The Public Orations of Demosthenes/On the Naval Boards

Translated by Arthur Wallace Pickard


The speech was delivered in 354 B.C. News had been brought to Athens that the Persian King Artaxerxes Ochus was making great military and naval preparations, and though these were, in fact, directed against his own rebellious subjects in Egypt, Phoenicia, and Cyprus, the Athenians had some ground for alarm: for, two years before this, Chares, in command of an Athenian fleet, had given assistance to Artabazus, Satrap of Ionia, who was in revolt against the king. The king had made a protest, and (late in 355) Athens had ordered Chares to withdraw his aid from Artabazus. A party in Athens now wished to declare war on Persia, and appealed strongly to Athenian traditions in favour of the proposal. Demosthenes opposes them, on the ground that it was not certain that the king was aiming at Athens at all, and that the disunion of the Hellenic peoples would render any such action unsafe: Athens had more dangerous enemies nearer home, and her finances were not in a condition for such a campaign. But he takes advantage of the interest aroused, to propose a reform of the trierarchic system, designed to secure a more efficient navy, and to remedy certain abuses in the existing method of equipping vessels for service.

In earlier times, the duty of equipping and commanding each trireme was laid upon single citizens of means, the hull and certain fittings being found by the state. When, early in the fourth century, the number of wealthy men had diminished, each ship might be shared by two citizens, who commanded in turn. In 357 a law was passed, on the proposal of Periander, transferring the responsibility from individuals to 'Symmories' or Boards. (The system had been instituted in a slightly different form for the collection of the war-tax in the archonship of Nausinicus, 378-7 B.C.) The collection of the sums required became the work of twenty Boards, formed by the subdivision of the 1,200 richest citizens: each contributor, whatever his property, paid the same share. The richer men thus got off with the loss of a very small proportion of their income, as compared with the poorer members of the Boards,[1] and in managing the business of the Boards they sometimes contrived to exact the whole sum from their colleagues, and to escape payment themselves. At the same time the duties of the several Boards and their members were not allocated with sufficient precision to enable the responsibility to be brought home in case of default; and the nominal Twelve Hundred had fallen to a much smaller number, on whom the burden accordingly fell with undue weight. Demosthenes' proposal provided for the distribution of the responsibility of equipping the vessels and providing the funds, in the most detailed manner, with a view to preventing all evasion; but it was not carried. In fact, it was not until 340 that he succeeded in reforming the trierarchy, and he then made the burden vary strictly with property. The proposal, however, to declare war upon Persia went no further.

While, in this speech, Demosthenes is in accord with the policy of Eubulus, so far as concerns the avoidance of war with Persia, his proposals of financial reform would not be viewed with favour by the wealthy men who were Eubulus' firm supporters. Some of the themes which recur continually in later speeches are prominent in this—the futility of rhetorical appeals to past glories, without readiness for personal service, and the need of a thorough organization of the forces. While the speech shows rather too strongly the marks of careful preparation, and seldom rises to eloquence—the style, indeed, is often rather cramped and stiff, and the sentiments, especially at the beginning, artificially phrased—it is moderate and practical in tone, and shows a characteristic mastery of minute detail.


1 Those who praise your forefathers,[2] men of Athens, desire, no doubt, to gratify you by their speeches; and yet I do not think that they are acting in the interests of those whom they praise. For the subject on which they attempt to speak is one to which no words can do justice; and so, although they thus win for themselves the reputation of capable speakers, the impression which they convey to their hearers of the merit of our forefathers is not adequate to our conception of it. For my part I believe that their highest praise is constituted by Time: for the time that has passed has been long, and still no generation has arisen, whose achievements could be compared with advantage to theirs. 2 As for myself, I shall attempt to point out the way in which, in my opinion, you can best make your preparations. For the truth is, that if all of us who propose to address you were to succeed in proving to you our rhetorical skill, there would not be the slightest improvement in your condition—I am sure of it; but if a single speaker were to come forward, whoever he might be, who could instruct and convince you as to the nature of the preparations which would meet the city's need, as to their extent, and the resources upon which we can draw for them, your present fears would instantly be dissolved. This I will attempt to do—if indeed it is in my power. But first I must briefly express my views as to our relations with the king.

