Demosthenes/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.


EARLY LIFE OF DEMOSTHENES.


We cannot be quite certain about the year in which Demosthenes was born. The accounts are conflicting, and we are thrown back on somewhat doubtful inferences. The year, it seems, must have been either 385-384 B.C. or 382-381 B.C. His early life thus coincided with an eventful period, and witnessed more than one remarkable political change in the Greek world. In the years immediately after his birth the supremacy of Sparta was unquestioned. Greece lay at her feet. Her power had made itself felt far beyond the Peloponnese, even on the northern shores of the Ægean. She had overthrown the city which might have become an effectual bulwark against the terrible king of Macedon. Olynthus became her vassal in the year 379 B.C. All was changed eight years afterwards. The decisive battle of Leuctra, in 371 B.C., struck down Sparta and gave the ascendancy to Thebes. For a few years Greece resounded with the fame of her two illustrious citzens, Epameinondas and Pelopidas. But when she lost Epameinondas, nine years after Leuctra, in the brilliant victory of Mantineia, she lost with him the supreme control of Greek politics, retaining merely the foremost rank among the northern states. Meanwhile she had given, as we have seen, shelter and education to the future destroyer of Greek freedom.

Amid these changes and revolutions, Demosthenes grew up to manhood. His own state, Athens, had achieved nothing specially worthy of record during this period. Still, she was altogether the most famous city of Greece, and was commercially prosperous. The father of Demosthenes, who bore the same name, was a rich and eminently respectable citizen. He was a merchant and a manufacturer, and belonged to the wealthy middle class. His property was distributed in various investments. He had two manufactories, and each, it seems, had a good business. One was a sword and knife manufactory, and employed thirty-two slaves. The other was a cabinet manufactory, and in this twenty slaves were employed. He had also money out at interest, a deposit account at one of the principal banks, and sums lent, according to a very prevalent Athenian practice, on ship-cargoes. He had, too, a house of some value, and good furniture and plate; and his wife was an heiress, and had her jewels on a tolerably handsome scale. But the lady, whose name was Cleobule, was not of pure Athenian blood, and her birth and antecedents were not quite what could be desired. Her father, Gylon, was a man of distinctly blemished reputation. He had been, in fact, accused of treason—the charge against him being that he had betrayed to the enemy the seaport town of Nymphæum in the Crimea. He did not appear to answer the accusation, and was, according to one account, sentenced to death in his absence. But he contrived to do well for himself. He went to Panticapæum, now Kertch, in the Crimea, then the capital of the kings of Bosporus, and there, through the king's favour, obtained a grant of land and married a rich wife. She was sneeringly spoken of at Athens as a barbarian and a Scythian—and so Æschines describes her; but it is quite possible that she may have been the daughter of one of those many Greeks who had settled in this remote district to carry on the business of exporting corn to Athens. It was then, as now, a specially corn-growing region. Gylon, it seems, made the most of the king's favour, and traded with great success. He was unquestionably a sharp, shrewd man; and he sent his two daughters well dowered to Athens, and there they both made fairly good matches. Both got Athenian citizens for their husbands—the one marrying Demochares, and the other the elder Demosthenes. We may not unreasonably conjecture that the mother of Demosthenes inherited some natural ability from her sagacious and enterprising father.

