The Oration on the Classes

Author: Demosthenes  | Date: 355 BC


To the Orations on the Classes

*(1) That this oration was pronounced in the third year of the hundred and sixth Olympiad we are assured by Dionysius (in "Epist. ad Ammaeum"), and that Demosthenes was at this time in his twenty-eighth year. Plutarch indeed (if he be the author of the lives of the Ten Orators) places his nativity in the fourth year of the ninety-eighth Olympiad. But, not to mention the inaccuracies in this tract, the orator himself declares, in his oration against Midias, that he was then in his thirty-second year. This oration was spoken in the archonship of Callimachus, that is, according to Diodorus, in the fourth year of the hundred and seventh Olympiad; and therefore, by calculating from hence, the reader will find the authority of Dionysius, as to the time of our orator’s birth, clearly and fully confirmed. How then came it to pass that he was allowed to speak on public affairs before the age of thirty years? for in the Attic laws respecting public speakers it is expressly enacted, Me eiselthein tina eipein mepo triakonta ete gegonota: Let no man enter the assembly to speak who hath not yet attained to the age of thirty. The solution of this difficulty by Lucchesini seems solid and satisfactory. I know, says he, there are some who assert that this, as well as some other laws of Athens, fell into disuse; but such a method of solving the difficulties of antiquity, without any manner of proof or authority, is unsafe and fallacious. Besides, the assertion is contradicted by Aeschines, who, in his oration against Timarchus, declares, that not only this, but other severer laws relative to public speakers were in full force. It is the consensus of opinion that the difficulty should rather be explained in this manner. Among the other magistrates who were chosen every year at Athens, there were ten orators appointed by lot, whose business it was to deliver their opinions in the assemblies on all affairs that concerned the state, and for which they received the gratuity of a drachma (seven pence three farthings) from the treasury. To these only must that law of Athens which determines the age of orators be construed to extend. As it was their duty to deliver their opinions in the Senate, they ought of course to be of the senatorial age: but no person could be admitted to the senate who had not completed his thirtieth year. But as for the law of Solon, it excludes no citizen whatsoever from the liberty of speaking who might attend the assembly; nor had the seniors any other privilege than that of speaking first. The law runs thus: "Let the senior first propose such measures as he thinks most expedient for the republic, and after him such other citizens as choose it, according to the order of their age." Aeschines cites it in the same words against Ctesiphon. No mention is here made of thirty years. Such of the citizens as were in their twentieth year might attend the assembly, and had their names enrolled. That they had a share in the administration, and might speak in public at this age, is confirmed by Lucian in his Jupiter Tragoedus, where Momus thus addresses Apollo: "You are now become a legal speaker, having long since left the class of young men, and enrolled your name in the books of the duodecemviri." Now that the citizens were considered as having arrived at the age of manhood in their eighteenth year we learn from Demosthenes in his oration against Aphobus; for his father died when he was but seven years old, and he remained for ten years under the care of his guardian, at which time, being released from his hands, he pleaded his own cause against him. Now his father had given directions that he should be under a guardian till be had arrived at the age of manhood, and this he did as soon as he had reached his eighteenth year; all which is collected from his own words. These circumstances considered, it is very easy to suppose that Demosthenes spoke in public, as he really did, in his eight-and-twentieth year. Nor does any manner of difficulty arise from what he says himself in his Oration for the Crown: "When the Phocian War was raised, for I had then no hand in the administration;" that war being begun in the second year of the hundred and sixth Olympiad, under the archonship of Callistratus, at a time when our orator was only in the twenty-seventh year of his age.

*(2) The commentators who endeavor to account for this assertion by considering the present state of Greece, or any late transactions with Persia, seem to examine the orator too rigidly, and with too much coldness and abstraction. It is by no means the result of any recent events. It had been the language of Greece for ages; the language of poets, historians, and orators. Even in those times of corruption the popular leaders seldom ventured to use any other, particularly in an assembly where national vanity was so predominant as in that of Athens. Whatever treaties had been made with the King of Persia, however peace might have now subsisted between him and the Greeks, still he was their natural enemy.

