The Public Orations of Demosthenes/For the Megalopolitans

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In 371 B.C. the Thebans under Epaminondas defeated the Spartans at Leuctra, and, assisted by Thebes, the Arcadians and Messenians threw off the Spartan yoke. The former founded Megalopolis as their common centre, the latter Messene. But after the death of Epaminondas in 362, Thebes was left without a leader; and when, in 355, she became involved in the 'Sacred War' with the Phocians, the new Peloponnesian states turned towards Athens, and Messene received a solemn promise of Athenian assistance, if ever she was attacked by Sparta. In 353 Thebes was suffering considerably from the Sacred War, and the Spartans made an ingenious attempt to recover their power, in the form of a proposal for the restoration of territory to its original owners. This meant that Athens would recover Oropus, which had been in the hands of Thebes since 366, and had previously been the subject of a long-standing dispute; that Orchomenus, Thespiae, and Plataeae, which had all been overthrown by Thebes, would be restored; and that Elis and Phlius would also recover certain lost possessions. All these states would then be morally bound (so the Spartans thought) to help Sparta to reconquer Arcadia and Messenia.

On the occasion of this speech (delivered in 353) the Megalopolitans had appealed to Athens, and an Arcadian and a Spartan embassy had each had an audience of the Assembly, and had each received strong support from Athenian speakers. The principal motives of the supporters of Sparta were their hostility to Thebes, and their desire not to break with the Spartans, whom Athens had assisted at Mantineia in 362 against the Thebans and Megalopolitans. Demosthenes supports the Arcadians, and lays great stress on the desirability of maintaining a balance of power between Sparta and Thebes, so that neither might become too strong. To allow Sparta to reconquer Arcadia, and, as the next step, Messenia, would be to render her too formidable; and to reject the proposal of Sparta would not preclude Athens from recovering Oropus and demanding the restoration of the Boeotian towns. But the promise of assistance to the Arcadians should be accompanied by a request for the termination of their alliance with Thebes.

Demosthenes' advice was not followed. In fact Athens was hardly in a position to risk becoming entangled in a war with Sparta, particularly in view of the danger to her northern possessions from Philip. She therefore remained neutral, while the Thebans, relieved from the pressure of the Sacred War owing to the defeat of the Phocian leader Onomarchus by Philip, were able to send aid to Megalopolis. A truce between Sparta and Megalopolis was made about 350. It was, however, a result of the neutrality of Athens, that she was unable, a few years later, to secure the support of the Arcadians against Philip, whose allies they subsequently became.

Lord Brougham describes the oration as 'one of extraordinary subtlety and address in handling delicate topics'; and, after quoting the passage in which Demosthenes urges the necessity of maintaining a balance of power between rival states, adds that 'this is precisely the language of modern policy'. At the same time, the speech has in places a somewhat academic and theoretical air: it is much occupied with the weighing of hypothetical considerations and obligations against one another: and though it enunciates some plain and reasonable political principles, and makes an honest attempt to satisfy those who wished to help the Arcadians, but at the same time desired to regain ground against Thebes, it is not always convincing, and the tone is more frankly opportunist than is usually the case with Demosthenes.


1 I think, men of Athens, that those who have spoken on the Arcadian side and those who have spoken on the Spartan, are alike making a mistake. For their mutual accusations and their attacks upon one another would suggest that they are not, like yourselves, Athenians, receiving the two embassies, but actually delegates of the two states. Such attacks it was for the two deputations to make. The duty of those who claim to advise you here was to discuss the situation impartially, and to inquire, in an uncontentious spirit, what course is best in your interests. 2 As it is, if one could alter the fact that they are known to us, and that they speak the dialect of Attica, I believe that many would imagine that those on the one side actually were Arcadians, and those on the other, Spartans. For my part, I see plainly enough the difficulty of offering the best advice. For you, like them, are deluded, in your desire for one extreme or the other: and one who endeavours to propose an intermediate course, which you will not have the patience to understand, will satisfy neither side and will forfeit the confidence of both. 3 But in spite of this, I shall prefer, for my own part, to risk being regarded as an idle chatterer (if such is really to be my lot), rather than to abandon my conviction as to what is best for Athens, and leave you to the mercy of those who would deceive you. And while I shall deal with all other points later, by your leave, I shall take for my starting-point, in explaining the course which I believe to be best, those principles which are admitted by all.

