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Demosthenes, the foremost orator of all history, was born in Athens about July in the year 385 B.C. His father, also named Demosthenes, a manufacturer of swords, was a gentleman widely and justly esteemed. His mother was Cleobule, the daughter of Gylon by a Scythian lady. The father died when the son was about seven years of age, leaving an estate of fourteen or fifteen talents, equal to some $200,000 now. The guardians partly embezzled, partly wasted the property, and the young orator's first law business, occupying several years, was the prosecution of these criminals to recover what he might. His success was but partial, yet his patrimony, with what he earned, always kept him in relative affluence, spite of his expensive tastes and great public and private munificence. As a boy he was weak, and did not avail himself of the physical training then usual among Greek youth of good families. He, however, employed the best teachers in his studies and his mental education was thorough. To Thucydides and the old rhetoricians he was ardently devoted, and these, with personal instruction by the orator Isaeus, did most to form his style.
Demosthenes practising oratory.
Demosthenes was between twenty-five and thirty when Philip of Macedon began his astonishing career of conquest. It was soon clear that he was to be the rival of Athens for the headship of Greece. Demosthenes became the champion of the Athenian cause, and henceforth, so long as he lived, used all his powers against Macedonian aggressions. Most of his best speeches relate to this issue. His eloquence, argument, and personal influence won nearly all the Grecian states to a coalition that, for a time, successfully forbade Philip to set foot in Greece proper. Only Thebes and Sparta stood out, and when Philip, daring them all, ventured south and conquered Phocis, even the Thebans yielded to Demosthenes's pleas and joined the league. In vain, however. At the decisive battle of Chaeronea, B.C. 338, Philip was entirely victorious. The allies fled, Demosthenes himself among them, leaving Philip to become at his leisure the master of every city so far south at least as the northern confines of Sparta. He might have realized his wish at once but for his excesses. He drank himself drunk, dancing over his slain foes, and beating time in maudlin song to the caption of the Athenian decree which Demosthenes had procured against him. But it is said that when sober again he trembled to remember "the prodigious power of that orator who had obliged him to put both empire and life on the cast of a day." Two years after the battle of Chaeronea Philip is stricken down by the assassin Pausanias. Alexander mounts the throne, a youth of twenty. Greece flies to arms against him, not dreaming that a greater than Philip is here. Marching quickly against the Thracians and the Illyrians, who at once succumb, he volts to smite rebellious Thebes and Athens, whom Demosthenes's incessant appeals have again induced to take the field. In spite of him, the Athenians now basely desert the Thebans, leaving them to stand the entire fury of the war alone. Greece is thus soon quieted again, and the boy warrior, leaving Antipater behind with a sufficient home guard, crosses to Asia never to return. Once, later, when Harpalus, Alexander's renegade treasurer, came to Athens with his bags of Asiatic gold, and again after Alexander's death, it for a moment seemed possible to throw off Macedonia's yoke. Each time the orator led in an attempt to do this, but failed. Fined fifty talents for taking some of Harpalus' gold, he fled from Athens, living for a time in Troezen and AEgina. The new hope for the former Greek regime evoked by Alexander's death was brief. Athens recalled Demosthenes and he made a successful tour of the cities to rally them against Antipater. Antipater, however, was too strong, and his victory at Cranon, B.C. 322, fully restored Macedonia's supremacy. Pursued to Calaurea by Antipater's emissaries, Demosthenes fled for refuge to the temple of Neptune there, took poison, which he had long carried with him for that purpose, and died, aged sixty-two.
It is clear that both the Macedonian conquerors deemed Demosthenes their most powerful foe. Drunk or sober, Philip thought constantly of him as the great force to be reckoned with. When he with nine other deputies visited Philip's court, it was Demosthenes's speech to which Philip felt called to give special reply, treating him with argument, while bestowing his choicest hospitality upon the others. AEschines and Philocrates accordingly came home full of praise for Philip. He was eloquent, they said, handsome, and could drink more liquor than any other man. Demosthenes, showing for the nonce some wit, ridiculed these traits, the first as that of a sophist, the second as that of a woman, the third as that of a sponge. "The fame of Demosthenes reached the Persian court; and the king wrote letters to his lieutenants commanding them to supply him with money and to attend to him more than to any other man in Greece; because he best knew how to make a diversion in his favor by raising fresh troubles and finding employment for the Macedonian arms nearer home. This Alexander afterward discovered by letters of Demosthenes which he found at Sardis, and the papers of the Persian government expressing the sums which had been given him." (Plutarch.)
