Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.24

Raphael Sealey, Demosthenes and His Time: A Study in Defeat. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Pp. 340. $55.00. ISBN 0-19-507928-0.

Reviewed by Brad L. Cook, University of Washington.

Macdowell comments (as did Jaeger over fifty years ago) that "Demosthenes has been much neglected by our generation." However, a casual glance at a number of recent works will show that quotations from Demosthenes crowd the text and footnotes. These works, though, are not about Demosthenes but use Demosthenes to attain their goal, viz. to investigate the process of government in Athens. S., in this new work, seeks to consider both Demosthenes and the functioning of Athenian democracy against the back ground of a narrative which covers most of the fourth century.

S. recognizes the ever-valuable work of Schaefer and does not attempt to rewrite Schaefer's work, in spite of the title. He discusses the turning points in fourth-century history, returning doggedly to the question of how Athens was led. S. has argued since his earliest publications against the theory that parties "defined by a distinctive program" (5), such as anti- or pro-Macedonian, war and peace, democratic and aristocratic, guided Athens through these years. From Schaefer to Cawkwell this construct has been the basis of our view of fourth-century Athens; S. believes, however, that political leaders were tied together by kinship and friendship, not by programs. Any answer to this question, including S.'s, will significantly effect the way in which we explain fourth-century politics.1

S. starts with the Peace of Antalkidas. He begins to trace out these political ties by finding men who are linked at least twice in our extant sources, arguing that such a record "is more likely to reflect alignment than accident" (12). If he can connect these links over a larger span of time, all the better. He suggests that some were influential among the Athenians and some, such as "Leodamas and his friend" (18), were not.

In his second chapter, Sealey steps back from the march of events to describe Athens, her manpower, financial stature, and grain requirements.2 An overview of the Athenian political system follows. This section addresses the recent work by Hansen, Sinclair, Ober, et al. on a multitude of questions, while remaining quite clear and uncluttered. The following three sections paint the larger picture, bringing in the other Greek states, the Persians, especially those in the north and in Asia Minor, and lastly the island of Cyprus and the affairs of Evagoras. The third chapter, a useful commentary on Xenophon's account in the Hellenica, continues through the events of the late 380s and the 370s and concludes: "A picture, however incomplete, of the Athenian political scene toward 370 begins to emerge. There was several ambitious men and some of them were linked by ties of friendship" (73).

In chapter four S. traces out the events of the 360s. Athens wanted to keep open her access to the grain from the Black Sea. As life in northern Asia Minor, Macedon, and Thessaly became more uncertain, Athens grew more wary. S. continues to follow the activities of a few key men as he works through these developing circumstances. Kallistratos, to whom S. attributes "a judicious realism, such as characterizes statesmanship of a high order" (94), takes a leading role. But soon Kallistratos is exiled and others crowd in to fill his place. In the last five pages of this chapter S. turns to the youth of Demosthenes and the prosecution of his guardians: by attacking his guardians Demosthenes was attacking their friends, thus establishing for himself a crowd of enemies against whom he would be forced to fight in the political arena as well. This is what Sealey wishes to emphasize, that private friendship was the basis of political ties, thus personal enmity the basis of public hatred. Though S. notes at the beginning of this chapter that "it will be proper to consider what incited him [Demosthenes] to take an interest in politics" (74), his answer to the question is nothing more than a hint and one that is not very well explained.

In the fifth chapter S. takes us through the events of the 350s. He considers the significance of Xenophon and Isokrates only to dismiss them as evidence for the traditional two-party system (the war- and peace- parties). He then continues his sketch of Athenian politicians and their ties and ends up with "a multitude of mutually independent political groups" (120). S. states that "policy was dictated by the situation" and that "no differences of policy can be discerned between the rival groups" (120). The policy adopted in reaction to the growing menace from the north was to burrow in and hide. "The Athenians responded in a manner characteristic of a sated power" (125). They set themselves to defending a "Maginot Line", a policy which is "determined more by their location, power, and resources than the ephemeral designs of mortal statesmen" (125). This statement is the touchstone against which all other comments of S. must be considered.

S. finishes this chapter with an overview of Demosthenes' early public speeches. Demosthenes' policy was "to enhance his prominence", "to attain a distinctive profile", to win "the respect of the assembly" (134). S.'s interpretation of these speeches is not very flattering to Demosthenes. For example, Demosthenes' arguments regarding oligarchy and democracy are said to be "melodramatic utterances" (133). But the argument, in principle, is the same as that used many times later by Demosthenes that tyranny and democracy are inherently incompatible. It is, rather, an emphatic and heartfelt belief.

