Demosthenes/Chapter 5

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Persia in the fourth century B.C. was a more considerable power than we might have supposed from the comparative ease with which it was overthrown by Alexander. The Great King, as he was always called, was in the possession of immense resources. Financially he was much stronger than the Greek world, though his military inferiority had been more than once clearly proved. He was still looked on by the Greeks generally with a sort of wondering awe. He ruled in some fashion a vast empire, and held it together by means of satraps and vassal princes, notwithstanding occasional serious revolts. He had had indeed, in past days, to acknowledge the independence of the Asiatic Greeks; still he was always distinctly felt as a force in Greek politics, with which from time to time he was brought into contact. On the whole, he was regarded as an enemy; but the unfortunate want of anything like hearty union among the states of Greece tended to weaken this feeling, and to make combined action against him all but impossible. There was always, however, a vague fear that he might some day, if violently provoked, crush the Greek world beneath the weight of a huge barbarian invasion.

In the year 356 B.C., the second year of Athens' war with her revolted allies, this fear rose, at Athens at least, to a positive panic. Greek generals, as we have seen, occasionally found it convenient to take service under some Persian satrap, for the sake of the liberal pay on which they could confidently reckon. In the year above mentioned, Chares was in command of a fleet which Athens had sent out to put down her rebellious subjects in the islands of the Ægean. He was a man thoroughly of the adventurer type; and when he found that he could not pay his troops, which were for the most part foreign mercenaries, he carried off his armament on his own responsibility to the aid of Artabanus, the satrap of the country south of the Propontis, who was then in revolt against the Great King. Artabanus was, at the time, in sore need of help; but Chares gained for him a brilliant victory over the king's forces, and he received for himself and his soldiers a liberal reward. The proceeding was, of course, utterly irregular, and gave great offence at Athens; but the success reconciled them to it. The King of Persia was naturally very indignant, and sent an embassy to Athens to complain of this unprovoked aggression. Soon it was rumoured that he was preparing a fleet of 300 galleys to aid their revolted allies and to attack their city. There was intense excitement. Peace was immediately concluded with the allies, but there was a strong feeling in favour of declaring war against Persia. Now, it was said, was the time for an appeal to Panhellenic sentiment, and to endeavour to unite Greece against her old enemy. We can well imagine that such language was likely to meet with a response in many quarters, and that it might well seem patriotic, and even prudent.

In this case, again, Demosthenes thought it his duty to protest. He did so in a speech delivered in 354 B.C. He must have been, in all probability, on the unpopular side. He had, too, against him the opinion of the famous and clever rhetorician, Isocrates, who had urged in one of his pamphlets the expediency of a Panhellenic combination against Persia. The party of Eubulus, backed up by a number of orators and demagogues, supported this policy. To Demosthenes it seemed an idle dream—the preposterous imagination of a knot of political adventurers. The speech in which he opposed it is calm and statesmanlike. "In no one of his speeches," says Mr Grote, "is the spirit of practical wisdom more predominant than in this his earliest known discourse to the public Assembly." He tells his excited countrymen some very plain home-truths. "The Greeks," he frankly says, "are too jealous of each other to be capable of uniting in an aggressive war. They might indeed do so in a war of self-defence. Should Athens declare war, the King of Persia would be able to purchase aid from the Greeks themselves. Such a step would consequently lay bare the worst weaknesses of the Greek world. Their right policy was to put Athens in a posture of defence, that she might not be attacked unprepared. They must reorganise their fleet. They must not shrink from personal military service and lean upon foreign mercenaries. They must not rest contentedly on the glorious deeds of their ancestors, but uphold the dignity of their State by themselves imitating their deeds, whatever temporary sacrifices it might cost them. And they should seek to rally round Athens a host of confederates, united to her by the bonds of common interest and mutual confidence." Some of these topics are such as, under critical circumstances, it must have required much moral courage to urge.

A few passages from the speech will give the reader an idea of Demosthenes' views about Persia, about the difficulty of united action against that power, and the immediate duties of the Athenians themselves:—


"I hold the King," he says, "to be the common enemy of all the Greeks. Still I would not for this reason advise you without the rest to undertake a war against him. The Greeks themselves, I observe, are not friends to one another. On the contrary, some have more confidence in the King than in certain of their own people. Such being the case, I deem it expedient for you to see that the cause of war be equitable and just, that all necessary preparations be made, and that this should be the groundwork of your resolution. Were there any plain proof that the King of Persia was about to attack the Greeks, I think they would join alliance, and be extremely grateful to those who sided with them and defended them against him. But if we rush into a quarrel before his intentions are declared, I am afraid that we shall be driven into a war with both—with the King and with the people whom we are anxious to protect. He will suspend his designs, if he really has resolved to attack the Greeks, will give money to some, and promise friendship; while they, in the wish to carry on their own wars with better success and intent on similar objects, will disregard the common safety of the Greek world. I beseech you not to betray our country into such embarrassment and folly. You, I perceive, cannot adopt the same policy in regard to the king as the other Greeks can. Many of them, I conceive, may very well pursue their selfish interests, and be utterly indifferent to the national welfare. But for you it would be dishonourable, even though you had suffered wrong, so to punish the wrong-doers as to let any of them fall under the power of the barbarian. Under these circumstances we must be careful not to engage in the war on unequal terms, and not to allow him whom we suppose to be planning mischief against the Greeks to get the credit of appearing their friend."


