During the days of the decline of Athens, the centre of thought to Greece, there roamed about the streets of that city a delicate, sickly lad, so feeble in frame that, at his mother's wish, he kept away from the gymnasium, lest the severe exercises there required should do him more harm than good. His delicate clothing and effeminate habits were derided by his playmates, who nicknamed him Batalus, after, we are told, a spindle-shanked flute-player. We do not know, however, just what Batalus means.
As the boy was not fit for vigorous exercise, and never likely to make a hardy soldier or sailor, it became a question for what he was best fitted. If the body could not be exercised, the mind might be. At that time Athens had its famous schools of philosophy and rhetoric, and the art of oratory was diligently cultivated. It is interesting to know that outside of Athens Greece produced no orators, if we except Epaminondas of Thebes. The Botians, who dwelt north of Attica, were looked upon as dull-brained and thick-witted. The Spartans prided themselves on their few words and hard blows.
The Athenians, on the contrary, were enthusiastically fond of oratory, and ardently cultivated fluency of speech. It was by this art that Themistocles kept the fleet together for the great battle of Salamis. It was by this art that Pericles so long held control of Athens. The sophists, the philosophers, the leaders of the assembly, were all adepts in the art of convincing by eloquence and argument, and oratory progressed until, in the later days of Grecian freedom, Athens possessed a group of public speakers who have never been surpassed, if equaled, in the history of the world.
It was the orators who particularly attracted the weakly lad, whose mind was as active as his body was feeble. He studied grammar and rhetoric, as did the sons of wealthy Athenians in general. And while still a mere boy he begged his tutors to take him to hear Callistratus, an able public speaker, who was to deliver an oration on some weighty political subject. The speech, delivered with all the eloquence of manner and logic of thought which marked the leading orators of that day, deeply impressed the susceptible mind of the eager lad, who went away doubtless determining in his own mind that he would one day, too, move the world with eloquent and convincing speech.
As he grew older there arose a special reason why he should become able to speak for himself. His father, who was also named Demosthenes, had been a rich man. He was a manufacturer of swords or knives, in which he employed thirty-two slaves; and also had a couch or bed factory, employing twenty more. His mother was the daughter of a rich corn-dealer of the Bosphorus.
The father died when his son was seven years old, leaving his estate in the care of three guardians. These were rich men, and relatives and friends, whom he thought he could safely trust; the more so as he left them legacies in his will. Yet they proved rogues, and when Demosthenes became sixteen years of age—which made him a man under the civil law of Athens—he found that the guardians had made way with nearly the whole of his estate. Of fourteen talents bequeathed him there were less than two left. The boy complained and remonstrated in vain. The guardians declared that the will was lost; their accounts were plainly fraudulent; they evidently proposed to rob their ward of his patrimony.
This may seem to us to have been a great misfortune. It was, on the contrary, the greatest good fortune. It forced Demosthenes to become an orator. Though he never recovered his estate, he gained a fame that was of infinitely greater value. The law of Athens required that every plaintiff should plead his own cause, either in person or by a deputy speaking his words. Demosthenes felt that he must bring suit or consent to be robbed. That art of oratory, towards which he had so strong an inclination, now became doubly important. He must learn how to plead eloquently before the courts, or remain the poor victim of a party of rogues. This determined the young student of rhetoric. He would make himself an orator.
He at once began an energetic course of study, There were then two famous teachers of oratory in Athens, Isocrates and Isæus. The school of Isocrates was famous, and his prices very high. The young man, with whom money was scarce, offered him a fifth of his price for a fifth of his course, but Isocrates replied that his art, like a good fish, must be sold entire. He then turned to Isæus, who was the greatest legal pleader of the period, and studied under him until he felt competent to plead his own case before the courts.
Demosthenes soon found that he had mistaken his powers. His argument was formal and long-winded. His uncouth style roused the ridicule of his hearers. His voice was weak, his breath short, his manner disconnected, his utterance confused. His pronunciation was stammering and ineffective, and in the end he withdrew from the court, hopeless and disheartened.
