On the Crown

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On the Crown

by Demosthenes


A speech written in Greek and delivered in Athens in August 330 bce.


Demosthenes defends his career as a champion of Athenian independence.

Events in History at the Time of the Speech

The Speech in Focus

For More Information

The Athenian orator Demosthenes (386-322 bce) is generally considered the most accomplished public speaker of the ancient Greek world. When he was seven years old his father died, leaving Demosthenes’ substantial inheritance in the hands of the boy’s guardians, who expropriated and mismanaged the money. After an intensive study of law and rhetoric, Demosthenes successfully sued his guardians when he was 20, winning back what was left of his inheritance. Entering Athenian public life in the mid-350s bce, Demosthenes became a leading political figure in Athens from the 340s until his death. He is best known for his staunch opposition to the Macedonian king Philip II, the architect of Macedon’s rise to dominance over the Greek city-states during this period. Demosthenes’ opposition can be charted in the Philippics, a series of four speeches against Philip that Demosthenes made between 351 and 341 bce, as well as in many of his other surviving speeches. Demosthenes’ call for the Greeks to resist Philip was to no avail; in 338 bce Philip shattered Greek power in the battle of Chaeronea and subjugated most of the Greek city-states. A participant in the battle, Demosthenes was accused of running away by his enemies. The charge seems unlikely to be true, since his fellow Athenians chose Demosthenes to deliver the official eulogy honoring those who died at Chaeronea. When Philip was succeeded by his son Alexander the Great in 336 bce, Demosthenes continued to call for the Greeks to resist Macedonian rule. Widely viewed as Demosthenes’ masterpiece, On the Crown summarizes the long, unsuccessful campaign to preserve Greek freedom and offers a defense of his leading role in this effort.

Events in History at the Time of the Speech

Classical Greece

In the early fifth century bce, Greece defeated two invasions by the mighty Persian Empire. The victory was celebrated by Greek poets and chronicled by the first Greek historian, Herodotus, in his Histories (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Its effect widespread, the victory accelerated the flowering of Greece’s already growing confidence and cultural vitality. Over the next 150 years, an age that modern historians refer to as Greece’s Classical period, many of Western civilization’s distinctive intellectual traditions emerged in Greek civilization, including philosophy, science, Western medicine, drama, history, and political science.

The basic political unit of Greek life in the Classical period was the polis, or independent city-state. Before the Persian Wars, Sparta was the leading city-state, but other prominent ones included Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos. Most city-states had oligarchic governments, in which an aristocratic elite held the reigns of power. The major exception was the democratic government of Athens. After the war, given its central role in the defeat of Persia, Athens challenged Sparta’s position as leader.

With its powerful navy, Athens now rose to dominate the Greek city-states along the coast of the Aegean Sea, as well as on the many islands the Greeks had settled. These city-states, after starting out as Athens’ “allies” in the struggle to preserve Greek “freedom” from Persian rule, quickly became part of an Athenian empire. In On the Crown Demosthenes assumes that his Athenian audience looks back with nostalgia and pride on the defeat of Persia and the imperial age that followed it. He plays to these sentiments in justifying his longstanding opposition to the more recent Macedonian campaign to conquer Greece. “The Athenians of that day,” he declares at one point, “did not search for a statesman or a commander who should help them to a servile security: they did not ask to live, unless they could live as free men” (Demosthenes, On the Crown, section 205).

The power of Athens’ rival, Sparta, was meanwhile land-based and reliant on an old network of alliances among mainland city-states. During the rest of the fifth century bce, the Greek world was wracked by the clash between the competing powers of Athens and Sparta, and their respective networks of alliances. The struggle culminated in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which lasted from 431 to 404 bce and was chronicled by the Greek historian Thucydides in his Peloponnesian War (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). This long and bitter conflict embroiled the entire Greek world and ended only when Sparta allied itself with Persia. Using Persian gold to fund a navy of its own, Sparta finally prevailed by sea, destroying the Athenian navy at the battle of Aegospotami in 404 bce. Athens surrendered unconditionally, its empire was dissolved, and its democracy was replaced by a pro-Spartan oligarchy.

