese. United Greece, it is probable, could even yet have crushed Philip. As it was, all may be said to have depended on Athens and Thebes, though a few other states furnished some soldiers. The Macedonian army was both skilfully commanded and was very formidable in itself. It was led by Philip and by his young son Alexander; and he it was, it appears, to whom the victory was mainly due. He was opposed to the Theban phalanx—the Sacred band, as it was called—which fell fighting to a man. It is certain that the battle was obstinately contested, and almost equally certain that it was decided by superiority of generalship. The Athenians, after their wont, dashed upon the enemy with furious impetuosity; but a citizen militia, however brave and enthusiastic, unless they were victorious at the first onset, could hardly be expected to stand long against such troops as Philip's trained veterans. They did, according to one account, put the enemy to flight, and their general exclaimed, "Let us pursue them even to Macedonia." But the end was complete defeat for the Greek army, and the year 338 B.C. witnessed the fall of Greek independence.

To Thebes the result was immediate ruin. Its citadel was at once occupied by a Macedonian garrison, and its government put under Macedonian control. Athens, 1000 of whose citizens had fallen, and 2000 been taken prisoners, was in an agony of distress; but she did not allow herself to despair. Isocrates, still alive in his 99th year, though he had been politically opposed to Demosthenes and had cherished the idea of a united Greece under the leadership of the king of Macedon, was heart-broken, and refused to live any longer. He was a true patriot; and

"That dishonest victory
At Chæroneia, fatal to liberty,
Killed with report that old man eloquent."

Demosthenes had fought in his countrymen's ranks, and had fled with the rest; but though his enemies taunted him with cowardice, he had the honour of pronouncing the funeral panegyric over the fallen. His counsels had been followed; the result had been disastrous; yet he still evidently retained the confidence and esteem of the people. Athens recovered her captured citizens without ransom, for the conqueror chose to be generous; but the cause for which she had fought was a thing of the past. Demosthenes must have felt after Chæroneia as Pitt felt after Austerlitz when he closed the map of Europe. His efforts had been rewarded with the gratitude of his countrymen, but they had not been rewarded with success.