Who Was Demosthenes: The Greatest Orator of Ancient Athens?

Demosthenes was considered to be one of the greatest orators of ancient Athens. He was known for his moving speeches calling the citizens of Athens to resist the growing power of Philip of Macedon. His famous speeches against the tyrant of the north, called “The Philippics,” are a model of mastery in oratory. 

A Long Road Towards Mastery
In falling Athens, Demosthenes was the last great statesman. By the end of his life, Athens had become politically marginalized for ages. Yet, his name became an example of a great orator, speaker, and politician. 

For the Athenians of his time, he was an outstanding orator. For us, however, his path to oratorical mastery is even more inspiring than his speeches.

Demosthenes was born with a speech impediment. Sickly as he was, he was the last person to be considered a great orator or politician material. But as often happens in such situations, life forced him to fight for himself.

At the age of 7, he became an orphan. He was looked after by foster parents, but when he turned 18, he realized that they had stripped him of all his wealth. So he decided to seek justice in court.

In the Athenian courts, anyone could defend their rights. However, one could only defend himself independently, without intermediaries or lawyers. So how was this fragile, ridiculous, speech-impaired young man supposed to fight others with words?

To this day, we do not know exactly what his speech impediment was. There are speculations that it was related to the arrangement of his mouth, that he had a lisp, or that his speech was extremely slurred. Some theories say he stuttered. Either way, we know that Demosthenes had severe problems in his youth.

And yet, he also had ideas and determination to fight all of these problems. As a result, his journey toward overcoming his impediments became legendary. 

To amplify his voice, Demosthenes gave speeches on the seashore, shouting over the sound of the waves. This way, he managed to strengthen his diaphragm.  

To reduce his speech impediment, he practiced his speeches with stones in his mouth. He spoke while running, which strengthened his breathing, lungs, and the resonance of his voice.

One legend says he entered a cave for several months to practice his speeches intensively. But to force himself to sit there for a long time and practice, he shaved off half of his hair. Thus, the fear of being ridiculed would keep him in such solitude for a long time.

He studied the book “The Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides many times. His favorite fragments were the commanders’ speeches. He even read and analyzed some passages for so long that he learned them by heart.

From Orator to Politician

Demosthenes trained persistently and methodically. The results of his hard work were spectacular. He won the case against his legal guardians, although he never recovered his wealth. 

His success in the lawsuit caught the attention of many Athenians. His speeches were so good that many began to ask him to write speeches for them. That’s how he got a job as a logographer – someone who writes speeches for citizens going to court. He worked in this profession for several years before devoting himself to political activity.

Fearing the growing power of Macedonia, he began to study military technology. At the beginning of his political career, he appealed for the expansion and modernization of the Athenian naval fleet. However, his technical, detailed analysis did not convince the citizens of Athens.

So what did Demosthenes do? 

He decided to dive even deeper into the topic. He became a ship captain. He sailed on the seas for a few years. Only then he decided to renew his appeals to the Athenian public. 

But he didn’t refer to technical details anymore. He didn’t flood his audience with a waterfall of details no one understood. Instead, he called upon his personal experiences, on which he based multiple statements. Only then did the audience understand the message Demosthenes was trying to convey. His appeals were finally put into practice. 

This is an important lesson for us: when explaining our argumentation, let’s avoid resorting to overly complicated details. Let’s not be afraid to share our personal experiences, either. After all, the essence of storytelling is talking about personal experiences and sharing our personal stories.

The Famous Speeches 

Demosthenes quickly became known throughout the Greek world for his famous speeches, called the Philippics – because they referred to the greatest enemy of Athens, Philip II of Macedon. Here is an excerpt from one of them:

“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. 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 defense 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.” – The Public Orations of Demosthenes, translated by Arthur Wallace Pickard.

However, Philip II is not the only adversary in Demosthenes’ speeches. The absolute gems are the duels with another Greek politician, Aeschines, who was in favor of peace with Macedonia. Here is an excerpt:

“For what stronger testimony can I produce, Aeschines, to prove how terrible your work as an ambassador has been than your own testimony against yourself? For when you thought it necessary to involve in so great and dreadful a calamity, one who wished to reveal some of your actions as ambassador, it is plain that you expected your own punishment to be a terrible one if your countrymen learned what you had done.” – The Public Orations of Demosthenes, translated by Arthur Wallace Pickard.

The life of Demosthenes came to an end in dramatic circumstances. The Greek world was shrouded in conflict. Demosthenes, surrounded by enemies in one of the temples, knew that his end was near.

He asked the soldiers who came for him to give him a moment to write a farewell letter to his loved ones. However, he hid poison in his writing tools. To avoid being captured, he poisoned himself. He died at the age of 62 in 322 BC.

So, what lessons can we learn from Demosthenes to become better orators?

1. Be a conscious speaker. 

Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Being aware of this is the beginning of growth.

2. Be persistent in your hard work. 

Work on your weaknesses persistently and regularly. Every weakness can be reduced or overcome. Some can even become your greatest assets with enough practice. The seemingly most difficult element of our communication to change – our voice – can also be modified. Professionally training your speech over months or years can truly bring outstanding results.

3. The art of speaking is powerful 

Words can be more powerful than an entire army. Understand their power and work on your communication skills. At the beginning of a career, it is necessary to niche down. But to rise to the highest levels, all you need are excellent leadership and communication skills.