4 There can be no possible question that it is to the interest of the city that both the Spartans and these Thebans should be weak; and the present situation, if one may judge at all from what has constantly been asserted in your presence, is such, that if Orchomenus, Thespiae, and Plataeae[1] are re- established, Thebes becomes weak; and that if the Spartans can reduce Arcadia to subjection and destroy Megalopolis, Sparta will recover her former strength. 5 We must, therefore, take care not to allow the Spartans to attain a formidable degree of strength, before the Thebans have become insignificant, lest there should take place, unobserved by us, such an increase in the power of Sparta as would be out of proportion to the decrease in the power of Thebes which our interests demand. For it is, of course, out of the question that we should desire merely to substitute the rivalry of Sparta for that of Thebes: that is not the object upon which we are bent. Our object is rather that neither people shall be capable of doing us any injury. That is what will best enable us to live in security.

6 But, granted that this is what ought to be, still, we are told, it is a scandalous thing to choose for our allies the men against whom we were arrayed at Mantineia, and further, to help them against those whose perils we shared that day. I agree; but I think that we need to insert the condition, 'provided that the two parties are willing to act rightly.' 7 For if all alike prove willing to keep the peace, we shall not go to the aid of the Megalopolitans, since there will be no need to do so; and so there will be no hostility whatever on our part towards our former comrades in battle. They are already our allies, as they tell us; and now the Arcadians will become our allies as well. What more could we desire? 8 But suppose they act wrongfully and think fit to make war. In that case, if the question before us is whether we are to abandon Megalopolis to Sparta or not, then I say that, wrong though it is, I will acquiesce in our permitting this, and declining to oppose our former companions in danger. But if you all know that, after capturing Megalopolis, they will march against Messene, let me ask any of those who are now so harshly disposed towards Megalopolis to say what action he will then advise. No answer will be given. 9 In fact you all know that, whether they advise it or not, we must then go to the rescue, both because of the oath which we have sworn to the Messenians, and because our interests demand the continued existence of that city. Ask yourselves, then, on which occasion you can most honourably and generously interpose to check the aggressions of Sparta—in defence of Megalopolis, or in defence of Messene? 10 On the present occasion it will be understood that you are succouring the Arcadians, and are anxious that the Peace, which you fought for and risked your lives to win, may be secure. But if you wait, all the world will see plainly that it is not in the name of right that you desire the existence of Messene, but because you are afraid of Sparta. And while we should always seek and do the right, we should at the same time take good care that what is right shall also be advantageous.

11 Now an argument is used by speakers on the other side to the effect that we ought to attempt to recover Oropus,[2] and that if we make enemies of those who might come to our assistance against it we shall have no allies. I too say that we should try to recover Oropus. But the argument that the Spartans will be our enemies now, if we make alliance with those Arcadians who desire our friendship, is an argument which no one has less right even to mention, than those who induced you to help the Spartans when they were in danger. 12 Such was not their argument, when all the Peloponnesians came to you,[3] entreating you to support them in their campaign against Sparta, and they persuaded you to reject the entreaty, with the result that the Peloponnesians took the only remaining course and applied to Thebes—when they bade you contribute funds and imperil your lives for the deliverance of the Spartans. Nor, I presume, would you have been willing to protect them, had they warned you that you must expect no gratitude for their deliverance, unless, after saving them, you allowed them once more to do as they pleased and commit fresh aggressions. 13 And further, however antagonistic it may be to the designs of the Spartans, that we should make the Arcadians our allies, they are surely bound to feel a gratitude towards us for saving them when they were in the utmost extremity, which will outweigh their vexation at our preventing their present wrongdoing. Must they not then either assist us to recover Oropus, or else be regarded as the basest of mankind? For, by Heaven, I can see no other alternative.

14 I am astonished, also, to hear it argued that if we make the Arcadians our allies, and carry out my advice, it will seem as though Athens were changing her policy, and were utterly unreliable. I believe that the exact reverse of this is the case, men of Athens, and I will tell you why. I suppose that no one in the world can deny that when this city saved the Spartans,[4] and before them the Thebans,[5] and finally the Euboeans,[6] and subsequently made them her allies, she had one and the same end always in view. 15 And what was this? It was to deliver the victims of aggression. And if this is so, it is not we that should be changing, but those who refuse to adhere to the right; and it will be manifest that, although circumstances change from time to time with the ambitious designs of others, Athens does not change.

