T HE greatest orator the world ever knew was probably Demosthenes. His father made knives and swords at Athens, and in that city Demosthenes was born. He was a delicate child and had a weak voice, but he was determined to be a great public speaker.
Because he stammered, he put pebbles in his mouth, that he might learn to speak more slowly. Because his breath was short, he practiced running uphill to make himself long-winded. Knowing that his voice was weak, he went down to the seashore and shouted against the roaring waves, so that when the people were noisy in public meetings he could make himself heard. He even built a study entirely underground and practiced speaking there, so that he might gain a loud, clear voice.
He was a pupil in the school of Plato and learned much from that wise teacher.
When he was seven years old his father died. The men who were left in charge of his property cheated him. He said nothing until he was eighteen years old. Then he went into the courts of law and accused his guardians of dishonesty and wrong. He made five orations on that subject and won his case, but could never get back all his money.
That he might learn a good style in writing he copied the history of Thucydides several times. To acquire a good manner of speaking he tried to imitate Pericles. When he began to appear in public a man said, "Your arguments smell of the lamp," which meant that they had been carefully studied by night.
"Yes," replied Demosthenes, "but your lamp and mine are used for different purposes." He meant that while he studied the other was carousing.
He took up the profession of a lawyer, but his finest speeches were political addresses against the evils of the time.
Philip of Macedon was then growing more and more powerful. Demosthenes was determined to hinder him from mastering Athens. In twelve years he delivered eleven orations against Philip, several of which were especially called Philippics because they were so full of sharp and bitter words against the Macedonian king. He went to other cities and persuaded them to unite against Philip, who, he said, would conquer all unless all combined against him.
He never was chosen for any great office and never led any armies. He was in the battle of Chæronea fighting against Philip; but it is said that he threw away his shield and fled from the field. Yet no man was more highly honored by the state. It was proposed that the city should give him a golden crown as a reward for what he had done. A prominent citizen said that such an action would not be according to law. The case was put off for six years. Demosthenes then made an address, "On the Crown," which is thought to be the best of all his speeches. It was really the history of his life. He won the case and the crown was given to him.
When Alexander became king of Macedon and thought of being a mighty conqueror, he sent word to Athens that eight of the chief orators, one of them Demosthenes, should be sent to him. A public meeting was held to talk over the matter. Demosthenes told the fable of the wolves and the sheep.
"There was once a time," he said, "when the wolves were very anxious to be at peace with the shepherds. They said they were sorry that those good men were angry at them and did not trust them. There was no cause for that feeling, as the wolves did not mean to attack the folds. For that reason they wished the shepherds would not keep dogs.
"The shepherds were pleased to find the wolves so friendly. They sent away their dogs and all was peace until a dark night came. Then while the shepherds were asleep and the sheep were helpless the wolves burst into the folds and made an end of the flock."
The people of Athens did not give up their orators but found some other way to satisfy Alexander.
Some years later Demosthenes was charged with receiving money from the king of Persia to help the cause of that ruler. He was convicted and sentenced to pay a very large sum of money. Not intending to pay the amount, he left the city and went into exile.
As he passed out of the gate, he lifted up his hands, and said, "O Athene, goddess of these towers, why do you delight in three such monsters as the owl, the dragon, and the people?"
After the death of Alexander he was recalled to Athens and went back in honor. But the new king, Antipater, gave orders that he should be put to death. Demosthenes fled to a neighboring island and took refuge in a temple there. When he found that the soldiers of the king were following him and that he could not escape he said, "Permit me to go to the inner room and write a few lines."
He sat down and took out his pen, which he always carried with him. After writing a few words he suddenly unscrewed the top of the pen and swallowed a poison which he had hidden there. So ended the life of Demosthenes, the greatest of orators.