It was the misfortune of Demosthenes to be left an orphan when only seven years of age, and to fall into the hands of unscrupulous guardians. His father died worth fourteen talents,—about £3500 of our money. This, according to modern notions, is a very moderate property; but at Athens it was sufficiently large to place its possessor in the wealthiest class, and to render him liable to the highest rate of direct taxation. There were much larger fortunes, no doubt, as that of Nicias, which is said to have amounted to 100 talents, or about £24,000. Alcibiades was even richer; and Callias, who lived at the time of the Persian war, and secured a good share of the plunder, was what we should call a millionaire, being reported to have been worth 200 talents. Athens, as we have seen, was, of all the Greek cities, by far the richest, and it always contained a number of well-to-do citizens. The ordinary rate of interest was extremely high. Money lent even on good security fetched from 12 to 20 per cent; and some investments, those especially on ship-cargoes—hazardous, no doubt—were yet more lucrative. As much as 30 per cent was now and then paid on this class of investments. Demosthenes asserts, in his pleadings against his guardians, that a third part of his estate produced an income of fifty minas. This would make the entire income about £600 a-year. Now, it appears that a citizen could live just decently at Athens on something like seven or eight minas a-year, or about £32; and in perfect comfort and respectability on fifty minas, or about £200 a-year, provided he kept clear of the various costly public services which were demanded from the rich. Demosthenes, therefore, it is clear, having but one sister, ought to have had a very ample fortune, though he could not have been described as extremely wealthy. His father, being in business, probably got 25 or even 30 per cent for a large part of his capital, and we should suppose that he was at Athens in much the same position as a man with from £2000 to £3000 a-year would be with us. Had his will been faithfully carried out, and a third of the income been set apart for maintenance and education, and two-thirds profitably invested, the son must have been decidedly rich when at the age of sixteen, ten years after his father's death, he attained his majority.

As it was, he found himself comparatively poor. He had to receive something less than two talents, and his income could not have exceeded from £60 to £70 a-year. His father, we may surmise, had misgivings about the administration of the property, as he practically endeavoured to bribe the three guardians, two of whom were his nephews, into a faithful discharge of their trust by giving them full control over almost one-third of the property. His sister's son, Aphobus, was to marry the widow, with a fair fortune, and to have the house and furniture during the minority of Demosthenes. His brother's son, Demophon, was to have two talents, and to marry the daughter in due time. In all respects he seems to have carefully provided for his two children, and to have left them in the charge of relatives on whose fidelity he might reasonably reckon. The result can be ascribed only to negligence and dishonesty. The property must have been partly muddled away, partly actually embezzled. Admitting that some of the investments were precarious, and that the business of the two manufactories was simply mismanaged, we can hardly doubt that the trustees were unprincipled as well as utterly careless. It is true, indeed, that Demosthenes was taunted by his rival Æschines with having squandered his patrimony in ridiculous follies; and it was alleged by one of the guardians, in defending the action, that large advances had been made. The boy had, it would seem, rather luxurious tastes, and in the last two years of his minority he may have indulged them freely. But this very inadequately explains the smallness of the sums handed over to him. It is an all but absolute certainty that he was swindled out of his property. The matter ended in his bringing an action against Aphobus, and recovering a verdict for ten talents. It is not certain whether he actually received this amount. Aphobus was rich and influential, and contrived to make further difficulties. We have five speeches connected with this action—three against Aphobus, and two against a brother-in-law of Aphobus, Onetor. It is from these speeches that we chiefly get our information about the property of Demosthenes. We have not the means of knowing the precise results of the suit, or what benefit, if any, Demosthenes derived from it. Much of the estate had somehow or other disappeared, and he had to enter on life as rather a poor instead of a rich man.

It is probable that his misfortunes had a good effect on his character. They may have been the source of his intense resolution and perseverance. From early years he had a weak constitution, and shrank from the vigorous physical training which was considered an essential element in a Greek education. He had an active mind, and a strong craving for intellectual culture. As became his position and expectations, he went to good schools—though his guardians, if we may believe his statement, were shabby enough to leave his school-fees unpaid. He had a passion for speeches and recitations; and it was said that he once induced his schoolmaster to go with him to hear one of the first speakers of the day, Callistratus, who was delivering a great political harangue on the cession of the border-town Oropus to the Thebans. The occasion may have been a turning-point in his life. But he had an unlucky infirmity; he, who was to be the greatest orator of all time, stammered in his boyhood and youth. It would seem as if his physical defects were too much for his mental vigour and his ambitious aspirations.

