Only one man in history both lived by the pen and literally died by it, all for the sake of defending the freedom of the city he loved. He came from nothing, but ultimately became the greatest orator of the ancient world. That man was Demosthenes: the champion of Athens’ heritage, and the defender of its future.
What drives a man as determined and fearless as Demosthenes? Behind every one of his accomplishments was a fierce love, a love for his country and its people, and a passion for rhetoric and higher thinking. He had an undying love that remained no matter who opposed him. Today we are looking at this great leader’s life, from his greatest accomplishments to his tragic demise.
Demosthenes’ story is from our book, Famous Men of Greece, a collection of stories gathered from the annals of history and myth; it’s perfect for any student or teacher of classical history from fifth through seventh grade.
The story of Demosthenes begins in tragedy. When Demosthenes was young, his father died and his inheritance was left to his guardians. Sadly they mishandled this inheritance and squandered all of his money, leaving Demosthenes set adrift and without recompense in the landscape of Athenian society. He knew that the only way to right this wrong was through the Athenian legal system. And that was a power that Demosthenes; frail, weak, stuttering Demosthenes, knew would be a much greater challenge than he had ever faced before.
Demosthenes did not have the money or connections to win this case. Instead, he knew he would need skill, specifically the skill of oratory. He would go on to do years of intense training, determined to become a great orator. It is said that he would place stones in his mouth to improve his pronunciation and that he would recite his orations by the seashore over the roaring waves to simulate a boisterous crowd. He even built an underground room to practice oration in complete solitude, studying there for months at a time. And on top of all of that, he sacrificed what little money he had for lessons from one of the finest public speaking teachers in Greece. Despite the fact that he was unable to secure the entirety of his inheritance, Demosthenes realized that he had won a much greater prize; the power of speech and a love for the craft of oration.
During Demosthenes’ time, Philip II of Macedonia was beginning his crusade to annex Graecian city-states south of his borders, and Demosthenes worried Athens would be next. Demosthenes, fearing for Athens’ independence, realized he could use his skill of oratory to defend the city he loved. So, he began to deliver speeches in the public assembly warning his people about the danger of Philip II. In his first Philippic, his powerful words inspired patriotic love in the hearts of the Athenian citizens. He entreated them to recollect their city’s history, how their ancestors defended themselves against threats from other nations. These compelling speeches, the Philippics, directly challenged Philip’s conquest. Demosthenes was determined to use his oration to defend the country he loved.
The power of Demosthenes’ words echoed across Greece, and soon they captured the attention of Philip II. He offered Demosthenes bribes to silence him, but his heart could not be swayed by lesser loves. Demosthenes refused to be corrupted and continued his campaign against Phillip.
As the fighting raged, Demosthenes and another orator, Aeschines, formed an embassy to meet with Philip II to negotiate peace. The two orators had different goals for this meeting. Demosthenes wanted a temporary ceasefire to give Athens time to prepare for what he knew would be a long struggle. Aeschines wanted to give up and surrender Athens to Macedonia. Demsothenes continued to denounce Phillip, while Aeschines assured Athens that Phillip could be trusted to protect them. Aeschines attempted to lull the Athenians into a false sense of security. Demosthenes knew that Aeschines was abandoning Athens and actively helping their enemy.
Soon a ceasefire was reached, and Demosthenes prosecuted Aeschines for treason sparking a bitter rivalry. Aeschines made every attempt to undermine Demosthenes and to smear his good name, but Demosthenes never wavered. Demosthenes, to his last breath, never let his love for Athens’ freedom dwindle no matter the personal cost.
Just as Demosthenes had warned the Athenians, Phillip failed to comply with the peace agreement. He provoked war in neighboring states and set them against each other, once again endangering Athens. Demosthenes continued to speak out against Phillips’ expansion, and eventually rallied Athens to form a citizen’s militia to defend against Macedonia. Athens won a few small victories, but ultimately their efforts did little to loosen Phillip’s hold on the Graecian states or diminish his military power.
Just as it appeared that Athens would crumble, all of Greece was shocked at the news of Phillip’s sudden assassination. Athenians believed this meant the struggle was over, that they would finally be free. But they were wrong. Phillip’s successors were even more unrelenting, and destroyed and occupied cities all over Greece. Soon a decree went out to punish the orators that had so passionately opposed Phillip’s conquest, and Demosthenes had to flee for his life.
He sought refuge in a temple of Poseidon on an island off the Grecian coast. He thought that the sacredness of the holy site would protect him, but the men who were sent to kill him discovered his hiding place. The captain called to Demosthenes inside the temple, that if he were to walk out now, he would be pardoned. Of course, Demosthenes knew this was a trap, and he told them that he would come out as soon as he wrote a letter to his family. He placed the end of the writing quill to his mouth, and fell down dead. Demsothenes had hidden poison in the tip of his pen in case he was ever captured, choosing to lay down his life for his country, rather than at the hands of his enemy.
When Athens’ independence was threatened, Demosthenes used his love of oration to rally the people to fight for their own freedom. His love of the art drove him to train tirelessly to become the best orator in the history of the Ancient World, and his love for his city and its history drove him to use his skills for a good end. We can learn from the strength of Demosthenes’ love; he never backed away from a fight; he believed in his cause; and despite threats and challenges, he was never silenced.
Until his final breath, Demosthenes fought for Athens’ independence and was clearly driven by his intense love for his people and their freedom. His life illustrates the principle that when you love something, you want what’s best for it. A memorable quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy expresses how one’s love can drive them. It says, “Can he hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?” Demosthenes loved his city and the people in it, which is why he fought so hard to change its mind, and encouraged them to rise up again after they had been beaten down. Ultimately Demosthenes’ life shows us that it’s not fear, grief, anger, or excitement that will change the world. Instead, it’s love; love for the world and the people in it that change it for the better.
So what do you think of Demosthenes’ story? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks so much for joining us today. If you liked this video go ahead and drop us a like. And if you want to learn about more heroes like Demosthenes, check out the Famous Men series, only from Memoria Press.