The First Career Politician

James Romm

  • Demosthenes 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.

It’s not as easy as that, however. Nearly everything said about Demosthenes by his contemporaries derives from the contentious forum of Athenian democratic debate, in which slander, caricature and rumour-mongering were not only permitted but liberally rewarded. His own speeches and the letters attributed to him are so laden with self-promotion and so rhetorically wrought as to leave their author’s real personality and intentions in question. Historians have been sharply divided in their assessments of Demosthenes, some seeing him as a consummate politician who never uttered a sentence without calculating its impact on his power and popularity, others admiring him as an ideologue who stood firm through perilous times. The controversy goes all the way back to antiquity, as Plutarch’s polemics against one of his primary sources, the (now lost) Philippica of Theopompus of Chios, makes clear. Theopompus, a contemporary of Demosthenes, apparently portrayed him as a fickle shapeshifter with his finger held constantly up to the wind. Plutarch is at pains to refute this view and to argue that Demosthenes never wavered from his core beliefs and causes but ‘maintained a single unchangeable harmony throughout, and continued in the same key that he had chosen from the start’. Plutarch’s account does not always bear out his own thesis, however. It is short and elliptical compared to his other Lives, and in its later chapters raises the disquieting possibility that some of Demosthenes’ crucial policy decisions were bought with bribes.

The layers of rhetorical spin are only one of the problems for a modern biographer. Equally pressing is the question of Demosthenes’ responsibility for the ruin of free Athens, a thirty-year collapse under the pressure of Macedonian power that reached one crisis point in 338 and another in 322 when the Athenians suffered military defeats at Chaeronea and Crannon. Demosthenes was the leading voice in the Athenian assembly during most of this period and, though he could not steer that body anything like as firmly as Pericles had in the previous century, he succeeded in getting it to adopt many of his core policies. In the mature phase of his career, Athens grappled with three great antagonists in succession, but lost each time: first to Philip of Macedon; then to his son Alexander; and, after Alexander’s departure into Asia and death, to Antipater, the general who served Macedon’s royal house and protected its interests in the Greek world. Demosthenes fought all three, until Antipater forced him to take his own life. In the wake of his suicide, portrayed in heroic tones by Plutarch, Athens wondered whether its final champion should be regarded as a martyr or a failure, or as a complex mixture of the two. Subsequent ages have wrestled with the same question and reached radically different answers, depending on their philosophies of history and on their own experience of the struggle between autocracy and pluralism.

In the preamble to Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece, Ian Worthington promises that both these problems – the relative proportions of pragmatism and ideology in Demosthenes’ motivation, and the degree of blame he deserves for the failure of the Athenian cause – will be confronted head-on. ‘Should blame for his failure be attached not to him but to an apathetic citizenry?’ Worthington asks. ‘Was he Greece’s greatest patriot, or did he cynically exploit the danger of Philip for his own political agenda?’ Worthington has by this point already tipped his hand as to what his answer will be, with an early reference to ‘Demosthenes’ unremitting stance against the tyranny of Philip’ – but ‘tyranny’ is a loaded word that many, both in Demosthenes’ day and in our own, would dispute. For Worthington, as for those like Arthur Pickard-Cambridge who made a hero out of Demosthenes a century ago, ‘patriot’ is a label that excuses many shortcomings and failures. Worthington admits that in his early career, Demosthenes’ speeches were ‘self-serving’ and political ambition governed all his moves, but sees a turn towards ‘less self-interested motives’ when the threat Philip posed became clear. Here he is endorsing a view as old as Plutarch, who claimed that Demosthenes found his true and better nature when he joined the great cause of opposition to Philip.

Worthington may have promised a critical inquiry that would avoid the moralising of the past, but his account is only slightly more nuanced in its approval of Demosthenes than those of his predecessors. He passes hurriedly over problematic twists and turns in the late phase of Demosthenes’ career, and summarily absolves him of guilt in areas where others, including the Athenian jury who convicted him of embezzlement in 323, have expressed doubts about his integrity. In his concluding chapter Worthington compares Demosthenes to a modern freedom fighter ‘standing firmly, defiantly and bravely against tyrannies and totalitarian regimes’.

The son of a wealthy shield manufacturer, Demosthenes was born in the mid-380s, when Athens, greatly reduced in wealth, military strength and population, was a shadow of what it had been when it fought the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, and lost. The Athenians even so regarded themselves as the natural hegemon of Greece, and were trying to rebuild the naval empire that the Spartans had stripped from them. But the sense of mission and common purpose that had helped propel the city’s rise had been irretrievably damaged by the failures of the late fifth century, and the squabbles in the assembly, the vast legislative body in which all full citizens were entitled to speak and vote, had become more intense and factionalised. Athens had no acknowledged leader in the fourth century who could dominate the assembly as Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles had done in the fifth, and its politics had become more contentious, with rival speakers increasingly using the courts to eliminate opposition. Since Athenian law gave private citizens great latitude to indict and prosecute their enemies, the court calendars by Demosthenes’ day had become crowded with politically motivated trials, high-stakes spectacles of rhetorical combat played out before hundreds of jurymen and thousands of spectators.