Plutarch in his 'Life of Demosthenes' gives us several interesting details about his study and preparation for the career of an orator, and it is satisfactory to find that so high an authority as Mr Grote thinks that they rest on good evidence. It appears that the youth put himself under the instruction of Isæus, one of the first advocates of the time, who was frequently retained in cases connected with wills and disputes about property. In his speeches against his guardians he is said to have availed himself of the counsel and guidance of this eminent lawyer. But the most fashionable rhetoric-professor of the day was Isocrates, and Demosthenes was among the number of his most attentive and admiring hearers; though perhaps we must not believe a story according to which he asked the great man to teach him a fifth part of his art for two minas, as he could not afford the regular fee of ten minas, about £40, to learn the whole. One would like to believe that he heard and admired some of the discourses of Plato, who was then in the height of his philosophical glory; and there is a tradition, mentioned by Cicero and Tacitus, to this effect. The literary styles of the two men are no doubt very diverse; yet, as Dr Thirlwall suggests, it is not wholly improbable that the lofty morality which Demosthenes ventured to introduce into speeches addressed to Athenian assemblies and law courts may have been inspired by the philosopher. That he was a devoted student of the great History of Thucydides, that he copied it out eight times, and almost knew it by heart, we may well believe. One of the ancient critics, Dionysius of Halycarnassus, has elaborately pointed out resemblances in the orator to the historian. Strangely enough Cicero, in his Orator,[1] asks the question, "What Greek orator ever borrowed anything from Thucydides?" We really fail to see the point of this question, unless he meant to limit the term orator to a mere pleader, and even then we think he is wrong. But for the purpose of political oratory there cannot be a doubt that both the style and matter of Thucydides might be studied with infinite profit by a man of real capacity.

Nothing but the utmost energy and perseverance would have enabled Demosthenes to make himself an orator. He had, as already said, to surmount the actual physical difficulties of a feeble constitution and of some defect in his organs of speech. His ultimate success was a decisive proof of a singularly exceptional force of character. It is for this, indeed, as exhibited throughout his whole career, that he specially deserves admiration. We are told that he practised speaking with pebbles in his mouth; that he strengthened his lungs and his voice by reciting as he ran up hill; that he declaimed on the seashore amid the noise of waves and storms. He would even pass two or three months continuously in a subterranean cell, shaving one side of his head, that he might not be able to show himself in public, to the interruption of his rhetorical exercises. But all this patient and laborious practice did not procure immediate success. No public assembly could be more critical and fastidious than that of Athens. Demosthenes failed repeatedly. One of the old citizens found him on one of these occasions wandering about disconsolately in the Piræus, and tried to cheer him up by saying, "You have a way of speaking which reminds me of Pericles, but you lose yourself through mere timidity and cowardice." Another time he was returning to his home in deep dejection, when Satyrus, a great and popular actor, with whom he was well acquainted, entered into conversation with him. Demosthenes complained that though he was the most painstaking of all the orators, and had almost sacrificed his health to his intense application, yet he could find no favour with the people, and that drunken seamen and other illiterate persons were listened to in preference to himself. "True," replied the actor, "but I will provide you a remedy if you will repeat to me some speech in Euripides or Sophocles." Demosthenes did so, and then Satyrus recited the same speech in such a manner that it seemed to the orator quite a different passage. With the aid of such hints, joined to his own indefatigable industry, he at last achieved a distinct success in the law courts, and his services as an advocate were in great request.

After all, he had not much of which, according to our notions, a man could reasonably complain. Success came to him very early in life. He was, as we should say, in large practice at the bar when he was considerably under thirty—an age at which a young English barrister hardly hopes for a brief. Doubtless, at Athens there were opportunities for displaying oratorical ability which do not exist in England. One thoroughly successful speech before the popular assembly might well make the fortune of a man as an advocate. To make such a speech required, we may be sure, marked ability and considerable training; but once made, it must at least have opened a career in the law courts. Athenian law, too, was probably less intricate and difficult than English. It had not such a variety of branches, as seem to be indispensable in so complex a community as our own. The study of it must thus have been a much less arduous task than that which lies before the English lawyer. But it was an admirable preparation for political life. Law and politics were intermingled at Athens very much more than among ourselves; and a lawyer was almost necessarily something of a politician. There, questions which we regard as purely political, and which would be discussed with us only in Parliament, might come before a law court. An accusation, for instance, might be preferred against a man for proposing a law or a decree quite at variance with the spirit of the constitution. Such cases were frequent. It was in a prosecution of this nature that Demosthenes, who for some few years had had a good practice as a barrister in civil and criminal causes, made what we may fairly call his first appearance as a political adviser.

  1. Chapter ix.