Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.66

Douglas M. MacDowell, Demosthenes the Orator.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. x, 457.  ISBN 9780199287192.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Mirko Canevaro, Durham University (


D.M. MacDowell, one of the greatest scholars of Demosthenes of his generation, died on January 16th 2010, but fortunately lived to see this last book published. This volume is not a biography of Demosthenes but a study of the Demosthenic corpus, discussing every speech attributed to Demosthenes and providing much necessary background on Athenian law, procedures and history. In spite of his claim in the introduction that he has paid less attention to the spurious speeches, MacDowell studies them just as thoroughly.

The book is organized in thematic chapters, and the speeches discussed in each chapter are generally taken in chronological order. When the general theme or historical period covered requires more extensive treatment, MacDowell offers sensible accounts of the issues at stake before analyzing the speeches. Every aspect of the speech is surveyed: chronology, events leading up to the speech, main actors, and the outcome. Although the analysis often focuses on small and complicated points of historical and legal interpretation, the book takes hardly any knowledge for granted. These qualities, together with a very elegant and lively style, make the arguments clear and easy to follow. As a result, the book is very readable. MacDowell also gives the right amount of space to the structure, style and oratorical qualities of every speech, often quoting and discussing long sections of text. He analyzes the most notable figures of speech and the virtuoso passages, but is more concerned with understanding their practical effectiveness in the actual cases than with describing influences and relationship with contemporary and later rhetorical theory.1 The speeches are always viewed as texts to be delivered in front of an actual audience and for a real occasion, not as stages in the development of rhetorical technique.

The first chapter provides short but useful accounts of Athenian oratory in the law courts and in the Assembly. MacDowell briefly discusses the practice of logography and sides with those that do not believe in joint authorship by the client and logographer. As for deliberative oratory, MacDowell believes that what was really said depended heavily on the actual debate, and Demosthenes could not hope to deliver his speeches as he wrote them. As a young orator he prepared some of the speeches in order to build his confidence, but in most cases he must have prepared no more than a few words to start with and then spoke extempore. A collection of Demosthenes’s working tools is what we read now as the prooemia. MacDowell then turns to the issue of circulation and publication. Agreeing with Trevett, he does not believe that Demosthenes used to revise and publish his speeches.2 What we read are rather drafts of the speeches to be delivered, collected after his death from his private files. The only two cases in which MacDowell allows some degree of revision after delivery are the speeches On the Crown (18) and On Affairs in the Chersonese (8). Questionable , however, is MacDowell's idea that Callimachus was responsible for creating the Demosthenic corpus. An Athenian context is much more likely, and the case against Callimachus has been forcefully argued by Pasquali and Pfeiffer.3 MacDowell closes his introductory chapter with a short but exhaustive survey of the external sources about Demosthenes and his corpus.

MacDowell's ideas about the origins of the corpus also shed light on his views about composition and authorship. An interesting case is that of the Third Philippic (9) and of the passages omitted in the manuscript Paris. gr. 2934. Some have argued that a later rhetorician composed these passages, others that Demosthenes composed two versions of the speech. MacDowell offers an ingenious explanation: Demosthenes composed the complete version, but then realized that it was too long for delivery and therefore deleted certain passages. When the collection was made and scribes were working on Demosthenes's files, some copied the whole speech, whereas some omitted the crossed-out passages. This is a very attractive suggestion. Similarly attractive is his explanation of the unusual length of the speech On the False Embassy (19). MacDowell argues that the first part (1-178) is meant to be delivered as it stands, whereas the second (179-343) is a collection of arguments written for the occasion, from which Demosthenes planned to include as many as time allowed.4

As for the authorship of the speeches, MacDowell's attitude is quite conservative: he prefers not to reject a speech unless the grounds against it are very strong.5 He even accepts Demosthenes's authorship of very dubious texts like the Erotic Speech (61) and all the letters.6 But his conservatism is not inflexible. He believes that speeches 45, 46, 49, 50, 52, 53 and 59 were all written by Apollodorus, and makes a good case for adding 47 to the list. He also believes that the second speech Against Aristogeiton (26) is not Demosthenic, but the work of some contemporary orator, and attributes the Against Leochares (44) and the Against Theomnestus (58) to the actual speakers. He also ascribes On Halonnesus (13) to Hegesippus and On the Treaty with Alexander (17) to some other contemporary orator. Hence MacDowell does in fact consider some of the speeches non-Demosthenic, but does not single out any of them as a post-classical forgery. The corpus was in his opinion composed from Demosthenes's files, and therefore all the items are authentic fourth-century works. What is missing to substantiate this argument and exclude later insertions is a treatment of the history of the corpus.

The second chapter deals with 'Demosthenes' family and personal life'. It surveys Demosthenes's youth, education, sexuality and marriage. MacDowell supplements this with an illuminating section on the Erotic Speech. The next chapter deals with 'Demosthenes' Inheritance' and analyzes speeches 27, 28, 29, 30 and 31. MacDowell disentangles this very complicated case, provides a clear account of the facts, and highlights the remarkable oratorical skills of the young Demosthenes. In the next chapter ('Other Families') MacDowell analyzes speeches written for inheritance cases (41, 55, 39, 40, 38, 43, 48, 44). Some of these speeches are among the most complicated of the corpus, but MacDowell succeeds in making the issues understandable. In particular, his discussions of the speeches Against Boeotus (39, 40) and Against Macartatus (43) are masterly. The following chapter deals with Apollodorus and with speeches 52, 59, 53, 45, 46 and 59, all written and delivered by Apollodorus himself.7 MacDowell adds a discussion of the For Phormion (36), delivered by Demosthenes against Apollodorus.