Modern historians sometimes refer to the next several decades as the Spartan hegemony (a Greek word meaning “supreme leadership”), the period in which Sparta dominated Greece after winning the Peloponnesian War. Yet Sparta by no means went unchallenged during this period. In Athens, democratic government quickly reasserted itself, and although it was no longer an imperial power, Athens rapidly resumed a place among the major Greek city-states. From 395 to 386 bce, in the so-called Corinthian War, Athens led a Persian-backed alliance of other city-states (Corinth, Thebes, and Argos) against Sparta. Only when Persia switched sides once again did Sparta regain dominance with Persian help, in the Peace of Antalcidas (386 bce; also called the King’s Peace, because the Persian king essentially dictated its terms). Sparta soon attempted to exert more direct control, installing a garrison of soldiers in Thebes in 382 bce, effectively occupying the city.

In 379 bce, Thebes, under its gifted commanders Epaminondas and Pelopidas, liberated itself from Spartan occupation. With Athenian help, the Thebans overthrew the Spartan-backed Theban government and expelled the Spartan garrison. Thebes adopted a democratic government, and over the next several years Athens and Thebes again became allies against Sparta. At the same time, Athens founded a new network of alliances, the Second Athenian Confederacy.

In 371 bce Epaminondas and the Thebans shattered the myth of Spartan military invincibility by destroying the Spartan army at the battle of


Athenian democracy differed from modern democracy in two important ways. First, it was direct rather than representative—that is, voters generally made decisions directly, rather than through elected representatives, Second, it always excluded three significant segments of the population from public life: women, slaves, and foreign-born residents of Athens. it did include all adult male citizens of Athens, regardless of fortune or titles, but participation was limited to just this group.

The roots of Athenian democracy went back to the early sixth century bce, when Athens, like other city-states, had a form of popular Assembly (ekklesia). However, Athenian democracy’s other basic institutions date from 508 bce, when the Athenian reformer Cleisthenes completely reorganized Athens’ political structure. Cleisthenes divided Attica into 139 demoi, or demes, geographical districts whose populations were distributed among ten phylai, or tribes. He also established a governing council of 500—the boule—made up of 50 citizens chosen by lot from each of the 10 tribes, with a certain number from each deme. There was a committee in charge of the boule that had the right to summons the Assembly.

In 461 bce the democratic politician Ephialtes and his protégé Pericles introduced further changes that brought Athenian democracy to its final form. Ephialtes stripped an earlier, aristocratic government body—the Council of Areopagus —of various political powers. Pericles (c. 495-429 bce), who dominated Athenian politics from the 460s until his death in 429 BCE, introduced another important innovation: paying the citizens who served on the all-important juries called dikasteria. Only male citizens over 30 could serve as jurors. Juries for each case were chosen by lot from a pool of perhaps 6,000 men and varied in size, depending on the nature of the case Historians believe that Demosthenes delivered his speech On the Crown to a jury of at least 501 Athenian citizens.

Leuctra. As the aftermath of the battle made clear, Leuctra decisively ended the Spartan hegemony. Sparta never recovered its old position of dominance. Instead, Thebes now enjoyed its own period of ascendancy under the capable leadership of Epaminondas. However, the Theban alliance with Athens soon fell apart, as Athens and Sparta now found common cause against Thebes. The Theban hegemony ended after Epaminondas’ death in the inconclusive battle of Mantinea in 362 bce.

By about 360 bce, mutual jealousy had ensured that whatever city-state rose to prominence would immediately be targeted by an alliance of the others. Moreover, a century of constant warfare had left the most powerful Greek city-states exhausted. Sparta was crippled, while Thebes and Athens both headed weak confederacies in which they were strongly disliked by their supposed allies. Into this situation stepped Philip II on his ascension to the throne of Macedon in 359 bce. “The disposition of the Greeks towards one another,” Demosthenes observes of Philip in On the Crown, “was already vicious and quarrelsome; and he made it worse” (On the Crown, section 61).

The rise of Macedon

The northern kingdom of Macedon had no city-states. It was ruled by kings whose legitimacy came partly from descent and partly from acceptance by a circle of powerful nobles. Though Greek in ethnicity, the Macedonians were remote from the vibrant and sophisticated city-states further south. This led most of their Greeks to look down on the Macedonians as rustic near-barbarians. Yet the kings and nobles of Macedon liked to see themselves as part of the Greek cultural mainstream. The Macedonian kings imported Greek culture to their capital of Pella, and the kingdom’s aristocrats took part in such all-Greek institutions as the Olympic Games.

