Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


The father of Demosthenes was an Athenian citizen of rank. He owned a sword-factory, in which he employed a large number of people, but he did not work himself, because that would have been beneath the dignity of a man of his position. He died when his son was only seven years of age, leaving a large fortune, which went to young Demosthenes; but he was too much of a child to attend to it properly, so his guardians robbed him to such an extent that even his teachers were cheated of their salaries. This was one reason why his education was limited, but another reason was, that, being a weak, delicate boy, his mother would not let him study hard. Thus several years passed in idleness, until the boy reached the age of sixteen. Then his future was decided in this way: he had often heard of an orator named Callistratus, of whom men of learning spoke in the highest terms, and felt great curiosity to hear him. An opportunity offered on the occasion of an important trial, which was conducted in open court. Demosthenes begged the doorkeeper for a seat where he might hear without being seen. He listened with profound attention to the orator's eloquent pleading, and when he won the case, the boy was so impressed by the applause and honors he received that he resolved on the spot to become a public speaker.

He employed an orator named Isæus to teach him, but much of his rich, grand style of speaking he learned from Plato. He was only seventeen years old when he appeared before the public courts and made an attempt to get back his father's estate. He was successful in that, but not in his oratory, for his style was not yet sufficiently cultivated, his voice was weak, he had a peculiar way of catching his breath, and he stammered. The public ridiculed him so much that he could scarcely make himself heard at times, and he was so mortified at being laughed at that he was on the point of giving up the profession he had chosen. It was Satyrus, the actor, who inspired him with new hope, in this way:

He was going home one day in deep distress when he met Satyrus, who, being an old acquaintance, joined him and went along with him. Then Demosthenes told him the cause of his sorrow. "I am the hardest worker among all the orators, and have almost injured my health by study, yet I can find no favor with the people, though they listen with pleasure to the low, drunken, uneducated fellows who address them."

"What you say is true, Demosthenes," replied the actor, "but if you will recite to me some speech in Euripides or Sophocles, I will show you a remedy."

Demosthenes did so; Satyrus repeated the same speech, but it seemed to have a different meaning as it came from his lips, and Demosthenes saw how much he had yet to learn before he could gesticulate and pronounce correctly. But he did not lose courage; he built himself a study under ground, and there he would stay for three and four months at a time to exercise his voice. He shaved half his head, so that he might feel ashamed to go out even if he desired to do so, and thus his studies were not interrupted.

When he began to speak in public again, he always went to the study he had built to compose his orations, and scarcely ever delivered one unless he had prepared it with the utmost care. Even after it was over he would reconsider it, and decide what more he might have said and what left unsaid, which was his way of constantly improving himself.

Demades was another orator who lived in Athens at the same period with Demosthenes; but he was one of those gifted men who are always ready, and he was frequently known to rise quickly and support Demosthenes when he faltered. A wise man was once asked to pass judgment on the two orators. He said, "Demosthenes is worthy of the city of Athens." "What do you think of Demades?" was asked. "I think him above it," was the reply. A politician of the day expressed this opinion: "Demosthenes is our greatest orator, but Phocion is the ablest, for he expresses the most in the fewest words."

When Phocion stood up to plead against him, Demosthenes often said, "Here comes the pruning-knife of my periods." Whether this referred to Phocion's style of delivery, or to his superior character, which gave him weight and influence, is not known.

Demosthenes cured his stammering by speaking with pebbles in his mouth, he strengthened his voice by reciting some piece of prose or poetry while running up a hill, and he regulated his gestures before a large looking-glass, which he had placed in his house for that purpose. To cure a habit which he had of raising his left shoulder while speaking, he suspended a naked sword over it whenever he practised, and he would stand on the sea-shore during a storm to declaim, that he might accustom himself to the tumult of a public assembly. In short, he worked exceedingly hard to perfect himself in his art, and his enemies, who knew that he never made a speech over which he had not worked many hours, maliciously said they "smelt of the lamp."