It was after observing one such trial, according to Plutarch, that young Demosthenes first made it his goal to become a great orator. Smuggled into the court where a certain Callistratus was being tried – he was too young to attend legally – Demosthenes watched as the defendant won a decisive victory and was immediately surrounded by cheering supporters. ‘Demosthenes envied his glory, seeing him paraded about by so many men and congratulated,’ Plutarch writes, but hastily adds: ‘Still more did he marvel at the man’s speaking ability, recognising that it had the power to subdue and tame everything.’ Driven by love of both power and popularity, Demosthenes made up his mind to master the art of rhetoric. He set about it with enormous energy, hiring the best tutors of the day and submitting to rigorous exercises to build up the power of his voice (the most famous of these, requiring him to fill his mouth with pebbles, was designed to overcome a lisp). Plutarch himself claims to have seen the underground bunker that Demosthenes built as a soundproof practice chamber, where he would retreat for months at a stretch, keeping one half of his head shaved while allowing his hair to grow on the other half so that he would be too embarrassed to leave his shelter. Never before in the ancient world had a man so studiously sought eloquence, and the political influence it brought, as an end in itself rather than as a vehicle for carrying out the duties of Athenian public life – the Western world’s first career politician, you could say.

Certainly, Demosthenes was the first Athenian leader to found his reputation exclusively on rhetorical skill rather than military expertise. Those who had dominated the assembly before him had done so while holding the office of strategos, an annually elected generalship, and were naturally listened to since the crucial decisions faced by the state were military ones. Demosthenes not only never held this office, he rarely carried arms. He stands alone in the great gallery of heroes formed by Plutarch’s Lives in having won no battlefield glory; the one time he saw action was at the battle of Chaeronea in 338, where – according to reports accepted by Plutarch but dismissed by Worthington – he threw away his shield and ran from danger, then begged for his life when his cloak caught on a bramble bush and he thought that his pursuers had caught him up. It was this non-military man who came to prominence as a spokesman for the hawks favouring confrontation with Philip of Macedon and the reassertion of Athenian power. But Athens in the mid-fourth century seems no longer to have required that its statesmen also be soldiers – though the city would later express regret, in the inscription it carved on a famous commemorative statue, that Demosthenes could not have been both.

The question of whether and how to stand up to Philip of Macedon was indeed vexing: Philip was a wily strategist who kept his intentions carefully cloaked and feigned, or perhaps actually felt, great reverence for Athens. After he assumed the throne of Macedon in 359, when Demosthenes was just starting out in public life, Philip conducted a sweeping overhaul of his army and began an aggressive programme of expansion. An early campaign in Thrace won him sovereignty over Amphipolis, a wealthy and strategically located city that Athenians had come to regard as their protectorate. Philip had thus declared himself a threat to Athens’s vital interests, but by diplomatic feint and doublespeak he convinced the Athenians that he meant them well and would in time return Amphipolis. For two decades he dangled it, and other inducements, in front of the Athenians like so many pretty toys, and many were persuaded that their best move was to enter into an alliance with him and assist his imperial ambitions. The man seemed harmless enough – a cultured monarch who had brought poets and thinkers, including Aristotle, to his court – and his new power might, some Athenians hoped, provide a counterweight to that of their neighbouring rival, Thebes; it might even, as the essayist Isocrates fervently urged, bind the Greeks together in a retaliatory war against the ancient enemy to the east, the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Complicating Athenian attitudes towards Philip was the question, unresolved then as it still is today, of whether or not the Macedonian kings were Greeks, descendants of a line (as they claimed and Isocrates was willing to accept) that had emigrated north from Argos centuries before.

Starting around 350, when he was in his mid-thirties, Demosthenes leaped into the debate concerning Philip and his intentions, determined to make the case that Macedon, not Thebes or Persia, was the greatest and most immediate threat to the city’s security. In his vitriolic Philippics, as well as in a great many minor or lost policy speeches, he held aloft the image of a barbarous, devious, aggressive Philip, a warlord who was inexorably encroaching on Athenian interests with a fantastically powerful army. Philip could not as yet threaten Attica itself – he had no navy to speak of, and hadn’t then gained control of the crucial entry point into southern Greece, the pass of Thermopylae – but Demosthenes urged the Athenians to fortify their allies and outposts in northern Greece, Thrace and, eventually, the cities bordering the Dardanelles, the straits through which critical Athenian food supplies were shipped. In his speeches he looked ahead to a final showdown with Philip, but he also played a central role in negotiating the Peace of Philocrates of 346, which put off the confrontation for several years. Demosthenes saw the treaty as a distasteful necessity, given that Athens was not yet ready to fight, but also repudiated it soon after it was signed and blamed its overgenerous terms on others, principally Aeschines, his chief rival and political nemesis.