3 I hold the king to be the common enemy of all the Hellenes; and yet I should not on that account urge you, alone and unsupported, to raise war against him. For I observe that there is no common or mutual friendship even among the Hellenes themselves: some have more faith in the king than in some other Hellenes. When such are the conditions, your interest requires you, I believe, to see to it that you only begin war from a fair and just cause, and to make all proper preparations: this should be the basis of your policy. 4 For I believe, men of Athens, that if it were made plain to the eyes and understandings of the Hellenes, that the king was making an attempt upon them, they would both fight in alliance with those who undertook the defence for them and with them, and would feel very grateful to them. But if we quarrel with him prematurely, while his intentions are still uncertain, I am afraid, men of Athens, that we may be forced to fight not only against the king, but also against those for whose benefit we are exercising such forethought. 5 For he will pause in the execution of his project, if indeed he has really resolved to attack the Hellenes, and will bribe some of them with money and offers of friendship; while they, desirous of bringing their private wars to a successful end, and animated only by such a spirit, will disregard the common safety of all. I urge you then, not to hurl the city needlessly into the midst of any such chaos of selfish passions. 6 Moreover, I see that the question of the policy to be adopted towards the king does not even stand on the same footing for the other Hellenes as for you. It is open, I think, to many of them to manage certain of their own interests as they please, and to disregard the rest of the Hellenes. But for you it is not honourable, even if you are the injured party, and are dealing with those who have injured you, to punish them so severely as to leave some of them to fall under the domination of the foreigner: 7 and this being so, we must take care, first, that we do not find ourselves involved in an unequal war, and secondly, that he, whom we believe to be plotting against the Hellenes, does not gain credit from the supposition that he is their friend. How then can this be achieved? It will be achieved if it is manifest to all that the forces of Athens have been overhauled and put in readiness, and if her intentions in regard to their use are plainly righteous. 8 But to those who take a bold line, and urge you, without any hesitation whatever, to go to war, my reply is this—that it is not difficult to win a reputation for bravery, when the occasion calls for deliberation; nor to prove yourself an accomplished orator, when danger is at the door: but to display your courage in the hour of danger, and, in debate, to have wiser advice to offer than others—that is the hard thing, and that is what is required of you. 9 For my part, men of Athens, I consider that the proposed war with the king would be a difficult undertaking for the city; while the decisive conflict in which the war would result would be an easier matter, and for this reason. Every war, I suppose, necessarily requires ships and money and the command of positions. All such advantages the king, I find, possesses more abundantly than we. But a conflict of forces requires nothing so much as brave men; and of these, I believe, the larger number is with us, and with those who share our danger. 10 For this reason I exhort you not to be the first, in any way whatever, to take up the war; but for the decisive struggle I think you ought to be ready and your preparations made. And further, if the forces[3] with which foreigners and Hellenes could respectively be repelled were really different in kind, the fact that we were arraying our forces against the king would naturally, it may be, admit of no concealment. 11 But since all military preparations are of the same character, and the main points of a force must always be the same—the means to repel enemies, to help allies, and to retain existing advantages—why, when we have our acknowledged foes,[4] do we seek to procure others? Let us rather prepare ourselves to meet the enemies whom we have, and we shall then repel the king also, if he takes the aggressive against us. 12 Suppose that you yourselves summon the Hellenes to your side now. If, when the attitude of some of them towards you is so disagreeable, you do not fulfil their demands, how can you expect that any one will listen to you? 'Why,' you say, 'we shall tell them that the king is plotting against them.' Good Heavens! Do you imagine that they do not foresee this themselves? Of course they do. But their fear of this does not yet outweigh the quarrels which some of them have against you and against each other. And so the tour of your envoys will end in nothing but their own rhapsodies.[5] 13 But if you wait, then, if the design which we now suspect is really on foot, there is not one of the Hellenes who stands so much upon his dignity that he will not come and beg for your aid, when he sees that you have a thousand cavalry, and infantry as many as any one can desire, and three hundred ships: for he will know that in these lies his surest hope of deliverance. Appeal to them now, and we shall be suppliants, and, if unsuccessful, rejected suppliants. Make your own preparations and wait, and then they will be the suppliants and we their deliverers; and we may rest assured that they will all come to us for help.

