Demosthenes/Chapter 9

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We now enter on a period of melancholy disgrace and humiliation for the Greek race. Within two years the barbarian destroyer of Olynthus becomes master of the key to Greece, the famous pass of Thermopylæ, and of the whole of Phocis, the country in which stood the mountains of Parnassus, and the old and venerable temple of Delphi. Events more terrific and momentous, says Demosthenes in one of his speeches, had never occurred either in his own time or in that of any of his predecessors. Athens was forced into a miserably ignominious peace, and many of her citizens had stooped to the infamy of being the mere tools and paid agents of the "man of Macedon." Even Isocrates, true Greek as he was in all his sympathies, as well as thoroughly upright and high-minded, was now convinced that the best wisdom for Greece was to put itself under the leadership of this wonderfully successful prince, and allow him to conduct its united armies to the conquest of Persia.

The history of these five years is somewhat intricate. It will be enough for the present purpose to summarise the general course of events. The period was mainly occupied in negotiations on the part of Athens with Philip. These were ill-managed, and had a most disastrous conclusion. One motive which no doubt prompted them was, the very natural desire of recovering those Athenian citizens who had been captured with the Olynthians. Toward Athens Philip had usually shown himself gracious and conciliatory. So, when the relatives of two of the captives, both men of high position, presented themselves as supplicants before the Assembly, it was decided to communicate with Philip. A favourable answer was received; and we have reason to believe that now there was an inclination in favour of peace. At first it was otherwise. Even Eubulus and his party, who held war the worst of all evils, were constrained to speak of Philip as an enemy. They went further; they attempted, by embassies into the Peloponnese, to raise some sort of coalition against him. Among other places they visited Megalopolis, where, however, their overtures met with but a cold reception. Athens, as I have had occasion to notice, had made a blunder some years before in not following the counsel of Demosthenes when he advised that the Megalopolitans should be supported against Sparta. Now she found that they were not to be roused into action by what no doubt seemed to them a comparatively remote danger. There would, too, have been some political inconvenience in an alliance with them. Such an alliance would have meant a rupture with Sparta, and a friendly attitude towards Thebes, a state against which Athenian feeling was peculiarly bitter. As soon as it seemed clear that there was no prospect of organising a combination throughout Greece against Philip, the wish for peace grew in strength, and the people were not averse to opening negotiations with their powerful enemy.

It is at this juncture that the name of Demosthenes' famous rival Æchines first comes before us. He rose to be one of the foremost Athenian orators and statesmen from a very lowly origin. His father kept what we should call a preparatory school, and he himself began life as an inferior actor and a government clerk. He was a man of immense industry and ability, and was naturally endowed with all the qualities which go to make an orator. He was one of the envoys sent on the mission to the Peloponnese, which had for its purpose the stirring up of the Greeks against Macedonian aggression. It appears that he addressed a very powerful appeal to the Arcadian Assembly at Megalopolis, fiercely denouncing all traitors to the liberties of Greece, and stigmatising Philip as a "blood-stained barbarian." Such was the beginning of the political life of a man who subsequently allowed himself to become the means of furthering that "barbarian's" most dangerous designs upon Greece and her liberties.

In the negotiations of this period between Athens and Philip, Æchines took a leading part as an envoy. So, too, did Demosthenes himself; and the hostile relations between them, which subsequently gave occasion to their memorable oratorical contest, date from this time. We have for the most part to depend on the conflicting statements of the two orators for our knowledge of the circumstances by which Athens, two years after the ruin of Olynthus, was drawn into a shameful peace. It almost seems as if she wilfully allowed herself to make one stupid blunder after another. But this is not a true view of the case. Athens, no doubt, might have done much better under the guidance of really firm and very skilful statesmanship; but it must be remembered that the situation was extremely complicated, and it was barely possible to foresee even approximately the course and tendency of events. After the destruction of Olynthus it must have seemed clear that Philip was the enemy of Greece; and that, consequently, it was the duty and policy of Athens to regard him in this light, and decline all negotiations with him. But, as we have seen, Athens was not able to organise a confederacy of the Greek states against him; and if she had decided to fight him, she must have felt that she would have to fight single-handed. When to this consideration was added the desire to recover some of her own citizens, now prisoners in Philip's hands—when, too, she found that he was still courteous and conciliatory—we cannot be surprised that she shrank from a struggle which would have tasked her resources to the uttermost. It might, perhaps, have been better and safer for her to have made any sacrifice, and have at once decided on war against the destroyer of thirty Greek cities; but it was not easy for her to see her way to such a step alone and unsupported.

The relations, too, of the states of Greece to each other and to Athens presented many difficulties. Never had there been a time when it was harder to unite them. Sparta, the leading state of the Peloponnese, could under no circumstances be easily stimulated into exertions in the Greek cause. Her statesmen were apt to take a narrow and selfish view of the politics of Greece. The other states of the Peloponnese were more afraid of being oppressed by Spartan ascendancy, of which they had had actual experience, than of danger from Macedon, of which they knew next to nothing. Here, therefore, there was but a poor prospect of coalition. Thebes and Phocis, the two remaining states, were themselves engaged in the Sacred War. Phocis had appropriated to itself the treasures of the temple of Delphi, and had thus put itself in a false position before the Greek world, as being guilty of sacrilege. And as for Thebes, it had no really great and farsighted statesmen; nor had it, to the extent which Athens still had, a sense of its duty to Greece. Its policy was often particularly selfish; and even under the most favourable circumstances, it would have been most difficult to have persuaded Thebans to co-operate heartily with Athenians. So anxious was it to crush its Phocian neighbours, with whom it had long been involved in a troublesome war, that when Philip undertook to crush them it welcomed the offer. The bait he held out was tempting; but the Thebans ought to have had enough Greek sentiment not to listen to his proposals, the acceptance of which would probably lead to the conquest and destruction of a Greek people by a barbarian. Philip, of course, could justify himself by saying that he was attacking those who were, in fact, the enemies of Greece, inasmuch as by the pillage of the sacred treasures of Delphi they had outraged the best and truest Greek feeling. But to conquer Phocis he must be master of Thermopylæ; and if he once gained this position, it could hardly be doubted that he would be able to do as he pleased, and that Thebes, if he chose to pick a quarrel with her, would be in the utmost jeopardy.

