The World's Famous Orations/Volume 1/Against Demosthenes




(324 B.C.)

Born in Corinth in 361 B.C., died in 291; conspicuous as an orator after the great masters had passed away; three only of his orations have survived.

Thus your minister, Athenians! who hath pronounced sentence of death on himself should he be convicted of receiving anything from Harpalus—this very man hath been clearly convicted of accepting bribes from those whom in former times he affected to oppose with so much zeal. As Stratocles hath spoken largely on this subject; as many articles of accusation have been anticipated; as the council of Areopagus hath made a report on this inquiry so consonant to equity and truth—a report confirmed and enforced by Stratocles, who hath produced the decress enacted against these crimes—it remains that we who are now to speak (who are engaged in a cause of more importance than ever came before this state) should request the whole assembly, first, that we obtain your pardon if we should repeat some things already urged (for here our purpose is, not to abuse your patience, but to inflame your indignation); and, secondly, that you may not give up the general rights and laws of the community, or exchange the general welfare for the speeches of the accused. You see that in this assembly it is Demosthenes that is tried; in all other places your own trial is depending. On you men turn their eyes, and wait with eagerness to see how far the interests of your country will engage your care; whether you are to take on yourselves the corruption and iniquity of these men, or whether you are to manifest to the world a just resentment against those who are bribed to betray the state.

And altho the dignity and propriety of this procedure have received the approbation of the people, Demosthenes has recourse to complaints, to appeals, to malicious accusations, now that he finds himself convicted of receiving twenty talents of gold. Shall then this council, on whose faith and justice we rely, even in the important case of premeditated murder, to whom we commit the vengeance due to this crime, who have an absolute power over the persons and lives of our citizens, who can punish every violation of our laws, either by exile or by death—shall this council, I say, on an inquiry into a case of bribery, at once lose all its authority? "Yes; for the Areopagus hath reported falsely of Demosthenes." Extravagant and absurd! What! report falsely of Demosthenes and Demades, against whom even the truth seems scarcely to be declared with safety? You who have in former times moved that this council should take cognizance of public affairs, and have applauded their reports; you, whom this whole city hath not been able to restrain within the bounds of justice, hath the council reported falsely against you? Why then did you declare to the people that you were ready to submit to death if condemned by the report of this council? Why have you availed yourself of their authority to take off so many of our citizens? Or whither shall we have recourse? to whom shall we intrust the detection of secret villainy? if you, notwithstanding all your affected regard to our popular government, are to dissolve this council, to whose protection our lives have been intrusted; to whose protection our liberty and our constitution have oftentimes been intrusted; by whose protection that person of thine hath been preserved (for, as you pretend, it hath frequently been attempted) to utter these calumnies against them; to whose care we have committed our secret archives, on which the very being of cur state depends.

Has then Greece but slight, but common injuries to urge against Demosthenes and his sordid avarice? Hath the man so highly criminal the least pretense to mercy? Do not his late and former offenses call for the severest punishment? The world will hear the sentence you are this day to pronounce. The eyes of all men are fixed on you, impatient to learn the fate of so notorious a delinquent. You are they who, for crimes infinitely less heinous than his, have heavily and inexorably inflicted punishments on many. Menon was by you condemned to death for having subjected a free youth of Pallæne to his servile offices. Themistius, the Amphidnæan, who had abused a Rhodian woman that performed on the harp in the Eleusinian ceremonies, was by you condemned to death. The same sentence you pronounced on Euthymachus for prostituting a maiden of Olynthus. And now hath this traitor furnished all the tents of the Barbarians with the children and wives of the Thebans. A city of our neighbors and our allies hath been torn from the very heart of Greece. The plower and the sower now traverse the city of the Thebans, who united with us in the war against Philip. I say, the plower and the sower traverse their habitations; nor hath this hardened wretch discovered the least remorse at the calamities of a people to whom he was sent as our ambassador; with whom he lived, conversed, and enjoyed all that hospitality could confer; whom he pretends to have himself gained to our alliance; whom he frequently visited in their prosperity, but basely betrayed in their distress.

From the moment that he first began to direct our affairs, hath any one instance of good fortune attended us? Hath not all Grecee, and not this state alone, been plunged in dangers, calamities, and disgrace? Many were the fair occasions which occurred to favor his administration; and all these occasions, of such moment to our interests, did he neglect. When any friend to his country, any useful citizen, attempted to do us service, so far was this leader, who is impatient to boast of his great actions, from cooperating with such men, that he instantly infected them with the contagion of his unhappy conduct.

Is it not scandalous, Athenians! that your opinion of the guilt of Demosthenes should depend only on our representations? Do you not know that he is a corrupted traitor, a public robber, false to his friends, and a disgrace to the state? What decrees, what laws have not been made subservient to his gain? There are men in this tribunal who were of the Three Hundred when he proposed the law relative to our trierarchs. Inform those who stand near you how, for a bribe of three talents, he altered and new-modeled this law in every assembly; and, just as he was feed, inserted or erased clauses. Say, in the name of Heaven! think ye, O men of Athens! that he gained nothing by his decree which gave Diphilus the honors of public maintenance and a statue? Was he not paid for obtaining the freedom of our city to Chærephilus, and Phidon, and Pamphilus, and Philip, and such mean persons as Epigenes and Conon? Was it for nothing he procured brazen statues to Berisades and Satyrus, and Gorgippus, those detested tyrants, from whom he annually receives a thousand bushels of corn, altho he is ready to lament the distresses of his fortune? Was it for nothing he made Taurosthenes an Athenian citizen, who enslaved his countrymen, and, together with his brother Callias, betrayed all Eubœa to Philip? whom our laws forbid to appear in Athens on pain of suffering the punishment of those who return from exile. Such a man this friend to our constitution enrolled among our citizens. These and many other instances in which he hath prostituted our honors can be proved by authentic evidence. And could he who gladly descended to small gains resist the temptation of so great a sum as twenty talents?