Fortunately, his feeble effort had been heard by a friend who was a distinguished actor, and was able to tell Demosthenes what he lacked. "You must study the art of graceful gesture and clear and distinct utterance," he said. In illustration, he asked the would-be orator to speak some passages from the poets Sophocles and Euripides, and then recited them himself, to show how they should be spoken. He succeeded in this way in arousing the boy to new and greater efforts. Nature, Demosthenes felt, had not meant him for an orator. But art can sometimes overcome nature. Energy, perseverance, determination, were necessary. These he had. He went earnestly to work; and the story of how he worked and what he achieved should be a lesson for all future students of art or science.
There were two things to do. He must both write well and speak well. Delivery is only half the art. Something worth delivering is equally necessary. He read the works of Thucydides, the great historian, so carefully that he was able to write them all out from memory after an accident had destroyed the manuscript. Some say he wrote them out eight separate times. He attended the teachings of Plato, the celebrated philosopher. The repulse of Isocrates did not keep the ardent student from his classes. His naturally capable mind became filled with all that Greece had to give in the line of logical and rhetorical thought. He not only read but wrote. He prepared orations for delivery in the law courts for the use of others, and in this way eked out his small income.
In these ways he cultivated his mind. That was the lightest task. He had a great mind to begin with. But he had a weak and incapable body. If he would succeed that must be cultivated too. There was his lisping and stammering voice, his short breath, his low tones, his ungraceful gesture,—all to be overcome. How he did it is a remarkable example of what may be done in self-education.
To overcome his stammering utterance he accustomed himself to speak with pebbles in his mouth. His lack of vocal strength he overcame by running with open mouth, thus expanding his lungs. To cure his shortness of breath he practised the uttering of long sentences while walking rapidly up-hill That he might be able to make himself heard above the noise of the assembly, he would stand in stormy weather on the sea-shore at Phalerum, and declaim against the roar of the waves. For two or three months together he practised writing and speaking, day and night, in an underground chamber; and that he might not be tempted to go abroad and neglect his studies he shaved the hair from one side of his head. Dread of ridicule kept him in till his hair had grown again. To gain a graceful action, he would practise for hours before a tall mirror, watching all his movements, and constantly seeking to improve them.
Several years passed away in this hard and persistent labor. He tried public speaking again and again, each time discouraged, but each time improving,—and finally gained complete success. His voice became strong and clear, his manner graceful, his delivery emphatic and decisive, the language of his orations full of clear logic, strong statement, cutting irony, and vigorous declamation, fluent, earnest, and convincing. In brief, it may be said that he made himself the greatest orator of Greece, which is equal to saying the greatest orator of the world.
It was not only in delivery that he was great. His speeches were as convincing when read as when spoken. Fortunately, the great orators of those days prepared their speeches very carefully before delivery, and so it is that some of the best of the speeches of Demosthenes have come down to us and can be read by ourselves. The voice of the whole world pronounces these orations admirable, and they have been studied by every great orator since that day.
Demosthenes had a great theme for his orations. He entered public life at a critical period. The states of Greece had become miserably weak and divided by their jealousies and intrigues. Philip of Macedon, the craftiest and ablest leader of his time, was seeking to make Greece his prey, and using gold, artifice, and violence alike to enable him to succeed in this design. Against this man Demosthenes raised his voice, thundering his unequalled denunciations before the assembly of Athens, and doing his utmost to rouse the people to the defence of their liberties. Philip had as his advocate an orator only second to Demosthenes in power, Æschines by name, whom he had secretly bribed, and who opposed his great rival by every means in his power. For years the strife of oratory and diplomacy went on. Demosthenes, with remarkable clearness of vision, saw the meaning of every movement of the cunning Macedonian, and warned the Athenians in orations that should have moved any liberty-loving people to instant and decisive action. But he talked to a weak audience. Athens had lost its old energy and public virtue. It could still listen with lapsed breath to the earnest appeals of the orator, but had grown slow and vacillating in action. Æschines had a strong party at his back, and Athens procrastinated until it was too late and the liberties of ancient Greece fell, never to rise again, on the fatal field of Chæronea.
