Prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens
Country: Greece

  1. Biography of Demosthenes
  2. Early Life and Education
  3. Personal Life
  4. Oratorical Career
  5. Recognition and Struggles
  6. Speech Impediment and Overcoming Challenges
  7. Political Career and Opposition to Macedonian Expansion
  8. Final Years and Legacy

Biography of Demosthenes

Demosthenes, an outstanding Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens, was one of the ten greatest Attic orators and logographers. The ancient Roman theorist of rhetorical art, Quintilian, praised Demosthenes as the "standard of eloquence," while the orator Cicero declared that Demosthenes "stands alone among all orators" and hailed him as the "ideal orator" without any flaw.


Early Life and Education

Demosthenes learned rhetoric by studying the speeches of previous great orators. He delivered his first judicial speech before the age of 20. He dedicated his life to the professional composition of speeches as a logographer, writing speeches for private legal cases. Demosthenes was born into a wealthy family of sword manufacturers in 384 BCE. His father died when he was seven years old, leaving him a substantial inheritance. However, his three legal guardians squandered almost all of his inheritance. Upon reaching adulthood in 366 BCE, Demosthenes accused his guardians of mismanaging his wealth and filed five lawsuits, eventually recovering only a small portion of his original fortune.

Personal Life

According to Pseudo-Plutarch, Demosthenes was married once, but the name of his wife is unknown. However, it is known that she was the daughter of a prominent citizen named Heliodorus. The couple had one daughter, who, according to the sarcastic remark of Aeschines, an enemy of Demosthenes, "never called him father." The daughter died young and unmarried just a few days before the death of Philip II.

Oratorical Career

Demosthenes practiced his oratorical skills in an underground room that he built himself. He spoke with pebbles in his mouth and recited poetry while working. To learn how to deal with the noise of the crowd, Demosthenes would go to the seashore and deliver his speeches amidst the sound of waves. During his time, it was not enough for orators to possess eloquence alone. They needed specific facial expressions, hand gestures, body positions, and facial expressions. Due to this, Demosthenes spent many hours practicing in front of a mirror and, at one point, even shaved half of his head as a way to confine himself within four walls.

Recognition and Struggles

According to Plutarch, when Demosthenes first addressed the public, he was ridiculed for his strange and uncouth style, burdened with long sentences and dry arguments. However, some citizens recognized his talent. When the discouraged orator left the assembly for the first time, an old man called him over and told him that his diction greatly resembled that of Pericles. When the assembly failed to appreciate Demosthenes a second time, he almost abandoned his career. However, an actor named Satyrus came to his rescue, convincing him to continue during a friendly conversation.

Speech Impediment and Overcoming Challenges

Demosthenes suffered from a speech defect from a young age. He had a weak voice, shortness of breath, and a tendency to mumble and break sentences into vague phrases. It is likely that he had a speech impediment, causing the sound 'r' to become 'l' in his speech. Demosthenes took extreme measures to improve his delivery, voice, and gestures. Once a stuttering youth who put maximum effort and diligence into changing his condition, he first gained special attention during the trials against his guardians.

Political Career and Opposition to Macedonian Expansion

Demosthenes' later speeches provide insights into the politics and culture of ancient Greece in the fourth century BCE. His interest in politics grew while serving as a logographer, and in 354 BCE, Demosthenes made his first public appearance with a political speech. During his most productive years, he opposed the attempts of Macedonian expansion. He idealized his city and dedicated his life to restoring the supremacy of Athens, including urging his fellow citizens to resist Philip II of Macedon.

Final Years and Legacy

Demosthenes sought to preserve the freedom of his city and rally all of Greece against Philip II. After the death of the Macedonian king, Demosthenes persuaded his fellow citizens not to surrender the leadership to Philip's successor, Alexander the Great. The orator took advantage of the rebellion of Thebes to overthrow Alexander. However, Demosthenes' efforts were unsuccessful, and Alexander the Great dealt harshly with Thebes. The military commander Antipater, the regent of Macedonia, sent his "headhunters" to capture or kill Demosthenes. The orator sought refuge in the temple of Poseidon on the island of Poros, where he consumed poison, pretending to write a letter to his family.

In antiquity, 65 speeches by Demosthenes were known, of which 61 have been preserved.