Philip II was the younger brother of the Macedonian king Perdiccas. He had spent his formative years in Thebes, during the height of the Theban hegemony, as a hostage so the Macedonians would cooperate with Theban policy. In Thebes, he had a celebrated tutor in Greek political and military affairs—the renowned Epaminondas. When King Perdiccas was killed in battle in 359 bce, Philip, still in his twenties, took over as regent for his infant nephew, and then managed to assume the throne for himself.


Modern historians have defined the age in which Demosthenes lived as one of transition between the Classical and Hellenistic periods in Greek civilization, Greece’s Classical period began with its repulsion of two successive invasions by the Persian Empire in 490 and 480 bce. It ended with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 bce and the spread of Greek (“Hellenistic”) culture in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. During the Classical period, the basic Greek political unit was the independent city-state, or polis (pl polies). In the Hellenistic period, the basic political unit would be the larger kingdom. By subjugating the Greek city-states, Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon (c. 382-336 bce), set the stage for the establishment of the larger kingdoms that characterized the Hellenistic period. Demosthenes, Philip’s great Athenian opponent, has been seen by posterity as the determined defender of the independent city-state in this losing battle. His life spanned the twilight of the Classical period.

Macedon hardly seemed to be in a promising position when Philip became regent; it was under threat from hostile peoples to the north, such as the Illyrians (against whom Perdiccas had been killed fighting). But Philip paid off these enemies, gaining time to build up a formidable army. He then marched out and defeated them, starting in 358 bce. As soon as he could, Philip also went on the offensive against Athens for control of Thrace, the area directly east of Macedon. Thrace’s biggest prize was the strategically vital city of Amphipolis, which had long been coveted by Athens in its drive to become an empire. At the time, Athens was distracted by the so-called Social War (357-355 bce), in which its allies revolted against Athenian domination. In 357 bce Philip captured Amphipolis, although the Athenians continued to contest control of the city.

While engaged in a decade-long struggle with Athens over Amphipolis, Philip seized another opportunity to involve himself in Greek affairs. The Third Sacred War (355-346 bce) pitted Thebes and the allied area of Thessaly (in central Greece) against Phocis, an Athenian ally. Having suffered several defeats by the Phocians in the early years of the war, Thebes and Thessaly invited Philip to intervene on their behalf. Philip defeated Phocis, but by the end of the war he controlled Thessaly and appeared poised to threaten nearby Thebes as well. At the same time (346 bce) Philip wrested Amphipolis from Athenian control once and for all. His greatly expanded territory now stretched north to the Danube River, east to Thrace, and southward well into central Greece itself, including Thessaly.

Athenian policy toward Philip was cautious, even after the loss of Amphipolis and other territory. The famous orator Isocrates (436-338 bce) counseled that the real enemy was Persia and that Philip offered the best hope of unifying Greece against it. Demosthenes disagreed. Starting with his first Philippic, probably delivered in 351 bce, he had argued instead that Philip was the greater threat: “Surely it is obvious that he will not stop, unless someone stops him,” Demosthenes had insisted then (Demosthenes, First Philippic, section 43). To stop Philip, Demosthenes proposed a detailed plan for strong military action, but the Assembly had voted it down, as it would continue to do with his other, similar proposals.

In 349 bce Demosthenes delivered three more speeches against Philip called the Olynthiacs. They take their name from the northern Greek city of Olynthus, not far from Amphipolis, which requested a formal alliance with Athens to defend against Philip’s aggression. Demosthenes advised the Athenians to send two strong forces to aid the Olynthians and at the same time to attack Philip. His advice was only partly heeded: Athens sent a group of mercenaries (not citizens, as Demosthenes had demanded) to defend Olynthus, and to little avail. The next year Philip captured Olynthus, shocking the Athenians by selling its inhabitants into slavery and destroying the city itself.

In 346 bce Demosthenes represented Athens in negotiations with Philip that resulted in the Peace of Philocrates (346-340 bce). While the peace lasted, the Macedonian king and Athens engaged in further diplomatic maneuvers. Each side sought to win allies among the remaining independent city-states for the coming struggle,


Whether made in the Assembly, the Council of 500, or the juries, every important public decision in Athens was decided by a vote. This meant that skill in rhetoric, or the art of oratory (public speaking), became highly prized in Athenian life. The goal of rhetoric was persuasion, and by the fourth century it had become a highly technical area of knowledge, with complex rules and sophisticated methods for swaying the opinions of listeners. Despite all the legal cases in Athenian public life, Athens had no lawyers at this time. Private individuals were expected to handle their own legal business and make their own speeches. However, a professional rhetorician might be hired to write the speech. Demosthenes made his living writing speeches for others until the mid-350s bce, when he began delivering his own speeches, thus launching his career in democratic politics. Athenian trials were overseen by the city’s main public magistrates (archons), who acted merely as administrators, not as judges, The jurors made all the decisions and did all the interpreting of the law (which modern courts leave to judges). Thus, emotional appeals generally carried more weight than technical legal arguments.

