Demosthenes/Chapter 7

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When Demosthenes, some time in the year 352 B.C., made his first speech against Philip, there were good grounds for an uneasy feeling throughout the Greek world as to the king's possible movements and designs. He had already raised Macedon to a position it had never before held. It had become a distinct power in the politics of Greece. For a while, however, the usually active Philip seemed to be really resting from his labours, and next to nothing was heard of him. Demosthenes does not so much as allude to him in his speech "for the freedom of the people of Rhodes." We may fairly infer from his silence that anything like serious apprehensions at Athens of peril from "the barbarian," as Philip was called, had died away. The peace party, always strong, and able to make out a plausible case for itself, would thus be strengthened; and it would not be easy, even in the face of manifest danger, thoroughly to rouse the Athenians to a sense of the duty which they owed both to themselves and to Greece.

Philip was by this time a powerful prince; but still he was as yet barely a match for Athens, had she chosen to put forth her full strength. He had an efficient army and a good revenue, and he also had the luck to have other collateral advantages. He had tools and agents in several Greek states; and he had practically on his side at Athens very many of the rich and well-to-do citizens, who shrank from the idea of a war which required personal service and exertion. It was perfectly clear that a contest with him would have been a serious undertaking. At the same time, his position, though strong, was not altogether secure. He had, as we have seen, possessed himself of some of the coast towns, and he had a fleet in the Ægean. Athens should never have allowed him to advance to this point. She had flung away opportunities; but even now it was not too late to check him with the help of a seasonable alliance. As yet he had no hold on the district known as Chalcidice, which juts out with its three peninsulas into the north-west of the Ægean. It was a valuable and commanding strip of country; and it contained thirty Greek towns, of which the chief was the city Olynthus, at the head of the Toronæan gulf. Some of these towns regarded themselves as dependencies of Olynthus, and formed what was known as the Olynthian confederacy. There was a time when even Pella, now the capital of Macedonia, was included in their number. Olynthus, indeed, had been quite the most powerful city in the north of the Ægean, and far too proud to submit to the supremacy of either Sparta or Athens. Sparta with much difficulty forced it, in 379 B.C., into the Lacedæmonian confederacy; and Athens, about ten years later, very much weakened its influence by taking from it some of its territory and of its subject-towns. Still, however, it was prosperous and flourishing; and it could, at an extremity, bring into the field a considerable military force, especially of cavalry. Although it owed Athens a grudge, it had, as we have seen, proposed alliance when it saw its neighbour, Amphipolis, pass into the hands of Philip. Athens declined the offer, and Philip was clever enough temporarily to conciliate the goodwill of the Olynthians by a trifling concession of territory,—intending, no doubt, at the first convenient moment, to pick a quarrel with them and annex the whole district. It must have been easy for him, in the case of a city immediately in his own neighbourhood, to have his partisans among the citizens; and it was to this that he was indebted for his ultimate success. The towns, too, which were connected with Olynthus by the loose tie of federation, were no doubt singularly open to his intrigues. Still, there was the feeling that he might become a dangerous aggressor; and accordingly Olynthus decided on a change of policy, and, in 352 B.C., withdrew itself from the Macedonian alliance. The next step was to conclude peace with Athens, and even to show a wish for a yet closer union with that state. Athens, too, now saw the advantage of such a union, and, indeed, actually made overtures to that effect; but Olynthus was not quite prepared to commit itself definitely to an Athenian alliance, which it well knew would be equivalent to a declaration of hostility against Philip.

Before long, however,—in the year B.C. 350, as it seems,—Philip left the Olynthians no alternative but that of seeking powerful support. He made them feel that they were in imminent danger by a sudden and unprovoked attack on one of those cities of Chalcidice which would naturally look to Olynthus for sympathy and protection. Their eyes were now completely opened, and they instantly sent off an embassy to Athens. Philip, indeed, tried to persuade them by envoys that he had no intention of making war on them; but he could not blind them. They felt sure that they might count on a favourable reception for their envoys at Athens, and on the prospect of assistance. Nor were they disappointed. It was impossible for the Athenians to neglect such an opportunity. They had themselves lately proposed such an alliance, and now it was offered them. There could be no mistake as to the critical nature of the situation. Philip had attacked and taken a Greek city, and it was hardly possible to doubt that he was feeling his way to the conquest and annexation of the entire peninsula of Chalcidice, with its thirty towns. Were he to be successful, it was clear that his power would be immensely increased. Equally clear was it that Olynthus, if well supported, might effectually stop his further progress. Indeed, so sanguine were the Athenians, that the general talk now was about punishing Philip for his perfidy. Only one statesman and orator of any note, Demades, who was rarely to be found on the patriotic side, and was subsequently in all probability a mere creature of Philip's, spoke against the proposed alliance.