All this was recognised by Demosthenes, and, as it seems, by the Athenians generally. They were quite alive to the importance of garrisoning Thermopylæ, and they sent a force there. But the Phocian leader, Phalæcus, from some sort of jealousy towards Athens, and a fear that political intrigues would be set on foot against him to deprive him of his influence with his countrymen, refused to admit the Athenian troops into possession of the important pass. It was now difficult for the Athenians to know how to act. For anything they knew to the contrary, Phalæcus might have some understanding with Philip, and be willing to surrender the pass to him. This position was perplexing and disheartening, while to Philip it was a grand opportunity. If he could contrive to conclude peace with Athens, and to get the Phocians excluded from it, he would be able, with some sort of excuse, to occupy Thermopylæ and invade Phocis. And in doing this, he would have Thebes on his side.

After much negotiation, this was the result which he managed to accomplish. Peace was concluded between Philip and Athens, their respective allies being included. While the negotiations were pending, and the Athenian envoys were waiting at Pella for an interview with the King, he was in Thrace, and gained some important successes over the chief of the country, Cersobleptes, at this time an ally of Athens. The effect of this was to weaken and endanger the hold which Athens had on the Thracian Chersonese,—a specially valuable possession. Indeed, peace was made ultimately on terms which the Athenians had not originally contemplated. This, Demosthenes maintained, was due to the treacherous connivance of Æschines and of some of the other envoys, who loitered at Pella when they ought to have at once made their way to Philip in Thrace, and settled matters with him on the basis which had been mutually agreed on. But the most terrible mistake was the exclusion of the Phocians from the treaty. The Athenians were somehow cajoled into believing that Philip meant them well; and even Demosthenes did not at the time protest against the abandonment of Phocis. The error was irretrievable, for it amounted to nothing less than letting Philip become master of Thermopylæ. The Phocians could not hold the pass without support. When they found themselves isolated, their leader, Phalæcus, after being summoned by Philip to give up possession of it, consented to do so under a convention, and withdrew his forces. The surrender of Phocis to Philip followed as a matter of course. He dealt with the country and its towns as he had dealt two years before with Chalcidice and its towns. Phocis was utterly ruined. Another Greek state had now fallen before the Macedonian destroyer, and the prospects of Greece generally might well seem gloomy.

The calamity, however, was not so shocking to the Greek world as one might have supposed it would have been. The Phocians, as has been explained, had been offenders against the common law and traditions of Greece, and their destruction might be regarded as a divine judgment. Even the man who executed it, though a barbarian according to Greek notions, might have some claim to be considered as the representative of a sacred cause. In one sense he had been doing the very thing which the voice of Greece had been calling for. The Thebans were especially grateful to him, and forgot in their blindness the mischief which by this last stroke he had inflicted on Greece. Now that the Phocians had ceased to exist as a Greek people, their place in the Amphictyonic Council was, when the great Pythian festival came round after a four years' interval, conferred on Philip. He was even nominated president of the august ceremony. In all this Thebes heartily concurred, as also did several smaller states. Athens and Sparta, indeed, held aloof. But when Philip's envoys announced to the Athenians the new position he had acquired with the consent of so many Greek states, they did not like to refuse concurrence in what a large part of Greece seemed to approve.

Strong as Philip was before, he was now immensely strengthened, and fresh chances were open to him for interfering actively in Greek politics. Membership of the Amphictyonic Council was, in fact, equivalent to naturalisation. Philip was now, in theory at least, a Greek, and no longer a barbarian. The Athenian Isocrates could, with a show of reason, address a letter to him, inviting him to reconcile under his leadership the great states of Greece, and invade Asia with a view to the overthrow of the Persian empire and the liberation of the Asiatic Greeks. But the Athenians generally felt deep anger and vexation at the issue of events, and could hardly make up their minds to sit still under the disgrace of the surrender of Thermopylæ and the intrusion of a foreign prince into the heart of Greece.

Demosthenes, as has been said, had no sympathy with the ideas of Isocrates. He still clung to the belief in a general independent Greek world, of which his own state ought to be the most perfect representative. Yet on this occasion he spoke in favour of the inglorious peace just concluded. Miserable as it was, he argued that to break it would be to give Philip a pretext for uniting other Greek states in war against them. The tone of his speech is confident and decided. The peace was bad and dishonourable, no doubt, but to repudiate it would be simply madness. It would be putting themselves gratuitously in the wrong. "The shadow at Delphi," as he calls the subject of the Sacred war which had been waged between Thebes and Phocis, was not worth fighting for, more especially when they would have to fight a Greek confederacy. It could not have been altogether pleasant to Demosthenes to advise acquiescence in a peace which he and his countrymen generally felt to be humiliating. But as they had drifted into it, all they could now do was to make the best of it, and guard themselves from new aggressions.