Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.10.12


Edward M. Harris, Aeschines and Athenian Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. x + 233. $49.95. ISBN-0-19-508285-0.


Reviewed by Lawrence A. Tritle, History, Loyola Marymount University, ltritle@lmumail.lmu.edu.

Who lost Greece to Philip of Macedon? Aeschines, if you had asked Demosthenes c. 343 BC, Demosthenes, if you had asked Aeschines. The struggle between Athens and Macedon -- between the forces of freedom and those of tyranny to put it rhetorically perhaps -- is nearly overshadowed by the dramatic and unyielding battle waged by Aeschines and Demosthenes in the courts and assemblies of Athens. Yet this conflict is itself a problem in the study of fourth century Athenian history. How are the speeches of Aeschines and Demosthenes to be trusted? What do they reveal about Athenian attitudes -- as well as actions -- regarding the growing power and presence of Macedon in Greek affairs? These are just some of the issues that Edward Harris raises in this first full-length investigation of the life and career of the orator Aeschines.

The first problem is one of credibility, or to phrase it as H. does in his first chapter, "Whom to Believe?" Both Aeschines and Demosthenes provide much biographical data for reconstructing Aeschines' social origins and career, not to mention his politics, but this is skewed by the nature of the evidence, forensic discourse. As H. notes, Aeschines and Demosthenes not only "rarely agree on the facts," but also "not infrequently contradict each other" (p. 7). What follows is an analysis of both the nature of oratory as well as that of courtroom battles that is basically sound. H., however, is most interested in establishing a methodology that will allow for the "truth" to emerge from the rhetorical fireworks. He sensibly rejects A. Schaefer's argument for "consistency," i.e., that if a speaker gives one account of an event, but later contradicts himself, he is inconsistent and therefore unreliable throughout. Instead, H. argues that an orator could make truthful and misleading, not to mention deceitful, statements, and that it is up to the investigator to determine the true from the false (pp. 8-9). The rest of the chapter examines this problem and here H. discusses Athenian oratory generally, noting the role of witnesses, the frequency and punishment of perjury, and problems inherent in analyzing the written version of an originally oral composition. In the end, H. concludes with a set of criteria to determine the reliability of oratorical evidence (pp. 15-16). These points essentially reflect a critical appraisal of the evidence: who said what, where, and when, within the context of available corroborating testimony (e.g., decrees, situations). One aspect that might have been developed further was the standing of Aeschines and Demosthenes on the two embassies to Philip. They were the youngest and so had perhaps the greatest desire or need to promote and defend themselves. These points are noted by R. Sealey, Demosthenes and His Time (New York and Oxford, 1993), p. 151, a work unnoticed by H.

From his assessment, H. proceeds with an investigation of Aeschines' family and his entry into politics (i.e., ch. 2). The family of Aeschines did not belong to the wealthy elite of Athens, the kaloi kagathoi (for a useful discussion of which see pp. 18-20), and in the early fourth century BC labored to recover from the damage done to so many in Attica during the Peloponnesian War. H. discusses Atrometus, Aeschines' father, his hoplite/mercenary service in the fin-de-siècle Aegean, followed by his work as a teacher. The appraisal is thorough, though that regarding Atrometus' mercenary service abroad might have considered that the rather vague reference to Atrometus in Asia at this time might encompass the southern Aegean and Cyprus and the activities of Conon. This possibly gains some significance in light of the adventures of Cleobulus, Aeschines' uncle, who participated in some obscure military affair related to covert Athenian aid to Conon. Such service by Atrometus and Cleobulus would broadly conform to the action taken by many Athenians to restore the democracy, which Aeschines claimed for his family. These could easily be adapted and revised according to the collective family memory and its needs, political and social. As an educator, Atrometus provided Aeschines and his brothers with a sound education, one that allowed them to socialize with those of the elite. One interesting point that H. makes is how this shows up in Aeschines' oratory, particularly the long recitations of poetry. Yet Aeschines was not affluent enough to pay for lessons with teachers such as Isocrates. Here H. makes an odd statement on education in Athens, referring to Aristophanes' Clouds, the hostility toward Socrates' "thinkery" and other similar attacks on the Sophists and their influences. All of this comes without a word on Plato and the Academy, of the likes of Chabrias, Lycurgus, and Phocion (and others) who were associated with it. Granted, there was a certain tension between the demos and the budding educational establishment. Yet a number of Athenians did matriculate in the schools, enter politics and function in society without prejudice.