In closing this chapter, S. returns to the question of what "incited" Demosthenes to move into politics. He notes that Demosthenes' father died when he was seven and concludes that his mother "must have played a large part in his upbringing" (136), speculating that "she evoked in him the determination to excel in spite of obstacles" (136). This clashes with Plutarch's statement that Demosthenes' mother, because of his poor physical condition, kept him from toils, i.e., exercising in the gymnasium (Dem. 4.4).

Chapter six covers the fall of Olynthus and the Peace of Philokrates. Regarding Olynthus, S. follows Cawkwell and sides against Demosthenes and claims that his suggested policy "would have been disastrously expensive" (143) and would have likely failed . Throughout the discussion of the Peace of Philokrates, S. continues to argue that Demosthenes was still and constantly motived and guided by a desire to achieve prominence. Regarding the art of oratory, S. holds that anything which could likely be checked against documents or testimony should be questioned less than other claims. S. assumes that the orator is at heart a liar. That this affects his use of 'evidence' is not to be doubted.

In chapter seven, S. considers the period between the Peace of Philokrates and the battle of Chaironeia. He turns first to Philip and Macedon. S. rejects Theopompos' explanation for the sudden emergence of Macedon as a mighty power, i.e., Philip, preferring to examine socio-economic and geographical causes. But Philip, he explains, like Demosthenes, was driven by a single motive, to get to the top and stay there. Every decision was made with this in mind. Regarding the conflict between Demosthenes and Aischines, he claims that we should not see them as "spokesmen of rival policies" (164), but rather as men of different temperaments. He explains himself by quoting Aischines' oath, or. 3.260, where he invokes the earth, the sun, virtue, sagacity, and education. "Demosthenes," he concludes, "whatever his faults, was not a culture snob" (164). Such argumentation lacks clarity.

By now S. wants to view Demosthenes as "one of the leading men among the Athenians" (169). His rise may be due to political maturity, shrewdness, or wisdom. Whatever it was the Athenians listened. S. concludes, "for a few years the history of Athens and the biography of Demosthenes were to coincide" (185). The path whereby Demosthenes reached this stature is not clearly illuminated. One moment we have a man who is labeled as unimportant and the likely scapegoat for the Peace of Philokrates. By some miracle he is suddenly the leading man of the city. S.'s view of Demosthenes and his place in Athens is as unsatisfactory as his view of Philip and his place in Macedon.

Here, in the last chapter, we reach Chaironeia and the Lamian War and S. states again his observation that Athens lost. The fights were fair fights and Athens did what she could do, but she lost. As he turns to the actual battle, he recounts the vivid picture given by Demosthenes in or. 18. Then in one brief paragraph the battle of Chaironeia begins and ends. S. concurs with the general observation that the size of the forces were similar, noting that "the outcome of the battle could not be predicted" (198). He is unable to say why Philip won but concludes that should such a battle be attempted again the outcome would be the same. Athens could only wait until the force that bound Macedonia together faltered.

What of Demosthenes? S. argues that "his standing became ambivalent" (201). In favor of Demosthenes, he refers to the selection to deliver the funeral oration over the dead from Chaironeia and to the voting of a crown in 337/6. Against Demosthenes, S. refers to a law of 337/6 regarding the Areopagos Council. He has interpreted the law as an attack on Demosthenes. This may be true, but the actions of the Athenians which were favorable to Demosthenes are open and explicit.

S.'s narration of the period down to 322 is relatively straightforward, but a few details call for note. S. has a good description of the uprising led by Agis. He assesses the complaints of recent scholars, notably Badian and Cawkwell, regarding Athens' and Demosthenes' failure to participate in the revolt and concludes that geography answers the question: the proximity of the Kadmeia, and the Macedonian garrison stationed there. This argument is typical of S.; he succinctly and with extreme brevity states his reasoning. He has argued many of the questions found throughout this book in numerous articles, but unless the reader is familiar with those articles the arguments and conclusions may be found wanting far too often. This particular case also illustrates S.'s preference for non-personal explanations, whereas both Badian and Cawkwell consider Demosthenes responsible.