Athens lacked anything resembling a public prosecutor. All legal actions had to be brought by private individuals against other private individuals. When laws were broken, the offenders thus went unpunished unless a private citizen took them to court. By the same token, private individuals could sue political leaders for their public actions. In the fourth century bce, the most common charge on which such political lawsuits were based was that of making an “unconstitutional proposal,” This charge formed the im-mediate context of the trial in which Demosthenes delivered his speech On the Crown, although the accused party was not Demosthenes but his political ally Ctesiphon,

which now appeared inevitable. Demosthenes, meanwhile, continued to denounce Philip at home.

In 340 bce Philip ended the diplomatic stalemate by attacking and besieging Perinthus and Byzantium, two important ports that Athens relied on for regular shipments of grain from the Black Sea region. The Athenian navy successfully defended both ports, however. The following year Philip marched south into Greece itself, capturing the city of Amphissa in 338 bce. Led by Demosthenes, Athens marshaled the other city-states, including Thebes. In 338 bce the two sides met in battle at Chaeronea, north of Thebes.

As Demosthenes points out in On the Crown, the battle of Chaeronea was closely fought, and Philip’s victory was anything but a foregone conclusion. But in the end Philip won, and his victory shattered the remaining resistance. Philip now controlled most of Greece. Yet he wisely left the Greeks alone for the moment—he had made his point, and if he wished, could always impose his will militarily. Instead, he began preparations for a major invasion of Persia.

The proposal that Demosthenes be awarded a crown

Two years after Philip’s victory at Chaeronea, in 336 bce, Demosthenes’ politicalally Ctesiphon proposed that the Council of 500 put a motion before the Assembly that, if passed, would award Demosthenes a golden crown (a merit award that was given in Athens) in recognition of his service to the Athenian people. The Council approved the proposal. However, before it could be put to a final vote in the Assembly, Demosthenes’ long-time rival Aeschines charged Ctesiphon with making an “unconstitutional proposal” in suggesting that Demosthenes be awarded the crown. Such a charge was a common way of attacking a political opponent; if convicted, Ctesiphon would be liable to a sentence of exile.

Several times in the late 340s bce Demosthenes had charged Aeschines, also a prominent Athenian orator and politician, with promoting Philip’s plans to dominate the Greek world and with accepting bribes from Philip. Both men had together represented Athens in negotiations with Philip, almost always disagreeing sharply over the best course of action. By 336 bce, when Ctesiphon made his proposal about Demosthenes’ crown, Philip’s control appeared less burdensome to most Greeks than Demosthenes had predicted. Accordingly, Aeschines thought the time was ripe to strike at Demosthenes through Ctesiphon. Yet just a few weeks after Aeschines made his accusation against Ctesiphon, Philip was dead, assassinated by a disgruntled Macedonian. As the Greek world was thrown into turmoil once again, Aeschines decided to wait and see how things turned out.

Philip’s son Alexander (356-323 bce), a boy barely out of his teens and an unknown quantity to the Greeks, became king of Macedon. Rebellions immediately broke out in the Greek city-states, but Alexander the Great turned out to be even more formidable an opponent than his father. He made a lightning march south into Greece with his army and intimidated the city-states into submission. However, when rumors of Alexander’s death reached Greece in 335 bce, Thebes revolted—only to be crushed by Alexander, who swiftly appeared with his army and made an example of Thebes by utterly destroying the city. Demosthenes had aided the rebels and narrowly escaped being executed for it.

