Profile of Demosthenes, the Greek Orator


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Demosthenes, renowned as a great Greek orator and statesman, was born in 384 (or 383) B.C. He died in 322.

Demosthenes' father, also Demosthenes, was an Athenian citizen from the deme of Paeania who died when Demosthenes was seven. His mother was named Cleobule.

Demosthenes Learns to Speak Publicly

The first time Demosthenes made a speech in the public assembly was a disaster. Discouraged, he was fortunate to run into an actor who helped show him what he needed to do to make his speeches compelling. To perfect the technique, he set up a routine, which he followed for months until he had mastered oratory.

Plutarch on the Self-Training of Demosthenes

Hereupon he built himself a place to study in underground (which was still remaining in our time), and hither he would come constantly every day to form his action and to exercise his voice, and here he would continue, oftentimes without intermission, two or three months together, shaving one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.

- Plutarch's Demosthenes

Demosthenes as Speech Writer

Demosthenes was a professional speech writer or logographer. Demosthenes wrote speeches against Athenians he believed guilty of corruption. His first Philippic was in 352 (it is named for the man Demosthenes opposed, Philip of Macedonia.)

Aspects of Athenian Political Life

Greek men of means were expected to contribute to the polis and so Demosthenes, who became active politically in c. 356 B.C., outfitted a trireme and, as choregus at Athens, he paid for a theatrical performance. Demosthenes also fought as a hoplite at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338.

Demosthenes Gains Fame as an Orator

Demosthenes became an official Athenian orator. As an official orator, he warned against Philip when the Macedonian king and father of Alexander the Great was beginning his conquest of Greece. Demosthenes' three orations against Philip, known as the Philippics, were so bitter that today a severe speech denouncing someone is called a Philippic.

Another writer of Philippics was Cicero, the Roman with whom Plutarch compares Demosthenes in Plutarch's Parallel Lives. There is also a fourth Philippic whose authenticity has been questioned.

Death of Demosthenes

Demosthenes' troubles with the royal house of Macedon didn't end with Philip's death. When Alexander insisted that the Athenian orators be delivered to him to be punished for treason, Demosthenes fled to a temple of Poseidon for sanctuary. A guard prevailed on him to come out.

Realizing he was at the end of his rope, Demosthenes requested permission to write a letter. Permission was granted; the letter was written; then Demosthenes began to walk, quill pen in his mouth, to the door of the temple. He died before he reached it -- of a poison he'd kept in his pen. That's the story.

Works Attributed to Demosthenes

  • On the Accession of Alexander
  • Against Androtion
  • Against Apatourius
  • Against Aphobus
  • Against Aphobus 1
  • Against Aphobus 2
  • Against Aristocrates
  • Against Aristogiton 1
  • Against Aristogiton 2
  • Against Boeotus 1
  • Against Boeotus 2
  • Against Callicles
  • Against Callippus
  • On the Chersonese
  • Against Conon
  • On the Crown
  • Against Dionysodorus
  • Erotic Essay
  • Against Eubulides
  • Against Evergus and Mnesibulus
  • Exordia
  • On the False Embassy
  • Funeral Speech
  • On the Halonnesus
  • Against Lacritus
  • Against Leochares
  • Against Leptines
  • Letters
  • On the Liberty of the Rhodians
  • Against Macartatus
  • Against Midias
  • Against Nausimachus and Xenopeithes
  • On the Navy-Boards
  • Against Neaera
  • Against Nicostratus
  • Against Olympiodorus
  • Olynthiac 1
  • Olynthiac 2
  • Olynthiac 3
  • Against Ontenor
  • Against Ontenor
  • On Organization
  • Against Pantaenetus
  • On the Peace
  • Against Phaenippus
  • Philip's Letter
  • Reply to Philip's Letter
  • Philippic 1
  • Philippic 2
  • Philippic 3
  • Philippic 4
  • Against Phormio
  • For Phormio
  • Against Polycles
  • Against Spudias
  • Against Stephanus 1
  • Against Stephanus 2
  • Against Theocrines
  • Against Timocrates
  • Against Timotheus
  • On the Trierarchic Crown
  • Against Zenothemis
  • For the Megalopolitans

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Gill, N.S. "Profile of Demosthenes, the Greek Orator." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Profile of Demosthenes, the Greek Orator. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Profile of Demosthenes, the Greek Orator." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).