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The greatest orator of antiquity, born in 384 B.C., in the Attic deme Paeania. His father, who bore the same name, was the wealthy owner of a manufactory of arms. He died before his son was seven years old, and the young Demosthenes grew up under the tender care of his mother. The boy's ambition was excited by the brilliant successes of the orator Callistratus, and he was eager at the same time to bring to justice his dishonest guardiars for the wrong done to him and his sisters. He therefore devoted himself to the study of oratory under the special instruction of Isaeus. The influence of this master is very evident in his speeches delivered in 364 against one of his guardians, Aphobus, with his brother-in-law Onetor. Demosthenes won his case, but did not succeed in getting either from Aphobus or from his other guardians any adequate compensation for the loss of nearly thirteen talents (some £2,600) which he had sustained. To support himself and his relations, he took up the lucrative business of writing speeches for others, as well as appearing in person as an advocate in the courts. His two first attempts at addressing the assembled people were, partly owing to the unwieldiness of his style, partly from a faulty delivery, complete failures. But Demosthenes, so far from being daunted, made superhuman efforts to overcome the defects entailed by a weak chest and a stammering tongue, and to perfect himself in the art of delivery. In this he was aided by the sympathy and experience of several friends, especially the actor Satyrus. Thus prepared, he appeared again in public in 355 B.C. with his celebrated speech against the law of Leptines, and then made good his position on the rostrum. Two years afterwards he started on his political career. His object from the first was to restore the supremacy of Athens through her own resources, and to rally the Greek states round her against the common enemy, whom he had long recognized in Philip of Macedon. It was in 351 B.C. that he first raised his voice against the Macedonian king. Philip, invoked by the Thessalians to help them against the Phocians, had conquered the latter, and was threatening to occupy the pass of Thermopylae, the key of Greece Proper. In his first Philippic, Demosthenes opened the conflict between Greek freedom and the Macedonian military despotism, This contest he carried on with no other weapon than his eloquence; but with such power and persistence that Philip himself is reported to have said that it was Demosthenes and not the Athenians with whom he was fighting. On this occasion he succeeded in inspiring the Athenians to vigorous action. But his three Olynthiac orations failed to conquer the indolence and short-sightedness of his fellow-citizens, and their ally the city of Olynthus was taken by Philip in 348. In 346 he was one of the ambassadors sent to conclude a peace with Philip. His colleagues Philocrates and Aeschines were bribed with Macedonian gold, and Demosthenes did not succeed in thwarting their intrigues, which made it possible for the king to occupy Thermopylae, and secure therewith the approach to Greece. In his speech on the Peace he advises his countrymen to abide by the settlement. But the ceaseless aggression of the Macedonian soon provoked him again to action, and in the second and third Philippic (344 and 341) he put forth all the power of his eloquence. At the same time he left no stone unturned to strengthen the fighting power of Athens. His exertions were, on this occasion, successful : for in spite of the counter efforts of the Macedonian party, he managed to prevail on the Athenians to undertake a war against Philip, in the victorious course of which Perinthus and Byzantium were saved from the Macedonian despotism (340). But it was not long before the intrigues of Aeschines, who was in Philip's pay, brought about a new interference on the king's part in the affairs of Greece. As a counter-move Demosthenes used his eloquence to persuade the Thebans to ally themselves with Athens: but all hope was shattered by the unhappy battle of Chaeronea (B.C. 338), in which Demosthenes himself took part as a heavy-armed soldier. Greece was now completely in the hands of Philip. The Macedonian party tried to make Demosthenes responsible or the disaster; but the people acquitted him, and conferred upon him, as their most patriotic citizen, the honour of delivering the funeral oration over the dead. In 336 after Philip's death, Demosthenes summoned the Athenians to rise against the Macedonian dominion. But the destruction of Thebes by Alexander crippled every attempt at resistance. It was only through the venal intervention of Demades that Demosthenes, with his true-hearted allies and supporters Hyperides and Lycurgus, escaped being given up to the enemy, as had been demanded. Demosthenes had been repeatedly crowned in public for his public services, and in 337 B.C. Ctesiphon had proposed not only to give him a golden crown for his tried devotion to his country, but to proclaim the fact at the Dionysia by the mouth of the herald. Aeschines had already appeared to prosecute Ctesiphon for bringing forward an illegal proposal. In 330 he brought up the charge again, meaning it no doubt as a blow against his bitterest enemy Demosthenes. Demosthenes replied in his famous speech upon the Crown, and won a brilliant victory over his adversary, who was thereupon obliged to go into exile at Rhodes. But in 324 his enemies, joined on this occasion by his old friend Hyperides, succeeded in humiliating him. Harpalus, the finance minister of Alexander, had fled to Athens with an immense treasure, and Demosthenes was accused of having taken bribes from him, condemned, and sentenced to pay a fine of 50 talents. Unable to pay this enormous sum, he was thrown into prison, whence he escaped to Aegina, to be recalled and welcomed with trumpets in the following year after the death of Alexander. But the unfortunate issue of the Lamian war, which resulted in a Macedonian occupation of Athens and the dissolution of the democratic constitution, involved him in ruin. Condemned to death with his friends by the Macedonian party, he fled to the island of Calauria, near Traezen, and took sanctuary in the temple of Poseidon. Here, as Antipater's officers were upon him, he took poison and died, Oct. 16, 322. Sixty-five genuine speeches of Demosthenes were known in antiquity and many others were falsely attributed to him. The collection which we possess contains sixty speeches, besides a letter of Philip to the Athenians, but some twenty-seven of these are suspected. The seventh, for instance, On the Island of Halonnesus, was written by a contemporary, Hegesippus. The genuineness of the six letters, and of fifty-six prooemia, or introductions to public speeches, which bear his name, is also doubtful. Among the genuine speeches the most remarkable, both for the beauty of their form and the importance of their subjects, are the Olynthiacs, the Philippics, the orations on the Peace, on the Crown, on the Embassy (against Aeschines), with those against the Law of Leptines, against Androtion, and against Meidias. The greatness of Demosthenes consists in his unique combination of honest intention with natural genius and thoroughly finished workmanship. He has all the qualities by which the other Greek orators are distinguished singly, and at the same time the power of applying them in the most effective way on each occasion as it arises. It is true that he had not the gift of free extempore speaking, or if he had, he did not cultivate it; he gave the most elaborate preparation to all his speeches, so that a witty contemporary said they smelt of the lamp. The consequence however is, that all he says shows the deepest thought and ripest consideration. There is the same finish everywhere, whether in the sobriety and acuteness of his argumentation, in the genial and attractive tone of his narrative, or in the mighty and irresistible stream of his eloquence, which no violence of passion ever renders turbid. With all his art, his language is always simple and natural, never far-fetched or artificial. The greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes was the centre of all rhetorical study among the Greeks and Romans, and was much commented upon by scholars and rhetoricians. Little, however, of these commentaries remains, except a collection of mediocre scholia, bearing the name of Ulpianus.
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