It was on this occasion that Demosthenes, in the latter half probably of the year 350 B.C., delivered three memorable speeches, commonly known as the "Olynthiacs." He must have felt that the convictions of the people were with him; and yet at the same time he lets us see, by his general tone, that he almost despaired of being able to stir them to decisive action. All that they could be persuaded to do was to send thirty galleys and 2000 mercenaries. This poor little force could not stop Philip from continuing his attacks on the Greek towns of Chalcidice. He had not yet entered Olynthian territory, or even declared war against the city; but Olynthus was sufficiently alarmed to send a second embassy to Athens, begging for more effectual help. A large force was now despatched; but it consisted of mercenaries, and, unfortunately for Athens, it was under the command of a man who, though he had some military talent, was so disreputable in his life that he utterly disgusted the Olynthians.

In the speech which was probably first delivered, Demosthenes seeks to encourage his countrymen to take a hopeful view of affairs by pointing out to them how it really was that Philip had risen to power, and how numerous were the elements of weakness in his kingdom and government.


"He has risen by conciliating and cajoling the simplicity of every people which knew him not. When one has grown strong, as he has, by rapacity and artifice, on the first pretext, the slightest reason, all is overturned and broken up. If you will perform your duties properly, not only will it appear that Philip's alliances are weak and precarious, but the poor state of his native empire and power will be revealed. To speak roundly, the Macedonian power is very well as a help, as it was for you in the time of Timotheus against the Olynthians. For them, too, against Potidæa, it was an important alliance. Lately, as you know, it aided the Thessalians in their broils and troubles against the regnant house; and indeed the accession of any power, however small, is undoubtedly useful. But of itself Macedon is feeble, and has numberless deficiencies. The very operations which seem to constitute Philip's greatness—his wars and his expeditions—have made it more insecure than it was originally. Do not imagine that Philip and his subjects have the same likings. He craves glory—makes that his passion; is ready for any consequence of adventure and peril—preferring, as he does, to a life of safety, the honour of achieving what no Macedonian king ever did before. They have no share in the glorious result: ever harassed by these excursions, they suffer and toil without ceasing; they have no leisure for their employments or private affairs, and cannot so much as dispose of their hard earnings, the markets of the country being closed on account of the war. We may easily infer from all this what is the general Macedonian feeling towards Philip. His mercenaries and guards, indeed, have the reputation of admirable and well-trained soldiers; but, as I heard from one who had been born in the country, they are no better than others. If some of them are experienced in battles and campaigns, Philip is jealous of such men, and drives them away—so my informant tells me—wishing to keep the glory of all action to himself. Or again, if a man is generally good and virtuous, unable to bear Philip's daily intemperance, drunkenness, and indecency, he is pushed aside and accounted as nobody. The rest about him are brigands and parasites, and men of that character who will get drunk and perform dances which I scruple to name before you. My information is undoubtedly true; for persons whom all scouted here as worse rascals than mountebanks,—Callias, the town-slave, and the like of him—antic-jesters and composers of ribald songs to lampoon their companions,—such persons Philip caresses and keeps about him. Small matters these may be thought, but to the wise they are strong indications of his character and wrongheadedness. Success perhaps throws a shade over them now; prosperity is a famous hider of such blemishes; but on any miscarriage they will be fully exposed."


Though in the above passage Demosthenes speaks contemptuously of Philip, describing him as little better than a savage and barbarian, he warns his hearers that if they let Olynthus fall into his hands, he will soon carry the war into Attica itself. The third and last of his three speeches was delivered when the Olynthians entreated Athens to send out a force of her own citizens, instead of mercenaries commanded by men of the type of the officer whose misconduct, as we have seen, had given them so much offence. Of all the political orations of Demosthenes, this is perhaps the most stirring and impressive. It is, in the opinion of Mr Grote, one of the most splendid harangues ever spoken. It seems that people at Athens still talked about punishing Philip; and there were orators, no doubt, who flattered them into the notion that they could do so whenever they chose. "Such talk," says Demosthenes, "is founded on a false basis. The facts of the case teach us a different lesson. They bid us look well to our own security, that we be not ourselves the sufferers, and that we preserve our allies. There was, indeed, a time—and that, too, within my own remembrance—when we might have held our own, and punished Philip besides; but now our first care must be to preserve our own allies." In this speech he ventures on a bold proposal, which would be sure to provoke bitter opposition from the peace party of Eubulus. "Repeal such of the existing laws as are injurious at the present crisis—I mean those which regard the public entertainments fund. I speak this out plainly. The same men who proposed such a law ought also to take upon them to propose its repeal." In speaking thus, Demosthenes knew that he was fighting against a most powerful Athenian sentiment. It would cost them a painful struggle to sacrifice the fund in question to the exigencies of a war which also demanded personal service. They could hardly become like the men who won Marathon and Salamis. There was the broadest contrast between them, as Demosthenes elaborately points out in the following passage:—