Chapter 6 deals with 'Liturgies and the Navy'. It discusses two speeches ascribed by MacDowell to Apollodorus (50, 47) and three considered Demosthenic (51, 14, 42). Chapter 7 ('Illegal proposals and unsuitable laws') deals with prosecutions against the proposers of laws and decrees. It provides thorough analyses of speeches 20, 22, 24, 23 and tries to assess at length, even if not always convincingly, Demosthenes's legal arguments. Chapter 9 deals with 'Assault and the rule of law' and discusses thoroughly the speeches Against Conon (54) and Against Meidias (21), with a valuable analysis of the stylistic features of the first. Chapter 10 'The grain trade and mercantile laws' begins with a short account of Athenian legislation on these matters, then discusses speeches 35, 37, 32, 33, 34, 56. Chapter 11 deals with the issues of 'Citizenship and disenfranchisement' and surveys speeches 57, 58, 25, 26, giving a lengthy and valuable discussion of the style and structure of the first speech Against Aristogeiton (25).

The remaining chapters (8, 12, 13, 14, 16) describe Demosthenes' career through the political speeches of the corpus, delivered both in the Assembly (16, 4, 15, 13, 1-3, 5-12) and in the law courts (18, 19). The last chapter (16) deals with the last years of the orator, a period from which no speech is preserved, through the analysis of the letters. MacDowell gives abundant background, discusses the facts that led to the delivery of the individual speeches, and closely analyzes the rhetorical qualities of each. The purposes and policies advocated by the orator are given sufficient space, but the core of these chapters is the art of Demosthenes. MacDowell surveys his mature speeches, highlighting their structure, their rhetorical qualities and the effectiveness of their style. He quotes and discusses long sections of text and makes the reader appreciate their force and the effect they might have had on their audience. Chapter 15 complements the treatment of the individual speeches with a short but very useful survey of Demosthenes’s style based on a subtle analysis of the speeches Against Medias, On the False Embassy and On the Crown.

The press should be praised for producing a carefully edited volume. The indexes of sources and of subjects are greatly useful. I found hardly any errors, typographical or otherwise.8 The Greek is always translated, and, except for Chapter 15, is confined to the notes. This makes the volume accessible to a wider public.

Many will disagree with MacDowell on specific points.9 As this is only natural in a work dealing with so many issues, to focus on minor disagreements would be unfair. It is important to bear in mind that this is not in fact a 'Companion' to Demosthenes, therefore it is not supposed to provide a sense of broad trends in scholarship.10 This is a volume on the oratory of Demosthenes and on his corpus and provides MacDowell's opinions about various issues. Sometimes these opinions are well known from previous works, but sometimes MacDowell deals with issues that he has not previously discussed in print. This is part of the value of the book: it provides scholars with an idea of what MacDowell, one of the leading scholars of Demosthenes, thought about virtually everything concerning Demosthenes's corpus. The clarity of the prose and the valuable background information make it an obvious choice for introducing undergraduates and non-specialists to Demosthenes's oratory. There have been many unfair attacks on Demosthenes's political actions. MacDowell has now at least done full justice to his art.


1.   This is an important difference between the treatments of the speeches in MacDowell's book and in S. Usher, Greek Oratory: Tradition and Originality (Oxford 1999).
2.   J. Trevett, 'Did Demosthenes publish his deliberative speeches?' Hermes 124 (1996) 425-41.
3.   G. Pasquali, Storia della tradizione e critica del testo (Firenze 1934) 272 and R. Pfeiffer, Callimachus (Oxford 1949-53) I fr. 443-6.
4.   Cf. also MacDowell, Demosthenes: On the False Embassy (Oration 19) (Oxford 2000) 27.
5.   Although he considers Against Leochares (44) spurious, in spite of stylistic similarities, because the speaker claims to be a public figure, and therefore would have probably written his speech himself. This seems to me quite a weak argument.
6.   J.A Goldstein, The Letters of Demosthenes (New York 1978) and R. Clavaud , Démosthène: lettres et fragments (Paris 1987) accept all the letters but the fifth.
7.   J. Trevett, Apollodorus the Son of Pasion (Oxford 1992) 50-76 ascribes the first speech Against Stephanus (45) to Demosthenes. MacDowell refuses to believe that Demosthenes is responsible for 'such unconvincing arguments'.
8.   'from the[se] years' (p. 207); 'in fact it [is] not clear' (p. 234); 'Aristokles of Myrrhinous' should be of Oea (p. 277); 'because he had' should be 'because his father had' (p. 289).
9.   MacDowell is far too uncritical in accepting some of the inserted documents. On those in Against Meidias, see E.M. Harris, Demosthenes: Speeches 20-22 (Austin 2008) 86-7, 89-90, 103-4 with the review by MacDowell and Faraguna BMCR 2009.12.13. On the Against Timocrates, see M. Canevaro, 'Athenian Nomothesia. A Reappraisal' (forthcoming).
10.   The bibliography is extensive. MacDowell often does take into account positions different from his (yet sometimes slightly misrepresenting them). Two very puzzling omissions , however, are T. Paulsen, Die Parapresbeia-Reden des Demosthenes und des Aischines. Kommentar und Interpretation zu Demosthenes, or. XIX, und Aischines, or. II (Trier 1999) and the analysis of the legal arguments in On the Crown in E.M. Harris, 'Open Texture in Athenian Law', Dike 3 (2000) 59-67.

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