Demosthenes/Chapter 13

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Demosthenes had won a splendid triumph, which he survived eight years. But they were years by no means unclouded. They were darkened by an unfortunate incident, which we proceed briefly to narrate.

From 330 to 324 B.C., we hear nothing of the great orator. Athens, in fact, had no politics for him to discuss. He could have had nothing to do but to advise private clients. By the year 324 Alexander had returned from that long expedition in which he had carried his army through the heart of Asia to the banks of the Indus. He had left behind him one of his old Macedonian friends in the government of the rich satrapy of Babylonia. Harpalus (this was the man's name) was greedy and extravagant, and wasted the resources of his province in a luxury which he had learnt during his residence in the East. It was said that he loaded his table with the most costly delicacies, and filled his gardens with exotic plants of every variety. He had found it convenient to please the people of Athens by splendid presents, and particularly by very liberal gifts of wheat for free and general distribution. For all this he had received votes of thanks and been made an Athenian citizen. He was afraid, however, to face Alexander, who, he well knew, showed no mercy to delinquent satraps. So he fled from Asia to Europe with an immense treasure of 5000 talents (about a million and a quarter pounds sterling), and landed at Cape Sunium, in Attica. He might reasonably flatter himself that he would not be an unwelcome visitor at Athens, but in this he was disappointed. There was the fear of the wrath of Alexander; and the fear, too, that Harpalus might possibly intend to assume the position of a tyrant or despot. His offers, whatever they were, were rejected; but there was a debate in the Assembly, and a rumour reached Alexander that Athens had received him and his armament. This was at the time untrue; but when he sent away his ships and asked leave to be admitted into the city with a few personal attendants, the people, remembering his past favours, no longer refused. Having gained his point, he tried to persuade them that they might defy Alexander with a prospect of success, and that he was himself able and willing to furnish them with the necessary funds. Some of the orators supported his views. But he could do nothing with Phocion or with Demosthenes. This was fatal to his project. Soon there came envoys from Antipater, Alexander's deputy in Macedonia, requiring his surrender. But this both Phocion and Demosthenes, notwithstanding the danger of the crisis, opposed. So alarmed, however, were the people at the thought of Alexander's probable vengeance, that they decided on arresting Harpalus and sequestrating his treasure till they could learn what view Alexander took of the matter; and this much they did on the motion of Demosthenes himself. It seems possible, as has been suggested, that Demosthenes proposed this motion with an arrière-pensée, and may have wished to detain Harpalus and his treasure, and to wait the course of events. Harpalus contrived to escape; but his treasure—that part of it at least which he had brought to Athens after dismissing his fleet, and which amounted, according to statements made by Demosthenes on his authority, to about 720 talents—remained behind. This, of course, ought to have been returned—and the people were, it seems, prepared to do so; but when the money was counted it was found that there was no more than 350 talents, barely half the original sum. How was the deficiency to be explained? There was a great stir and outcry. People said that it must have been used in bribery, and that the missing money must have stuck to the fingers of the orators and public men. There was a general feeling that somebody ought to be punished, but there was not a scrap of evidence against any one, and no means of procuring it.

Demosthenes proposed to have the affair investigated by the court of Areopagus. It was not easy to see what better course could have been taken. At the same time, the members of that court must have felt that they could hardly hope, under the circumstances, to arrive at a perfectly satisfactory result. No doubt they commanded the public confidence, as they were all men of age and experience, and were from their position above the motives which occasionally swayed other courts. Great latitude was allowed them; and practically they often decided cases not simply on the evidence before them, but on hearsay, and on that personal knowledge which men in their rank would be sure to possess. They took the utmost pains with the present inquiry, and were engaged on it for six months. They went so far as to search the houses of the principal public men, with the exception of one who had been lately married—an exception perhaps to be attributed to a sense of delicacy. At last they published their report, with a list of the names of persons whom they considered chargeable with having improperly possessed themselves of the missing money.

In this list appeared the name of Demosthenes as a debtor to the amount of twenty talents. The next step was to give the accused parties the choice of taking their trial or of paying the sum with which the Areopagus had debited them. Of those brought to trial, Demosthenes was the first. He was tried before a jury of 1500 of his fellow-citizens, was found guilty, and sentenced to pay a fine of fifty talents (about £12,000). It is very possible that among the jury which condemned him there may have been many who wished to please Alexander, and many, too, of the friends of Harpalus. It must, however, be remembered that the decision of the Areopagus could not fail to influence their verdict, Demosthenes would not or could not pay the fine. He was imprisoned, but in a few days was able to escape to Trœzen, in the territory of Argos, It was but a few months that he remained there.

We can hardly bring ourselves to believe that he was really guilty. Of course we can judge only by probabilities; and it is certain that the court of Areopagus must have had grounds for their suspicion. We must bear in mind that they merely drew up a list of persons whose case in their opinion required further judicial inquiry. There is no reason for assuming that they regarded the guilt of Demosthenes as certain. The inquiry was long and difficult; and the decision ultimately arrived at could have been hardly meant to express confident assurance. If Demosthenes publicly stated, on Harpalus's authority, the amount of the treasure, it seems strange that he should have made himself a party to the disappearance of a portion of it. It may be that the statement he made had not been verified by him, and it may have been altogether erroneous. It is pleasant to find that both Dr Thirlwall and Mr Grote incline to acquit him of this mean dishonesty.

It may be worth while to mention a story told by Plutarch about this painful passage in the life of Demosthenes. Like many of his stories, it is probably a pure fiction, but it is at least amusing. Harpalus, he tells us, won over the orator to his side by sending him a singularly beautiful golden cup, his admiration of which he had noted. Along with the cup were twenty talents, the sum with which the Areopagus had debited him. Shortly afterwards, when the proposals of Harpalus were being discussed in the Assembly, Demosthenes, who had previously opposed them, appeared with a woollen bandage round his throat, and pretended that he could not speak, from an attack of quinsy. Some wag remarked that it must be the silver quinsy. The people laughed, but were angry. Such is the story. But, as a fact, Demosthenes did not drop his opposition to Harpalus. It was on his motion, as we have seen, that Harpalus was arrested and his treasure sequestrated.

We left the great orator in exile at Trœzen. He was recalled soon after the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. An attempt was then made once more to rid Greece of the Macedonian ascendancy. It was finally crushed by Antipater in the battle of Crannon in 322 B.C. The conqueror demanded the surrender of the leading anti-Macedonian orators—Demosthenes, of course, among them. Athens from this moment ceased to exist as a free state. A Macedonian garrison was introduced; there was a wholesale disfranchisement of citizens, and a new political constitution was imposed on the city. Demosthenes did not remain to be a witness of this degradation. He had been welcomed back to his native Athens with joyful enthusiasm; now he must leave her for ever. He took refuge in the little island of Calauria, off the coast of Argolis. It was here that he chose to die rather than fall into the hands of the "exile-hunters," as the emissaries of Antipater were called. Within the precincts of an ancient temple of Neptune, regarded of old as an inviolable sanctuary, he swallowed poison, retaining in his last moments sufficient presence of mind to expire outside the sacred enclosure, to which, in Greek belief, death would have been a pollution.