The moral character of Demosthenes was fiercely assailed during his life, the chief charges being vacillation, unchastity, cowardice, and the receipt of bribes. In weighing these accusations we must remember that they were inspired by personal hatred, and that public life in Demosthenes's day was characterized by almost inconceivable strife and bitterness. There was probably considerable ground for all the allegations, except, perhaps, that of infirmity in purpose. Plutarch believes that the orator was "vindictive in his nature and implacable in his resentments." But the same author wonders how Theopompus could say that he was a man of no steadiness, since it appeared that "he abode by the party and the measures which he first adopted, and was so far from quitting them during his life that he forfeited his life rather than forsake them." "He was never a time-server either in his words or in his actions. The key of politics which he first touched he kept to without variation." But he certainly lacked physical courage. At Chaeronea, a battle which he himself had brought on, he fled ignominiously, throwing away his arms. His cowardice was recognized in the inscription upon the pedestal of the bronze statue which the Athenians erected to him.
"Divine in speech, in judgment, too, divine,
Had valor's wreath, Demosthenes, been thine,
Fair Greece had still her freedom's ensign borne,
And held the scourge of Macedon in scorn."
It is equally certain that he loved gold too well, and sometimes took it when it should have burnt his hands.
For all this, Demosthenes's character was rather a noble one for that age. Among the distinguished Athenians of the day, only Phocion's outshone it. Nearly all that Demosthenes's foes cite to his discredit seems weak considering the known vices of the period, while much of it, as when they taunt him with always drinking water instead of wine, implies on his part a creditable strength of will, which is further attested by his self-discipline in mastering his chosen art. What, after all, speaks the most strongly for the orator's character is the serious moral tone of his orations. This cannot have been simulated, and hence cannot have proceeded from a man with a vicious nature.
The esteem in which Demosthenes was held at Athens is seen in what occurred soon after the battle of Chaeronea, an event which led to Demosthenes' greatest oratorical effort. One Ctesiphon had proposed that the people reward Demosthenes' public services by the gift of a golden crown, and the senate had passed a bill to this effect, for submission to the vote of the assembly. AEschines denied that the orator's conduct gave him any right to be thus honored, and prosecuted Ctesiphon for bringing forward an unconstitutional measure. After years of delay, the trial came on in B.C. 330, AEschines delivering his famous address against Ctesiphon, really an adverse critical review of Demosthenes's public and private life to that time, to which Demosthenes replied by his immortal Oration on the Crown. Demosthenes gained a surprising victory. Although the judges were nearly all of the Macedonian party, AEschines did not secure for his cause a fifth part of their votes, a fact which, according to Athenian law, subjected him to a fine of a thousand drachmas for provoking the litigation. He at once left Athens and never returned.
The most recent judgment of Demosthenes as a statesman differs much from that in which nearly all the standard English and American authorities since Grote agree. Till lately it has been common to think of Athens as a real democracy, favorable to freedom, the bulwark of liberty then for Greece and the world. Philip has been deemed a mere barbarian, whose victory was certain to be, and was, the death of Grecian liberty. This being so, Demosthenes, in opposing Philip and his son Alexander, was not only a sincere patriot but a wise one. This is the view of Greek politics then which one gets from Demosthenes himself. Readers of his masterly orations insensibly adopt it, without due reflection upon the evidence now available to substantiate a different one. Demosthenes is understood to argue for a constitutional form of government, which, to all lovers of such, is an additional reason for siding with him. Grote's history urges the same view in a most enthusiastic and unhesitating way, and has had enormous influence in disseminating it. Thucydides, the original Greek historian most read in our time, makes the fate of everything good in Greece turn upon that of Athens. This great author so trains us in his manner of thought as to disqualify us from coolly considering the question whether the fortunes of Greece might not have risen or fallen in some other way.
The present writer believes the above theory to be almost entirely an error. Doubtless Demosthenes was honest, but he was mistaken in his views of what was best for Greece and even for Athens. Philip and Alexander, however selfish, were neither in purpose nor in fact so hostile to Greek freedom as the mighty orator makes out. Inordinate ambition possessed both. In this they are to be ranked with Napoleon and Julius Caesar rather than with Washington. They, however, clearly saw the vanity of the old Greek regime, the total uselessness of trying to unify Greece or to make her independent of Persia through any of the devices paraded by the politicians. Therefore, with patriotism and philanthropy enough to give their cause a certain moral glow in their minds, they set out by force of arms--the only possible way to succeed--first, to unify Greece, and next, to make her eternally independent of Persia. Since Gustav Droysen, in his "Alexander the Great," led off with this theory, the best writers upon Greek history have gradually adopted it, deserting Grote more and more. Droysen went too far. With him Alexander was the veritable demigod whom he sottishly decreed that his subjects should see in him. Droysen, of course, has too little respect for Demosthenes's policy. Victor Duruy is the only late writer of note who still blows the trumpet for our old orator as a statesman. He says that "the result of the Macedonian dominion was the death of European Greece," and he calls it the immortal glory of Demosthenes to have perceived this; yet even he admits that "the civilization of the world gained" by the Macedonian conquest, and hence, after all, places himself, "from the point of view of the world's history, on the side of Philip and his son." The tendency of writers upon this period is thus to exalt the man with a great national policy in his head though with a sword in his hand, at the expense of him who, never so honestly, dinned the populace with his high-sounding pleas for an obstructive course.
