Who was Demosthenes? - an Athenian orator
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Who was Demosthenes?


April 2016 - Demosthenes was born in Athens about 385 BC, in the Hellenistic period. He was an Athenian citizen from a rich family (though not a VERY rich family like Plato) and so he got a good education. Demosthenes' parents died when he was only seven years old, and his guardians stole most of his money. He wanted to take them to court to get his money back. But to win court cases you had to be able to make good speeches, and Demosthenes had a very bad speech problem. He just could not speak clearly. Nobody could understand him when he talked. Demosthenes worked and worked to learn how to speak clearly. People say that he put pebbles in his mouth, and made himself speak, so that would force him to learn to form the words clearly.

Theater at Epidauros, Greece

By the time he grew up, Demosthenes learned to speak very well, so well that he did win his case, though there wasn't much money to get back by then. He became a professional orator, or speaker. He gave many political speeches, and he became an important leader in Athenian politics.

Demosthenes papyrus
A papyrus of Demosthenes' speeches
from Egypt, about 250 AD.

Demosthenes also wrote a lot of speeches for men who were going to appear in court. Under the Athenian system, your lawyer could not speak in court; only you could (if you were a man - if you were a woman then you had to find a man to speak for you). But people paid Demosthenes to write their speeches for them, and then memorized them and recited them in court. We still have some of these speeches written down today.

Demosthenes was one of the first people to see that Philip of Macedon was going to try to take over Greece. He warned the Athenians about the danger, but they didn't really believe him. Later, when the Athenians realized that Demosthenes had been right, they sent Demosthenes along with some other men (women couldn't go on embassies) to try to bargain with Philip in Macedon, but by that time it was too late.

After Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, Demosthenes tried to help Athens break free of Macedonian rule. Aristotle, who supported the Macedonians, left town. But Demosthenes' revolt failed, and he was put in jail in 322 BC. He escaped from jail and ran away, and before anyone found him, he died. Many people said he had taken poison to kill himself. He was about 65 years old.

Learn by doing: give a persuasive speech on a topic important to you
More about Hellenistic Athens

Bibliography and further reading about Demosthenes:

Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition (Oxford Profiles) by Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (reprinted 1997). Short biographies of many famous Greeks including Demosthenes.

Greek Orations: 4th Century B.C. : Lysias, Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides and Letter of Philip, by W. Robert Connor. The words of Demosthenes' own speeches, along with other Greek speakers of the same time period.

Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator, by Ian Worthington (2001). By a specialist, discussing how Demosthenes got his reputation as a great speaker and whether he deserves it (and why).

More about Hellenistic Athens
Ancient Greece
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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