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Persuasion in Ancient Greece

Andrew Scholtz, Instructor

Study Guides. . .

Political Oratory: Lysias, Demosthenes

Texts and Access

All via myCourse > PDF Course Readings

  • Lysias: Speech 34 (Preserving the Ancestral Constitution) — read whole text of speech (the intro material useful and interesting, but optional)
  • Demosthenes: Olynthiacs, Philippics — read pages 52-73
Full MLA citations are provided on myCourses.

Readings Journal Topic

In the assigned readings, do you detect any support for, or rebuttal of, indeed, anything somehow relating to, ideas developed in one or more of our Modern Theory II readings: Weber, Michels, Finley? Please explain with reference to that reading/those readings, as appropriate. Maybe review them as well. . . .

General Comments

My purpose in asking you at this point in the semester to read later texts like these (we've mostly been progressing in chronological order and haven't got to this point yet) is to bring perspective to the crisis-in-persuasion texts starting with the sophists. Gorgias' idea of speech as a mighty potentate would seem to suggest that speech, if skillfully used, can somehow enslave us (cf. Gorgias in Plato Gorgias 452a). But whether it can or can't, do we see our orators trying to do that here? Does this evidence offer perspective on Weber's notion (however briefly developed) of ancient Athenian democracy as charismatic demagoguery? On Michels' apparent view of it as an early example of stealth oligarchy?

Textual-historical notes. Our earliest PRESERVED "real-life" political speeches (or something like that) come from no earlier than 403 BCE. Political speech obviously existed earlier than that; it's just that the publication of speeches came later. But sources like Thucydides and even Aristophanes provide us at least with a sense of what earlier political oratory will have been like.

Timeline (all dates BCE)

411-410 The Athenian oligarchy of the 400, stage-managed by Antiphon, though originally Alcibiades' idea. (That number comes from the number of men serving on the now sovereign council of 400.) Then, what Thucydides the historian refers to as politeia, by which he seems to mean moderate oligarchy (the regime of the 5,000, i.e., citizenship limited to about 5,000 men of moderate or affluent means), and for which Thucydides expresses admiration (8.97.2). Democracy in exile set up on the Athenian-held island of Samos.
410 Restoration of full democracy. Oligarchic sympathizers go into exile. Critias, lover of all things Spartan and a determined oligarch, will return to lead the oligarchy set up in 404.
404 Athens loses Peloponnesian War. Sparta imposes the Oligarchy of the 30 ("Thirty Tyrants"), i.e., sovereignty residing with an oligarchic council of 30 assisted by 10 others to oversee the port. Citizenship limited to just 3,000 men of means; remainder expelled. Oligarchs under the leadership of Critias proceed to exile and to murder opponents, then just anyone (including other oligarchs), sometimes purely for the wealth of the victims.
404-403 Democracy reinstated; the famous amnesty ("non-remembrance") by which oligarchic sympathizers re-integrated into the Athenian state. Democracy restored as full democracy, i.e., Phormisius' proposal that only property-owning Athenians be allowed civil rights defeated. Lysias 34 composed (delivered?).
403 Constitutional reform. "Decrees" (psephismata, ad hoc measures passed by the Assembly) now distinguished from "laws" (nomoi, statutes passed by a new board of nomothetai).
399 Trial and execution of Socrates for impiety.
395-387 Corinthian War, period of the production of Aristophanes' Assemblywomen.
385/4 Birth of Demosthenes.
384 Aristotle born.
377 Establishment of Second Athenian Naval Confederacy (i.e., attempt to revive the Athenian empire).
359 Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) made king.
356 Alexander born to Philip and Olympias.
355-346 Eubulus preeminent in Athenian politics. Transformed the Theoric Fund from entertainment subsidy to wide-ranging public works and public welfare mechanism. Restored prosperity to Athens but promoted pacifist policy regarding the Macedonian threat. Philip's aggression in Greece in the period following the Peace of Philocrates (346, below) discredited and ended Eubulus' leadership.
354 Second Athenian Naval Confederacy weakened; Athenian dreams of a second maritime empire fade.
351 Demosthenes delivers First Philippic.
349 Demosthenes delivers his Olynthiac Orations urging the defense of Olynthus (northern Aegean city and Athenian ally) against Macedonian aggression, plus the repurposing of Theoric Fund (public dole) for the war effort.
348 Philip captures Olynthus. Euboea (important island possession of Athens) successfully rebels. Plato dies.
346 Peace of Philocrates, Athens' peace treaty with Macedonia. Demosthenes participates in its negotiation, but then opposes it strenuously.
338 Battle of Chaeroneia; Philip crushes Athens and allies. Athens now subordinate to the will of Macedonia.
336 Philip dies; his son, Alexander III ("the Great"), made king of Macedon.
334-323 Alexander's conquests in the east.
323 Death of Alexander in east. Athens seeks now to reassert its autonomy. Aristotle (friend of the Macedonians) flees Athens.
323-322 Lamian War: Athens fights losing battle for autonomy.
322 Battle of the Crannon: Macedonia defeats Athens, ends Athenian democracy. Demosthenes commits suicide. Death of Aristotle.