"If Philip is the friend of Greece we are doing wrong," Demosthenes had cried. "If he is the enemy of Greece we are doing right. Which is he? I hold him to be our enemy, because everything he has hitherto done has benefited him and hurt us."
The fall of Greece before the sword of its foe taught the Athenians that their orator was right. They at length learned to esteem Demosthenes at his full worth, and Ctesiphon, a leading Athenian, proposed that he should receive a golden crown from the state, and that his extraordinary merit and patriotism should be proclaimed in the theatre at the great festival of Dionysus.
Æschines declared that this was unconstitutional, and that he would bring action against Ctesiphon for breaking the laws. For six years the case remained untried, and then Æschines was forced to bring his suit. He did so in a powerful speech, in which he made a bitter attack on the whole public life of Demosthenes. When he ceased, Demosthenes rose, and in a speech which is looked upon as the most splendid master-piece of oratory ever produced, completely overwhelmed his life-long opponent, who left Athens in disgust. The golden crown, which Demosthenes had so nobly won, was his, and was doubly deserved by the immortal oration to which it gave birth, the grand burst of eloquence "For the Crown."
In 323 b.c. Alexander the Great died. Then like a trumpet rang out the voice of Demosthenes, calling Greece to arms. Greece obeyed him and rose. If she would be free, now or never was the time. The war known as the Lamian war began. It ended disastrously in August, 322, and Greece was again a Macedonian slave. Demosthenes and others of the patriots were condemned to death as traitors. They fled for their lives. Demosthenes sought the island of Calauri, where he took refuge in a temple sacred to Poseidon, or Neptune. Thither his foes, led by Archias, formerly a tragic actor, followed him.
Archias was not the man to hesitate about sacrilege. But the temple in which Demosthenes had taken refuge was so ancient and venerable that even he hesitated, and begged him to come out, saying that there was no doubt that he would be pardoned.
Demosthenes sat in silence, his eyes fixed on the ground. At length, as Archias continued his appeals, in his most persuasive accents, the orator looked up and said,—
"Archias, you never moved me by your acting. You will not move me now by your promises."
At this Archias lost his temper, and broke into threats.
"Now you speak like a real Macedonian oracle," said Demosthenes, calmly. "Before you were acting. Wait a moment, then, till I write to my friends."
With these words Demosthenes rose and walked back to the inner part of the temple, though he was still visible from the front. Here he took out a roll of paper and a quill pen, which he put in his mouth and bit, as he was in the habit of doing when composing. Then he threw his head back and drew his cloak over it.
The Thracian soldiers, who followed Archias, began to gibe at his cowardice on seeing this movement. Archias went in, renewed his persuasions, and begged him to rise, as there was no doubt that he would be well treated. Demosthenes sat in silence until he felt in his veins the working of the poison he had sucked from the pen. Then he drew the cloak from his face and looked at Archias with steady eyes.
"Now," he said, "you can play the part of Creon in the tragedy as soon as you like, and cast forth my body unburied. But I, O gracious Poseidon, quit thy temple while I yet live. Antipater and his Macedonians have done what they could to pollute it."
He walked towards the door, calling on those surrounding to support his steps, which tottered with weakness. He had just passed the altar of the god, when, with a groan, he fell, and died in the presence of his foes.
So died, when sixty-two years of age, the greatest orator, and one of the greatest patriots and statesmen, of ancient times,—a man whose fame as an orator is as great as that of Homer as a poet, while in foresight, judgment, and political skill he had not his equal in the Greece of his day. Had Athens possessed any of its old vitality he would certainly have awakened it to a new career of glory. As it was, even one as great as he was unable to give new life to that corpse of a nation which his country had become.