The Oration on the Letter: (Philip’s Letter to the Athenians)

Author: Demosthenes  | Date: 339 BC


To Philip’s Letter to the Athenians, and

Demosthenes’ Oration on the Letter

THE former oration (The Fourth Philippic) inspired the Athenians with the resolution of sending succors to all the cities that were threatened by Philip’s arms; and their first step was to despatch to the Hellespont a convoy with provisions; which weighed anchor in view of Selymbria, a city of the Propontis, then besieged by the Macedonians, and was there seized by Amyntas, Philip’s admiral. The ships were demanded by the Athenians, and returned by Philip, but with declarations sufficiently alarming.

The obstinate valor of the Perinthians had forced Philip to turn the siege into a blockade. He marched off with a considerable body of his army to attack other places, and made an incursion into the territories of Byzantium. The Byzantines shut themselves up within their city, and despatched one of their citizens to Athens to desire the assistance of that state; who, with some difficulty, prevailed to have a fleet of forty ships sent out, under the command of Chares.

As this general had not the same reputation in other places as at Athens, the cities by which he was to pass refused to receive him: so that he was obliged to wander for some time along the coasts, extorting contributions from the Athenian allies; despised by the enemy, and suspected by the whole world. He appeared at last before Byzantium, where he met with the same mortifying treatment as in other places, and was refused admission; and shortly after was defeated by Amyntas in a naval engagement, in which a considerable part of his fleet was either sunk or taken.

Philip had for some time perceived, that, sooner or later, he must inevitably come to a rupture with the Athenians. His partisans were no longer able to lull them into security. Their opposition to his designs, however imperfect and ineffectual, was yet sufficient to alarm him. He therefore determined to endeavor to abate that spirit which now began to break through their inveterate indolence; and for this purpose sent them a letter, in which, with the utmost art, he laid open the causes of complaint he had against them, and threatened them with reprisals. This letter was not received at Athens till after the news of Chares’s defeat.

Philip had now laid siege to Byzantium, and exerted all his efforts to make himself master of that city. On the other hand, the Athenians were disheartened by the ill-success of their commander, and began to repent of having sent any succors, when Phocion, who always assumed the liberty of speaking his sentiments freely, assured them, that for once they themselves had not been in fault; but that their general only was to blame. He was immediately desired to take on himself the charge of relieving Byzantium; and set sail with a numerous body of forces. He was received with the greatest demonstrations of joy; and his whole conduct expressed the utmost wisdom and moderation. Nor was his valor less conspicuous: he sustained many assaults with an intrepidity worthy of the early ages of the commonwealth, and at last obliged Philip to raise the siege.

Phocion then departed amid the general acclamations of the people whom he had saved. He proceeded to the relief of the colonies of the Chersonesus, who were ever exposed to the attacks of the Cardians. In this way he took some vessels laden with arms and provisions for the enemy, and obliged the Macedonians, who had attempted Sestos, to abandon their enterprise, and shut themselves up in Cardia.

And thus, after various expeditions highly honorable both to himself and to his country, Phocion returned home, where he found the Athenians engaged in a debate on Philip’s letter: on which occasion Demosthenes pronounced his last oration against Philip. To have answered the letter particularly would have been very difficult; for, though Athens had the better cause, yet many irregularities had really been committed, which Philip knew how to display in their full force. The orator therefore makes use of his art to extricate himself from the difficulty; avoids all former discussions of facts, and applies himself at once to raise the lively passions: affects to consider this letter as an open declaration of war; inflames the imaginations of his hearers with this idea; and speaks only of the means to support their arms against so powerful an enemy.


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Chicago: Demosthenes, "Introduction," The Oration on the Letter: (Philip’s Letter to the Athenians), trans. Thomas Leland, D.D. Original Sources, accessed April 24, 2024,

MLA: Demosthenes. "Introduction." The Oration on the Letter: (Philip’s Letter to the Athenians), translted by Thomas Leland, D.D., Original Sources. 24 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Demosthenes, 'Introduction' in The Oration on the Letter: (Philip’s Letter to the Athenians), trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2024, from