Demosthenes/Chapter 6

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The year 352 B.C. brought with it the beginnings of great events. In that year, for the first time, the king of Macedon really showed that he might possibly be entertaining designs fraught with peril to the Greek world. He had prominently intervened in Greek politics. He had taken a conspicuous part in the Sacred or Holy War between the Thebans and Phocians. Once, indeed, he had been utterly defeated by the Phocian leader, Onomarchus, and had been driven back into his kingdom with loss and disaster, though report made him say that "he did not fly, but fell back, like the battering-ram, to give a more violent shock another time." He speedily again entered Thessaly with a more powerful army; and with the help of his allies in that country and of the admirable Thessalian cavalry, he won at Pagasæ a decisive victory over Onomarchus, who perished in the flight. Now he was completely master of Thessaly, a country which ought to have been under the control of a Greek state, and in which, of late, Theban influence had been supreme. Macedom was thus in effect the principal land power to the north of the Peloponnese; and her king had both displayed military genius, and had shown that he was in command of an army with which it was already a question whether any single Greek state could cope. The battle just fought was on a very considerable scale, and could not have failed to suggest unpleasant apprehensions to the mind of every thinking politician. Philip might very possibly follow up his success with an instant invasion of northern Greece. He did in fact advance on Thermopylæ; but Athens had forestalled him, and the famous pass was guarded by a force before which he thought it prudent to retire. The Athenians exulted in the reflection that they had once again been the deliverers of Greece. But their joy was doomed to be of very brief duration.

For a few months the king of Macedon employed himself in securing a firm hold on Thessaly. Meanwhile his cruisers and privateers, of which he had contrived to raise a formidable number, infested the northern islands and coasts of the Ægean, to the great annoyance and injury of Athenian trade. In the autumn of 352 B.C. he hurried northwards, entered Thrace, and took advantage of its intestine feuds, with a view to getting the country under his control. In November news reached Athens, the serious import of which could not be misunderstood. Philip was besieging Heræum—a place probably on the northern coast of the Propontis, to the west of Perinthus. It was contiguous to the Thracian Chersonese; occupied, as we have seen, by Athenian colonists, and, as it appears, actually garrisoned by an Athenian force. The act was thus one of almost open hostility, and practically equivalent to a declaration of war. But what made it singularly alarming was, that it was a most dangerous menace to the Athenian interests on the north of the Ægean. It meant, in fact, peril to the corn trade of Athens, and high prices and possibly famine to the citizens. It showed too, clearly enough, that Philip, if he could, would rob the city of its most valuable outlying possessions. Thus the eyes of the people ought to have been thoroughly opened to the danger which hung over them; but as soon as they knew that Philip was ill, and next heard a report of his death, they fell back into their love of the easy, comfortable life at Athens, with its pleasures and amusements, and flattered themselves with the notion that the crisis was finally past. The peace party, with Eubulus at its head, always strong, was now for the moment stronger than ever; and its best representative, the really patriotic Phocion, was too cynical to believe in the possibility of his countrymen being roused to the degree of effort and endurance which a serious struggle with Macedon would demand from them.

As soon as it was known that Philip had recovered, and was as active and aggressive as ever, there were, it appears, several acrimonious debates in the Assembly, with grievous complaints as to the inefficiency of the generals and of their troops. Athens still clung to her maritime supremacy, and it was felt to be disgraceful that this should be threatened by a barbarian. Still, her public men had not the moral courage to tell the people plainly the only way by which such a disgrace could be ended. It was painful to speak to them of personal service on shipboard, with all its hardships and risks. Demosthenes, in his speech on the war with Persia, had hinted, not obscurely, at this necessity. He did so far more clearly and persistently on the occasion we have been describing. At the age of about thirty he spoke the memorable harangue known as the First Philippic.

The speech shows that he had now quite made up his mind on the subject of the foreign policy of Athens. A year ago he had not, as we may reasonably infer, regarded Macedon as a source of real danger to the freedom of the Greek world. He was now convinced that Philip had designs beyond the mere establishment of a compact and powerful northern kingdom. He takes a broad view of the political situation, and speaks not merely as a citizen of the foremost state of Greece, but as a Greek on behalf of Greek security and independence.