Alexander now carried out his father’s planned campaign against Persia. Leading an invasion force eastward, he defeated the Persian king Darius III twice, at Issus in 333 bce and at Gaugamela in 331 bce. Assuming the title “king of Persia” as well as “king of the Greeks,” Alexander continued his campaign of conquest by marching further east. During all this time, Aeschines had held back from prosecuting his case against Ctesiphon and, by extension, Demosthenes. For his part, Demosthenes had counted on Persia to defeat Alexander. However, his hope of a Persian victory was now permanently dashed. With Persia’s final defeat at Gaugamela, Aeschines judged that Demosthenes was once more vulnerable to attack, and shortly after the battle he again took up the case. By this time the Athenian assembly had awarded Demosthenes the crown, but this did not stop Aeschines from resuming the attack.

Aeschines attacks Demosthenes

In his speech Against Ctesiphon, delivered (historians believe) to a jury of at least 501 Athenian citizens in the summer of 330 bce, Aeschines summarized Demosthenes’ career in the most unfavorable light possible. His main purpose was to demonstrate that Demosthenes did not deserve the award of the crown, and in order to do so, he accused Demosthenes of numerous offenses against Athenian law, most seriously, the offense of taking bribes from Philip. In fact, central to both sides of the case was the argument by each man (Aeschines and Demosthenes) that his opponent had advanced Macedonian interests and accepted bribes from Philip.

Aeschines also made two technical charges against Ctesiphon: 1) Ctesiphon proposed that the city honor Demosthenes with a crown even though the city had not yet put Demosthenes through a final review or accounting of his services; 2) According to law, the crown needed to be awarded in the Senate or the Assembly, but, as Ctesiphon wanted, it had been awarded to Demosthenes in Athens’ main theater. Both of these charges were probably true. But more important in the end was whether a jury would convict Ctesiphon for such minor infractions, when everyone in Athens knew that Demosthenes was the real target in the whole case. In August, as a witness for the defense, Demosthenes delivered a response to Aeschines’ accusations.

The Speech in Focus

Contents summary

Demosthenes’ response answers all the major points made by Aeschines’ case Against Ctesiphon, but not in the order in which Aeschines presented them. In his accusations, Aeschines had made several arguments based on legal technicalities before criticizing Demosthenes’ overall career. Demosthenes says at the outset that in reply he will follow his own order. This allows him to remind the jurors about his long and distinguished public service before he briefly addresses the legal technicalities that his side is accused of violating. Both sides know the main issue is Demosthenes’ record of service, not these legal technicalities.

Throughout the speech, Demosthenes addresses his audience as if it comprised the entire people of Athens, rather than a relatively small body of jurors. The speech is divided into 324 sections, each taking about a third of a page in most modern translations. In addition, Demosthenes read into evidence some 38 documents during the course of the speech, which do not appear to have survived. Modern scholars agree that the documents appearing in the surviving manuscripts were all forged later.

In his attack on Demosthenes, Aeschines broke the orator’s career down into four periods: 1) before 346 bce; 2) from 346 to 340 bce; 3) from 340 to the battle of Chaeronea in 338 bce; 4) after 338 bce. Demosthenes addresses the first three periods in turn. He essentially passes over events after the battle of Chaeronea. These three parts constitute the longest portions of the speech, and they can be seen as providing its chronological backbone. Between them he more briefly addresses other subjects outside this time-ordered framework. Often through the speech he also shifts between narrative and argument, at the same time interspersing flights of stirring rhetoric with passages of more matter-of-fact language.

A brief introduction reminds the jurors of their oaths and of the importance of upholding the laws. Demosthenes then protests Aeschines’ charges against his private life (as distinct from those against his public career), urging the jurors to rely on their own personal knowledge about Demosthenes rather than believe Aeschines’ “abusive aspersion” (On the Crown, section 10).

The next few sections introduce Demosthenes’ discussion of his public career. Here he takes advantage of his rival’s long delay in bringing the case to trial, and of the fact that Aeschines has brought charges not against Demosthenes himself, but only against Ctesiphon:

If he ever saw me committing crimes against the commonwealth, especially such frightful crimes as he described just now so dramatically, his duty was to avail himself of the legal penalties as soon as they were committed, impeaching me, and so putting me on trial before the people.… Had he so acted… his denunciations would have been consistent with his conduct; but in fact he has deserted the path of right and justice… and then, after a long interval, he… stands on a false pretence, denouncing me, but indicting Ctesiphon.

(On the Crown, section 15)

“It is a fair inference,” Demosthenes continues, “that all his accusations are equally dishonest and untruthful” (On the Crown, section 17).