Demosthenes first took part in public affairs soon after the Phocion war, and then he set himself the task of defending the Greeks against Philip of Macedon. This he did so well that he at once became famous for his eloquence and courage.

His courage was not displayed on the battlefield, it was more in his bold manner of addressing a crowd, for he freely told them of their faults, and would never grant an unreasonable demand. Once he was called upon to accuse a certain person; he refused, and the assembly was at once in an uproar, whereupon he rose and said, "A counsellor, ye men of Athens, you shall always have in me, whether you will or not; but a false accuser I will never be, no matter how much you may wish it."

At another time, one Antiphon, who was on trial, was acquitted by the general assembly, but Demosthenes carried him before the Areopagus, in spite of the offence he gave to the people by so doing. Before that court he proved that Antiphon had promised Philip of Macedon to burn the arsenal; the accused was condemned to death. He also pronounced a priestess guilty of several misdemeanors; she was found guilty and executed on his charges. These incidents go to prove that he had the moral courage to do what he thought right in spite of public opinion.

We have said that Demosthenes set himself the noble task of defending his country against Philip of Macedon. This was at a period when the Athenians had become so luxurious and indolent that they had ceased to take part in public affairs. At heart they were really patriotic, but they needed some one to arouse them from their apathy and to make them look out for the safety of their liberty. Demosthenes knew this; he also knew that Philip of Macedon was trying to get power in Greece; so he set to work to awaken the enthusiasm of the people and to oppose Philip. The fourteen years which preceded the downfall of Grecian freedom form the brightest portion of the history of this wonderful orator, and so powerful were his speeches that Philip looked upon him as a person of the greatest importance in Athens. It was his eloquence that aroused the Athenians to action at last, and when, after several engagements, their cause seemed almost hopeless, again did his eloquence save them, for he won over the Thebans, who had for many years been firm allies of the Macedonians. Then Philip sent ambassadors to Athens to sue for peace. Meanwhile, Greece recovered from her depression, and the various assemblies waited for directions from Demosthenes, whom they now loved and respected.

But fortune seemed suddenly to turn against Greece, and all the oracles foretold that she was on the point of losing her liberty. Demosthenes had so much confidence in her arms, and was so encouraged by the spirit of the brave men who came forward in her defence, that he would not pay attention to the oracles. He was bravery itself in his speeches, but he threw away his arms and fled in a most shameful manner at the next battle, which was fought at Chæronea. Some of his enemies took that opportunity to bring grave charges against him, but the people acquitted him of them all, invited him to continue to take part in public affairs, and when the bones of those who had fallen at Chæronea were brought home to be interred, he was chosen to deliver the funeral oration.

After that Demosthenes mounted the rostrum every day and made speeches in the interest of his country, but he could not save it from Alexander, who had by that time succeeded Philip as king of Macedon. Alexander spread terror wherever he went, and when the Athenians lost their city he sent to demand ten of their orators, Demosthenes heading the list.

But Demosthenes feared Alexander so much that he made one of his most eloquent appeals to the people, and told them the fable of the sheep, in which the wolves promised to leave them at peace if they would give them their dogs. He meant to show that he and the other orators were the guardians of the people as the dogs were of the sheep, and that Alexander was the great wolf they had to treat with.

The Athenians did not know what to do, so they called a general assembly to consider the matter. Demades, one of the orators, offered to go entirely alone to the king of Macedon on condition that the other orators would each pay him five talents, nearly five thousand dollars. They agreed, and he was so successful in pleading for their release that Alexander became reconciled to the city.

Then for a while Demades was regarded as the greatest orator of the day, and Demosthenes sank into obscurity. But this did not last long, for at his own expense Demosthenes rebuilt the walls of Athens, whereupon a crown of gold was voted for him, which was considered the most splendid reward a Greek citizen could receive. This excited the envy of Æschines, who did all he could to prevent the Athenians from presenting the crown. It was on that occasion that Demosthenes made one of the most celebrated of all his orations. While the two orators were discussing the point, immense crowds assembled to hear them. Then it was put to the vote, and, as Æschines did not get one-fifth of the number of votes, the law compelled him to pay a fine and to go into exile. It was a law in Athens that if an accuser got less than a fifth of the votes cast, he should be so punished.