Although Athens is rich, he warns the people that those riches will not be forthcoming on a mere vague rumour of hostilities from Persia. When the danger is seen to be really imminent, then it will be time for the State to put a pressure on its wealthy citizens.


"You invite the Greeks to join you. But if you will not act as they wish, how can you expect they will obey your call, when some of them have no good-will towards you? Because, forsooth, they will hear from you that Persia has designs on them? Pray, do you imagine that they don't foresee it themselves? I am sure they do; but at present the fear outweighs the enmity which some of them bear towards you and towards each other. Athens contains treasures equal to the rest of the Greek states put together. But the owners of wealth are so minded that if all your orators alarmed them with the intelligence that the King was coming, that he was at hand, that the danger was inevitable—if, besides the orators, a number of persons gave oracular warning—so far from contributing, they would not even discover their wealth or acknowledge its possession. But if they knew that what is so terrible in report was really begun, there is not a man so foolish who would not be ready to give and foremost to contribute. I say that we have money against the time of actual need, but not before. And therefore I advise you not to search for it now. Your right course is to complete your other preparations. Let the rich retain their riches for the present (it cannot be in better hands for the State); and should the crisis come, then take it from them in voluntary contributions."


The speech is thus concluded:—

"My advice is, do not be over-alarmed at the war; neither be led to commence it. As far as I see, no other state of Greece has reason to fear it. All the Greeks know that so long as they regarded Persia as their common enemy, they were at peace one with another, and enjoyed much prosperity. But since they have looked on the King as a friend, and quarrelled about disputes with each other, they have suffered worse calamities than any one could possibly imprecate upon them. Should we fear a man whom both fortune and heaven declare to be an unprofitable friend and a useful enemy? If it were possible with one heart and with united forces to attack him alone, such an injury I could not pronounce to be an injustice. But since this cannot be, I say we must be cautious, and not afford the King a pretence for vindicating the rights of the other Greeks. Do not expose the melancholy condition of Greece by convoking her people when you cannot persuade them, and making war when you cannot carry it on. Only keep quiet, fear nothing, and prepare yourselves. My advice in brief is this: Prepare yourselves against existing enemies; and you ought with the same force to be able to resist the King and all others, if they attempt to injure you. But never begin a wrong in word or deed. Let us look that our actions, and not our speeches on the platform, be worthy of our ancestors. If you pursue this course, you will do service not only to yourselves, but also to those who give the opposite counsel; for you will not be angry with them afterwards for errors now committed."


In this speech Demosthenes may be said to foreshadow the general character of his foreign policy. He did not wish Athens to be aggressive, but simply to hold her own with a firm hand. This, he thought, she might well be persuaded to do. Grand schemes of Panhellenic union against the empire of Persia, such as floated before the imagination of Isocrates, and were, through his influence, fascinating the minds of a certain class of political enthusiasts, he scouted as Quixotic. Above all things, he aimed at being a practical statesman; and of this the speech from which we have just been quoting, delivered by him in the commencement of his public life, is decisive evidence.

In the following year he delivered a speech which is of considerable interest as showing his view of Greek politics at the time. It was important, he thought, for Athens that there should be, as we say, a balance of power in the Greek world, and that neither Sparta nor Thebes should be too strong. I have explained the circumstances under which Megalopolis was founded in 371 B.C., after the great battle of Leuctra, under Theban influence, as the metropolis of Arcadia, and specially as a check on Sparta. The establishment of this city, together with the loss of the Messenian territory, which soon followed, was a terrible blow to that state. Sparta, in fact, for the time, was reduced to a second-rate power. She was hemmed in by enemies on the north and on the west. It was hardly to be expected that she would acquiesce in such humiliation. And so, in the year 353 B.C., her king, Archidamus, began to plan a counter-revolution, which should undo the work of Leuctra by the destruction of Megalopolis and the reconquest of Messenia. It was, however, necessary for him to have some pretext which should commend itself generally to Greek opinion. He was meditating an entire unsettlement of the affairs of the Peloponnese in the interest of Sparta; and this, he knew, would not be allowed if it were to be openly avowed. Accordingly he put forward the policy of a general restoration of ancient rights to the different states. Athens would thus recover the border town of Oropus, now in the possession of Thebes, the loss of which had much vexed and distressed her. Thus, it was hoped, she might be disposed to favour the Spartan proposals, which, as a matter of course, the anti-Theban party, then very strong, would back up to the utmost of its power. The result which such a policy would have on Megalopolis, as a barrier in Sparta's way, was kept in the background. The new city must have inevitably dwindled down into an insignificant township, and the purpose with which it had been founded would have been frustrated.