Demosthenes proceeds to discuss the first phase of his career, from the mid-350s to 346 bce. This discussion centers on the Third Sacred War (355-46 bce; see above), in which Philip intervened on the side of Thebes against Athens’ ally, Phocis. Here as elsewhere, Demosthenes accuses Aeschines of accepting bribes from Philip in order to manipulate Athenian public opinion and thus influence Athenian policy towards Macedon. Characterizing Aeschines as a crooked and scheming agent of Macedonian interests right up to the time of the trial, Demosthenes derides him as “Philip’s hireling of yesterday, and Alexander’s hireling of today” (On the Crown, section 52).

After a brief consideration of the actual indictment against Ctesiphon, that the proposal to award Demosthenes the crown was illegal, Demosthenes moves on to the second phase of his public life (346-340 bce). He stresses that numerous cities (such as Perinthus and Byzantium, the ports that Athens defended against Philip in 340 bce) voted to award ceremonial


As Aeschines knew, Demosthenes regarded the Athenian alliance with Thebes as one of his proudest: achievements. In his speech Against Ctesiphon Aeschines attempts to deny credit to Demosthenes for persuading Athens to make the alliance, arguing that the need for it had been plain to all:

You [the Athenians] went out and were on the point of marching into Thebes under arms, horse, and foot, before Demosthenes had moved one single syllable about an alliance. What brought you into Thebes was the crisis and fear and need of an alliance, not Demosthenes.

(Against Ctesiphon, sections 140-141)

Compare Demosthenes’ answering claims in On the Crown, where he argues that he alone persuaded the Athenians of the need for an alliance:

The call of the crisis on that momentous day was… for the man who… had rightly fathomed the purposes and the desires of Philip; for anyone who had not grasped those purposes… was not the man to appreciate the needs of the hour… On that day, then, the call was manifestly for me. I came forward and addressed you… I, alone among your orators and politicians, did not desert the post of patriotism in the hour of peril.

(On the Crown, sections 172-173)

crowns to Athens in honor of its role in defending them. Demosthenes himself takes credit for these awards: “Moreover all know that you have awarded crowns to many politicians; but no one can name any man—I mean any statesman or orator—except me, by whose exertions the city itself has been crowned” (On the Crown, section 94). He also reminds the jurors of a law that he successfully proposed under which the wealthy were made to pay more of the expenses for the Athenian navy, relieving the tax burden on the poor.

In several subsequent passages, Demosthenes refutes two minor charges against Ctesiphon, attacks Aeschines’ own character and career, and charges him with deliberately provoking Philip’s attack on Amphissa in 339-338 bce. Aeschines, Demosthenes maintains, accused the Amphissans of cultivating sacred ground, a religious offense that allowed Philip to invade under the pretext of defending Greek religious law. Indeed, Demosthenes continues, Philip secretly paid Aeschines to make the false charge.

Demosthenes then reminds the jurors of his leadership in rallying Thebes and the other city-states to Athens’ side after the fall of Amphissa. He briefly recreates for the jurors the speech he had earlier delivered to the Assembly, persuading them to send a diplomatic mission to Thebes with himself as main delegate.

Refusing to accept blame for the defeat at Chaeronea, Demosthenes challenges Aeschines to say what path Athens could have chosen that would have led to a better outcome:

In those days you sat speechless at every assembly; I came forward and spoke. You had nothing to say then; very well,—show us our duty now. Tell me what plan I ought to have discovered. Tell me what favourable opportunity was lost to the state by my default.... You must not accuse me of crime because Philip happened to win the battle; for the event was in God’s hands, not mine. Show me that I did not adopt, as far as human calculation could go, all the measures that were practicable, or that I did not carry them out with honesty and diligence.... Prove that, and then denounce me; but not till then.

(On the Crown, sections 191-194)

Demosthenes then returns to his account of the events leading up to and including the battle of Chaeronea itself, praising the fighting prowess of the Athenians and their allies. In particular, Demosthenes argues, Athens was better off with allies than without them. He claims credit for negotiating Athens’ main alliance against Philip, that with Thebes, as well as many other similar ones.