A short time after this splendid victory Demosthenes stooped to a shameful action. Harpalus, a Macedonian governor, was then in Athens, where he had sought protection, because he had stolen a large sum of money from Alexander's treasury in Babylon. One day Demosthenes was looking over some of the rich vessels that Harpalus had, and particularly admired the workmanship of a gold cup; he was surprised, too, at its weight, and asked Harpalus how much it might bring. "It will bring you twenty talents," was the reply of the governor. That night he sent the cup filled with the sum he had named, and Demosthenes could not resist the temptation. He received the treasure as a bribe, and immediately went over to the interest of Harpalus. The next day he appeared in the assembly with his throat bandaged, because he feared he might betray himself if he spoke, and made signs, when called upon, to signify that he had lost his voice. But he had been found out, and a man near by said, "It is no common hoarseness that came to Demosthenes in the night; it is a hoarseness caused by swallowing gold and silver." When it became generally known that he had been guilty of taking a bribe he wanted to defend himself, but nobody would listen to him, and Harpalus was sent out of the city.

Then Demosthenes moved that the affair be brought before the Areopagus. This was done, and he was found guilty. His sentence was to pay a fine of fifty talents and be imprisoned until it was paid. He made his escape, however, and fled to Ægina, whence he could behold the shores of his beloved country, and whenever he looked that way he shed tears.

During the exile of Demosthenes Alexander of Macedon died, and a new league was formed among the Grecian cities against the Macedonians. Then Demosthenes was recalled, and as the galley which had been sent to fetch him came into port the citizens flocked to meet him with loud cheers and joyful greetings. On landing, the orator raised his hands to heaven and said, "Happier is my return than that of Alcibiades. The Athenians were forced to restore him, but me they have recalled from a motive of kindness."

The fine had not been paid, and as there was no way of releasing Demosthenes directly, this plan was adopted: It was the custom to give a certain sum of money to those who were to furnish and adorn the altar of Jupiter, the Preserver; so Demosthenes was appointed, and fifty talents, the amount of his fine, ordered for him.

He did not enjoy his home long, for when the report reached Athens that Antipater and Craterus were coming he and his party escaped, some going in one direction, some in another. Antipater's soldiers followed them, and found Demosthenes on the island of Calauria, where he had hidden himself in the temple of Neptune. It was Archias, an actor, who led the party of soldiers that entered the temple. Archias spoke mildly, and tried to persuade the orator to go with him to Antipater, as though no harm would come to him if he did so. Demosthenes looked into his face while he spoke, without answering; at last he said, "O Archias, I am as little affected by your promises now as I used formerly to be by your acting."

That made Archias so angry that he began to threaten, whereupon Demosthenes said, "Now you speak like the true Macedonian oracle; before you were only acting a part. Therefore leave me for a few moments, while I write a word or two home to my family." Feeling sure of his victim, Archias complied. Demosthenes then took out a scroll, as if he meant to write, but put the reed into his mouth and began biting it, as he often did when composing one of his speeches. Then he bowed his head and covered it. The soldiers who stood at the door of the temple suspected nothing but that Demosthenes was a coward, and so they made fun of him. Presently Archias went up to him and repeated the promises he had made of good treatment from Antipater. Demosthenes had been sucking poison out of his reed, and now began to feel its effect. He uncovered his face, and, looking up at Archias, said, "Now you may act the part of the tragedian in the play, who cast out the body of his victim unburied. For myself, O gracious Neptune! I quit thy temple with my breath within me; but these Macedonians would not have scrupled to profane it with murder." By this time he could scarcely stand, and in attempting to walk out he fell by the altar and with one groan expired.

It was not long before a brass statue was erected in his honor at Athens; but the inscription it bore sounds more like a disgrace than an honor to his memory. It was this:

"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."