Book Club | March 2023: Speeches of Demosthenes

Wordcloud: Demosthenes

Mark the situation, men of Athens: mark the pitch which the man’s outrageous insolence has reached, when he does not even give you a choice between action and inaction, but threatens you, and utters (as we are told) haughty language: for he is not the man to rest content in possession of his conquests: he is always casting his net wider; and while we procrastinate and sit idle, he is setting his toils around us on every side.
The First Philippic (4.9), translated by Sir Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge

Our Book Club for March will focus on speeches of Demosthenes.

According to the article in Encyclopedia Britannica[1], Demosthenes (384–322 BCE) lived around the same time as Plato and Aristotle. He trained himself as an orator, in order to sue his unscrupulous guardian, and then became a speech writer for others who wished to bring lawsuits or defend themselves. He started to make speeches in the Assembly, and the first, “On the Navy Boards,” successfully persuaded Athenians to build up their navy against a prospective threat from Persia.

From this point on (354), Demosthenes’ career is virtually the history of Athenian foreign policy. It was not very long before his oratorical skill made him, in effect, the leader of what today might be called the democratic party. Some interests, especially the wealthy, would have preferred an oligarchy instead of a democracy; many merchants would have preferred peace at almost any price. While they agreed that the Macedonians were barbarians, most Athenian citizens distrusted other Greek city-states such as Thebes and Sparta.

Philip of Macedon was starting to move south and take cities, including Athenian possessions. It was in this context that Demosthenes delivered speeches against Philip—“The Philippics”—in an attempt to rouse the Athenians and to protest when Philip broke the terms of a treaty. He also accused his fellow-ambassador, Aeschines, in a public trial, “The False Legation,” and later spoke against Aeschines in defense of his own policies in the oration “On the Crown.”

You can read any and as many speeches as you wish, depending on your interests. (Titles vary slightly depending on translator. The numbers in parentheses are the traditional numbers given to the speeches.)

We suggest selecting from:

  • Philip of Macedon — four “Philippics” (#4, #6, #9, #10)
  • Confrontation with Aeschines — “The False Legation/Embassy” (#19), “On the (Trierarchic) Crown” (#51)
  • “Funeral Speech” (#60) — you might like to compare this with the Funeral Oration of Pericles, quoted by Thucydides (starting at 2.35.1: see the Kosmos Text Library)

The speeches of Demosthenes are listed on Attalus with links to each of the speeches on Perseus at Philologic in (a) alphabetical order and (b) traditional order. (These are the same translations as those on Perseus but on Philologic are presented as complete speeches; on Perseus they are divided into short sections.)

Here are some other links to free online translations:

Sir Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge (includes Philippics I, II, II, On the Naval Boards, On the Crown) — for each speech he provides a background to the context

Volume 1, at Project Gutenberg — to read online or download

Volume 2, at Project Gutenberg — to read online or download

J.H. Vince, Speeches 1–10, on Perseus — to read online

J.H. Vince, Speeches 11–20, on Perseus — to read online

A.T. Murray, Speeches 21–30, on Perseus

A.T. Murray, Speeches 31–40, on Perseus

A.T. Murray, Speeches 41–50, on Perseus

Norman W. DeWitt and Norman J. DeWitt, Speeches 51–61, on Perseus

If you would prefer not to read complete speeches, this may be a way to sample them:

Ancient Classics for Readers: Demosthenes, by W. J. Brodribb — some context for various speeches, and selected extracts from them

We will start and continue discussion in the Forum, and meet via Zoom on Tuesday March 28 at 11 a.m. EDT (note that the USA will be on Daylight Savings Time from March 12).

Happy readings!

1 Notes on Demosthenes are based on the Encyclopedia Britannica article “Demosthenes: Greek statesman and orator” by James J. Murphy