Demosthenes/Chapter 12

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Philip was now the acknowledged head of the Greek world. Phocion, Athens' best soldier, as well as a highly honourable citizen, told the Athenians that they must acquiesce in this result. Demosthenes had not a word left to say on foreign policy. The subject was, in fact, closed. He was continually and virulently attacked by his political opponents, but he was too strong for them. He spoke the funeral eulogy at the obsequies of the slain in the great battle—an honour to which he was chosen in preference to Æschines, as well as to Demades, who had negotiated the peace. He held, too, more than one important office. He was treasurer of the Theoric fund, which provided Athens with her grand dramatic entertainments; and in this capacity he had a considerable control over the finances generally. He was also superintendent of the city walls and fortifications. He must thus have had the character of an able and upright man of business. And he continued to follow the profession of the bar, and found abundant employment.

In 336 B.C. Philip was assassinated. It seems that Demosthenes, though at the time he was mourning the death of an only daughter, showed an excessive joy by appearing in public in a white dress with a garland on his head, and performing a solemn sacrifice of thanksgiving. Could he have indulged in the dream that all was now to be reversed, and that Greece was again to be free? Macedon, no doubt, with its sudden growth of power, might have collapsed, had Philip's son and successor been an imbecile. And it appears that Demosthenes thought meanly of the young Alexander. He compared him to Margites, the hero of a comic poem which tradition attributed to Homer. Margites was a man who "knew many things, but knew them all badly;" he was a sort of "Jack of all trades and master of none." Alexander was famous for the variety of his studies and pursuits; and it was this, it may be supposed, which gave point to the comparison. Demosthenes' idea of him was, that he was a studious, bookish young man, of whom the world would never hear much. The fact that he was only twenty years of age at the time of his father's death may have reasonably encouraged Demosthenes to believe that Greece had some chance of throwing off the yoke imposed on her by her defeat at Chæroneia. He did not think it wrong to correspond with Persia, and to avail himself of Persian gold, with the view of frustrating Philip's designs on Asia. We can hardly censure him for this, when we remember that it was done for the patriotic purpose of freeing Greece from its present position of a Macedonian dependency. If he used questionable means, he at least had the merit of standing by the old cause. But, of course, it was easy for his enemies to represent his conduct in an odious light.

Three years after Chæroneia, Alexander, after a successful expedition into Thrace, and a victory over the barbarous and warlike Getæ on the further bank of the Danube, hurried with marvellous rapidity southwards to crush a movement of revolt in Thebes. There was, as we have seen, a Macedonian garrison in the city. There was, too, a powerful political party which urged prompt submission. Alexander himself was particularly anxious not to drive matters to extremities. But the party which had instigated the movement knew that they could not hope for mercy; and, by appealing to the cause of Greek freedom, persuaded the people to reject all offers of peace. The unhappy city was captured by assault, and every house but that of the poet Pindar and those of his descendants was razed to the ground.

"The great Emathian conqueror bade spare
The house of Pindarus, when temple and tower
Went to the ground."

It was a terrible doom, but it was approved by the towns of Bœotia; and but for the brief grandeur to which Thebes rose under Epameinondas, and her share in the battle of Chæroneia, we may almost say it was deserved. She had been a traitor to the common cause in the great struggle with Persia; and afterwards, with a peculiar baseness, she had urged Sparta to slaughter, in cold blood, the brave Platæans, whose only crime was, that they had sided with Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Thebes was now blotted out of existence. Again Athens trembled. Alexander, there was reason to believe, was magnanimous; but it was impossible to say how he might deal with a city which had been so persistently hostile to his father. At the suggestion of Demades, an embassy of congratulation was sent to him. The people were to express their joy not only on his safe return from the Danube, but on the extinction of Thebes. It was, as Dr Thirlwall happily calls it, "impudent obsequiousness." Alexander's answer was a demand for the surrender of the nine chief anti-Macedonian orators,—Demosthenes, of course, included. But the demand was waived, chiefly, it seems, through the opportune intervention of Phocion, whom Alexander highly respected.

The next year he crossed the Hellespont into Asia. Four years from that time sufficed for the overthrow of the Persian empire. Darius, the last king of Persia, was murdered in 330 B.C. That same year witnessed an abortive attempt in Greece against Macedonian supremacy. It was bravely led by a king of Sparta, who fell in a hard-fought battle near Megalopolis with Antipater, to whom Alexander had intrusted his kingdom during his absence. Greece could now no longer even dream of independence. Anything like an anti-Macedonian policy would be preposterous; and there was thus an opportunity at Athens of attempting to rouse popular feeling against any statesman who had advocated that policy, the end of which had been so fatal to Greece.

