Demosthenes/Chapter 8

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An incident about this time in the life of Demosthenes, which gave occasion to one of his well-known speeches, illustrates rather strikingly some of the less agreeable phases of Athenian society. There was, of course, refinement and polish of a high degree, and, on the whole, the tone and temper of the citizens seem to have been humane and generous. But still, even at Athens, the scandals and breaches of good taste and manners, which one would fear are all but inseparable from democracy, now and then made their appearance. Political rancour and party violence reached an outrageous length, and under their shelter the grossest acts of wrong were from time to time committed with impunity. A rich man, if he chose, might have plenty of influence in the State; and along with this he would have at his command many opportunities of injuring and oppressing those whom he personally disliked. It appears that there were several such men at Athens—men who no doubt aspired to imitate the grand airs and fashionable extravagance of Alcibiades, who, clever and accomplished as he was, at last made himself intolerable to the citizens of a free state. Many of these had nothing but riches to recommend them, and were pestilent fellows whose idea of life was really nothing better than coarse, vulgar rowdyism.

It was the fate of Demosthenes to come into collision with a man of this class. Early in life, at the time when he was engaged in his suit with his guardians, he provoked the enmity of Meidias, a rich, well-born man, and one of the constant supporters of the peace party of Eubulus. The quarrel between them originated in the following singular way. The brother of Meidias, Thrasylochus, offered, according to a practice allowed at Athens in the case of a trierarchy, or the providing a war-ship for the State, to exchange properties with Demosthenes, and, in the event of the offer being accepted, he gave the guardians privately to understand that the lawsuit should be dropped. In this manner he sought to defeat the legal proceedings which Demosthenes was taking, and, in fact, to get his just claims set aside. The two brothers, it appears, on one occasion actually rushed into his house, behaved with excessive violence, and used coarse and ribald language in the presence of his sister, then a mere girl. For this outrage Demosthenes sued Meidias, and recovered damages; but he had not been able to obtain payment. From that time the man became his bitter enemy, and worried and persecuted him in every possible way. His animosity was all the more virulent as he was also politically opposed to Demosthenes. In the year 351 B.C. both served in a military expedition to Eubœa—Meidias in the cavalry, Demosthenes as a foot soldier. Neither of them was for any length of time with the army. Demosthenes went back to Athens, on the pretext that he had to undertake the important public duty of choragus or choir-director for his tribe. It seems that he undertook this quite voluntarily, but his enemy hinted that he had merely done so to escape the hardships of campaigning. And he followed up the taunt with gross insult and outrage. The choir-director, as we have seen, usually appeared, when the ceremony was celebrated, in a special dress, and wore a crown; and Demosthenes had ordered for the occasion a particularly magnificent robe and a crown of gold. Meidias contrived to break into the embroiderer's shop where the dress had been prepared, and spoilt the finery in which Demosthenes was to show himself. He went further; he struck him on the face before the assembled audience, and, according to Demosthenes' own account, was the means of losing him the prize, which his chorus would have won. The spectators were indignant; and Meidias was convicted of the crime of sacrilege, as it would seem, on the very same day by an assembly held in the theatre. But the affair could not rest here. It was for a court of justice to decide how he was to be punished. Clearly, it was right that Demosthenes should prosecute him, and this he did. He was thirty-two years of age at the time. Meidias tried to defeat the prosecution by indicting Demosthenes on the charge of desertion of military service, on the ground that he had left the army in Eubœa and returned to Athens. The indictment came to nothing; but Demosthenes, it appears, was not decisively successful in his proceedings against Meidias. He was reproached by his rival, Æschines, with having compromised the affair. At all events, it is not certain, whether the case was ever brought to trial. But the tone of the extant speech certainly implies this; and it is really difficult to suppose, looking at some passages in which he takes credit to himself for having rejected a compromise and having brought the defendant to trial, that it was merely written and never delivered. This is, we know, a very general opinion, and there are reasons for it; but in the face of the speech as it has come down to us, it seems a question whether it can be sustained.

