The Oration on the Crown

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Author: Demosthenes  | Date: 330 BC

INTRODUCTION

To the Oration on the Crown

THE Oration on the Crown is justly considered the greatest speech ever made by Demosthenes, and if Demosthenes is the first of orators, it is the greatest speech ever delivered by man. It certainly is the most interesting of the extant orations of the Athenian statesman. First of all, it was the last speech he made at Athens, and he spoke at a time when the liberties of Greece had been irreparably lost by the defeat on the field of Chaeronea. The effect of it was to prove that the patriotic spirit of independence still survived in the hearts of the Athenians, and that the glory of Demosthenes, amid the downfall of Athenian ascendancy, remained undimmed by the aspersions of the orator’s enemies. It is moreover most interesting because of its autobiographical character. When great and good men speak of their own lives and their own motives they always find attentive readers. Hence the apology of Socrates, the letters of Cicero, the Confessions of Augustine, the Vita Nuova of Dante, even the highly colored pages of Rousseau, and the Essays of Montaigne, not to speak of Pepys’s Diary, possess a special fascination, because they reveal the intimate thoughts and character of exceptional men, and admit the reader to the closest personal acquaintance with the writers. The egotism of Demosthenes in this famous speech is quite unreserved, but it is equally excusable, in that it is dictated by the necessity of self-vindication, and while it adds a vivid charm to his arguments, it at once claims the sympathy of the modern reader.

The circumstances under which this oration was delivered are as follows.

The battle of Chaeronea was in some sense the result of the policy of Demosthenes. Philip of Macedon in his invasion of Greece had partisans at Thebes, as well as at Athens, and when Thebes seemed to waver in its opposition to the invader after the capture of Elataea by Philip, Demosthenes proposed an embassy to Thebes to secure the coalition of Theban and Athenian forces in giving battle to the invader. The embassy, led by Demosthenes, was successful. The united armies marched to meet Philip, and a battle was fought and lost by the Greeks at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. A little time afterwards Ctesiphon (who appears for the first and last time in history on this occasion) proposed in the council that a crown of gold, i.e., of olive leaves entwined in gold, the usual decoration given to political or military merit at Athens, should be offered to Demosthenes as an acknowledgment of his patriotic services to the republic. His services had not been merely those of an orator whose speeches had for years alternately warned and encouraged the people against the wiles and machinations of Philip of Macedon. For instance, when the news of Chaeronea reached Athens wild consternation spread over Attica. It was rumored that the conqueror was preparing to march upon Athens and every preparation was made to resist him. To Demosthenes was intrusted the repairs of the fortifications, and upon this work he expended three talents of his private fortune, in addition to the grant made from the public treasury. Although Philip spared the territory of the Athenians, restored their prisoners without ransom, buried their dead on the field, and sent their bones to Athens, this was merely through reverence for that city as "the eye of Greece," the home of letters and arts. His acts anticipated the profession made by his son, Alexander the Great, that he would prove himself the "Shield of Hellas." The credit and influence of Demosthenes seemed, however, to have crumbled into the dust, and the motion of Ctesiphon was doubtless intended to put the confidence of the people to the test, and give the orator, if necessary, an opportunity of self-vindication. Events proved that the proceeding of Ctesiphon was a wise one. The Macedonian party in Athens had now collected all their forces to overthrow the statesman who had counselled that alliance with Thebes, which had been proved illusory by the disaster at Chaeronea, and had terrified his fellow-countrymen with prophecies of Philip’s vengeance on Athens, prophecies which the moderation of the victorious king had proved false. The Athenian assembly took a nobler view of the matter, and awarded the crown, but immediately afterwards Aeschines, the rival of Demosthenes, a man charged by this latter with receiving bribes from Philip, opened the attack by indicting Ctesiphon as the author of an illegal measure. Ctesiphon’s measure, passed in the shape of a decree by the council, or upper legislative body, and the assembly ordered, "that Demosthenes should be presented with a golden crown, and that a proclamation should be made in the theatre, at the great Dionysian festival, at the performance of the new tragedies, announcing that Demosthenes was rewarded by the people with a golden crown for his integrity, for the goodness which he had invariably displayed towards all the Greeks and towards the people of Athens, and also for his magnanimity, and because he had ever, both by word and deed, promoted the interests of the people, and been zealous to do all the good in his power."