16 I believe that the Spartans are playing a very unscrupulous part. At present they tell us that the Eleans are to recover part of Triphylia,[7] and the Phliasians, Tricaranum;[8] other Arcadians are to recover their own possessions, and we ourselves are to recover Oropus—not that they have any desire to see every state enjoying its own—far from it!— such generosity on their part would be late indeed in showing itself. 17 They wish rather to present the appearance of co-operating with each separate state in the recovery of the territory that it claims, in order that when they themselves march against Messene, all may take the field with them, and give them their hearty assistance, on pain of seeming to act unfairly, in refusing to return an equivalent for the support which each of them received from Sparta in regard to their own several claims. 18 My own view is that, even without the tacit surrender of some of the Arcadians to Sparta, we can recover Oropus, aided not only by the Spartans, if they are ready to act honourably, but by all who disapprove of allowing Thebes to retain what is not her own. But even if it were made quite plain to us, that without allowing Sparta to subdue the Peloponnese, we should not be able to take Oropus, I should still think it preferable, if I may dare to say so, to let Oropus go, rather than sacrifice Messene and the Peloponnese to Sparta. For our quarrel with them would not, I believe, be confined to this; since—I will not say what occurs to me; but there are many risks which we should run.

19 But, to pass on, it is a monstrous thing to use the hostile actions which, they say, the Megalopolitans committed against us, under the influence of Thebes, as a ground of accusation against them to-day; and, when they wish to be friends and so atone for their action by doing us good, to look askance at them, to seek for some way of avoiding their friendship, to refuse to recognize that in proportion to the zeal which my opponents can prove the Megalopolitans to have shown in supporting Thebes will be the resentment to which my opponents themselves will deservedly be exposed, for depriving the city of such allies as these, when they have appealed to you before appealing to Thebes. 20 Such a policy is surely the policy of men who wish to make the Arcadians for the second time the allies of others. And so far as one can forecast the future by calculation, I am sure, and I believe that most of you will agree with me, that if the Spartans take Megalopolis, Messene will be in peril; and if they take Messene also, then I predict that we shall find ourselves allies of Thebes.[9] 21 It is a far more honourable, a far better, course that we should ourselves take over the Theban confederacy,[10] refusing to leave the field open to the cupidity of the Spartans, than that we should be so afraid of protecting the allies of Thebes, as first to sacrifice them, and then to save Thebes itself; and, in addition, to be in a state of apprehension for our own safety. 22 For if the Spartans capture Megalopolis and become a great power once more, the prospect, as I conceive it, is not one which this city can view without alarm. For I can see that even now they are determining to go to war, not to prevent any evil which threatens them, but to recover their own ancient power: and what their aims were when they possessed that power, you, I think, know[11] perhaps better than I, and with that knowledge may well be alarmed.

23 Now I should be glad if the speakers who profess their hatred for Thebes on the one side, or for Sparta on the other, would tell me if their professed hatred is based on consideration for you and your interests, or whether the one party hates Thebes from an interest in Sparta, and the other Sparta from an interest in Thebes. If the latter is the case, you should not listen to either, but treat them as insane: but if the former, why this inordinate exaltation of one side or the other? 24 For it is possible, perfectly possible, to humiliate Thebes without rendering Sparta powerful. Indeed, it is by far the easier course; and I will try to tell you how it can be done. We all know that, however unwilling men may be to do what is right, yet up to a certain point they are ashamed not to do so, and that they withstand wrongdoers openly, particularly if there are any who receive damage through the wrong done: and we shall find that what ruins everything and is the source of all evil is the unwillingness to do what is right without reserve. 25 Now in order that no such obstacle may stand in the way of the humiliation of Thebes, let us demand the re-establishment of Thespiae, Orchomenus, and Plataeae, co-operating with their citizens ourselves, and requiring others to do so; for the principle of refusing to allow ancient cities to lie desolate is a right and honourable one. But let us at the same time decline to abandon Megalopolis and Messene to the aggressors, or to suffer the destruction of existing and inhabited cities, on the pretext of restoring Plataeae and Thespiae. 26 Then, if our policy is made plain to all, there is no one who will not wish to terminate the Thebans' occupation of territory not their own. But if it is not, not only will our designs be opposed by the Arcadians, in the belief that the restoration of these towns carries with it their own ruin, but we shall have troubles without end. For, honestly, where can we expect to reach an end, when we permit the annihilation of existing cities, and require the restoration of those that have been annihilated?

