BMCR 2014.04.48

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece

, Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xxiv, 382. ISBN9780199931958 $35.00.

Ian Worthington is one of the leading experts on Athenian and Macedonian history of the fourth century BC.1 Thus his new monograph on Demosthenes, the famous Athenian politician and orator, is a most welcome addition to the extensive scholarly literature on this subject. Throughout the book readers will find a rich documentation of the literary (especially rhetorical, historical and biographical) and epigraphic ancient evidence; though Worthington is less interested in numismatic and archaeological sources, he nevertheless provides the necessary references to scholarly literature.2

While in almost every chapter the main focus is on Demosthenes, Worthington at the same time introduces his readers to the political system of Athenian democracy, to the rhetorical strategies of classical Greek orators before the assembly or in the courts, and to the history of the Greek states in the fourth century BC with a focus on Athenian and Macedonian relations in Demosthenes’ lifetime (384-322 BC). He addresses both specialists and interested non-specialists, for example on the rise of Macedon under Philip II in chapter 3 (Greece and the Awakening of Macedon, 42-70) and on the Athenian political and judicial system.

Worthington describes Demosthenes as a hero, but “a flawed one.” He proclaims as his literary aim “as well-rounded a portrait of Demosthenes as possible” (p. VII, see also his well-balanced concluding remarks, p. 339-341: “The best public actions in the cause of liberty and democracy?”). Worthington’s overall portrait turns out to be in several respects more critical towards Demosthenes’ politics and some features of his personal behaviour than, for instance, the recent study by Gustav Adolf Lehmann.3

A preamble (p. 1-8) briefly discusses Demosthenes’ changing reputation as a ‘politician and hero’ in the general history of reception of his life and in earlier scholarship. Chapter 2 (p. 9-41) deals with Demosthenes’ early years, his family background, his education and the trials against the guardians. The next chapter (“Greece and the Awakening of Macedon,” p. 42-70) focuses on the background of fourth-century Greek history. The next three chapters treat Demosthenes as an aspiring politician in the first main period of his public career during the 350s and early 340s (p. 71-154). Chapters 7-10 (p. 155-254) discuss in great detail the main events and Demosthenes’ policies from the Peace of Philocrates in 346 BC (“an uneasy peace”) to Philip’s victory at Chaironeia (“the end of Greek freedom”). The next two chapters (p. 255-293) deal with the settlement in Greece of 338/337 BC and following years down to the famous Crown Trial in 330 BC which is treated separately in chapter 13 (p. 294-309). The last two chapters focus on Demosthenes’ last years to his death in 322 BC (p. 309-344).

Clearly, the core chapters in Worthington’s book deal with the years of Demosthenes’ political acme, that is roughly with the decade from the crisis of Olynthos to the battle of Chaironeia (349/48-338 BC). The second half of Demosthenes’ career (338-322 BC) is treated more briefly. Worthington maintains that under the reign of Alexander the Great Demosthenes was “far less politically active” than before (p. VIII) and that he followed a cautious course of behaviour and kept a “low profile” in politics (p. 285-291) after the destruction of Thebes in 335 BC and Alexander’s astonishing victories at Issos (in 333) and Gaugamela (in 331), while he was still active in the courts. Admittedly, our latest preserved assembly speech in the corpus about which there is no doubt as to Demosthenes as the orator is the fourth Philippika of 340 BC. But to conclude that this is evidence of Demosthenes’ alleged low profile in politics in the Lykourgan era is to ignore the impact of Demosthenes’ On the Crown on public opinion in Athens and Greece. In many respects this famous court speech was also was an extremely political speech (see Worthington p. 224-228 on the fourth Philippika and p. 294-309 on the Crown Trial). I would like to point also to the discussion about Dem. or. 17 On the Treaty with Alexander, a speech which may well express some Demosthenic opinions. Moreover, one should take into account that for educational or rhetorical purposes the ancient grammarians who collected Demosthenes’ speeches probably focused on the years before Chaironeia.

Apart from official propaganda, the reasons why Philip II attacked the Persian empire have remained unclear, and several plausible suggestions have been offered already both by ancient sources and by modern scholars. Worthington presumes as the main reason (p. 264-265) “the pressing need to acquire money because of his declining revenues.” I would add as a military consideration that after 338 BC and his decisive victory at Chaironeia the king faced the serious dilemma of either being forced to reduce his huge army or of finding a new area of military activity which promised easier victories and more booty than he might win in Thrace or in the Balkans. Isokrates and other counsellors had already suggested Asia Minor.