*(3) The Sacred War now raged in Greece. The Phocians, Lacedaemonians, and Athenians were engaged on one side; the Boeotians, Thessalians, Locrians, and some other inferior states on the other: each party was harassed and exhausted by the war. The Phocians had reason to complain of the Athenians, who proved a useless and inactive ally. Whatever connections had lately subsisted between Athens and Sparta, this latter state still hated its ancient rival, and was impatient to recover its former splendor and power. A prospect of assistance from Persia must have at once determined the Lacedaemonians to detach themselves from the confederacy, and to act against the Athenians; particularly if any plausible pretence could be alleged for uniting with the Persian. The Phocians, who were not always influenced by the most religious engagements, might fairly be suspected of making no scruple of accepting effectual assistance from the great king, and at once renouncing their alliance with the Athenians. The Italian commentator supposes that the orator expresses his apprehensions only of the Lacedaemonians, and that they are particularly pointed out as the men who have more confidence in the Persian than in their own brethren, and who would sacrifice every consideration to the support of their wars with the Greeks. The Phocians, he observes, could not possibly unite with the Persians, on account of the former injuries they had received from them, as well as of their invariable union with Athens. But in view of the politics of Greece, and indeed of the politics of all ages and nations, may convince us that too much stress is not to be laid on such an argument. Nor was there less to fear from the confederates on the other side. They fought with an inveterate and implacable rancor, and all their efforts were scarcely sufficient to support the quarrel. Their strength was continually wasting, and their treasures were quite exhausted; the most favorable occasion for the great king to gain them to his purposes. The speaker indeed declares, in another part of this oration, that the Thebans would not concur with the Persian in any design confessedly formed against the nation of Greece. Yet still they might, in their present circumstances, and in a cause which they affected to consider as the cause of the nation, accept his assistance. They actually did accept it in the course of the war.

*(4) The Boeotians, Thessalians, etc., were the avowed enemies of Athens, in consequence of the attachment of this state to Phocis; and the king of Macedon, by his invasion of their settlements in Thrace, and other acts of hostility.

*(5) In the original, ouden oun alle RHAPSODESOUSIN oi presbeis periiontes. It was urged by the speakers on the other side that ambassadors should be sent through Greece to represent the dangerous designs of the Persian, and to exhort the several states to suspend their private animosities, and to unite with the Athenians against the common enemy. The orator, who is endeavoring to represent the useless and ineffectual nature of such a measure, compares these ambassadors to the ancient rhapsodists, or bards, whose lives were spent in travelling, and amusing their entertainers with songs and poems. And this similitude seems to arise not only from their repeating the same declarations, but from the circumstance of going from city to city, and exciting curiosity by their speeches, without any other effect.

*(6) At first sight it may appear extraordinary that the orator should speak in high terms of such a body as one thousand horse. But we must consider that Attica was a mountainous country, and therefore unfit for breeding horses. In the infancy of the state, when Athens was governed by kings, their cavalry amounted to no more than ninety-six, each naukraria, or twelfth part of a tribe, furnishing two. But the number of such divisions was then but forty-eight, as the tribes were originally but four. This small body was at first an object of derision to the Persians at Marathon, but afterward proved formidable and dangerous. After the defeat of the Persians the city began to increase in power, and was enabled to raise a body of three hundred horse, which in the time of the Peloponnesian War was augmented to twelve hundred. This was the greatest body of cavalry the Athenians ever possessed, which seems by the distresses of the state to have been reduced to a thousand in the time of Demosthenes, as he mentions no greater number, though it was his business rather to magnify their force in this passage than to extenuate it. The equestrian order was a rank of dignity at Athens as among the Romans. But in latter times the citizens were allowed to keep this rank and to substitute others to serve in their stead.

*(7) These are particularly specified in the original, epikleron, maiden-heiresses; orphanon, orphans of the other sex; klerouchikon, men appointed to form a colony; and koinonikon, men incorporated into certain societies which were exempted from contributing. From whence it seems evident that the duty and honor of composing the twelve hundred, who were to supply the exigencies of the state, must have been annexed to certain families, and continued to them when time and various circumstances might have produced alterations of fortune in many. The inconveniences which arose from hence were partly removed by the antidoseis, or exchanges of fortunes, and by allowing exemptions to persons in certain circumstances: yet both these expedients must have occasioned delays, and retarded the business of the public. Hence the orator recommends the appointment of the additional eight hundred.

*(8) It should seem, from this passage, that each century of the three hundred ships were to be of a different rate and order, by this minute specification of "five of the first hundred, five of the second," etc.

*(9) When and in what manner this estimate of the lands was made, we learn from Polybius, whose words shall be quoted immediately. That the barren lands of Attica should produce such a revenue (amounting, according to Arbuthnot’s computation, to L1,162,500) seems wonderful; especially as the lower ranks of citizens held their lands free from all taxation. The soil of Athens itself was celebrated by Homer for its fertility. But this is of little moment when the barrenness of the Attic territory in general is considered. But what says Polybius? Tis gar uper Athenaion ouch istoreke dioti kath ous kairous meta Thebaion eis ton pros tous Lakedaimonious anebainon polemon, kai murious men exepempon stratiotas, ekaton de epleroun triereis, oti tote krinantes apo tes axias poieisthai tas eis ton polemon eis phoras, etimesanto ten te choran, kai ten Attiken, apasan, kai tas oikias, omoios de kai ten loipen ousian. All omos to sumpan timema tes axias enlipe ton exakischilion diakosiois kai pentekonta talantois; "What historian hath not informed us that the Athenians, at the time when they engaged in war, on the part of the Thebes against the Lacedaemonians sent ten thousand men to the field, and manned a hundred ships; that the Athenians, I say, in order to make a just estimate of the subsidy they might properly grant for this war, then proceeded to a general valuation of their lands, of the whole territory of Attica, their houses, and all their effects? And yet the whole valuation fell short of six thousand talents by two hundred and fifty." Which agrees pretty exactly with this passage of Demosthenes.

