Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Demosthenes, The Famous Greek Orator

While Plato was traveling from country to country, a little boy named De-mos'the-nes was living in Athens. He was a very rich little boy, for his father had left him a large fortune. It did not do him much good, however, for his guardians were dishonest. They kept as much of the money as they dared, and spent no more on his education than was absolutely necessary. They gave him tutors; but they paid the tutors so little that they did not trouble themselves to see that the child learned anything. He was so slender and sickly that his mother did not urge him to study. So matters went on until he was in his sixteenth year. Then something happened. He heard his tutors talking of an important case which was to be tried in court and a famous orator who was to speak. They were planning to attend the trial, and Demosthenes begged permission to go with them. At length they agreed to take him. He listened to every word. He saw how the great orator moved the people to think as he himself thought, and he heard their praises of what he had said.

[Illustration] from Old World Hero Stories by E. M. Tappan


Demosthenes woke up. He was no longer a listless boy; he was a boy with a purpose, for he meant to become an orator. He set to work with all his might to study oratory; and in two years he was arguing a case before the courts. It was a case that he knew all about, for it was the stealing of his property by his dishonest guardians. Of course a boy of not yet eighteen was not allowed to practice law, but he had a legal right to plead in a matter concerning his own private affairs. Demosthenes won his case. He was greatly praised, and he felt as if he was well on the road to becoming a successful orator. It was the most natural thing in the world that he should be eager to "go into politics," or "take some part in the government," as the Athenians put it; and in three or four years he ventured to make a speech in the assembly of the people.

This speech was a complete failure. When he was pleading his own case before the court, his chief business was to state facts; and he was so young that people overlooked his faults. Now, however, when he appeared before them, not as a boy trying to gain his rights, but as an orator trying to bring them around to his way of thinking, it was quite a different matter. They laughed at him, they jeered and they hooted. He lost himself entirely; he mixed up his sentences and confused his arguments. He stammered; his voice was weak, and he was continually losing his breath. He hunched up one shoulder, and he threw himself about in a most ludicrous fashion. It is no wonder that the people laughed; and it is no wonder that Demosthenes hurried away from the assembly and strode down to the PirŠus utterly discouraged. Fortunately for him, he met there an old man who said to him kindly, "Your manner is much like that of Pericles, but you lose yourself because you are afraid of your audience and because you have not prepared your body for the hard labor of speaking."

Demosthenes went home. It was encouragement enough for a young speaker to be told that he was in any respect like Pericles; and he went to work more earnestly than ever. He wrote his orations with the utmost care and did his best—still they failed. An actor friend of his followed him as he left the assembly, and to him the disappointed young man opened his heart. "Why is it," he asked, "that though I work so hard on my orations, the people would rather listen to a drunken sailor or any other ignorant fellow than me?" "Won't you repeat to me some passage in Euripides or Sophocles?" asked his friend, and he obeyed. Then the actor repeated the same passage; but he did it with such dignity, such appropriate gestures, and such appreciation of every thought that it became a different thing.

Demosthenes's two friends had helped him more than his teachers. He understood now that he must not only compose his orations with care, but that he must deliver them well, and that he must get rid of his awkward ways. He set to work again with fresh courage. He built himself an underground study, and there he used to practice his orations over and over again. For fear he should be tempted to go out, he would sometimes shave one side of his head, so that he could not appear on the street. He cured his disagreeable stammering by speaking with his mouth full of pebbles. He learned to control his voice by delivering speeches while running up a steep hillside; and he strengthened it to overpower the tumult of the people by making speeches to the ocean in the midst of the thunder of the waves. He hung a naked sword in such a way that if he hunched up his shoulder in the least, he would be pricked; and he practiced while standing before a mirror, that he might learn not to twist and distort his face. He wrote his orations ten or twelve times; and at last he became an orator, one of the greatest that ever lived.