"Mark, Athenians, what a summary contrast may be drawn between the doings in our olden time and in yours. It is a tale brief and familiar to all. Our forefathers for forty-five years took the leadership of Greece by general consent, and brought as much as ten thousand talents into the citadel; and the king of Macedonia was submissive to them, as a barbarian should be to Greeks. Many glorious trophies they erected for victories won by their own fighting on land and sea, and they are the sole people in the world who have bequeathed a renown which envy cannot hurt. Such were their merits in the affairs of Greece; now see what they were at home, both as citizens and men. Their public works are edifices and ornaments of such beauty and grandeur in temples and their consecrated furniture, that posterity has not the power to surpass them. In private they were so modest, and so attached to the principles of our constitution, that whoever knows the style of house which Aristides had or Miltiades, and the illustrious of that day, perceives it to be no grander than those of their neighbours. Their politics were not for money-making; each felt it his duty to exalt the commonwealth. By a conduct honourable among the Greeks, pious to the gods, brother-like among themselves, they justly attained a high prosperity.

"So fared matters with them under the statesmen I have named. How fare they with you under the worthies of our time? Is there any likeness or resemblance? I pass over other topics on which I could expatiate. But observe. In the utter absence of competitors (Lacedæmonians depressed, Thebans employed, none of the rest capable of disputing the supremacy with us), when we might hold our own securely and arbitrate the claims of others, we have been deprived of our rightful territory, and spent above 1500 talents to no purpose. The allies whom we gained in war we have lost in peace, and we have trained up against ourselves an enemy thus formidable. For by whose contrivance but our own has Philip grown strong? This looks bad, you will say, but things at home are better. What proof is there of this? The parapets that are whitewashed, the roads that are repaired, the fountains, and such trumpery things? Look at the men of whose statesmanship these are the fruits. They have risen from beggary to opulence, from obscurity to honour. Some have made their private homes more splendid than the public buildings, and as the State has declined, their fortunes have been exalted."


At last Athens roused herself to a real effort, and sent to the relief of her ally a force of more than 2000 native Athenian citzens. Olynthus might yet have been saved had the Olynthians been on their guard against traitors within, and the history of Greece, perhaps of the world, might have been different. Philip, meanwhile, was on the frontier of its territory, after having captured most of the towns in the peninsula. At the siege of one of them, an arrow from an Olynthian archer deprived him of an eye. But early in the year 348 B.C. he attacked Olynthus itself, after a sudden declaration of war. The Olynthians, he said, must quit their city, or he must quit Macedonia. But he did not overcome them by fair fighting. They were betrayed by a party among their fellow-citizens. It was by bribery, as Horace says,[1] that "the man of Macedon" opened the gates of Olynthus as of other cities. It was to be expected that he would show no mercy. The fair city was razed to the ground, and its population, with all the women and children, sold into slavery.

This awful calamity sent a shudder through the Greek world. The like of it had never been seen since the great Persian invasion of Xerxes. As many as thirty-two free Greek cities had utterly perished in a period of less than two years at the hands of a barbarian. Divided as the Greeks were among themselves, they would have all heartily responded to the sentiment of Demosthenes that "a barbarian should be submissive to Greeks." It must have shocked and shamed them to see with their own eyes troops of poor enslaved creatures, of both sexes and of Greek blood, passing through the streets of their cities. And all this was the work of a Macedonian, a man of inferior race, whom Greeks had thought it almost a condescension to notice and patronise. How could they expect that he would much longer stay his hand from the destruction of the Greek cities on the Hellespont and the Propontis, and from the conquest of the rich corn-producing Chersonese? How could they rest in peace till they saw their way to an alliance of all the states of Greece against him? It is natural for us to reason thus. But even the proximity of manifest danger will not always banish mutual jealousy and distrust. Nor is it in general easy to persuade people that a power they have been accustomed to disregard and despise, though its progress may seem at times alarming, can ever become seriously formidable to themselves. So it appears to have been with the Greeks. After the fall of Olynthus and its confederate cities, they still clung to their false confidence.

  1. Odes, iii. 16, 13.