With regard to scholarly interest in Demosthenes, Worthington notes that in more recent history “the pendulum has swung the other way to focus on Demosthenes the rhetorician rather than the politician” (p. 344). Although Worthington clearly states that “this book is not about Demosthenes the orator” (p. IX), the author amply quotes from the speeches of the Demosthenic corpus and from orations of Demosthenes’ opponents such as Aischines as key sources.4 He provides his readers with a brief introduction to Athenian deliberative and judicial oratory, too, and he avails himself of the opportunity to comment on the intricate problems of using these rhetorical sources as historical evidence. Worthington (p. 259-262) justly praises the Epitaphios (Funeral Oration; Dem. or. 60) of 338/7 BC as “a fitting eulogy to those who died at Chaeronea” (262) and draws interesting comparisons to official commemoration speeches of more recent periods as pieces of historical evidence.5

Two small quibbles. Worthington accepts the tradition that Demosthenes admired Perikles’ rhetorical style. In my view, however, this tradition may primarily result from Demosthenes’ admiration of the forcefulness of Perikles’ assembly speeches, while Demosthenes clearly differed especially in his ‘histrionic’ modern art of delivery from Perikles’ aristocratic and reserved style. Like earlier scholars, Worthington regards the well-known stories about Demosthenes’ strict training regimen as an orator mainly as inventions of later biographers and Athenian tourist guides (p. 38-41).6 However, at least some of these stories may go back to almost contemporary and reliable Peripatetic authorities on Demosthenes as an orator, such as Theophrastos of Eresos and Demetrios of Phaleron, and hence in my view there may be some element of truth in them.

The additional material is helpful: 15 figures, four maps, a timetable of the period, a list of speech numbers and titles, and an index. In sum, I would strongly recommend this well-balanced, accessible and thorough monograph to scholars and non-specialist readers.


1. See, among his earlier contributions, Ian Worthington (ed.), Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator, London 2000; idem, Philip II of Macedon, New Haven; London 2008; idem / Joseph Roisman (ed.), Blackwell Companion to Ancient Macedonia, Oxford 2010. About 30 other papers of Worthington are listed in the bibliography of this present volume, p. 365-367.

2. Among his astute comments on coinage and money there is a misprint in the following telling comparison with regard to the relation of Athenian wages and contemporary bribes for politicians in the appendix on p. 344: “in 324 Demosthenes was accused of taking a bribe of twenty talents …, the equivalent of hiring (at two talents per day) 60,000 laborers for one day or one laborer for 165 years!” Read: “at two drachmas per day.”

3. Gustav Adolf Lehmann, Demosthenes von Athen. Ein Leben für die Freiheit, Munich 2004. To Worthington’s rich bibliography (p. 347-367) should be added two monographs: Iris Samotta, Demosthenes, Tübingen 2010; and, now, Wolfgang Will, Demosthenes, Darmstadt 2013. On the last two decades of Demosthenes’ career Will’s earlier book Athen und Alexander. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Stadt von 338-322 v. Chr., Munich 1983, is still worth consulting and should be added to the bibliography as well, and perhaps this reviewer may also mention one of his own studies Studien zur politischen Biographie des Hypereides. Athen in der Epoche der lykurgischen Reformen und des makedonischen Universalreiches, Munich 1993 2, where Demosthenes’ politics between ca. 343 and 322 BC are also thoroughly treated.

4. Friedrich Blass, Die attische Beredsamkeit, Leipzig 1887-1898 2 repr. Hildesheim 1962, esp. vol. 3.1, in my view still remains essential reading on Demosthenes the orator. For more recent evaluations and many references to scholarly literature, Worthington rightly praises Lionel Pearson, The Art of Demosthenes, Meisenheim am Glan 1976, and now the masterly study of Douglas M. MacDowell, Demosthenes the Orator, Oxford 2009.

5. Worthington states with reference to Dem. or. 20.141 (p. 259) that “everyone in the city … gathered in the Agora to hear” Demosthenes’ funeral oration. This passage from the speech Against Leptines, however, merely states that the Epitaphios Logos was a peculiar Athenian institution. The Agora as the site of delivery of Demosthenes’ oration is highly improbable, since we learn from Thucydides’ introduction to Perikles’ funeral oration (Thuc. 2.34.5-6), that those speeches usually were delivered from a temporary bema before the Dipylon Gate, which was located not far from the demosion sema in the Kerameikos.

6. See, for instance, Craig Cooper, “Philosophers, Politics, Academics: Demosthenes’ Rhetorical Reputation in Antiquity,” in: Ian Worthington (ed.), Demosthenes. Statesman and Orator, London 2000, 224-245, to whom Worthington refers.