4/26/10 - demosthenes

In today's excerpt - Demosthenes (384-322 BC) became one of the most famous orators among the ancient Greeks— in part by learning to give his speeches with a pebble in his mouth and while running and trying to project his voice over the whistling winds and crashing waves of the Athenian seaside:

"A tortuous path had led Demosthenes to the speaker's platform. His boyhood had been lonely. A weakling with a chronic stutter, he made no friends at wrestling practice or hunting parties. His father died when Demosthenes was only seven, and from then on Demosthenes lived at home with his mother and sister. To an outside observer the boy must have appeared starved for companionship. But he had one constant friend, a familiar spirit from the past: Thucydides. The historian had been dead for some three decades, but his stirring voice lived on. Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War fired Demosthenes' imagination with tales of perilous adventures and epic battles. Unrolling his copy, he was transported back to an age when Athens blazed with glory, its navy seemingly indomitable and its leaders larger than life. Demosthenes read the whole book eight times and knew parts of it by heart.

"Demosthenes' father had left him an inheritance worth fourteen talents [a talent was worth very roughly 11,700 troy ounces in silver or $150,000], some of it tied up in a factory that manufactured swords. He therefore expected to be financially independent when he turned eighteen, an event that took place five years after Athens made its final peace with Sparta. But it proved a painful coming of age. The three guardians appointed in his father's will had stolen or squandered most of his inheritance. Of the fourteen talents in money and property left to Demosthenes, only a little over one talent remained. To rub salt in the wound, the embezzlers had concealed their depletion of the estate by enrolling young Demosthenes in the highest bracket for taxes and liturgics. At the age of seventeen he was already listed among the trierarchs [those wealthy enough to be required to fund the military trireme warships] and had made partial payment for the outfitting of a trireme. Two of the guardians were his own cousins, but Demosthenes filed a lawsuit against them, family or no.

"Two years passed before the case came to trial, and during that time Demosthenes prepared tirelessly for his day in court. Athenian juries expected citizens to speak for themselves, even if professional speechwriters had been hired to compose the speeches. Demosthenes, intensely self-critical, knew that he made a poor impression. He could do nothing about his wretched physique or habitual scowl, but he learned by listening to actors and orators that he could at least train and strengthen his voice. He began to make solitary excursions to a deserted beach and strained to make himself heard through the whistling wind and crashing waves. To overcome his speech impediment, Demosthenes would put a pebble in his mouth and work his tongue around the stone while still trying to pronounce words clearly. Away from the beach, he declaimed speeches while walking or running up steep hillsides. Skinny legs working, narrow chest heaving, his delivery eventually became smooth even as he almost gasped for breath. Demosthenes had inherited a true Athenian's competitive nature, but he turned it not toward wrestling or running but toward public speaking. [His inherited fortune proved unrecoverable, but he made a second fortune through his powerful oratory.]"


John R. Hale


Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy




Copyright 2009 by John R. Hale


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