Demosthenes then renews his personal attack on Aeschines by comparing his own career with his rival’s. He characterizes the man’s family background as squalid, his education as nonexistent, his personal life as morally corrupt, his private career as trivial, his public career as selfserving, and his political stature as undistinguished. Aeschines has accused Demosthenes of artfulness at public speaking, and Demosthenes admits it, but he also asserts that his artfulness has always been used to serve the public interest. He reminds the jurors that it was he who was chosen, not Aeschines, to deliver the official eulogy of those killed in battle at Chaeronea. Calling Aeschines and his cronies “profligates, sycophants, fiends incarnate,” Demosthenes accuses them of having “pledged away their liberty in their cups, first to Philip, now to Alexander” (On the Crown, section 296).

In conclusion Demosthenes assails Aeschines with a series of rhetorical questions, demanding to know what accomplishments he has achieved, what public awards he has won, what policies of his have been put in place, what alliances he has created, what successful projects he has ever undertaken. Calling Aeschines an “incorrigible knave,” Demosthenes further accuses him of refusing to contribute financially to Athens’ defense even though he had inherited a fortune from his father-in-law (On the Crown, section 312). Aeschines has compared Demosthenes unfavorably with Athens’ great leaders of the past. In response, Demosthenes accepts the comparison (with feigned modesty), but pointedly asserts that the jurors should really compare him not with the great heroes of another age, but with politicians of his own age—and especially with Aeschines and his friends. “I was powerless, I admit,” he says, “but I was still the better patriot” (On the Crown, section 320). In a final prayer, Demosthenes hopes that the gods “implant even in them [his opponents] a better purpose and a better spirit” and “to us who remain grant speedy deliverance from the terrors that hang over our heads, and a salvation that may never fail” (On the Crown, section 324).

Democracy and the meaning of freedom

Near the end of On the Crown, Demosthenes repeats the now familiar accusation that, by aiding Philip, his opponent has betrayed the Greek ideal of freedom (eleutherid). Aeschines and his cronies, the orator charges, “have overthrown for ever that freedom and independence which to the Greeks of an earlier age were the very standard and canon of prosperity” (On the Crown, section 296). Demosthenes portrays himself, in contrast, as a “well-meaning citizen,” which he defines as one who has “the honor and ascendancy of his country [polis]” as the “constant aim of his policy” (On the Crown, section 321).

The ideals of freedom and citizenship reflected in such passages are evidenced repeatedly in Greek history over the course of the Classical period. Yet to the modern sensibility at least, these ideals contain an element of contradiction, even paradox. Greek writers from Herodotus onward, for example, lauded the love of freedom that fired the Greek spirit of resistance to the Persian invasions in the early fifth century bce. However, by the same token, their appetite for “honor and ascendancy” led the Greek city-states into endless warfare, leaving them exhausted and vulnerable by the time of Philip II. Furthermore, no polis could gain “honor and ascendancy” except at the expense of the “freedom and independence” of others. “Freedom” thus seems to have included the freedom of the powerful to oppress the less powerful.

In the ancient Greek world, modem scholars have suggested, concepts such as “freedom and independence” applied only to one’s own polis—and indeed, only to a certain group (in Athens, adult males who were citizens) within the polis. In defending “freedom and independence,” therefore, Demosthenes exalts Athens’ right to dominate other city-states and, implicitly at least, upholds the exclusion of women, slaves, and others from basic civil rights.

Demosthenes represents the conventional view of such matters in the Greek world. That view did not go unquestioned. For example, Demosthenes’ older contemporary Isocrates (see above) called for the Greek city-states to unify against a common enemy, Persia. Even more unusually, a fifthcentury bce Athenian writer named Antiphon (not to be confused with the better-known orator of the same name) had suggested that all people, Greek or not, were equal and deserved the same rights. Yet in the end the more conventional “polis-based” view of freedom that Demosthenes glorifies in On the Crown carried the day. As events had already made clear, however, it also carried the seeds of its own destruction at the hands of Philip II.

Sources and literary context

In general, Demosthenes’ main source for On the Crown was his own career as Philip II’s leading adversary in the Greek world. In the more immediate context, Demosthenes took many of his cues from Aeschines’ speech Against Ctesiphon, the rebuttal of which was Demosthenes’ foremost aim in delivering his speech.