14 In thinking out these points and others like them, men of Athens, my object was not to devise a bold speech,[6] prolonged to no purpose: but I took the greatest pains to discover the means by which our preparations could be most effectively and quickly made; and therefore, if my proposal meets with your approval, when you have heard it, you ought, I think, to pass it. Now the first element in our preparation, men of Athens (and it is the most important), must be this: your minds must be so disposed, that every one of you will perform willingly and heartily any service that is required of him. 15 For you see, men of Athens, that whenever you have unanimously desired any object, and the desire has been followed by a feeling on the part of every individual, that the practical steps towards it were for himself to take, the object has never yet slipped from your grasp: but whenever the wish has had no further result than that each man has looked to his neighbour, expecting his neighbour to act while he himself does nothing, the object has never yet been attained. 16 But supposing you to be filled with the keenness that I have described, I am of opinion that we should make up the Twelve Hundred to their full number, and increase it to 2,000, by the addition of 800. For if you can display this total, then, when you have allowed for the unmarried heiresses and orphans,[7] for property outside Attica,[8] or held in partnership, and for any persons who may be unable to contribute,[9] you will, I believe, actually have the full 1,200 persons available. 17 These you must divide into twenty boards, as at present, with sixty persons to each board; and each of these boards you must divide into five sections of twelve persons each, taking care in every case to associate with the richest man the poorest men,[10] to maintain the balance. Such is the arrangement of persons which I recommend, and my reason you will know when you have heard the nature of the entire system. 18 I pass to the distribution of the ships. You must provide a total complement of 300 ships, forming twenty divisions of fifteen ships apiece, and including in each division five of the first hundred vessels,[11] five of the second hundred, and five of the third hundred. Next, you must assign by lot[12] to each board of persons its fifteen ships, and each board must assign three ships to each of its sections. 19 This done, in order that you may have the payments also systematically arranged, you must divide the 6,000 talents (for that is the taxable capital[13] of the country) into 100 parts of sixty talents each. Five of each of these parts you must allot to each of the larger boards—the twenty—and each board must assign one of these sums of sixty talents to each of its sections; 20 in order that, if you need 100 ships,[14] there may be sixty talents to be taxed for the expense of each ship, and twelve persons responsible for it; if 200, thirty talents will be taxed to make up the cost, and six persons will be responsible; if 300, then twenty talents must be taxed to defray the expense, and four persons will be responsible. 21 In the same way, men of Athens, I bid you make a valuation according to the register of all those fittings of the ships which are in arrear,[15] divide them into twenty parts, and allot to each of the large boards one-twentieth of the debtors: these must then be assigned by each board in equal numbers to each of its sections, and the twelve persons composing each section must call up their share of the arrears, and provide, ready-equipped, the ships which fall to them. 22 Such is the plan by which, in my opinion, the expense, the ships, the trierarchs, and the recovery of the fittings could best be provided for and put into working order. I proceed to describe a simple and easy scheme for the manning of the vessels. I recommend that the generals should divide the whole space of the dockyards into ten, taking care to have in each space thirty slips for single vessels close together. This done they should apportion to each space two of the boards and thirty ships; and should then assign a tribe to each space by lot. 23 Each captain should divide into three parts the space which falls to his tribe, with the corresponding ships, and should allot these among the three wards[16] of each tribe, in such a way that if each tribe has one division of the entire docks, each ward will have a third of one of these divisions; and you will know, in case of need, first the position assigned to the tribe; next, that of the ward; and then the names of the trierarchs and their ships; each tribe will be answerable for thirty, and each ward for ten ships. If this system is put in train, circumstances as they arise will provide for anything that I may have overlooked to-day (for perhaps it is difficult to think of everything), and there will be a single organization for the whole fleet and every part of it.