Envoys came to Athens both from Sparta and from Megalopolis. There was a warm and angry debate. The bitter hatred Athenians had always felt towards Thebans, coupled with the immediate desire of recovering Oropus, was enough to recommend the Spartan proposals. It seems strange that the memory of what Athens had suffered from the hands of Sparta did not at once decide the question, and open the eyes of the people to the dangers of Sparta's insidious policy. Some there were who saw through it and denounced it. Demosthenes was among the number. He was with the "Opposition;" and it appears that on this occasion he failed. He supported the cause of Megalopolis—the cause, in fact, of Thebes—arguing that it would be a grave political blunder to assist Sparta in recovering the position which she held in Greece previous to the battle of Leuctra. His speech is subtle and ingenious, and must have been convincing to those who would not let themselves be carried away by an unreasoning antipathy to everything Theban.


"The Lacedæmonians," he says, "are acting a crafty part. They say they cannot retain the gratitude they feel for you for helping them in a time of urgent need unless you now allow them to commit an injustice. However repugnant it may be to the designs of the Spartans that we should adopt the Arcadian alliance "(that is, the alliance of Megalopolis), "surely their gratitude for having been saved by us in a crisis of extreme peril ought to outweigh their resentment for being checked in their aggression now."


As to the bait held out by Sparta to Athens in the prospect of the recovery of Oropus, he says:—

"My opinion is, first, that our State, even without sacrificing any Arcadian people to the Lacedæmonians, may recover Oropus, both with their aid, if they are minded to act justly, and that of others who hold Theban usurpation to be intolerable. Secondly, supposing that it were evident to us that, unless we permit the Lacedæmonians to reduce the Peloponnese, we cannot obtain possession of Oropus, allow me to say, I deem it more expedient to let Oropus alone than to abandon Messenia and the Peloponnese to the Lacedæmonians. I imagine the question between us and them would soon be about other matters. . . .

"I am sure, to judge from rational observation—and I think most Athenians will agree with me—that if the Lacedæmonians take Megalopolis, Messenia will be in danger; and if they take Messenia, I predict that you and the Thebans will be allies. Then it is much better and more honourable for us to receive the Theban confederacy as our friends and resist Lacedæmonian ambition, than, out of reluctance to save the allies of Thebes, to abandon them now, and have afterwards to save Thebes herself and be in fear also for our own safety, I cannot but regard it as perilous to our State should the Lacedæmonians take Megalopolis and again become strong. For I see they have undertaken the war not to defend themselves, but to recover their ancient power. What were their designs when they possessed that power, you perhaps know better than I, and therefore may have reason to be alarmed."


This was plain speaking, and sound, statesmanlike advice. It could not have been the interest of Athens to let Sparta regain her old supremacy, as she was certainly striving to do. It was her interest, as Demosthenes says towards the conclusion of his speech, not to abandon Megalopolis and the Arcadians, and to make them feel (should they survive the struggle) that they had owed their deliverance not to themselves or to any other people but the Athenians. As affairs turned out, the dangers he apprehended never came to pass. He could not persuade his countrymen to support Megalopolis. They simply stood neutral. The Lacedæmonians waged war for two years in Arcadia, and gained some partial successes, but they could not carry out their designs. Thebes, though she had occupation for her soldiers in other quarters, contrived to send an army into the Peloponnese; and after some indecisive engagements, a truce was concluded, which left matters as they were. Megalopolis and the Arcadian confederacy escaped the peril with which Sparta had threatened them. But the result to Athens and to Greece was unsatisfactory. Subsequently, when they apprehended a similar danger from Sparta, they did not think it worth their while to ask help from Athens. They did not care to be refused a second time, and on this occasion they applied to Philip. He was not the man to miss such an opportunity; and thus Macedonian influence was brought to bear on the affairs of the Peloponnese. This was the unfortunate consequence of the indifference of Athens to the progress of Spartan ambition. She gave the impression to the Greek world that she was not in earnest in wishing to maintain the liberties of the states of the Peloponnese, although it had been her constant profession to do so. This was the inference drawn from her refusal to ally herself with Megalopolis against Sparta. Had she been guided by the counsels of Demosthenes, she would have assumed a dignified political attitude, and, as events turned out, have put a stumbling-block in the way of her future enemy and destroyer. It is true, indeed, that at that time there was no distinct cause of apprehension from Macedon, and there is not even any allusion to Philip in this speech of Demosthenes. We may therefore conclude that as yet he himself feared nothing in that quarter. Still, it is not the less to his credit that he urged Athens to adopt a policy which would have won for her the respect and confidence of many of the Greeks, and might have had the effect of excluding the intrusion of a most dangerous foreign influence into an important part of the Greek world.