Aeschines emerged from a family of modest but not humble means, and one that took pride in its military service. It is interesting to note that not only Aeschines' father and uncle possess known military records, but also his brother Philochares who won election as strategos at least three times. As for Aeschines himself, his own campaign experience, Nemea (366 BC), Mantinea (362 BC), and Euboea (357, 348 BC) was a proud accomplishment. This, however, did him little good in the eyes of Demosthenes, who ridiculed his secretarial service to the boule and ekklesia and even more so his acting career. H. describes the former clearly, but the impact of Aeschines' acting could have been weighed more carefully perhaps. Demosthenes scorned Aeschines for his stage performances, deriding him as tritagonistes, or the third actor, the one who played the lesser parts (e.g., Creon in Soph. Ant.). H. notes, rightly it seems, that acting was not ignoble work -- that some actors, e.g., Aristodemus, became famous on and off the stage -- but then concludes that Aeschines was not a particularly talented actor, good but not great.

What is of interest here is Aeschines' emergence as a major figure on the political stage. Is it likely that his service as a secretary was grand enough to propel him into a position on a highly critical embassy? How could he have acquired such fame? On the other hand, a stage career could have brought much recognition and appeal. Maybe Demosthenes is right and Aeschines was a tritagonistes. But it would not be the first or the last time that a "B" grade actor was able to cash in on a political career. Such fame, a modest family but one with a record of heroic military service, aided by an opportune marriage into the family of the wealthy Philodemus, might have been sufficient to allow Aeschines to enter politics as a new man.

Yet this is not what happened in H.'s reconstruction. Instead, the argument is advanced that Phocion, the eminent general and politician, was responsible for launching Aeschines' political career (p. 37). As a veteran general with numerous connections, Phocion certainly possessed the stature to sponsor another in the political arena. Actually, Phocion and his many colleagues in the strategia may have exercised a little more influence than H. gives them credit for. In his otherwise sound discussion of the nature of the Athenian democracy, H. argues that the generalship did not give "any special privileges in the Assembly. If he wished to influence public decisions, the general had to submit a proposal to the Assembly in the same way as any other Athenian citizen" (p. 34). Against this position I would cite Plut. Phoc. 15.1, in which Phocion, brought intelligence of a disturbance in Megara, convened the assembly and initiated a response (see also Plut. Phoc. 17.1 for a similar show of authority by the generals, and S. Hornblower, The Greek World 479-323 BC [London, 1983], p. 120, who states that "certainly the generals had direct access to the Assembly, and could propose motions," and id., A Commentary on Thucydides, Vol. 1: Books I-III [Oxford, 1991], p. 276).

Phocion certainly possessed the wealth and position to assist others politically, but did he in the case of Aeschines? Pace H., I would argue that there is insufficient evidence to establish such a connection. H. presses too much from Aeschines' service in the Euboean campaign of 348 BC that ended in the Athenian victory at Tamynae (on this H., p. 188, n. 57, refers to a review of P. Cartledge, CR 39 (1981): 79-80, of L. A. Tritle, Phocion the Good [London, 1988]; the review is by R.A. Knox, who misrepresents the analysis of the campaign). His argument that Aeschines served as a "volunteer," right though it is, overlooks Aeschines' membership in the epilektoi, a corps of elite troops, all volunteers established to stiffen the regular phalanx of infantry (see further L.A. Tritle, "Epilektoi at Athens," AHB 3 [1989]: 54-59). Moreover, other Athenians besides Aeschines distinguished themselves; on the face of it there is no reason why Phocion, as the victorious commander, would have paid any more attention to Aeschines than any other soldier who won honors.

The Euboean campaign that won Aeschines fame had been supported by Eubulus, one of the leading political figures of the day. H. argues that Aeschines now emerged politically because Eubulus and Phocion needed a mouthpiece, as neither "seems to have had much talent as an orator" (p. 39). This view lacks support. Evidence for Eubulus' rhetorical skill is meager, but he had by 348 BC a record of political accomplishment and Aeschines called him to his defense in 343 BC (Aeschines 2. 184); so he must have been at least a competent orator. The evidence for Phocion, on the other hand, is much more extensive. Plutarch's lives of Phocion and Demosthenes in fact preserve significant rhetorical evidence that demonstrates that, far from being an untalented speaker, Phocion's contemporaries ranked him at the top: Demosthenes called him the "cleaver" (Plut. Phoc. 5.9) and his skill in the give and take of assembly debate (i.e., deinotes) was unmatched (Plut. Phoc. 5.5, Dem. 10.3). Neither Eubulus nor Phocion, it would appear, would have required the services of Aeschines to represent their views.

