The First Career Politician

James Romm

  • BuyDemosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington
    Oxford, 382 pp, £22.50, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 993195 8

At first glance, Demosthenes, the leading politician of ancient Athens in the era of its decline, would seem an ideal subject for a biography. Dozens of his speeches survive, a huge corpus composed both of policy addresses delivered in the Athenian assembly and apologias written for defendants in the courts. Several of these, including the once celebrated but now little read ‘On the Crown’, deal directly with Demosthenes’ own political career, while surviving speeches by other, rival politicians – one recently recovered from a palimpsest thanks to digital imaging techniques – analyse his career from an opponent’s perspective. Two ancient Lives, one by Plutarch, preserve portraits of Demosthenes the man, even if their free use of anecdote and rumour makes them less than fully reliable. But that isn’t all: a collection of six letters attributed to Demosthenes, four of them probably genuine, has miraculously survived – and must be counted among the oldest epistles known from the Greek world. One might think that with all this a modern biographer couldn’t help but succeed, much as Anthony Everitt recently succeeded with Cicero, the Roman orator who seemed to Plutarch to have been fashioned by Nature as a duplicate of Demosthenes the Athenian.

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