27 It is demanded by those whose speeches display the strongest appearance of fairness, that the Megalopolitans shall take down the pillars[12] which commemorate their alliance with Thebes, if they are to be trustworthy allies of Athens. The Megalopolitans reply that for them it is not pillars, but interest, that creates friendship; and that it is those who help them, that they consider to be their allies. Well, that may be their attitude. Nevertheless, my own view is, roughly speaking, this:—I say that we should simultaneously require the Megalopolitans to take down the pillars, and the Spartans to keep the peace: and that in the event of either side refusing to fulfil our request, we should at once take the part of those who are willing to fulfil it. 28 For if the Megalopolitans obtain peace, and yet adhere to the Theban alliance, it will be clear to all that they prefer the grasping policy of Thebes to that which is right. If, on the other hand, Megalopolis makes alliance frankly with us, and the Spartans then refuse to keep the peace, it will surely be clear to all that what the Spartans desire so eagerly is not the re-establishment of Thespiae, but an opportunity of subduing the Peloponnese while the Thebans are involved in the war.[13] 29 And I am surprised to find that there are some who are alarmed at the prospect of the enemies of Sparta becoming allies of Thebes, and yet see nothing to fear in the subjugation of these enemies by Sparta herself; whereas the experience of the past can teach us that the Thebans always use such allies against Sparta, while, when Sparta had them, she used to use them against us.

30 There is another point which I think you should consider. Suppose that you reject the overtures of the Megalopolitans. If they are annihilated and dispersed, Sparta can recover her power at once. If they actually survive—for things have happened before now beyond all hope—they will quite rightly be the firm allies of Thebes. But suppose you receive them. Then the immediate result, so far as they are concerned, is that they are saved by you: and as to the future, let us now transfer our calculation of possible risks to the case of the Thebans and Spartans. 31 If the Thebans are crushed, as they ought to be, the Spartans will not be unduly powerful, for they will always have these Arcadians at their doors to hold them in check. But if the Thebans actually recover and survive the attack, they will at least be weaker; for the Arcadians will have become our allies, and will owe their preservation to us. Thus on every ground it is to our interest not to sacrifice the Arcadians, nor to let them think that their deliverance, if they are really saved, is due to themselves, or to any other people than you.

32 And now, men of Athens, I solemnly declare that what I have said has been prompted by no personal feeling, friendly or hostile, towards either side. I have told you only what I believe to be expedient for you; and I exhort you not to sacrifice the people of Megalopolis, and to make it your rule, never to sacrifice a smaller power to a greater.

  1. "Plataeae" (which had been overthrown by the enemies of Athens in the course of the Peloponnesian War, but rebuilt, with the aid of Sparta, in 378) was destroyed by Thebes in 373-372. About the same time Thebes destroyed Thespiae, which, like Plataeae, was well-disposed towards Athens; and in 370 the Thebans massacred the male population of Orchomenus, and sold the women and children into slavery.
  2. "Oropus" had sometimes belonged to Thebes and sometimes to Athens. In 366 it was taken from Athens by Themison, tyrant of Eretria (exactly opposite Oropus, on the coast of Euboea), and placed in the hands of Thebes until the ownership should be decided. Thebes retained it until it was restored to Athens by Philip in 338.
  3. "when all the Peloponnesians, &c". The reference seems to be to the year 370, shortly after the battle of Leuctra, when the Peloponnesian States sought the protection of Athens against Sparta, and, being refused, became allies of Thebes (Diodorus xv. 62). In 369 Athens made an alliance with Sparta.
  4. "saved the Spartans". See last note. Athens also assisted the Spartans at Mantineia in 362.
  5. "the Thebans". In 378 and the following years Athens assisted Thebes against the Spartans under Agesilaus and Cleombrotus.
  6. "the Euboeans". In 358 or 357 Euboea succeeded in obtaining freedom from the domination of Thebes by the aid of Athenian troops under Timotheus.
  7. "Triphylia", a district between Elis and Messenia, was the subject of a long-standing dispute between the Eleans and the Arcadians, and seems to have been in the hands of the latter since (about) 368.
  8. "Tricaranum", a fortress in the territory of Phlius, had been seized by the Argives in 369, and used as a centre from which incursions were made into Phliasian territory.
  9. "allies of Thebes". in order to preserve the balance of power between Thebes and Sparta.
  10. "the Theban confederacy". The reference is particularly to the Arcadian allies of Thebes, but the wider expression perhaps suggests a general policy of a more ambitious kind.
  11. "you, I think, know". He refers to the older members of the Assembly, who would remember the tyrannical conduct of Sparta during the period of her supremacy (the first quarter of the fourth century B.C.).
  12. "pillars". The terms of an alliance were usually recorded upon pillars erected by each State on some site fixed by agreement or custom.
  13. "in the war". i.e. the 'Sacred War', against the Phocians.