It may have been that Aeschines stood closer to Eubulus and Eubulus' friend and ally Nausicles, who would later nominate Aeschines to serve on the first embassy to Philip, than to Phocion. Phocion was certainly a major figure in his own right, an able speaker who did not require a "voice." It is also important to note that in the Euboean campaign of 348 BC, a campaign sponsored largely by Eubulus and Meidias to prop up the crumbling tyranny of Plutarchus of Eretria, Phocion deposed Plutarchus. Such an action reflects a strong sense of independence and a lack of concern for offending political allies -- or seniors.

However it was that Aeschines entered the political scene, he soon found himself catapulted into the struggle with Philip of Macedon for leadership of Greece. In the discussion of the celebrated embassies to Philip, H. does a fine job of analyzing the great yet complex orations of Aeschines and Demosthenes that provide the bulk of our knowledge regarding the diplomatic efforts of both sides. In setting up this analysis, H. provides an effective discussion of Athenian-Macedonian relations from Philip's accession in 360/59 BC to the opening overtures for peace in 348/7 BC. H. seems right in stressing that the Athenian decision to send an embassy to Philip had more to do with events in the northern Aegean than in central Greece, i.e., the perennial Athenian fixation with Amphipolis and concern for the Chersonnesus, rather than the inconclusive and exhausting Sacred War (p. 55).

In the first embassy to Philip, H. argues that Aeschines emerged as a major force in negotiating a peace with Philip. Here it might be wondered to what extent Aeschines acted in concord with Eubulus' policies. Problems arose when the embassy returned to Athens and the debate turned to the issue of the role of the Greeks in the proceedings. Demosthenes, over the objections of Aeschines and Eubulus, persuaded the demos that it was in Athens' best interest to treat with Philip when he was inclined to deal. These points came up in the three days of debate that stretched over 18, 19, 25 Elaphebolion 346 BC. The debate in the ekklesia was contentious, with the other notables, Aristophon and Eubulus, making their contributions to the discussion. A treaty and alliance with Philip was accepted, one that meant giving up a one time ally, Cersebleptes, the Thracian king, and the claim to Amphipolis. In return, Athens received peace and alliance and security for the Chersonesus.

Why did the Athenians accept this offer? On the one hand, they did obtain peace and security of sorts, and all they gave up was a claim to Amphipolis, which they did not control anyway, and an ally, Cersebleptes, who was not all that winsome in the first place. One possible key, and the one that H. might have done more with, was the debacle in Euboea in 348/7 BC, the capture of the general Molossus and a number of his men by the now unemployed Plutarchus of Eretria and his mercenaries (cf. H., pp. 120, 157, who [in the latter reference] refers to Molossus' defeat. I think it more likely that Molossus and his troops, after Tamynae, became complacent, were caught off guard and then held for ransom). To win freedom for these, the Athenians paid a stiff price (of fifty talents, Sch. Dem. 5.5, Plut. Phoc. 14.2). This crisis, not entirely dissimilar to the Bosnian problem facing the UN, NATO, and the US in 1995, reflects a certain Athenian indecisiveness, an unwillingness to meet force, a tendency to flinch rather than stand. In 347/6 BC, when the negotiations that would lead to the Peace of Philocrates began, the Athenians might have been looking for easy, painless solutions to their problems.

Subsequent to the negotiations, a second embassy, again including Aeschines and Demosthenes and the other original envoys, traveled to Macedon to receive Philip's oaths. It was this journey that would complete the growing breach between them. Upon reaching Pella, the Athenians found other Greek delegations present, hoping to negotiate a peace with Philip and end the Sacred War.

The negotiations that began here would end that conflict, at great cost to the Phocians, who would see their cities razed and a huge indemnity imposed. Philip solidified his grip over Thessaly and central Greece, and Thebes found itself with an all too powerful friend -- Philip -- entirely too close at hand. Aeschines, who attempted, H. claims, to persuade Philip to limit Theban power, in the end yielded to Philip's terms for ending the war, which meant the destruction of Phocis. In view of the situation, it is difficult to see how any other outcome might have resulted. Demosthenes, however, was skeptical of Philip's designs and promises and would later claim (in his speech attacking Aeschines in 343 BC, On the False Embassy) that Aeschines had conspired with Philip to destroy Phocis, deceiving his fellow envoys in the process. H. refutes this and argues that Demosthenes and Aeschines had only differed over policy toward Thebes, not Phocis. The debate was indeed bitter if not rancorous, nowhere revealed better than in Aeschines' simultaneous prosecution of Timarchus, an ally of Demosthenes. Aeschines struck first, and so survived.

