Demosthenes (384?–322 B.C.), the greatest of Greek orators. The “Philippics,” his speeches against Philip of Macedon, are among the finest examples of his oratory. The word philippic still is commonly applied to a spirited and sarcastic speech of denunciation. Demosthenes' orations are notable for the excellence of their simple but powerful style and for the nobility as well as the practicality of the ideas expressed in them. They have been the source of inspiration and instruction for many orators, including the Roman statesman Cicero and such 18th-century English statesmen as William Pitt the Elder, Edmund Burke, and Charles James Fox.
Demosthenes was born near Athens. Left fatherless at seven, he was soon swindled out of his inheritance by his guardians. He trained himself in oratory in order to be able to conduct a lawsuit to recover his property, which he won when he was 21. A well-known story is that Demosthenes overcame a speech defect by talking with pebbles in his mouth.
Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, wanted to bring all the Greek city-states under his control. Demosthenes warned the Athenians against this scheme in the “Philippics” (351–341 B.C.) and the “Olynthiacs” (349 B.C.). In 348 B.C. he and a rival Athenian leader, Aeschines, went on an unsuccessful peace mission to Philip.
Demosthenes persuaded Athens to join its rival Thebes in forming an alliance with other Greek states to stop Philip, but at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., the Macedonians crushed the allies. Ctesiphon, a friend of Demosthenes, proposed that Demosthenes be given a golden crown for his patriotic efforts. Aeschines attacked the proposal as illegal, and Ctesiphon was put on trial in 330 B.C. Aeschines' oration “Against Ctesiphon” contained a severe criticism of Demosthenes, but Demosthenes in his rebuttal “On the Crown,” perhaps his most brilliant oration, successfully defended his policies and won the case for Ctesiphon.
After Philip's death, Demosthenes was a leader of an unsuccessful uprising against Philip's successor, Alexander. Harpalus, Alexander's treasurer, absconded with funds and sought asylum in Athens. In 324 B.C. Demosthenes was convicted of accepting a bribe from Harpalus, but escaped into exile. After Alexander's death, Demosthenes was recalled and publicly honored. When the Macedonian forces took Athens in 322 B.C., Demosthenes fled to the island of Calauria, where he took poison.