It was under these circumstances that Æschines made a great effort to crush his old rival. It had been proposed by Ctesiphon, in the year after Chæroneia, that a public testimonial to the worth of Demosthenes should be given him in the form of a golden crown; and that the honour should be proclaimed on the occasion of one of those great dramatic festivals, when the city was crowded with visitors from every part of Greece. The proposal had been approved by the Athenian Senate, but it had yet to be submitted to the popular assembly. Æschines at the time denounced it as unconstitutional, and opposed it by one of the recognised modes of legal procedure. Technically, indeed, the motion of Ctesiphon was illegal. Demosthenes, as we have stated, was holding two offices; he was superintendent of fortifications and treasurer of the Theoric fund. It was contrary to Athenian law to bestow the honour of a crown on an officer before his accounts had been audited; it was also forbidden that such an honour should be proclaimed anywhere else than in the Pnyx, the regular place of the people's assembly. According to the motion of the proposer, it would have been proclaimed in the theatre. Æschines could, therefore, argue that it was in two points illegal. But he wished to win a decisive victory; and he accordingly waited for some years, and finally rested his case on the argument that Demosthenes, as a public man, was undeserving of the honour. It is this which gives interest to his extant speech. He laboured to convince the Athenians that his rival could not have been thoroughly sincere in his anti-Macedonian professions, because he had let slip three important opportunities. Demosthenes had done nothing, so he argued, when Alexander first crossed into Asia; or when he was supposed to be in great jeopardy just before the battle of Issus in 333 B.C.; or lastly, when Sparta, as has been stated, made an attempt at resistance. It was in the year of this unsuccessful attempt—the year 330 B.C., when Macedon was triumphant both in Asia and Greece—that this memorable cause between the two rival orators was heard before the Athenian assembly. As might have been expected, there was a numerous gathering both of citizens and strangers, very many of whom were well qualified to be keen critics of the great contest.

The question really to be decided—and this was the issue which Æschines was anxious to raise—was, Had Demosthenes been a good or bad citizen? had he honestly at all times and seasons stood by the cause in which he so earnestly professed to believe? Demosthenes' reply to this question is the vindication of his political life. The cause for which he had exerted himself, though finally unsuccessful, was, he maintains, the true and the right cause. Had he foreseen the end from the beginning, he would have spoken and acted as he did. He reviews his policy from the peace of 346 B.C., concluded just after Philip's destruction of Phocis, down to the king's death ten years afterwards. To all this he looks back with satisfaction and pride. In defending himself he attacks his rival, and denounces him as really the author of the calamities which had fallen on the Greek world. It was through the diplomacy of Æschines, he declares, that Philip was admitted to Thermopylæ, the beginning of all the subsequent mischief. If it was dreadful to think of Greece being under a foreign master, it was a glorious fact that Athens had done her best to avert such a disgrace.

This is the drift and purport of the great speech on the Crown, as it is usually called. It has been well described by Mr Grote as "a funeral oration on extinct Athenian and Grecian freedom." "It breathes," says Dr Thirlwall, "the spirit of that high philosophy which, whether learnt in the schools or from life, has consoled the noblest of our kind in prisons and on scaffolds, and under every persecution of adverse fortune, but in the tone necessary to impress a mixed multitude with a like feeling, and to elevate it for a while into a sphere above its own."

Some passages from this oration have already been quoted in the preceding chapter; and it is due to the reader to give him some further specimens of, perhaps, the greatest of all the oratorical efforts of Demosthenes.

Here is a passage in which the speaker dwells on the generous and magnanimous temper of his countrymen in their best days:—


"Let me for a moment bring before your eyes one or two of the brightest passages in the history of our times. Lacedæmon was paramount by sea and land; she had a belt of garrisons about the frontiers of our territory; Eubœa, Tanagra, all Bœotia, Megara, Ægina, Cleonæ, every island on the coast. We had neither ships nor walls; we were in no want (had we chosen to remember the Decelean war) of grievances either against Corinth or Thebes. And yet the arms of Athens were seen at Haliartus, and in a few days after at Corinth. You had something better to do than to recall the injuries of the past. . . .

"The sacrifice in either case was not made for a benefactor, neither was it made without risk. You held that no reason for abandoning to their fate men who had thrown themselves on your compassion. Honor and renown were a sufficient motive to lead you into danger, and who shall say you were wrong? Life must cease; death must come at some time, though one should steal into a cellar to avoid him. The brave are ever ready to set forth on the path of glory, armed with high hope and courage, prepared to accept without a murmur the fate which heaven may ordain. Thus did your forefathers; thus did the elders among yourselves, who interposed and frustrated the attempts of the Thebans after their victory at Leuctra to destroy Sparta, though from Sparta you had experienced neither friendship nor good offices, but many grievous wrongs. You neither quailed before the power and renown which Thebes then possessed, nor were you deterred by any thought of your past treatment by Sparta. Thus did you proclaim to all the Greeks, that how much soever any of them may offend against you, you reserve your resentment for other occasions; but that if danger threaten their existence or their liberties, you will take no account of—you will not even remember—your wrongs."

