Great Men of Athens

Demosthenes - The greatest orator of Ancient Greece. A man who lived and died by his word.

Demosthenes – A Man of His Word

Classical Greece. 5th and 4th centuries BC. Two hundred of the most fruitful years in the history of the human race. In this time span what we now call today – “The Cradle of Western Civilization” was created. During this brief period of world history some of the most exemplary minds created the world’s most important literary, artistic and scientific concepts. The Greeks excelled in mathematics, medicine, astronomy and botany. Their schools and doctrines of philosophy and political thought remain to this day, almost 3000 years later, the foremost structure of our modern, organized societies. No other civilization has ever produced so much or so significantly in a shorter period of time. The reasons are many and their justifications lengthy and will perhaps be the topic of many articles to come.
What I would like to do now is look at some of these individuals, some from humble beginnings others from privileged backgrounds and see the man behind the genius. I have always been fascinated with this – so let’s take this journey together – shall we?
In this article I will begin with Demosthenes, the greatest statesman and orator of Ancient Greece. He made a good living as a speechwriter and lawyer. His speeches, always inspiring and thought provoking, almost always urged the Greeks to stand tall and fight for their freedom. He made a name for himself by arguing that the Greeks should trust their abilities and fight back against Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great).

“Nothing is easier than self-deceit.
For what every man wishes,
that he also believes to be true.”
― Demosthenes
But Demosthenes had an impact on me not because of who he was or what he said, but of what he did to become the great man that he was. He, perhaps of all other great Greeks of history, had the strongest will and discipline of all. And he was a man of his word.

Athens in the 4th century BC
Athens in the 4th century BC

Although born to a wealthy sword maker in 384 BC, the boy learned of the hardships of life and the cruelty of human nature at a very young age. His father, also named Demosthenes, died when his son was seven and though he left a large fortune for young Demosthenes’s education, his guardians deprived him of his estate. His delicate and somewhat effeminate physique and a speech defect that caused him to stutter and speak inarticulately made him  a target for both verbal and physical bashing from his peers at the gymnasium so his mother Kleobule decided to keep him at home. Thus, deprived of his classical gymnastic education and the refusal of this guardians to pay his tutors, Demosthenes’s future seemed to be, at that moment, a very bleak one indeed.
Until the day he listened to a speech by the orator Callistratus at the court of Athens and his life changed forever. He was in awe of the man’s skill and forcefulness, how he alone held the admiration and full interest of the crowd, how they waited, almost in agony, for each word to come from his mouth like cool water for parched throats. One man, simply with the power of voice and strength of mind, had the power to quell all opposition and influence the actions of hundreds of men, thousands even. Without weapons, without bloodshed, just by the word.

Bust of Demosthenes
Bust of Demosthenes

Demosthenes now had a purpose. No longer would he be a victim, beaten by those stronger than he. He would be powerless or ignored no more. He would become the best orator in all of Greece and when he came of age, he would sue his guardian and regain a portion of his inheritance. From that day on Demosthenes began to methodically and diligently train in rhetoric by studying the speeches of great orators.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”
― Demosthenes
He devised ingenious ways to correct his speech defect. He would fill his mouth with pebbles and practice speaking to cure his stutter. He would recite verses by running up hill, or in one full breath, or to the crashing waves of the sea to prepare for the noise Assembly. He associated himself with theater actors as well as tutors of rhetoric. And to ensure that he would devote all of his time to his craft, he built an underground study in his home and shaved half of his head, making him too much of a ridiculous sight to go out in public.

Demosthenes entreaty to the sea by Eugene Delacroix.
Demosthenes entreaty to the sea by Eugene Delacroix.

By the age of 20, Demosthenes was ready. He took his guardians to court, and although he did not win back his inheritance people noticed him for his incredible skill as an orator. Soon he was writing speeches for wealthy Greeks and became one of the most sought after logographers in Athens. Demosthenes soon came to be known as a great lawyer and orator who possessed strong political views, mainly against the domination of the Macedonians, which in the end cost him his life. After spending many years in exile for having spoken out against the empire, Demosthenes was tracked down in a temple on the island of Kalavria near Poros. When cornered, he bit into his poison filled pen and died, in the same way that he had lived, honorably and true to his words and beliefs.

The death of Demosthenes
The death of Demosthenes

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