It was assuredly much to the honour of Demosthenes that, as a young politician, he sounded a distinct note of warning, which he must have known would have jarred on the easy-going temper of his countrymen. Their affairs, he plainly tells them, were in a very bad plight; but there was hope, just because they had not as yet really exerted themselves. Therefore there was no reason for despair. Philip's power, indeed, was already great: he had Thessaly at his feet; he had defeated a Greek army under a brave and experienced leader; he was now threatening the Chersonese and the northern coasts of the Ægean, and with his fleet was harassing the commerce of Athens; still, he was not a more formidable foe than Sparta had been; and the fact that he was formidable at all was due to their own voluntary supineness, which, for the sake of Greece and for the glory of Athens, they must shake off once and for ever. Otherwise, even if rumour had truly asserted Philip's death, they would soon raise up against themselves another Philip equally terrible.

"You must not despond," he says at the beginning of his speech, "under your present circumstances, wretched as they are; for that which is worst in them as regards the past, is best for the future. My meaning is this—your affairs are amiss because you do nothing which is required. If the result were the same, although you performed your duties, there would be no hope of amendment. Consider, further, what is known to you by hearsay, and what men of experience remember. Not long ago, how vast a power the Lacedæmonians possessed! Yet how nobly and admirably did you consult the dignity of Athens, and undertook the war against them for the rights of Greece! Why do I mention this? To show and convince you that nothing, if you take precaution, is to be feared; nothing, if you are negligent, goes as you desire. Take, for examples, the strength of the Lacedæmonians, which you overcame by minding your duty; and the insolent ambition of this Philip now, which utterly confounds us through our neglect of our interest. If any of you think the man a formidable foe, looking at the vastness of his present power and our loss of all our strongholds, that is reasonable enough; only you should reflect that there was a time when we held Pydna, and Potidæa, and Methone, with all the adjacent country, and that many of the nations now in league with Philip were independent and free, and preferred our friendship to his. Had Philip then taken it into his head that Athens was too formidable a foe to fight, when she had so many fortresses to threaten his country, and he was destitute of allies, nothing that he has accomplished would he have attempted, and never would he have acquired so large a dominion. But he saw clearly enough that such places are the open prizes of war;—that the possessions of the absent belong to the present, those of the careless to the adventurous who shrink not from toil. Acting on that principle, he has won everything, and keeps it either by way of conquest or by friendly attachment and alliance; for all men will side with and respect those whom they see prepared and willing to make proper exertions. If you will adopt this principle now, though you have not hitherto done so—and if every man, when he can and ought to give his service to the State, be ready to give it without excuse—if the rich will contribute, if the able-bodied will enlist,—in a word, plainly, if you will become your own masters, and cease each expecting to do nothing himself, while his neighbour does everything for him,—then will you, with heaven's permission, recover your own, and get back what has been frittered away, and chastise Philip. Do not imagine that his empire is everlastingly secured to him as to a god. There are who hate and fear and envy him, even among those that seem most friendly; and all feelings natural to other men exist, we may assume, in his confederates. But now they are all cowed, for they have no refuge because of your tardiness and indolence, which I say you must abandon forthwith."


On the subject of the preparations they ought to make, Demosthenes thus advises them:—

"First, we must provide fifty war-ships, and hold ourselves prepared in case of emergency to embark and sail. There must, too, be an equipment of transports for half the cavalry, and sufficient boats. This we must have in readiness against his sudden marches from his own country to Thermopylæ, the Chersonese, Olynthus, and anywhere he likes. For he should be made to have the idea that possibly you may rouse yourselves out of this over-supineness and start off as you did to Eubœa, and very lately to Thermopylæ. Such an armament, I say, ought instantly to be agreed upon and provided."


