Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.18

Iris Samotta, Demosthenes. UTB Profile 3407.   Tübingen​:  A. Francke Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 137.  ISBN 9783825234072.  €9.90.  

Reviewed by Johannes Engels, Universität zu Köln​ (

The Athenian orator and politician Demosthenes' life (384-322 BC) spanned the last decades of classical Greek history. But he also witnessed the transition to the new era of Hellenistic Greece, when his home-town Athens had to cope with her new role under Macedonian hegemony over Greece. To a substantial corpus of Demosthenic genuine speeches (plus some orations which were falsely assigned to Demosthenes), of prologues and letters, one may add a rich documentation of this orator’s life and his works in the ancient historiographical, epigraphical and biographical tradition as well as learned treatises by ancient commentators, critics and grammarians. Thus we are extraordinarily well informed about Demosthenes, by comparison with other fourth-century BC Athenians. On the basis of this rich ancient documentation Iris Samotta, in her brief monograph, offers a clear portrait of the famous orator in his time. Following the general didactic aims of the UTB series 'Profile' Samotta offers brief and reliable information.1 In her book single short chapters alternate with others which focus on Demosthenes' biography or provide general background information about Greek and Athenian history in the fourth century BC.

In each chapter one finds direct translated quotations from ancient sources, especially from the orator's own speeches, which are usually well selected to illustrate Samotta's own text. Technical terms which might be diffult for undergraduate students or the general educated reader and rare names of persons and places are explained immediately after each quotation. In some instances of more extensive quotations (e.g. p. 90-91 from Demosthenes' Epitaphios or. 60) readers perhaps would have appreciated a more detailed commentary.

In her introduction Samotta argues that there was a substantial difference between Demosthenes' admirable style, which she labels as individual and marked with variation (p. 1-10, esp. 6), and the inferior styles of his contemporary Athenian rivals. However, the poor state of preservation of most other orators' speeches should remind us to be careful with such judgments. Aischines, Lykourgos, Hypereides, Deinarchos or Demades surely were very powerful speakers with an individual style, too. There is a useful overview of Demosthenes' works and their dates on pages 4- 5.

Chapters 3-6 mainly address the complicated history of Greek foreign and military policy in Demosthenes' time. Samotta strongly subscribes to a recent political and historical model which posits a so-called balance of threat in Greek politics. This model has been successfully applied to fourth century BC Greece by P. Hunt and other scholars.2 Hunt adapted earlier studies3 which had developed central ideas of the well-known classical balance of power model. In chapter 5 Samotta deals with Demosthenes' opposition to the imminent Macedonian hegemony over Greece in the late 340s. She holds a critical view of Demosthenes' uncompromising political position from 341 on to the battle of Chaironeia in 338 BC. Samotta states (p. 69-70): "Die moralische Auschließlichkeit, mit der Demosthenes den Konflikt (J. Engels: scil. against Philip II) zu einem ideologischen Kampf um Werte und Ideale machte und gleichzeitig keine Form der Koexistenz mehr anerkannte, war allerdings in ihrer Konsequenz für einen möglichen Frieden keinen Deut förderlicher als das damalige Ultimatum Philipps II. an die Olynther." I would suggest that this comparison of two very different political and strategic situations is not helpful. Admittedly, however, in Demosthenes' opinion the preservation of the traditional axioma of Athens (that means her dignity and a traditionally prominent role among Greek states after the Persian Wars) precluded more diplomatic flexibility in 339/8 BC. Even in 330 BC in his speech On the Crown (or. 18) and in the face of the crushing defeat at Chaironeia in 338 and of Alexander's victories in Asia Demosthenes stuck to his principles of foreign policy.

In chapter 7 ("Versuch einer Neuordnung und Selbstbehauptung nach der Katastrophe", p. 88-95), Samotta regards Demosthenes' appointment to the prominent role of speaker of the public funeral oration in 338 after Chaironeia (or. 60) as an impressive demonstration of his fellow-citizens' trust in this orator. The precise date of this speech is uncertain. While Samotta prefers late 338 BC, a later date at the end of the winter in early 337 may also be possible, if one compares the dates of Perikles' famous Epitaphios or the last preserved example of this typically Athenian genre delivered by Hypereides. The simplifying and problematic explanation of the causes of Athens' defeat at Chaironeia which Demosthenes offered in his Epitaphios (or. 60, p. 90-91), namely Philip's good fortune in battle (his tyche) combined with serious mistakes made by Theban generals, was obviously not accepted by every Athenian. It is interesting to compare Demosthenes' words on this defeat with two almost contemporary parallel discourses in Athenian court speeches delivered by Hypereides (in Against Diondas).4 and by Lykourgos (in Against Leokrates).