24 But what of funds? What resources have we immediately at our command? The statement which I am about to make on this subject will no doubt be astonishing; but I will make it nevertheless; for I am convinced that upon a correct view of the facts, this statement alone will be proved true, and will be justified by the event. I say then, that this is not the time to discuss the financial question. We have large resources upon which, in case of necessity, we may honourably and rightly draw: but if we inquire for them now, we shall not believe that we can rely upon them even against the hour of need; so far shall we be from supplying them now. 'What then,' you will ask me, 'are these resources, which are non-existent now, but will be ours then? This is really like a riddle.' I will tell you. 25 Men of Athens, you see all this great city.[17] In this city there is wealth which will compare, I had almost said, with the united wealth of all other cities. But such is the disposition of those who own it, that if all your orators were to raise the alarm that the king was coming—that he was at the doors—that there was no possible escape; and if with the orators an equal number of prophets[18] foretold the same thing; even then, far from contributing funds, they would show no sign[19] [and make no acknowledgement] of their possession of them. 26 If, however, they were to see in course of actual realization all the terrors with which at present we are only threatened in speeches, not one of them is so blind that he would not both offer his contribution, and be among the first to pay the tax. For who will prefer to lose his life and property, rather than contribute a part of his substance to save himself and the remainder of it? Funds, then, we can command, I am certain, if there is a genuine need of them, and not before; and accordingly I urge you not even to look for them now. For all that you would provide now, if you decided upon a levy, would be more ludicrous than nothing at all. 27 Suppose that we are told to pay 1 per cent. now; that gives you sixty talents. Two per cent. then—double the amount; that makes 120 talents. And what is that to the 1,200 camels which (as these gentlemen tell us) are bringing the king's money for him? Or would you have me assume a payment of one-twelfth, 500 talents? Why, you would never submit to this; and if you paid the money down, it would not be adequate to the war. 28 You must, therefore, make all your other preparations, but allow your funds to remain for the present in the hands of their owners—they could nowhere be more safely kept for the use of the State; and then, if ever the threatened crisis arises, you will receive them as the voluntary gift of their possessors. This, men of Athens, is not only a possible course of action, but a dignified and a politic one. It is a course of action which is worthy to be reported to the ears of the king, and which would inspire him with no slight apprehension. 29 For he well knows that by two hundred ships, of which one hundred were Athenian,[20] his ancestors were deprived of one thousand; and he will hear that Athens alone has now equipped three hundred; so that, however great his infatuation, he could certainly not imagine it a light thing to make this country his foe. But if it is his wealth that suggests proud thoughts to his mind, he will find that in this respect too his resources are weaker than ours. 30 It is true that he is said to be bringing a great quantity of gold with him. But if he distributes this, he must look for more: for just so it is the way of springs and wells to give out, if large quantities are drawn from them all at once; whereas we possess, as he will hear, in the taxable capital of the country, resources which we defend against attack in a way of which those ancestors of his who sleep at Marathon can best tell him: and so long as we are masters of the country there is no risk of our resources being exhausted.

31 Nor again can I see any grounds for the fear, which some feel, lest his wealth should enable him to collect a large mercenary force. It may be that many of the Hellenes would be glad to serve under him against Egypt,[21] against Orontas,[21] or against certain other foreign powers—not from a wish that the king should conquer any such enemies, but because each desires individually to obtain some private means to relieve his present poverty. But I cannot believe that any Hellene would march against Hellas. Whither will he turn afterwards? Will he go to Phrygia and be a slave? 32 For the war with the foreigner is a war for no other stake than our country, our life, our habits, our freedom, and all that we value. Where is the wretch who would sacrifice self, parents, sepulchres, fatherland, for the sake of some short-lived gain? I do not believe that he exists. And indeed it is not even to the king's own interest to conquer the Hellenes with a mercenary force; for an army which has conquered us is, even more certainly,[22] stronger than he; and his intention is not to destroy us only that he may fall into the power of others: he wishes to rule, if it may be, over all the world; but if not, at least over those who are already his slaves.

33 It may be supposed that the Thebans will be on the king's side. Now this subject is one upon which it is hard to address you. For such is your hatred of them, that you cannot hear a good word about them, however true, without displeasure. And yet those who have grave questions to consider must not on any pretext pass over any profitable line of argument. 34 I believe, then, that so far are the Thebans from being likely ever to march with him against the Hellenes, that they would give a great deal, if they had it to give, for an opportunity of cancelling their former sins against Hellas.[23] But if any one does believe that the Thebans are so unhappily constituted, at least you are all aware, I presume, that if the Thebans take the part of the king, their enemies must necessarily take the part of the Hellenes.