This is his answer to those who persisted in saying that it was Philip—Philip alone—who had brought all their troubles on them:—

"Do not go about repeating that Greece owes all her misfortunes to one man. No, not to one man, but to many abandoned men distributed throughout the different states, of whom, by earth and heaven, Æschines is one. If the truth were to be spoken without reserve, I should not hesitate to call him the common scourge of all the men, the districts, and the cities which have perished; for the sower of the seed is answerable for the crop. I am astonished you did not turn your faces from him the moment you beheld him; but thick darkness would seem to veil your eyes."


He maintains that the action of the State had been right and honourable, though it had failed.

"I affirm that if the future had been apparent to us all—if you, Æschines, had foretold it and proclaimed it at the top of your voice instead of preserving total silence,—nevertheless the State ought not to have deviated from her course, if she had regard to her own honour, the traditions of the past, or the judgment of posterity. As it is, she is looked upon as having failed in her policy,—the common lot of all mankind when such is the will of heaven; but if, claiming to be the foremost state of Greece, she had deserted her post, she would have incurred the reproach of betraying Greece to Philip. If we had abandoned without a struggle all which our forefathers braved every danger to win, who would not have spurned you, Æschines? God forbid that I should so speak of the State as of myself. How could we have looked in the face the strangers who flock to our city, if things had reached their present pass—Philip the chosen leader and lord of all—while others without our assistance had home the struggle to avert this consummation? "We! who have never in times past preferred inglorious safety to peril in the path of honour. Is there a Greek or a barbarian who does not know that Thebes at the height of her power, and Sparta before her—ay, and even the king of Persia himself—would have been only glad to compromise with us, and that we might have had what we chose, and possessed our own in peace, had we been willing to obey orders and to suffer another to put himself at the head of Greece? But it was not possible,—it was not a thing which the Athenians of those days could do. It was against their nature, their genius, and their traditions; and no human persuasion could induce them to side with a wrong-doer because he was powerful, and to embrace subjection because it was safe. No; to the last our country has fought and jeopardised herself for honour and glory and pre-eminence. A noble choice, in harmony with your national character, as you testify by your respect for the memories of your ancestors who have so acted. And you are in the right; for who can withhold admiration from the heroism of the men who shrank not from leaving their city and their fatherland, and embarking in their war-ships, rather than submit to foreign dictation? Why, Themistocles, who counselled this step, was elected general; and the man who counselled submission was stoned to death—and not he only, for his wife was stoned by your wives, as he was by you. The Athenians of those days went not in quest of an orator or a general who could help them to prosperous slavery; but they scorned life itself, if it were not the life of freedom. Each of them regarded himself as the child not only of his father and of his mother, but of his country; and what is the difference? He who looks on himself as merely the child of his parents, awaits death in the ordinary course of nature; while he who looks on himself as the child also of his country, will be ready to lay down his life rather than see her enslaved, and will hold death itself less terrible than the insults and indignities which the citizens of a state in slavery to the foreigner must endure. . . .

"Do I take credit to myself for having inspired you with sentiments worthy of your ancestors? Such presumption would expose me to the just rebuke of every man who hears me. What I maintain is, that these very sentiments are your own; that the spirit of Athens was the same before my time,—though I do claim to have had a share in the application of these principles to each successive crisis. Æschines, therefore, when he impeaches our whole policy, and seeks to exasperate you against me as the author of all your alarms and perils, in his anxiety to deprive me of present credit, is really labouring to rob you of your everlasting renown. If by your vote against Ctesiphon you condemn my policy, you will pronounce yourselves to have been in the wrong, instead of having suffered what has befallen you through the cruel injustice of fortune. But it cannot be: you have not been in the wrong, men of Athens, in doing battle for the freedom and salvation of all; I swear it by your forefathers, who bore the battle's brunt at Marathon; by those who stood in arms at Platæa; by those who fought the sea-fight at Salamis; by the heroes of Artemisium, and many more whose resting-place in our national monuments attests that, as our country buried, so she honoured, all alike—victors and vanquished. She was right; for what brave men could do, all did, though a higher power was master of their fate."


This, perhaps, is the most striking of the many striking passages in this great speech. Demosthenes carried his audience with him. His rival did not obtain a fifth of the votes. His position as an orator and statesman was destroyed. His discomfiture had been witnessed by the whole Greek world. In his mortification he left his native city for Rhodes, where he set up a school of rhetoric. The story was told that he once declaimed to his pupils the speech which had driven him into exile; and in reply to the applause with which it was greeted, exclaimed, "What if you had heard the beast himself speak it?"