Aeschines had accused Demosthenes of a number of crimes, including bribery, the same charge that Demosthenes repeatedly hurls against Aeschines. For example, he had argued that Demosthenes’ push for an alliance against Philip between Athens and Thebes was motivated solely by hunger for bribes. At the same time, Aeschines had also portrayed Philip in sympathetic terms:Philip did not despise the Greeks, and he was well aware (for he was not without understanding) that he was about to contend in a little fraction of a day for all that he possessed; for that reason he wished to make peace, and was on the point of sending envoys. The officials at Thebes also were frightened at the impending danger—naturally, for they had no run-away orator and deserter to advise them.… Now when Demosthenes saw that such was the situation, suspecting that the Boeotarchs [Theban officials] were about to conclude a separate peace and get gold from Philip without his being in it, and thinking that life was not worth living if he was to be left out of any act of bribery, he jumped up in the assembly.…

(Aeschines, sections 148-49)


Demosthenes’ brilliance as a speaker gave rise to many colorful stories about him that may or may not be based on fact Most famous, perhaps, is the description of how he overcame a speech defect as a young man in order to prevail in court. Here the first century CE biographer Ptutarch describes Demosthenes’ methods:

He corrected his lisp and his indistinct articulation by holding pebbles in his mouth while he recited long speeches, and he strengthened his voice by running or walking uphill discoursing as he went, and by reciting speeches or verses in a single breath. Besides this he kept a large mirror in his house and would stand in front of it while he went through his exercises in declamation.

(Plutarch, p, 197)

Demosthenes’ death was no less dramatic than his life. In 322 bce, eight years after delivering On the Crown and shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, Demosthenes took part in a failed Athenian revolt against Macedonian rule. Captured Afterward by Macedonian soldiers, Demosthenes asked to be allowed to write a fetter to his family. He Killed himself by biting down on his pen, which he had earlier filled with poison instead of ink;

Only one other complete set of paired legal speeches (also by Demosthenes and Aeschines) survives from the Classical period, and so both sets constitute an important source of knowledge for modem scholars. Such speeches were customarily revised for publication. What form such publication took is uncertain, just as it is uncertain how closely the version that we have resembles the speech that Demosthenes actually gave.

The trial took place in a single day, and Demosthenes’ rebuttal followed Aeschines’ speech only a few minutes later. This legal setting must be kept in mind when assessing both speeches’ literary and historical content. For example, the name-calling and personal invective in which both orators freely indulge was expected (and no doubt enjoyed) by the Athenian jurors. In addition, like many lawyers today, both speakers are more concerned with winning their cases than with truth or accuracy. As a consequence, while the speeches’ value to modern historians is high, scholars have also noted the difficulty of ascertaining how reliable either orator’s version of events actually is. Indeed, it has been observed that not only do Demosthenes’ and Aeschines’ accounts differ from each other in these two speeches, but in them both orators also contradict accounts of the same events that they give in other speeches. The rhetorical context demanded persuasion over accuracy, and rewarded gripping and dramatic claims over less colorful but more truthful ones.

Reception and impact

Owing to Demosthenes’ supremely effective rhetoric in On the Crown, Aeschines lost his case against Ctesiphon, failing even to win the one-fifth of the votes necessary to prevent a fine for wrongful prosecution under Athenian law. Soon after the trial he left Athens, withdrawing to the Greek island of Rhodes, where he taught rhetoric. Shortly after Demosthenes’ death, commentators were hailing him as the greatest orator of the ancient world and On the Crown as his greatest speech. The leading Roman authority on rhetoric, Quintilian (c. 30-c. 100 ce), drew most heavily from On the Crown when illustrating Demosthenes’ techniques in his book Training in Oratory (c. 90 ce).

As a masterful orator and defender of freedom, Demosthenes is often compared with the Roman politician and author Cicero (106-43 bce), who idolized his Greek predecessor. The two were paired by the biographer Plutarch (c. 50-c. 120 ce) in his parallel lives of illustrious Greeks and Romans. Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that “just as amongst the Attic [Athenian] orators the first place is awarded to Demosthenes… so at Rome, Cicero far out-stripped the other speakers of his day” (Tacitus in Sharrock & Ash, p. 126).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Aeschines. “Against Ctesiphon.” In The Speeches of Aeschines. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1919.

Boardman, John, et al. The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Demosthenes. First Philippic. In Olynthiacs; Minor Public Speeches; Speech Against Leptines. Loeb Series. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.

_____. On the Crown. In Demosthenes II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Trans. J. A. Crook. Oxford: Blackweli, 1991.

Plutarch. The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch. Trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert. Harmonds-worth: Penguin, 1973.

Sharrock, Alison, and Rhiannon Ash. Fifty Key Classical Authors. London: Routledge, 2002.

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