In the following passage, the want of skill and method with which Athens was carrying on the contest is strikingly exposed:—

"You, Athenians, with larger means than any people, have never up to this day made proper use of any of them, and your war with Philip is exactly like the boxing of barbarians. With them, the party struck first is always feeling for the blow; strike him anywhere else, there go his hands again; ward or look you in the face he cannot and will not. So with you. If you hear of Philip in the Chersonese or at Thermopylæ, you vote to send a force there; if you hear of him somewhere else, you run, so to say, after his heels up and down, and are, in fact, commanded by him. No plan have you devised for the war; no circumstance do you see beforehand, but only when you learn that something is done or is about to be done. Formerly, perhaps, this was allowable; now it is come to a crisis to be borne no longer. It seems as if some god, in shame at our proceedings, had put this activity into Philip. For had he been willing to remain quiet in possession of his conquests and prizes, and attempted nothing further, some of you, I think, would be satisfied with a state of things which brands our nation with the shame of cowardice and of the foulest disgrace. But by continually encroaching and grasping after more, he may possibly rouse you, if you have not altogether despaired, I marvel, indeed, that not one of you notices with concern and anger that the beginning of this war was to chastise Philip; the end is to protect ourselves against his attacks."


Towards the conclusion of his speech, Demosthenes reproaches the people with their silly fondness for gossiping about Philip's reported movements, and bids them remember that he now is and long has been their enemy:—

"Some among ourselves go about and say that Philip is concerting with the Lacedæmonians the destruction of Thebes and the dissolution of free states; some, that he has sent envoys to the King;[1] others, that he is fortifying cities in Illyria. So we wander about, each inventing stories. For my part, I quite believe that Philip is thoroughly intoxicated with the magnitude of his exploits, and that he has many such dreams in his imagination. Still, most assuredly his plan of action is not such as to let the greatest fools among us know what his intentions are. For the greatest fools are these newsmongers. Let us dismiss such talk, and remember only that Philip is an enemy who robs us of our own, and has long insulted us; that whenever we have expected aid from any quarter, it has been found hostile; and that the future depends on ourselves; and, unless we are willing to fight him there, we shall perhaps be compelled to fight here. This let us remember, and then we shall have determined wisely, and have done with idle conjectures. You need not pry into the future, but assure yourselves that it will be disastrous, unless you give your mind to your duty, and are willing to act as becomes you."


The only result of this speech was, that a paltry four or five ships were sent to the Chersonese under a mercenary and somewhat disreputable general, Charidemus. The fact was, that there was a numerous party at Athens who never could be persuaded that Philip would some day be a really dangerous enemy. Persia was the power of which they were always thinking as the great source of peril to Greece. There were still rumours flying about as to the gigantic preparations which the King was said to be making against them to revenge the defeats of Marathon and Salamis. Possibly such reports were stimulated by Philip himself. Next there were those who were, in fact, Philip's paid agents, now, no doubt, a considerable class in several Greek states. And, last of all, there was incredulity and apathy among the Athenians themselves. All these adverse influences were too strong for Demosthenes, and his appeal to the patriotism of his countrymen was made in vain.

In the speech we have been describing, Demosthenes dwelt on the duty of Athens to put herself forward as the champion of Greece and of its free states. In a speech delivered some months or perhaps a year afterwards, he reminds her that she ought to be the champion of democracy and of popular government. From this point of view, the oration entitled "On the freedom of the people of Rhodes" has much interest. We rather gather, from the general tone of the speech, that Philip's restlessness had ceased for a time, or at all events that he had something else to do than to threaten the possessions and the commerce of Athens. It was made on the occasion of a deputation from the democratic party in Rhodes, who wished the island to pass again under Athenian control.

Rhodes had more than once been in alliance with Athens—a connection which practically implied a certain degree of subjection and dependence. With the close of the Peloponnesian War and the triumph of Sparta, it was put under an oligarchy, which meant Spartan control. About the year 396 B.C. the Athenian general Conon, who had a powerful fleet in the Ægean, again forced the Rhodians to become the allies of Athens. Four years afterwards a Spartan fleet appeared, and this was the signal for another revolution in the government. There was, it seems, one of those horrible incidents with which Greek history is so often disfigured—a massacre of the democratic leaders and of the adherents of Athens. But the oligarchy now imposed on the island did not last long. The Spartan fleet was defeated, and Rhodes and most of the islands of the Ægean returned to the Athenian alliance. We may take for granted that democracy was re-established. Then came, in 358 B.C., the Social War, the war between Athens and her allies, which broke up the second Athenian empire. Of this, Rhodes was the origin. Chares, the Athenian general, of whom we have already had occasion to speak, provoked and disgusted the Rhodians by plunder and extortion. Cos and Chios had similar grievances; and the three islands threw off their connection with Athens, and began the Social War—Rhodes being the prime mover. They were helped by Mausolus, king of Caria and a vassal prince of the Persian empire. He was a man of considerable ambition, and his idea was to annex Rhodes, which was adjacent to his own territories. It was first necessary to detach it from the Athenian alliance; and Mausolus contrived, by intrigues with the oligarchical party in the island, to introduce a Carian garrison; and once more the government was revolutionised. The people and their leaders found themselves in a hopeless plight, now that they had renounced their connection with Athens, while the oligarchy was supported by Persian influence through Mausolus. When that king died and his queen Artemisia succeeded, the government became so intolerably oppressive that the popular party ventured to send an embassy to Athens, and humbly to implore relief. It was hardly to be expected that the embassy would be well received. The Athenians felt that Rhodes had inflicted a grievous injury on them by plunging them in a disastrous war, which had ended in dissolving their confederacy. They were in no mood to listen to the present petition. Nevertheless it was supported by Demosthenes.

