Demosthenes was a Greek statesman known for his public speaking ability. He worked as a speech-writer and lawyer in Athens in the 4th century BCE. He very strongly opposed Philip II of Macedon’s incursion on the Greek peninsula and Alexander the Great’s occupation there. He was eventually targeted by one of Alexander’s successors and killed himself to avoid capture.


Early Life

Demosthenes was born in 384 BCE in Paeania. He was orphaned at seven years old and his newfound caretakers Aphobus, Demophon and Therippides mishandled his inheritance until he was able to sue them upon coming of age in 366 BCE. Although his trial was successful, Demosthenes was only able to obtain a fraction of the money he was owed.

As an adolescent, Demosthenes was enthralled by the eloquence of orators like Callistratus and Isocrates and motivated by the suit over his inheritance. He is thought to have been largely self taught but is known to have briefly studied rhetoric under Isaeus. In any case, he eventually grew to become known for his vigorous and intelligent speeches and for certain public attacks he wrote against several corrupt Athenian politicians.

Professional Career

Early Career

Demosthenes gave his first political speech in 354 BCE. Titled On the Navy, it called for political moderation and reform of the funding boards for the Athenian fleet. His early orations were largely unsuccessful and were criticized at the time for showing a lack of confidence, but he would later go on to become a prominent member of the Athenian political structure.

Push Against Philip II

In 352 BCE, Demosthenes gave the first of many speeches characterizing Phillip II of Macedon as Athens’ public enemy number one. He was at first more reserved with his position toward Philip but after a Phocian defeat to Macedon in 351 BCE, his rhetoric became more intense. He portrayed Philip as a threat to Greek independence and called for preparedness for conflict with Macedon going forward.

By 348 BCE, Philip had moved far South. He had taken Olynthus and razed it to the ground and Demosthenes’ stance began to change. Athens was pursuing peace and Demosthenes was part of a delegation sent to Pella to negotiate peace. Negotiations were successful initially; peace was made, albeit under very strict conditions from Philip.

In 341 BCE, Demosthenes was sent to renew Athens’ alliance with Byzantium. He was successful and even managed to secure an alliance with Abydos as well. This angered Philip who sent his grievances to Athens shortly after. The Athenian ecclesia however, ignored them and renounced the treaty, effectively declaring war on Macedon. Philip would establish his dominance over Southern Greece later in 338 BCE at the battle of Chaeronea.

Case of Harpalus

In 324 BCE, a man named harpalus, who Alexander had trusted with massive amounts of treasure, deserted and sought asylum in Athens. The Athenians denied him refuge. Eventually Harpalus made his way into the city illegally and was eventually imprisoned and his treasure claimed by the ecclesia. Demosthenes was given watch over the money and found when he counted that he had only half the money Harpalus had originally claimed. Demosthenes didn’t disclose this information to the rest of the assembly and because of this, was prosecuted. He escaped shortly after and his sentence was repealed.

Lamian War and Death

Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Demosthenes once again pushed for independence from Macedon. He was, however, unsuccessful and one of Alexander’s successors Antipater convinced the Athenian ecclesia to issue a decree making anti-Macedonian sentimentality punishable by death. Demosthenes escaped to the island of Poros, but was found by one of Antipater’s lieutenants. He poisoned himself to avoid capture.


Demosthenes was widely renowned well after his death. His oratory prowess would inspire speakers from the 4th century BCE onward. He even inspired Cicero’s case against Mark Antony.

Works Cited:

Murray, James J. “Demosthenes | Greek Statesman and Orator.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

“The Life of Demosthenes.” Plutarch: Life of Demosthenes. University of Chicago, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

“Demosthenes.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. 9 Dec. 2015