The Peace of Philocrates was good for Philip and unsatisfying to the Athenians. Following the Peace, various eventually unsuccessful bids to renegotiate led to the final rupture with Philip. Aeschines surely participated in these discussions, but the evidence, as H. notes, is slim. But Aeschines "had staked his reputation" (p. 114) that Philip would grant Athens the benefits he had rather vaguely spoken of in 346 BC. Philip's supposed benefits proved rather meager: a "gift" of Halonnesus (which the Athenians believed theirs anyway!), and a promise of arbitration regarding disputed territories in the Chersonesus (pp. 112-15). This prompts H. to state that "Aeschines had trusted in Philip to provide him with the proof of Macedonian goodwill. Philip let him down" (p. 115). Rather than find fault with Philip, it appears that Aeschines -- and by extension the Athenians -- were just a bit gullible, and that Aeschines may have been in over his head in dealing with the wily king of the north. Again the "Euboean syndrome" comes to mind, underlining Athenian lack of resolve. In this may lie too Demosthenes' frustrations in dealing with Philip and Aeschines, which led him to his later denunciation of Aeschines, Philocrates, and the negotiations.

In 343 BC, Demosthenes, possibly averting Timarchus' fate, attacked Aeschines in the now famous prosecution On the False Embassy, dredging up the negotiations of three years before. In the end, Aeschines, supported by Eubulus, Nausicles, and Phocion, beat back Demosthenes' effort to pin the blame for the Peace and ensuing problems on him. H. notes rightly that the close vote certainly reflected the times and how undecided opinion in Athens was regarding the prospects of peace and the alliance with Philip. Yet it seemed too that Aeschines had backed the wrong horse, that Philip was not going to come up with any concessions that would make good his pledges to either Aeschines or the Athenians. Meanwhile, Demosthenes was already actively winning friends for Athens -- the Arcadians, Argives, Messenians, et al. -- and so was not just talking about benefiting Athens but was doing something about it (p. 119). Little wonder then that as Demosthenes' stock soared Aeschines' plunged.

The Peace of Philocrates, so difficult to obtain, ended quickly in 340 BC when Philip moved aggressively in the North, leading the Athenians to throw over the stele proclaiming the Peace's provisions. In the struggle that followed, the Athenians and their allies would battle Philip at Byzantium and elsewhere in the North and in Euboea, and then finally would lure away from him their sometime foe Thebes in Demosthenes' great diplomatic revolution. In discussing these events, H. acutely notes how Aeschines, Demosthenes, Eubulus, and Phocion all closed ranks, put their differences aside and worked together to defeat Philip. They would fall short of that goal, as Philip would sweep the field at Chaeronea in 338/7 BC. What is critical to emphasize here, as H. does in his conclusion, is the emptiness of labels such as "pro" and "anti" Macedonian. The point has been made before: that the issues facing the Athenians in dealing with Philip were complex and not disposed to easy, painless decisions. H.'s clear description of the concerted Athenian effort against Philip brings additional weight and reason for discarding an obsolete view.

Philip broke and humiliated Thebes at Chaeronea, but his settlement with Athens, thanks to Aeschines, Demades, Phocion and the Athenian fleet, was generous. Aeschines soon began to fade into the background, overshadowed by the more flamboyant and greedy Demades, who was always willing to make a deal. In 336 BC Ctesiphon proposed honors for Demosthenes and all the good that he had done for Athens. As H. suggests, this was perhaps more than Aeschines could stomach. Aeschines attached Ctesiphon's decree as illegal and blocked it. The actual suit would wait six years, as Aeschines bided his time waiting for an opportune moment to prosecute. That moment arrived in 330 BC with news of the victory of Alexander the Great at Gaugamela. The status quo, the Macedonian grip upon Greece would thus continue, and Aeschines resorted now to every device possible to heap responsibility on Demosthenes' doorstep. In an ad hominem attack, he linked Demosthenes to tales of Persian bribery and contrasted him with the noble Athenians of old who died fighting the Mede. Yet in the end, when the votes were tallied, Aeschines emerged the big loser, possibly retiring to Rhodes (pp. 141-48). H. explains this vindication of Demosthenes noting that Demosthenes portrayed Chaeronea as a valiant fight for a good cause, while Aeschines depicted it as a disaster. Both were right. But in the circumstances, the jurors preferred Demosthenes' shining vision of the past to Aeschines' negativism. Who can blame them? The vote is unsurprising -- again Aeschines had miscalculated.

Interpreting Attic oratory is as difficult as comprehending all the vague allusions and jokes in Aristophanes. Edward Harris has established a portrait of Aeschines that is credible yet sensitive, and allows the man to emerge from the oratory. Wrangling over the speeches of Aeschines and Demosthenes will continue, but not without notice of this book.