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.

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