One may also doubt whether the battle of Chaironeia really and definitely marked the end of Greek freedom and autonomy ("Der Tag von Chaironeia (338). Das Ende der griechischen Freiheit und Autonomie", p. 84). Except for Athens and Thebes, surely many minor cities less clearly felt the end of their earlier 'freedom' in decisions of foreign and military policy than these two former Greek hegemonic cities. In many respects internal autonomy and the guarantees of the League of Corinth at first were duly respected by Philip II and Alexander (at least until 324/3 BC).

Because of restrictions of space, it is inevitable that Samotta was not able, in the course of a brief monograph, to discuss thoroughly alternative interpretations of the individual sources which she quotes. See, for instance, her interpretation of Polyaenus' Strategemata 4,3,23 (p. 96-7). There we learn of a successful stratagem of Alexander at Alexander's ladder. Along with a majority of scholars today, Samotta connects this stratagem with Alexanderthe Great’s campaign in 336/5 BC. However, S. Sprawski has recently suggested an earlier context during the reign of Alexander II and his campaign against Alexander of Pherai in 369 BC.5

In chapter 9 on Demosthenes' political triumph and his death (p. 103-114) Samotta justly stresses the speech On the Crown as a crucial source on Demosthenes' personal justification of his foreign policy until 338 /336 BC. Interestingly, after On the Crown (330 BC) no later political speech has been preserved in the Corpus Demosthenicum. Hence, Samotta (p. 105) draws the conclusion that Demosthenes deliberately refrained from delivering public speeches to the people after 330 and that to a certain degree he retreated from his earlier prominent political life. Samotta notes a deliberate silence (Schweigen) of Demosthenes during the later years of Alexander's reign. In my view, however, Demosthenes' influence on Athenian politics from 330 to 322 BC may well have been more important than Samotta admits. For instance, once again and this time along with Hypereides and Leosthenes, Demosthenes was a leading politician during the Lamian or Hellenic war of 323/2 BC (see on this period, however, Samotta p. 111-114 for a different view).

Chapter 10 finally adds some brief remarks on the history of reception of Demosthenes as a politician and, clearly more important, his great influence as an orator (p. 115-122). Given the huge impact which Demosthenes' oratory as a classical example of perfect style certainly had already in antiquity and later on until the 20th century, readers will appreciate this chapter, although it is almost impossible to sketch Demosthenes’ influence in a mere eight pages (see p. 115-118 on antiquity and p. 119-122 on later periods). Samotta concludes her useful monograph with a well- balanced judgment on Demosthenes' life and policies. Whereas he suffered defeat in his courageous fight against Macedonian hegemony in the time of Philip II, Alexander the Great, and finally Antipater and the Diadochoi, people justly still admire today his defence of basic values of democracy and especially his perfect art of oratory.

Four maps and figures, a glossary (p. 130-133), a time table, an index (p. 134-137), and bibliographical references immediately after the single chapters as well as a selected bibliography at the end of the book (p. 126-130) are helpful. Most studies which Samotta lists here are in English and in German.6 In my view, however, excellent recent French and Italian scholarship would also have been worth mentioning. I found only a few misprints.7


1.   More detailed biographical information on Demosthenes and balanced evaluations of his policy may be found, for instance, in R. Sealey, Demosthenes and His Time. A Study in Defeat, Oxford 1993, I. Worthington, Demosthenes. Statesman and Orator, London 2000, and recently in D.M. Macdowell, Demosthenes the Orator, Oxford 2009; see for an important recent German biography G.A. Lehmann, Demosthenes von Athen. Ein Leben für die Freiheit, Munich 2004.
2.   See P. Hunt, War, Peace, and Alliance in Demosthenes' Athens, Cambridge 2009.
3.   For early pioneers of this model, see K.N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, Reading MA 1979 (repr. Long Grove, Ill 2010), and S.M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances, Ithaca NY 1987 (repr. 2007).
4.   See C. Carey et al., Fragments of Hyperides’ Against Diondas from the Archimedes Palimpsest, ZPE 165 (2008) 1-19.
5.   See S. Sprawski, Alexander at Tempe (Polyaenus 4.3.21): Old Memories for 'Tourists' during the Roman Era, in: Agios Demetrios Stomiou. Istoria - techne - istorike geographia tou monasteriou kai tes perioches ton ekbolon tou Peneiou, ed. by S.G. Gouloules - S.T. Sdrolia, Larisa 2010, 433-444, esp. 442.
6.   I would like to add two recent English companions which offer important studies on Macedonia and Greece in the fourth century BC and on Demosthenes' life-time. These voluminous works were published too late for being included in Samotta's bibliography: J. Roisman and I. Worthington (Eds.), Blackwell's Companion to Ancient Macedonia, Oxford – Malden MA 2010, and R. Lane Fox (Ed.), Brill's Companion to Ancient Macedon. Studies in the archaeology and history of Macedon, 650 BC -300 AD, Leiden 2011.
7.   However, for instance, emend p. 67 Naupaktis to Naupaktos, and three times (p. 83, 98 und 113 ) 'die Bema' to 'das Bema'.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010