35 My own belief is that our cause, the cause of justice, and its supporters, will prove stronger in every emergency than the traitor and the foreigner. And therefore I say that we need feel no excessive apprehension, and that we must not be led on into taking the first step towards war. Indeed, I cannot even see that any of the other Hellenes has reason to dread this war. 36 Are they not all aware, that so long as they thought of the king as their common foe, and were at unity with one another, they were secure in their prosperity; but that ever since they imagined that they could count upon the king as their friend, and fell to quarrelling over their private interests, they have suffered such evils as no malediction could have devised for them? Must we then dread a man whose friendship, thanks to Fortune and Heaven, has proved so unprofitable, and his enmity so advantageous? By no means! Let us not, however, commit any aggression, in view of our own interests, and of the disturbed and mistrustful spirit which prevails among the rest of the Hellenes. 37 Were it possible, indeed, to join forces with them all, and with one accord to attack the king in his isolation, I should have counted it no wrong even were we to take the aggressive. But since this is impossible, we must be careful to give the king no pretext for trying to enforce the claims of the other Hellenes against us. If you keep the peace, any such step on his part would arouse suspicion; but if you are the first to begin war, his hostility to you would make his desire to befriend your rivals appear natural enough. 38 Do not then lay bare the evil condition of Hellas, by calling the powers together when they will not obey, or undertaking a war which you will be unable to carry on. Keep the peace; take courage, and make your preparations. Resolve that the news which the king hears of you shall certainly not be that all Hellas, and Athens with it, in distress or panic or confusion. Far from it! 39 Let him rather know that if falsehood and perjury were not as disgraceful in Hellenic eyes as they are honourable in his, you would long ago have been on the march against him: and that though, as it is, your regard for yourselves forbids you to act thus, you are praying to all the gods that the same madness may seize him as once seized his ancestors. And if it occurs to him to reflect upon this, he will find that your deliberations are not conducted in any careless spirit. 40 He at least shares the knowledge that it was your wars with his own ancestors that raised Athens to the summit of prosperity and greatness; while the peaceful policy which she previously pursued never gave her such a superiority as she now enjoys over any single state in Hellas. Aye, and he sees that the Hellenes are in need of one who, whether intentionally or not, will reconcile them one to another; and he knows that if he were to stir up war, he himself would assume that character in relation to them; so that the news which he will hear of you will be intelligible and credible to him.

41 But I do not wish to trouble you, men of Athens, by unduly prolonging my speech. I will therefore recapitulate my advice and retire. I bid you prepare your forces with a view to the enemies whom you have. If the king or any other power attempts to do you injury, you must defend yourselves with these same forces. But you must not take the aggressive by word or deed; and you must take care that it is your deeds, and not your platform speeches, that are worthy of your forefathers. If you act thus, you will be consulting both your own interests and those of the speakers who are opposing me; since you will have no cause to be angry with them afterwards, because you have decided wrongly to-day.