To what cause, Athenians! is the prosperity or the calamity of a state to be ascribed? To none so eminently as to its ministers and generals. Turn your eyes to the state of Thebes. It subsisted once; it was once great; it had its soldiers and commanders. There was a time (our elder citizens declare it, and on their authority I speak) when Pelopidas led the Sacred Band; when Epaminondas and his colleages commanded the army. Then did the Thebans gain the victory at Leuctra; then did they pierce into the territories of Lacedæmon, before deemed inaccessible; then did they achieve many and noble deeds. The Messenians they reinstated in their city, after a dispersion of four hundred years. To the Arcadians they gave freedom and independence; while the world viewed their illustrious conduct with applause. On the other hand, at what time did they act ignobly, unworthy of their native magnanimity? When Timolaus called himself Philip's friend, and was corrupted by his gold: when the traitor Phoxenus led the mercenary forces collected for the expedition to Amphissa; when Theagenes, wretched and corrupt, like this man, was made commander of their band; then did these three men confound and utterly destroy the affairs of that state and of all Greece. So indisputably true it is that leaders are the great cause of all the good and all the evil that can attend a community. We see this in the instance of our own state. Reflect, and say at what time was this city great and eminent in Greece, worthy of our ancestors, and of their illustrious action? when Conon (as our ancient citizens inform us) gained the naval victory at Cnidos; when Iphicrates cut off the detachment of the Lacedæmonians, when Chabrias defeated the Spartan fleet at Naxos; when Timotheus triumphed in the sea-fight near Corcyra. Then, Athenians! then it was that the Lacedæmonians, whose wise and faithful leaders, whose adherence to their ancient institutions had rendered them illustrious, were reduced so low as to appear before us, like abject supplicants, and implore for mercy. Our state, which they had subverted, by means of those who then conducted our affairs, once more became the sovereign of Greece; and no wonder, when the men now mentioned were our generals, and Archinus and Cephalus our ministers. For what is the great security of every state and nation? Good generals and able ministers.

Let this be duly and attentively considered, and let us no longer suffer by the corrupt and wretched conduct of Demosthenes. Let it not be imagined that we shall ever want good men and faithful counselors. With all the generous severity of our ancestors, let us exterminate the man whose bribery, whose treason, are evidently detected; who could not resist the temptation of gold; who hath involved his country in calamities the most grievous; let us destroy this pest of Greece; let not his contagion infect our city; then may we hope for some change of fortune, then may we expect that our affairs will flourish.

And now, my fellow citizens, consider how you are to act. The people have returned to you an information of a crime lately committed. Demosthenes stands first before you to suffer the punishment denounced against all whom this information condemns. We have explained his guilt with an unbiased attention to the laws; will you then discover a total disregard of all these offenses? Will you, when intrusted with so important a decision, invalidate the judgement of the people, of the Areopagus, of all mankind? Will you take on yourselves the guilt of these men? or will you give the world an example of that detestation in which this state holds traitors and hirelings that oppose our interests for a bribe? This entirely depends on you.

Despising, then, the entreaties. the false artifices of this man, let justice and integrity be your only objects. Consider the good of your country, not that of Demosthenes. This is the part of honest, upright judges. And should any man rise to plead in favor of Demosthenes, consider that such a man, if not involved in the same guilt, is at least disaffected to the state; as he would screen those from justice who have been bribed to betray its interests; as he would subvert the authority of the Areopagus, on which our live depend, and confound and destroy all our laws and institutions.

  1. Abridged. Thomas Leland, the translator of this oration, introduces it with the following interesting note: "The occasion is distinctly recounted by Plutarch, who informs us that, some time after the famous contest about the crown, in which Demosthenes gained so complete a triumph over his rival Æschines, one Harpalus, who had been in the service of Alexander, fled to Athens with the remains of an immense fortune, which had been dissipated by his luxury, and there sought refuge from the anger of his master, whose severity toward his favorites alarmed and prompted him to this flight. The orators received his money, and labored to gain him the protection of the state. Demosthenes, on the contrary, urged to his countrymen the danger of exposing themselves to an unnecessary and unjustifiable war by entertaining this fugitive. Harpalus, however, found means to soften his severity by a present of a magnificent vase, accompanied with twenty talents; and when it was expected that Demosthenes would have exerted his abilities in the Assembly against Harpalus, he pleaded indisposition, and was silent. This is the sum. of Plutarch's account. But Pausanias, who seems to have conceived a more favorable opinion of the integrity of Demosthenes, observed, as a proof of his innocence, that an authentic account was sent to Athens, after the death of Harpalus, of all the sums distributed by him in this city and of the persons to whom each was paid; and that in this account no mention was at all made of Demosthenes, altho Philoxenus, who procured it, was his particular enemy, as well as Alexander. But, however this may be, the rumor of Harpalus's practises, and the report of the corruption of Demosthenes in particular, raised a considerable ferment at Athens."
    To this statement by Mr. Leland may be added a paragraph from the sketch of Dinarchus that appears in the "Encyclopedia Britannica": "It must always be borne in mind that Dinarchus was a Corinthian, a mere resident alien at Athens, whose sympathies were in favor of Athenian oligarchy under Macedonian control. Little in the man's life, so far as we know it, enjoys our respect or esteem; his position must, at least, be broadly distinguished from that of such a man as Æschines, an Athenian citizen, who, while his city could still be served, abetted its enemies; or, from that of such a hireling as Demades. In the Harpalus affair Demosthenes was, beyond all reasonable doubt, innocent, and so probably were others of the accused."