The tone of the speech is savage and violent. It is full of furious invective. But at least it is interesting as giving us a glimpse into some of the abuses arising out of wealth and insolence even in a democratical community like Athens. We have an amusing picture of Meidias himself; and though perhaps it is a caricature, it was no doubt typical of a really existing class. He had, it is said, got himself elected a cavalry officer on the strength of being a rich man, and yet he could not so much as ride through the market-place. His single act of munificence was giving the State a war-ship, when he knew he was not likely to incur any personal danger. He delighted in making a vulgar parade of his wealth. He had built a house at Eleusis, one of the suburbs of Athens, so big that it darkened all the houses in the place. He used to take his wife to the Mysteries, or to any place she had a fancy for visiting, in a carriage and pair. He would push through the market-place and the leading thoroughfares, talking of his dinners and his drinking-horns so loud that all the passers-by could hear. "Do not," says Demosthenes in his speech, "honour and admire things of this kind—do not judge of liberality by these tests, whether a man builds splendid houses or has many female servants, or handsome furniture; but look who is spirited and liberal in those things which the bulk of you share the enjoyment of. Meidias, you will find, has nothing of that kind about him."


"Will you," he asks, "let Meidias escape because he is rich? This is pretty much the cause of his insolence. Therefore you should rather take away the means which enable him to be insolent than pardon him in consideration of them. To allow an audacious blackguard like him to have wealth at his command is to put arms in his hands against yourselves."

"I take it you all know his disposition, his offensive and overbearing behaviour; and some of you, I daresay, have been wondering about things which they know themselves, but have not heard from me now. Many of the injured parties do not even like to tell all that they have suffered, dreading this man's litigiousness, and the fortune which makes such a despicable fellow strong and terrible. For when a rogue and a bully is supported by wealth and power, it is a wall of defence against any attack. Let Meidias be stripped of his possessions, and most likely he will not play the bully. If he should, he will be less regarded than the humblest man among you; he will rail and bawl to no purpose then, and be punished for any misbehaviour like the rest of us, Now, it seems, Polyeuctus and Timocrates and the ragamuffin Euctemon are his body-guard; these are a sort of mercenaries that he keeps about him, and others also besides them, a confederate band of witnesses, who never trouble you openly, but by simply nodding their heads affirm and lie with perfect ease. By the powers, I do not believe they get any good from him; but they are wonderful people for making up to the rich, and attending on them, and giving evidence. All this, I take it, is a danger to any of you that live quietly by yourselves as well as you can; and therefore it is that you assemble together, in order that, though taken separately you are overmatched by any one either in friends or riches, or in anything else, you may collectively be more than a match for him and put a stop to his insolence."


Meidias, according to Demosthenes, was at heart a coward, and would be sure to make an abject appeal to the people's pity. The following passage is towards the end of the speech:—


"I know he will have his children in court and whine; he will talk very humbly, shedding tears and making himself as piteous as he can. Yet the more he humbles himself, the more ought you to detest him. Why? Because if the outrageousness and violence of his conduct arose out of his inability to be humble, it would have been fair to make some allowance for his temper, and the accident which made him what he is. But if he knows how to behave himself properly when he likes, and has adopted a different line of conduct by choice, surely it is quite evident that if he eludes justice now, he will again become the same Meidias that you know him for. You must not listen to him, then; you must not let the present occasion, when he is playing the hypocrite, have more weight and influence with you than the whole past of which you have had experience.

"Perhaps he will say of me, This man is an orator. Well; if one who advises what he thinks for your good, without being troublesome or intrusive, is an orator, I would not deny or refuse the name. But if an orator be what (to my knowledge and to your knowledge) certain of our speakers are—impudent fellows, enriched at your expense—I can hardly be that; for I have received nothing from you, but spent all my substance upon you, except a mere trifle. Probably, also, Meidias will say that all my speech is prepared. I admit that I have got it up as well as I possibly could. I were a complete simpleton indeed, if, having suffered and still suffering such injuries, I took no pains about the mode of stating them to you. I maintain that Meidias has composed my speech; he who has supplied the facts which the speech is about, may most fairly be deemed its author, not he who has merely prepared it or studied how to lay an honest case before you."


The speech is not, we think, one of Demosthenes' best; but it is often ingenious, and it certainly shows singular power of invective. It suggests that what we should call very loose practice on the part of an advocate was tolerated in an Athenian court. Demosthenes by no means confines himself to the outrage committed on him by Meidias, but speaks of the injuries he had inflicted on others, and indeed attacks generally the man's whole life and character. The attack may have been deserved; still, the manner of it, and the circumstances under which it was made, point to the existence of dangers at Athens to which any citizen might suddenly find himself exposed.