Another comparison of the judgments of these three men illustrates the difficulty which can arise in the handling of ancient testimonia. They all want to know what Demosthenes was doing between the battle of Chaironeia and the death of Alexander. Cawkwell thinks that Demosthenes makes no mention of his actions of this period because he is ashamed of his deeds. Badian refers to Harpokration where it is noted that a certain Aristion, a friend of Demosthenes, was sent by him to Hephaistion. He concludes: "The myth -- implied or expressed in many modern accounts, but unknown to the sources -- that Demosthenes was kept out of power and had little influence during this period should not need detailed refutation." S., noting the same reference in Harpokration, concludes that Demosthenes "was not doing much" (208).

The end comes: "The career of Demosthenes ended in failure. It was the failure not only of the statesman but of his city" (219). S. immediately follows: "neither the policy nor the strategy can be faulted" (219). We are not to look for a moral. We are not to praise or blame the life of Demosthenes. "Rather the historian should acknowledge the failure and place it in association with other failures. For if meaning is to be found in history, it must be discerned in the fortunes of the people who lost as well as in those of the victors" (219). What meaning do we find then? Demosthenes' fortune was to fight a lost cause? This insistence on not judging Demosthenes stands in contrast to virtually all other works on Demosthenes. To Niebuhr, Demosthenes was the hero, Philip and Alexander the villains. To Grote and Schaefer, Demosthenes was the hero as well. To Droysen, Alexander was the hero, Demosthenes the backward fool. Drerup poured forth his hatred upon Demosthenes. Clemenceau set him on far too high a pedestal. What of recent critics? The constant labors of Cawkwell to chip away at the fame of Demosthenes have created a new adjective, 'Cawkwellian'. Harding casts his vote in favor of Demosthenes while insisting that we cannot condemn Demosthenes by our moral standards and that we must remember that Demosthenes was a liar and a cheat and cannot be believed for any unsupported claim, in other words he was a politician. With this perspective we find ourselves closest to S.'s view.

Nine appendices, filling sixty-nine pages, follow upon the main body of the text. The first, titled "The Transmission of the Demosthenic Corpus", presents a sketch of the MS tradition, the papyri, and those ancient scholars who provide comment on the size or nature of the Corpus. This is useful and virtually the only overview of these details in English. A novel idea appears here that Dionysios of Halikarnassos made use of a set of texts, the twenty-two public speeches, which contained a brief sketch of Demosthenes' life, including the delivery dates of these speeches, but to reach this hypothesis S. must alter the precise wording of Dionysios. He proceeds to wonder who may have compiled this 'core'. He rightly rules out Kallimachos. He suggests Demochares but settles on Demosthenes, imagining that this 'core' was presented as an apologia pro vita publica sua. This is unlikely and unnecessary. Moreover, it does little to help reach the intended goal of the appendix: to address the question whether our printed text is what Demosthenes delivered. S. notes "no precise answer can be given, but the range of uncertainty can be delimited" (221). The lack of any attempt to answer this question much less to delimit the problem, explicitly at least, is disappointing. Appendix two, "Questions on Authenticity of Some Demosthenic Speeches", provides an overview of the judgment of scholars on orr. 8-13, 17, 25, and 26. The remaining seven appendices re-examine controversies over chronology for the most part.

S. has titled this book Demosthenes and His Time: A Study in Defeat. It is not a biography. (For that see Pierre Carlier's new book Démosthène published by Fayard [1990].) It is a study of Demosthenes and his times with emphasis on 'his times'. In spite of all questions I have as to S.'s argumentation, conclusions, and idea of history, I agree that the workings of state in Athens have been, at times, oversimplified. When we turn to Schaefer or to Pickard-Cambridge's splendid book on Demosthenes it behooves us to have S.'s book open as well. S. leads us back to the mass of sources for this period and compels us to reassess the assumptions which we too often borrow from secondary sources. He has shown that the party-system did not exist. What we have in its place is, for now, only a list of names, some of which are connected here and there in our literary and epigraphical sources. Moreover, S. wants to throw out the freedom-fighter portrait of Demosthenes and fit him into this system of helping friends and harming enemies. This insistence results in a portrait of Demosthenes that is neither complete nor coherent. He has escaped the trap of painting an idealized hero or desperate villain, but, in reaction to such earlier embodiments, I fear that S. has stripped Demosthenes of ideals, of sincerity, of character. Such a portrait will not stir any young scholars to read Demosthenes; on the other hand just a paragraph or two of Demosthenes will spur any reader to read and reread this new work, in spite of defeat.


  • [1] An overview of this controversy can be found in Hansen's The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford 1991), where he notes that this is "the most hotly disputed question about the Athenian political system" (277).
  • [2] Regarding the population debate, see now Hansen 90-94.