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The showdown Demosthenes wanted finally arrived in 339, after Philip, having at last made Thermopylae his own, brought his army into southern Greece and captured a town that controlled the roads towards Thebes and Athens. News of the move paralysed the Athenian assembly and no one was willing to speak, until Demosthenes alone came forward – according to his own later account – to propose a distasteful but necessary measure: alliance with Thebes against a common enemy. With two rhetorical triumphs, first at Athens and then at Thebes, Demosthenes negotiated the alliance, but even the two cities together could not prevail at the Battle of Chaeronea the following year. A victorious Philip reportedly toured a battlefield strewn with Athenian dead while chanting the words Demosthenes used to introduce his policy measures in the assembly. Demosthenes returned to a dispirited Athens, but he wasn’t blamed for the defeat; instead, the citizens chose him for the high honour of delivering the funeral oration over the war dead, a speech that survives.

Philip lived to enjoy his victory for only two years before falling victim to an assassin’s dagger, and on his death Demosthenes appeared in public in festal white, as though celebrating his city’s deliverance. But Alexander proved every bit as determined and skilful as his father, and Athens once again had to truckle to a foreign king. When reports arrived in 335 that Alexander too was dead, Demosthenes saw yet another chance of liberation and helped foment an anti-Macedonian uprising at Thebes. But Alexander, still very much alive, reconquered Thebes and razed it to the ground. Athens was asked to deliver up Demosthenes for punishment, along with nine other supporters of the Theban rebellion, and only after tense negotiations was Alexander persuaded to leave the Athenians, his putative allies, to handle their own internal affairs. Demosthenes escaped Alexander’s wrath, but from that point on his voice was more muted and his policies less confrontational. The firebrand orator who had for years urged staunch resistance to Philip would in the end prove willing to do business with, even appease, the more formidable figure of Alexander.

The shift in policy, only partly explicable as a bow to military necessity, clouds the record of the last phase of Demosthenes’ career, as do the embezzlement and bribery charges that swirled around him in the late 320s and finally resulted in his forced exile in 323. Despite the great honour the Athenians had paid him seven years earlier – endorsing his self-defence in the speech ‘On the Crown’ by voting for him, and against his attacker Aeschines, by more than 4 to 1 – they had somehow turned against him. Sentiment reversed again after Alexander’s death prompted Athens to rebel against their Macedonian overlords, and Demosthenes was restored to power. But when the revolt failed and the Macedonians regained control of Greek politics, Demosthenes fled Athens once more and, cornered on the small island of Calauria, drank poison rather than submit to arrest.

It is this later phase of Demosthenes’ career, the 13 years during which he grappled with Alexander and his surrogates, that is most problematic for those who seek to understand his motives and character, yet Worthington’s coverage of these years is remarkably thin. He devotes more than three times as many pages to the preceding 13 years, during which Demosthenes led the opposition to Philip. The disparity in the amount of surviving evidence only partly explains the imbalance. Demosthenes’ actions are more consistent, and easier to admire, in the earlier phase, and better serve to bear out Worthington’s view of him as a principled patriot and freedom fighter. Not surprisingly, Worthington takes a greater interest in the glory days of the Philippics than in ambiguous later episodes, such as the moment in 324 when Demosthenes turned down an opportunity, dropped into the Athenians’ lap by the renegade Macedonian satrap Harpalus, to defy Alexander and declare independence. Worthington pauses only briefly to explain this troublesome shift, claiming that ‘Demosthenes … fully understood the futility of resisting Macedonia,’ even though the defection of Harpalus gave Athens the best chance of self-liberation it had had for a long time. It seems possible, though Worthington doesn’t acknowledge this, that Demosthenes had by this time cast his lot with Alexander rather than with the radical freedom fighters in Athens, hoping that the benefactions he might win would boost his sagging popularity and restore him to leadership. At least, that seems the only explanation for Demosthenes’ sponsorship of the unpalatable measure by which Athens officially deified Alexander, a move even Worthington, who begins his book by calling Demosthenes’ opposition to tyranny ‘unremitting’, characterises as ‘a volte-face’.

This is only one of several junctures at which Worthington, content to endorse Demosthenes’ political stance as ‘patriotism’, fails to give adequate insight into his motives or to look critically at his incontestable lack of success. His account of the debate over the Theban revolt in 335 is a particularly vivid example. Here we learn that Demosthenes ‘initially sided with the Thebans’ but soon ‘had a change of heart and successfully persuaded the Athenians to remain neutral’. What, one wonders, could possibly prompt such a dramatic turnabout, within a few weeks? Did the great freedom fighter lose his nerve, or was he perhaps (as his contemporaries later suspected) bribed to keep Athens out of the fight? Or had he acted impulsively, even recklessly, when he initially urged Athenian involvement? Does he carry no responsibility at all for the complete destruction of Thebes and the loss of tens of thousands of lives? Worthington again asserts that ‘resistance to Macedonian rule was futile’ and that therefore the neutrality policy was correct, but shouldn’t he then take Demosthenes to task for having egged the rebels on? Throughout the episode, and throughout the book, Worthington is quick to forgive Demosthenes his policy failures and endorse his political wisdom. But he doesn’t offer an understanding of Demosthenes that can penetrate the opacities of the historical record.