Episode 11 (Demosthenes)

DEMOSTHENES (IV c. BC)

Demosthenes was born in the year 384 BC and today is considered as one of the greatest orators among the ancient Greeks. Among other things, he is famous for his anti-Macedonism and this segment was very important in his activities. Actually, Demosthenes led the Athens resistance against Macedonia.

Demosthenes was born near Athens and he lost his father at a young age. As an adult, Demosthenes began to take interest in politics, in protecting the Greeks from the threat that was Mace-donia led by Philip II. Because of this, many of his great speeches were aimed against the Macedonians and the dangers of them.

His first major and known speech against Philip II was made in the year 351 BC. This speech became known by the name “First Philippic”. Later Philip attacked the city Olintus, which was inhabitedby the Greeks and was allied with Athens. Then, Demosthenes wrote three new speeches against the Macedonians in which he demanded help from Athens to Olintus. But, Olintus was conquered, and Demosthenes participated in the delegacy which negotiated between Athens and Macedonia. It was then that the Second and Third Philippic were created. which, again, had anti-Macedonian content. The Fourth Philippic was created later.

In the final battle at Chaeronea between the Macedonians and the Greeks (in 388 BC), Philip II took over most of the Greek territories. But, Demosthenes kept making his anti-Macedonian speeches, demanding freedom for the Greeks.

After Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, Demosthenes called the Greeks again to fight for freedom, but Alexander’s heir, Antipater, broke all resistances and asked for Athens to bring out their patriot leaders, including Demosthenes. The Athens assembly, under Macedonian pressure, decided to sentence the leaders of the anti-Macedonian rebellion (Including Demosthenes) to death. Demosthenes managed to escape on some island, where he committed suicide.

A later ancient Greek historian Plutarch also noted Demosthenes’s anti-Macedonian activity. In his work “Comparison of Demosthenes and Cicero” (written in the year 75 BC), Plutarch writes:  

“…Demosthenes made up a great part of the services he did for his country; for he went through the cities of Greece, and everywhere, as we have said, joined in the conflict on behalf of the Grecians, driving out the Macedonian ambassadors… And, after his return, he again devoted himself to the same public service, and continued firm to his opposition to Antipater and the Macedonians.”

Referring to Demosthenes’s own writings, he also distinguished the Macedonians from the Greeks in his attacks against Macedonia. Even in “First Philippic”, he described Philip as (quote): “…a man of Macedonia subduing Athenians, and directing the affairs of Greece…”

          Still,Demosthenes pointed out the strongest evidence for the non-Greek origin of the Macedonians and their rulers in “Second Philippic”, where related to the Macedonian king Philip II, he gave the following statement:

          “And yet in regard to Philip and his conduct they
feel not this, although he is not only no Greek and no way akin to  Greeks, but not even a barbarian of a place honourable to mention; in fact, a vile fellow of Macedon, from which a respectable slave could not be purchased formerly.”

          So, why did Demosthenes called Philip a “barbarian”? What did this word mean in the antics? Scientist are almost unanimous that the noun “barbarian” in the antics referred mainly to people who spoke a language incomprehensible to the Greeks with a dose of underestimation to their culture. Practically, all the nations that didn’t speak Greek were called “barbarians” by the Greeks, while they called themselves “xenoi”.

This explanation of the word “barbarian” today is accepted by a great number of historians. Just as an example, we will mention the writings of the author Emma Staford, who in her book “Ancient Greece, Life, Myth and Art” writes that the Greek language was basic for the Greeks in order to distinct themselves from the barbarians on whose “ba-ba-ba” language they mocked.(Ema J. Staford: “Ancient Greece, Life Myth and Art”; Great Britain, 2004, ISBN1-84483-044-6).

The American historian Dr. Synthia Sidnor Slowikowski explains the meaning of “barbarian” in the following way:

The term ‘barbarian’ came to be the accepted opposite of ‘Hellene’ in antiquity and had three chief meanings in authors: unintelligible, foreign non-Greek, referring simply to nationality, and foreign with some inmplication of inferiority.”(D-r Synthia Sydnor Slo­wikowski: “Sport and Culture in the Ancient Mace­donian Society, The Pennsylvania State University, 1988 page 30).

Finally, the ancient Greek authors themselves wrote what they mean by the term “barbarian”. A clear testimony to this gave the famous Athenian author Aristophanes.

In his drama “Birds” (written in 414 BC), related to the “barbarians”, he wrote:

“I spent a lot of time with them and taught them how to speak, even though they were barbarians”

We can clearly see here that the term “barbarians” for the people in ancient times meant “people who don’t speak Greek” – people that aren’t Greek as was the Macedonian king Philip II and the ancient Macedonians.