There was need in Athens of a great orator, for King Phil'ip of Mac-e-do'ni-a had set his mind upon conquering Greece; and no one but Demosthenes seemed able to perceive what he was about. Demosthenes did his best to arouse the Athenians against the king. He would not admit that Philip had any virtues. Some one once spoke in the king's praise because he had eloquence, because he had beauty, and because he could drink a large quantity of liquor without being drunk. Demosthenes retorted, "The first is the quality of a public teacher, the second of a woman, and the third of a sponge." Philip was exceedingly wily. When the little states were inclined to disagree, he would send money to some of them in order to keep up the quarrel and so to weaken Greece. Demosthenes delivered most bitter orations against him. These were called "Phi-lip'pics," and ever since that day a particularly savage speech against any one has been called a philippic.

If all this had occurred in the earlier days of Athens, the state would have been aroused at a word; but the Athenians had now learned to enjoy luxury. They did not like to give up their comfortable homes for the hardships and danger of the field of battle; and it did not seem possible to make them understand their danger. Demosthenes spoke again and again. He went about from state to state, and after a while the Greeks began to see their peril and were ready to oppose the Macedonian king. But they had waited too long. Philip had now actually taken a town near Athens and had fortified it. The Greeks were as thunderstruck as if they had never dreamed of such a possibility. No one knew what to advise. People seemed to have lost their wits. They were ready then to follow the orator's advice, and they went forth to battle. Philip won the day, and the king of Macedonia was also ruler of Greece.

When the people of Athens wished to show to a man the greatest honor in their power, it was their custom to present him with a crown of gold. The Athenians realized now that Demosthenes had been in the right; and they proposed to give him such a crown. Another orator, Ăs'chi-nes, opposed the gift. Both of them made eloquent speeches, which were listened to by an immense audience. That of Demosthenes was his famous "Oration for the Crown." It was such a magnificent oration that, although the judges belonged to the Macedonian party, they were swept off their feet by his eloquence, and more than four fifths of them voted in his favor. If an accuser did not receive at least one fifth of the votes, he was exiled. Ăschines, therefore, left Athens at once.

Some time later, Demosthenes, too, was exiled on the charge of accepting a bribe and was also fined fifty talents, or about sixty thousand dollars. He made his home on an island; and it was said that every time he looked across the water to his beloved Attica, his eyes filled with tears. Exile as he was, he was ever trying to do something for his country. In one of the Grecian cities, an orator spoke eloquently in favor of the Macedonians, and was followed by Demosthenes, who spoke for the Greeks. The milk of the ass was used in sickness, and the first orator declared that just as the bringing of asses' milk into a house was a sign of illness, so any city which an Athenian embassy entered must be in a sick and decaying condition. When it came Demosthenes's turn to speak, he retorted, "As the milk of an ass never enters a house save to cure the sick, so the Athenians never enter but to remedy some disorder." The Athenians were so pleased with this retort that they voted to bring Demosthenes home again. They sent a vessel for him, and when he landed at PirŠus, the whole town of Athens was there to receive him. As to his fine, it was the custom, when a sacrifice was to be made to Jupiter, to pay the persons who prepared the altars, and the people straightway appointed Demosthenes to this position and ordered him to be paid fifty talents for his trouble.



Demosthenes had not been in Athens long before news came that Alexander, son of Philip, was dead. Then was the time to rebel, thought the orator; and he set about his old work of arousing Greece against Macedonia. The revolt was a failure. The governor of Macedonia was coming swiftly to Athens, and Demosthenes fled. The officers of the governor pursued him, and he took refuge in a temple of Poseidon on a little island. His enemies pressed into the temple. It was said that in the battle with Philip long before this Demosthenes had left his post and fled; but now when certain death was before him he was calm and quiet. "Give me but a few minutes," he said, "that I may write a letter." He took papyrus or parchment and sat for some time biting the end of his pen as if he were thinking. Then he threw a fold of his mantle over his head. The soldiers who were watching laughed at him and called him a coward. But in the end of the reed that he had been biting there was a powerful poison; and soon the great orator lay dead at the foot of the altar. One of his servants refused to believe that he had died of poison and declared that the favor of the gods had given him an easy and speedy death, and so had snatched him from the cruelty of the Macedonians.


The early life of Demosthenes. — He determines to become an Orator. — His first case. — His failures and the advice of his friends. — His struggles to succeed. — The "Philippics." — The "Oration for the Crown." — The exile and recall of Demosthenes. — He arouses a rebellion. — His suicide.