  1. See Speech on Crown, §§ 102 ff. and notes.
  2. "who praise your forefathers". The advocates of war with Persia had doubtless appealed to the memory of Marathon and Salamis, and the old position of Athens as the champion of Greece against Persia.
  3. The argument is this: 'If a war with Persia needed a special kind of force, we could not prepare for it without being detected: but as all wars need the same kind of force, our preparations need rouse no suspicion in Persia particularly.'
  4. "acknowledged foes". i.e. probably Thebes, or the revolted allies of Athens, with whom a disadvantageous peace had, perhaps, just been made. It is not, however, impossible that Philip also is in the orator's mind; for though at the time he was probably engaged in war with the Illyrians and Paeonians, his quarrel with Athens in regard to Amphipolis had not been settled. The Olynthians may also be thought of. (See Introd. to Phil. I and Olynthiacs.)
  5. "rhapsodies". The rhapsodes who went about Greece reciting Homer and other poets had lost the distinction they once enjoyed, and 'rhapsody' became a synonym for idle declamation.
  6. "a bold speech". i.e. a demand for instant war, helped out by rhetorical praises of the men of old.
  7. "unmarried heiresses and orphans". These would be incapable of discharging the duties of the trierarchy, though their estates were liable for the war-tax. Partners were probably exempted, when none of them possessed so large a share in the common property as would render him liable for trierarchy.
  8. "property outside Attica". According to the terms made by Athens with her allies when the 'Second Delian League' was formed in 378, Athens undertook that no Athenian should hold property in an allied State. But this condition had been broken, and the multiplication of Athenian estates [Greek: "kl".rhouchiai". in allied territories had been one of the causes of the war with the allies.
  9. "unable to contribute". e. g. owing to no longer possessing the estate which he had when the assessment was made.
  10. "to associate, &c". The sections which contained a very rich man were to have poor men included in it, so that the total wealth of every section might be the same, and the distribution of the burden between the sections fair.
  11. "the first hundred, &c". Demosthenes thinks of the fleet as composed, according to need, of 100, 200, or 300 vessels, and treats each hundred as a separate squadron, to be separately divided among the Boards.
  12. "by lot". In this and other clauses of his proposal, Demosthenes stipulates for the use of the lot ([Greek: "sunkl".r".sai"., [Greek: epikl".rosai]) to avoid all unfair selection. It is only in the distribution of duties among the smaller sections within each Board that assignment by arrangement ([Greek: "apodounai"., a word suggesting distribution according to fitness or convenience) is to be allowed.
  13. "taxable capital" ([Greek: "tim".ma".). The war-tax and the trierarchic burdens were assessed on a valuation of the contributor's property. Upon this valuation of his taxable capital he paid the percentage required. (The old view that he was taxed not upon his capital, as valued, but upon a fraction of it varying with his wealth, rests upon an interpretation of passages in the Speeches against Aphobus, which is open to grave question.) The total amount of the single valuations was the 'estimated taxable capital of the country' ([Greek: "tim".ma t".s ch".ras".). This, in the case of the trierarchy, would be the aggregate amount of the valuations of the 1,200 wealthiest men, viz. 6,000 talents. (Of course the capital taxable for the war-tax would be considerably larger. Even at a time when the prosperity of Attica was much lower, in 378-377 B.C., it was nearly 6,000 talents, according to Polybius, ii. 62. 6.)
  14. A tabular statement will make this plain:--
    "Persons responsible for each ship". "Total capital taxable". "Ships".
    100 60 tal. 12
    200 30 6
    300 20 4

    The percentage payable on the taxable capital was of course higher, the larger the number of ships required. Each ship appears to have cost on the average a talent to equip. The percentages in the three cases contained in the table would therefore be 1-2/3, 3-1/3, and 5, respectively. (Comp

  15. "fittings ... in arrear". Apparently former trierarchs had not always given back the fittings of their vessels, which had either been provided at the expense of the State, or lent to the trierarchs by the State.
  16. "wards" ([Greek: "trittyes".). The trittys or ward was one-third of a tribe.
  17. "you see ... city". The Assembly met on the Pnyx, whence there was a view of the Acropolis and of the greater part of the ancient city.
  18. "prophets". The Athenian populace seems always to have been liable to the influence of soothsayers, who professed to utter oracles from the gods, particularly when war was threatening. This was so (e. g.) at the time of the Peloponnesian War (Thucyd. ii. 8, v. 26), and the soothsayer is delightfully caricatured by Aristophanes in the "Birds" and elsewhere.
  19. See Speech on Crown, §§ 102 ff. and notes.
  20. "two hundred ships ... one hundred were Athenian". In the Speech on the Crown, Sec. 238, Demosthenes gives the numbers as 300 and 200. Perhaps a transcriber at an early stage in the history of the text accidentally wrote HH (the symbol for 200) instead of HHH, in the case of the first number, and a later scribe then 'corrected' the second number into H instead of HH. The numbers given by Herodotus are 378 and 180, and, for the Persian ships, 1,207.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "against Egypt", which was now in rebellion against Artaxerxes. Orontas, Satrap of Mysia, was more or less constantly in revolt during this period.
  22. "even more certainly" [Greek: "palai".: lit. 'long ago'. The transition from temporal to logical priority is paralleled in certain uses of other temporal adverbs, e.g. [Greek: "euthys". (Aristotle, "Poet". v), and [Greek: "schol".". (of which, as Weil notes, [Greek: "palai". is the exact opposite).
  23. "sins against Hellas". This refers to the support given to the Persian invaders by Thebes in the Persian Wars (Herod. viii. 34).