Aeschines, the orator who challenged this decree, was at that period considered the second orator in Greece. He was the leader of the Macedonian party, and the deadly enemy of Demosthenes. He was moved against his rival by bitter feelings of jealousy and revenge. The indictment was formally drawn up against Ctesiphon, but no one doubted that the real object of the attack was Demosthenes. Ctesiphon was accordingly accused of having violated Athenian law in three points by the wording of his decree. First, because it was unlawful to make false allegations in such a state document as the decree. Secondly, because it was unlawful to confer a crown to a state official who had not yet rendered a report of his term of office; and Demosthenes was both guardian of the walls, and a treasurer of the theoric fund, the public contributions to civic and national spectacles. Thirdly, because it was unlawful to proclaim the honor of a crown at the Dionysian festival, at the performance of the new tragedies; the law being, that if the council gave a crown, it should be published in the bouleterion or council hall, if the people, in the Pnyx, at the popular assembly.

It will be seen that the gist of the indictment lies in the first of these points, viz.: in the inquiry, whether the high character and public services credited by Ctesiphon to Demosthenes were matter of fact or no. The indictment was preferred just before the Dionysian festival, of 338 B.C., at which the crown was to have been conferred, and had the effect of arresting the award. But the proceedings were, in legal parlance, "continued" i.e., suspended, for some seven years; and it was not until the end of that period that Aeschines uttered his speech against Ctesiphon, and maintained, with considerable force and ingenuity, the points made in his indictment of the decree.

In the mean time events in the conflict with Macedonia had passed into a new phase.

Two years after the battle of Chaeronea "fatal to liberty," the death of Philip by the hand of an assassin had raised high the hopes of Greece that deliverance was come. But his successor, Alexander, took up with untiring vigor the campaign against the independence of Greece. He utterly destroyed the city of Thebes, characteristically sparing the house of Pindar. Thebes had rebelled upon his succession to the throne, and Athens, suspected of assisting the rebels, only escaped the wrath of the conqueror by abject submission. As Alexander knew that the chief menace to his authority lay in the power of oratory at Athens to rouse the patriotic passions of the people, he demanded the surrender of the orators and chiefly of Demosthenes; even the just and clement Phocian urged upon his countrymen to make this sacrifice for the tranquillity of the city, but the people dissented. In 334 B.C. Alexander passed over into Asia, where it was expected he would perish before the countless hosts that Darius sent to meet him. The battle of Issus proved these expectations to be groundless. Yet in 330 Agis, King of Sparta, made another and final struggle to fling off the Macedonian yoke, and while Athens kept a strict neutrality, was defeated in battle and slain by Antipater, whom Alexander had left as his viceroy in Greece. Sparta was now occupied by a Macedonian garrison, Phocion corresponded in a friendly manner with Alexander, and Persian spoils were accepted from the latter and set up in the Acropolis. Cowed and subdued by the overwhelming sense of Alexander’s successes and feeling that resistance to Macedonian ascendancy was hopeless, the Athenians seemed to be sunk into a lethargy, from which not even the voice of Demosthenes was raised to awaken them.

Then it was that Aeschines thought that the time had come for the destruction of his rival.

The attention of all Greece was excited by the forensic contest between the two most powerful statesmen and brilliant orators of Athens. Strangers crowded into the city to listen to them. Fortunately the speech of Aeschines, as well as that of Demosthenes, has come down to us. In comparing the two orations we plainly see that the orator of the Macedonian party lays most stress upon the legal and technical points of the indictment. He does indeed vituperate his opponent in gross and violent language; but he speaks as if he feels bound even more to defend his own character than to assail that of Demosthenes.

Demosthenes opens his speech with a devout prayer to the gods, and his exordium, in which he addresses the jury of five hundred citizens, is praised by Quintilian for its caution and modesty. He begins with a general view of the condition of Greece when he entered upon public life; he describes his own opinions and measures in aiding and guiding his fellow-countrymen, in their desperate struggle against the encroachments of Philip.