It is a hard matter to soothe the temper of people when they feel, as the Athenians now did, that they have suffered much from ingratitude. Popular assemblies, under such circumstances, are apt to be peculiarly angry and excited. All that Demosthenes could do was to appeal to the better and more generous sentiments of his countrymen. They ought not, he argued, to brood over the wrongs done to them by these insignificant islanders, but to think only of what was due to Athens and to Greece. It was alike their duty and interest to vindicate the freedom of an oppressed Greek people, and to stand by the policy of supporting popular and democratic government against oligarchs and tyrants. Unless they resolved to act thus, the political constitution of Athens would itself be imperilled. If all democracies were put down, their own would fall at last. Demosthenes, we see, was heartily in sympathy with democracy, and regarded it as the special glory of Athens to be its champion and upholder. If at times he felt its weak side, and its tendency to vacillation and irresolution, still he never seems to have doubted that it was on the whole the best and most manly type of government.

Such were his reasons for counselling the assembly to listen favourably to the request for aid from the Rhodians. In the following passage these views are clearly expressed:—


"Observe, men of Athens, that you have waged many wars both against democracies and against oligarchies. This you know without my telling; but for what causes you have been at war with either, perhaps not one of you considers. What are the causes? Against democratical states your wars have been either for private grievances, when you could not make public satisfaction, or for territory or boundaries, or a point of honour, or for the leadership of Greece. Against oligarchies you fought, not for such things, but for your constitution and for freedom. Therefore I would not hesitate to say that I think it better that all the Greeks should be your enemies with a popular government than your friends under an oligarchical. For with free men I consider you would have no difficulty in making peace when you chose; but with people under an oligarchy, even friendship I hold to be insecure. It is impossible that the few can be attached to the many, the seekers of power to the lovers of constitutional equality. I marvel none of you consider that, when the Rhodians and nearly all people are drawn into this slavery, our constitution must be in the same peril. If all other governments are oligarchical, it is impossible that they will let your democracy alone. They know too well that no other people will bring things back to freedom; therefore they will wish to destroy a government from which they apprehend mischief to themselves. Ordinary wrong-doers you may regard as enemies to the sufferers; while they who subvert constitutions and transform them into oligarchies must be looked upon as the common enemies of all lovers of freedom."


In the opinion of Demosthenes it thus appears that oligarchy was in fact slavery, and wholly alien to the Greek genius. The memory of the Athens of Pericles was deeply impressed on his mind. But he felt he was not addressing a people singularly prone to be misled. He hints plainly in this speech at the existence of an unpatriotic faction in the State.


"It is difficult for you," he says, "to adopt right measures. All other men have one battle to fight—namely, against their open and avowed enemies. You have a double contest—that which the rest have, and also a prior and a more arduous one. You must in counsel overcome a faction which acts among you in systematic opposition to the State. Men who desert the politics handed down to them by their ancestors, and support oligarchical measures, should be degraded and deprived of constitutional privileges, and disqualified from being your political advisers."


Again Demosthenes failed. The bitterness of Athenian feeling towards the ungrateful islanders made the people blind to higher considerations, and Rhodes remained in the hands of an oligarchy. It was still subject to Caria, and was thus really a Persian dependency.

  1. The king of Persia.