We are learning that republicanism or democracy, whichever one pleases to call it, was in ancient times a very different thing from aught that now exists under either name. The various republics of Greece and the republic of Rome were nothing but oligarchies, often atrociously tyrannical. Even at their best estate the rights of individuals in them, of their citizens even, were far less perfectly guarded than in some pretty absolute monarchies of later times.
"The Athenian imperial democracy was no popular government. In the first place there was no such thing as representation in their constitution. Those only had votes who could come and give them at the general assembly, and they did so at once upon the conclusion of the debate. There was no Second Chamber or Higher Council to revise or delay their decisions, no crown; no High Court of Appeal to settle claims against the state. The body of Athenian citizens formed the assembly. Sections of this body formed the jury to try cases of violation of the constitution either in act or in the proposal of new laws.
"The result was that all outlying provinces, even had they obtained votes, were without a voice in the government. But as a matter of fact they had no votes, for the states which became subject to Athens were merely tributary; and nothing was further from the ideas of the Athenians than to make them members of their Imperial Republic, in the sense that a new State is made a member of the American Republic.
"This it was which ruined even the great Roman republic, without any military reverses, and when its domination of the world was unshaken. Owing to the absence of representation, the empire of the Roman republic was in the hands of the city population, who were perfectly incompetent, even had they been in real earnest, to manage the government of the vast kingdoms their troops had conquered. In both cases the outsiders were governed wholly for the benefit of the city crowd.
"The mistakes and the injustices which resulted in the Roman executive were such that any able adventurer could take advantage of the world-wide discontent, and could play off one city faction against the other. It is not conceivable that any other general course of events would have taken place at Athens, had she become the ruler of the Hellenic world. Her demos regarded itself as a sovran, ruling subjects for its own glory and benefit; there can therefore be no doubt that the external pressure of that wide discontent, which was the primary cause of the Peloponnesian war, would have co-operated with politicians within, if there were no enemies without, and that ambitious military chiefs, as at Rome, would have wrested the power from the sovran people either by force or by fraud." (Mahaffy, "Problems in Greek History," 98 foll.)
In other words, however distressing the ills which might happen to Athens through Philip's success, they could not be worse than those which were sure to beset her in any event; while for Greece as a whole, Philip's victory would mean unity and peace such as could have been secured in no other way.
This splendid possibility, which must have impressed the minds of Phocion and Philip, is obscured to our thought by the untimely death of both the great Macedonian generals, before their plans had any time to bear fruit. Desperate chaos follows Alexander's death of course; and when, little by little, order is evolved, it is a new order, not the old one. Never again does Athens sit there as a queen looking out upon her AEgean, but her day of political glory is ended forever.
It is natural to trace all this wild disorder, involving the decline of Athens, the wars of Alexander's successors, small and great, and also the Roman conquest at last, to Philip's victory at Chaeronea. As we read the tangled and bloody record, we say to ourselves: Oh, how much better all would have been had the Athenians roused at the cry of Demosthenes, and beaten Philip instead of being beaten! We assume that had this happened Greece would have kept on its old splendid way, able to have conquered Rome herself when Rome came. Philip ruined Greece; the advice of Demosthenes, had it been followed, would have saved her.
Superficially considered, all this seems clever reasoning; but it is in fact a stupendous fallacy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Philip conquered and subsequently things went ill with Greece. A man looked at Mars and subsequently had the cholera.
Let us no longer argue so childishly. The evils that befell Hellas were not at all those which Demosthenes prophesied. They are no proof of his foresight. From the point of view of his wishes they were entirely accidental. To see this we need only inquire what would in all probability have come to pass had Alexander lived. One may heavily discount Droysen's adoration of the young conqueror, and yet, from what he achieved while alive and the way in which he achieved it, believe that immeasurable blessings to Greece and to humanity would have resulted from a lengthening of his days. I cannot think it rash to affirm that ten or twenty years added to Alexander's career would probably have changed subsequent history in at least three colossal particulars:
1. Probably Greece would have been more happily, perfectly, and permanently cemented together than was the case, or could in any other way have been the case.
2. Probably Greece would not only have been at last forever free from Asia but would also have become Asia's lord, and this in a manner truly beneficial to both lands.
3. Probably Greece would have ruled Rome instead of being ruled by Rome, and this, too, in such wise as to have benefited both, and the world as well.
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