He does not omit an apology for the self-praise which is implied in the barest enumeration of his good offices to the state. Then he proceeds to deal with the Sacred War, and the peace of 346 B.C. He plainly shows that he was not to blame for the false steps then taken. The Phocians would have been aided by Athens, he states, unless she had been prevented by the false representations and the treachery of Aeschines and his associates.

The rupture of the peace by Athens, he proceeds to say, was the result of Philip’s repeated and continuous aggressions through the length and breadth of Greece. The Athenians were menaced by the Macedonian king in their foreign possessions, in Thrace, Euboea and Megara, as well as at home. It was due to the measures which he proposed, and which were carried out during his administration, he said, that the campaigns of Athenian soldiers and sailors abroad attained such a glorious result, and he read out to his auditors the public decrees of the Byzantines, Perinthians, and dwellers in the Chersonese, passed in honor of Athens and providing for the erection of monuments to commemorate her generous patriotism. Turning from this glowing enumeration of the honors conferred on Athens, he takes up next the technical and legal objections urged by Aeschines against the decree which Ctesiphon had suggested, and cleverly shows how they may be looked upon as groundless. From this part of his oration, so brief, so abrupt that it may almost be looked upon as a digression, he launches out into a bitter personal attack upon Aeschines, whom he holds up to ridicule as born of low and infamous parents; to this he adds more serious charges of corruption and treason, and attributes the disaster of Chaeronea indirectly to the conduct of Aeschines, when representing Athens in the mission to Delphi in 339 B.C. He proves that his rival and accuser has given a false account of the affair. In an often-quoted passage he gives a wonderful description of the panic which seized Athens at the news of Philip’s occupation of Elataea, from which position he was afterwards to advance on Chaeronea. Rising higher and higher in the nervous flight of his eloquence, he asserts that in the midst of the dismay, he alone stood up to speak and counsel a coalition between Thebes and Athens for the purpose of checking the invasion of the Macedonian; he points out that although that coalition resulted in the battle of Chaeronea, in which Athens was defeated, it was nevertheless better to be defeated in a glorious struggle for Greek independence, than weakly to surrender, without a resort to arms, the heritage of liberty. Not to the error of a minister but to the uncertainty of fortune was to be attributed that irretrievable calamity.

As Aeschines had spoken about his fortune, Demosthenes proceeds to compare the fortune of his own bringing up with the education of Aeschines, who was reared as a son of a slave and an abandoned adventuress. But all the faults of his adversary were not to be imputed to his youth of indigence and low surroundings. His character was also base, for Aeschines grieved at the successes of his countrymen against Philip, and rejoiced at their disasters, or at least coldly related them without a single tear. In reply to a demand of Aeschines why he, Demosthenes, should claim the reward of a golden crown the orator unhesitatingly put forth a catalogue of his own good services, his incorruptibility, his study to do all that it was possible for a man single-handed to do for the republic. He does not shrink from comparison in the purity of his political life, in attachment to his country, in devotion to her interests, with either living statesmen, or with those who in the olden time had maintained the honor of Athens.

The hearers of Demosthenes felt that in this self-justification he was appealing to their patriotism, and identifying his own acts with the glories of his country. That he was in the right, was borne out by the fact that he had always been supported by the people. Thus his judges could not condemn him without also passing sentence upon themselves. The result of his speech was that Ctesiphon was acquitted and Aeschines found no other course left him but to retire into exile.

There are many famous passages in the Oration on the Crown. It is full of the clearest argument, the most pointed epigram, the most majestic apostrophe. The main point to be observed is the testimony it bears to the transparent high-mindedness and single-eyed devotion of the great statesman and orator, whose character as revealed in this magnificent oration shed a lustre over the expiring glories of Athenian greatness.

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Chicago: Demosthenes, "Introduction," The Oration on the Crown, trans. Thomas Leland, D.D. Original Sources, accessed August 10, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4A8M9BZ9G1K49GK.

MLA: Demosthenes. "Introduction." The Oration on the Crown, translted by Thomas Leland, D.D., Original Sources. 10 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4A8M9BZ9G1K49GK.

Harvard: Demosthenes, 'Introduction' in The Oration on the Crown, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 10 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4A8M9BZ9G1K49GK.