*(10) One hundred ships seem to have been the ordinary marine establishment at Athens; and to this the ordinary revenues seem to have been proportioned. When it was necessary to fit out an extraordinary number the additional charge was answered by an extraordinary taxation on the richer members of the state. The passage before us is indeed concisely expressed, as became a speaker who addressed himself to persons to whom the least hint was sufficient. But the full meaning of it I take to be this: "If we have occasion but for a hundred ships, the charge of furnishing each may be divided among twelve trierarchs, who are to be supplied for the expense of this and other preparations with sixty talents. If for two hundred, these twelve trierarchs must provide two ships; if for three hundred, three. In every case the revenues of the state are to be equally divided among them. But the greater the force required, the greater must be the burden on the trierarchs, who are to be taxed for the additional expense, if any such may be required for fitting out the fleet, and completing the other parts of the intended armament." This latter part, indeed, is not expressed, or insinuated; but I take it to be understood. But, if my explanation should not be entirely consonant to the sentiments of the learned reader, who may have the curiosity to examine this part of the oration with accuracy, I must endeavor to screen myself from the severity of his censure by subscribing to the following ingenious declaration of Wolfius: "Whatever is here said of fleets, stores, armaments, and supplies must, to us, who never saw a fleet, or war, and never were conversant in affairs of state, be attended with considerable obscurity."

*(11) Whoever consults Herodotus will find that Demosthenes is by no means exact in his account either of the Athenian or Persian fleets; but we are not to expect historical precision from the orator. His representations are suited to delight and animate his hearers; and probably his success was too great to give them leisure to attend to any inaccuracy in his account.

*(12) It is just now the orator has represented the wealth of Athens as contemptible, that of Persia as magnificent and great. Now, on the contrary, the resources of Persia are neither solid nor permanent; the riches of Athens great and inexhaustible. Various are the instances of this artifice in Demosthenes, which the judicious reader cannot fail to observe without the direction of the annotator.

*(13) Two of this name are mentioned in history. The first was put to death by the younger Cyrus on account of a conspiracy. The other, whom Demosthenes points out, was a satrap of Mysia, and served in the army which Artaxerxes sent against Cyprus, under the command of Teribazus. On this occasion he attempted to ruin the reputation of his general, was detected and disgraced, and, in revenge, joined with the rebels of Egypt, Caria, and Phrygia, and headed the army they had raised against the king. But, in hopes of recovering his credit at the Persian court, and of gaining the command of some maritime towns, he betrayed the forces of the rebels into the hands of the king’s lieutenants. History speaks no farther of this Orontes; but as in this year (the eighth from the time of his revolt) Demosthenes mentions him as an enemy to the Persian, we may conjecture that his last services had been disregarded, and that he had again taken up arms.

*(14) To be assured of the true signification of the phrase pros ton barbaron, we need but cast our eyes to a sentence a little farther on- ek men ge ton PROS tous eautou progonous polemon- from the wars waged against his ancestors.

*(15) The history of both nations accounts for the detestation with which the Athenians are supposed to hear the name of the Thebans; and perhaps it were impossible that two nations so different in genius and manners ever should entertain any sentiments of friendship and esteem for each other. Our orator, however, was far superior to vulgar national prejudices. He considered without partiality the real interests of his country, whose welfare should be a statesman’s passion. Yet his regard for the people of Thebes was numbered by Aeschines among his crimes. The error which, he says, they would if possible redeem, was their joining with Xerxes in his invasion of Greece.

*(16) The well-known and great events described in the history of Greece confirm these observations of the orator fully with respect to all the Grecian states. Yet we may concur with the Italian commentator in supposing that they had the Lacedaemonians particularly in view; to whom they are, indeed, eminently applicable.

*(17) What effect this oration had on the people we may learn from a passage in the oration for the Rhodians, of which the following is a translation: "There are some among you who may remember, that at the time when the affairs of Persia were the subject of our consultations, I was the first, the only, or almost the only, one to recommend it as the wisest measure not to assign your enmity to the king as the motive of your armament; to make your preparations against your avowed adversaries, and to employ them even against him should he attempt to injure you. Nor did I urge these things without your full concurrence: they were received with applause."


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Chicago: Demosthenes, "Notes," The Oration on the Classes, trans. Thomas Leland, D.D. Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022,

MLA: Demosthenes. "Notes." The Oration on the Classes, translted by Thomas Leland, D.D., Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: Demosthenes, 'Notes' in The Oration on the Classes, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from