Demosthenes (dĭmŏsˈthənēz) [key], 384?–322 B.C., Greek orator, generally considered the greatest of the Greek orators. He was a pupil of Isaeus, and—although the story of his putting pebbles in his mouth to improve his voice is only a legend—he seems to have been forced to overcome a weak voice and delivery. After years of private practice in law, he became a political orator in 351 B.C. when he delivered the first of three Philippics. Philip II of Macedon had been steadily building power, and Demosthenes saw clearly the danger to Greek liberty in the great Macedonian state. The Philippics (the second in 344, the third in 341) and the three Olynthiacs (349), in which he urged aid for Olynthus against Philip, were all directed toward arousing Greece against the conqueror. The third of the Philippics is generally considered the finest of his orations. In On the Peace (346) Demosthenes urged an end to the Phocian War. In 343 he accused his rival, Aeschines, of accepting Macedonian bribes in a speech entitled (as was Aeschines' defense) On the False Legation. Philip triumphed in the battle of Chaeronea (338), and Demosthenes' cause was lost. Although he had many rivals, he was greatly honored by his admirers, but a proposal by Ctesiphon to give Demosthenes a gold crown caused Aeschines to bring suit. Demosthenes roundly defended his own career and attacked that of Aeschines in On the Crown (330). The verdict was in favor of Demosthenes. Later he was involved in a complex and obscure affair involving money taken by one of the lieutenants of Alexander the Great; it ended with Demosthenes in exile. After the death of Alexander he was recalled and attempted to build Greek strength to throw off the yoke of Macedon, but he was unsuccessful and Antipater triumphed. Demosthenes fled and took poison before he could be captured.
See A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, Demosthenes and the Last Days of Greek Freedom (1914); W. W. Jaeger, Demosthenes: The Origin and Growth of His Policy (1938, repr. 1963); J. J. Murphy, ed., Demosthenes on the Crown (1983); H. Montgomery, The Way to Chaeronea (1984); I. Worthington, Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece (2012).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.