Lysias Speech #34. Preserving the Ancestral Constitution

Born 459/8, died some time after 380, Lysias was not a citizen but a "metic" or resident alien of Athens. Though he and his family were wealthy from a shield-making business established by Lysias' father, they lost it all in the oligarchic coup of 404, during which his brother Polemarchus was murdered. Subsequent to that, Lysias plied the trade of logographos, or professional speech-writer. We have a number of speeches from him for use in court, and one — this one — for a client to deliver in the Athenian assembly.

At issue is the structure of the democracy in the period following the restoration of democracy in 404 BCE. Remember that in that year, Athens suffered a crushing defeat at Spartan hands. At the behest of the victors, the democracy was dismantled and replaced by oligarchy, the "Oligarchy of the 30" ("Thirty Tyrants," see above). But the oligarchs proved corrupt and unscrupulous, resorting, as they did, to murder, not simply for political reasons but out of greed. Exiled democrats were able to mount a successful counter-coup and forced the oligarchs out. Sparta in 403 then mediated a reconciliation involving amnesty for oligarchic sympathizers and the restoration of full democracy. (In his hypothesis ["summary"] preceding the excerpt he quotes, Dionysius, who calls the amnesty a piece of popular legislation, seems to get that wrong.)

At issue here is whether under the restored democracy citizenship should be limited to persons of property; note that under the radical democracy of the later 400s BCE, even the poorest of the poor among the citizens enjoyed full civil rights. One essential element for oligarchy (from the ancient perspective) was limiting citizenship to those possessed of a minimal amount of property, so as to keep the poor out. Such was the case under the oligarchic regimes of 411 and 404 BCE at Athens, when the poor were disfranchised and had to leave Athens. So democracy with a property qualification arguably doesn't qualify as democracy at all, or else as limited democracy. As it turned out, no property qualification was voted for the restored democracy.

But there's more to the speech than that. Also of interest will be the following:

  • What in this speech could we characterize as solid argumentation?
  • What as principally rhetoric?
  • Does either, argument or rhetoric, outweigh the other? Do they operate at cross purposes? Or do they in a sense synergize?


[Your translation of these speeches is rather graceless and literal. That's good and bad. It reads poorly but in some ways gets you closer to the Greek original than you might otherwise manage.]

Demosthenes son of Demosthenes, Athenian orator and politician, ca. 384-322 BCE, descendent of the general Demosthenes who assisted Cleon at the siege of Sphacteria in 325, the same Demosthenes as that portrayed as a slave of Demos ("Thepeople") in Aristophanes' Knights of 424.

Demosthenes came from an age - the 300s - when orators, unlike speakers and politicians of of the 400s BCE, published their orations (both for court and assembly) in written form. Many orators also taught the art of speaking, i.e., were what the ancients called sophists. Like Lysias, many as well wrote speeches for others to use. But Demosthenes was also active and influential politically, which is to say, he served as a rhetor, assembly politician and orator.

In Demosthenes' day, the burning issue was what to do about Philip II, king of Macedonia (a kingdom to the north), and father of Alexander the Great. Demosthenes belonged to the war party: every effort should be made to unite Greece against the Macedonian threat. Under the leadership of Eubulus, Athens was regaining prosperity by pursuing a policy of peace with Macedonia. Eubulus also masterminded the plan to dedicate state surpluses to public works and outright welfare (Theoric Fund), though largely to the neglect of military expenditure. Eubulus may have had the right idea: wait to confront Philip only when Athens had sufficiently built up the necessary strength. Still, Demosthenes' instincts about Philip were right. Philip, then his son Alexander, would come to dominate the whole of the Greek mainland.

In 322, just after the death of Alexander in the east, and after the fall of the Athenian democracy, Demosthenes committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of his arch-enemies, the Macedonians.

Demosthenes' Third Olynthiac Oration

  • DATE: Delivered probably in the autumn of 349 BCE
  • AUTHOR: Demosthenes (see above)
  • GENRE: This is the published version of a speech that was actually delivered in the Athenian assembly - political rhetoric

SITUATION: Philip II, king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great, is trying to extend his power down into Greece, even as Athens has been trying to recover some semblance of the power it lost in the war with Sparta half a century earlier. Philip threatens the northern city of Olynthus, which appeals to Athens to help. (Hence "Third Olynthiac" speech.)

Demosthenes speaks here on behalf of the war party (the anti-Macedonian "hawks"), who want to dip into the "Theoric Fund," that is, the moneys used for public works and the public dole, to bankroll the war effort — by definition, a controversial, even dangerous, idea. A force was at some point sent — too late — to Olynthus, though it is not exactly known whether money for that came from the Theoric Fund.

Note the following concepts, repeated over and over again in the speech:

PARRHESIA. Parrhesia is "frank speech," we might say, "talking turkey." It is what Demosthenes claims to do. QUESTION: How does he do it? Note that parrhesia in Demosthenes' speech contrasts with. . .

PROS KHARIN LEGEIN (DEMEGOREIN, ETC.). "Speaking to please / gratify / coddle" the people of Athens; we might call it demagoguery. It is, as well, precisely what Socrates in Plato's Gorgias means by "pandering" (kolakeia), indeed, by rhetoric generally. But this is also a democratic politician talking. . . .


  • What rhetorical strategies are employed here?
  • How does Demosthenes compare and contrast the Athenian demos of "yesteryear" (of the 400s) with that of the "present day" (the mid 300s)?
  • How does Demosthenes sound like a democrat? How perhaps like a quasi-oligarch in his characterization of the Athenian demos?

Demosthenes First Philippic Oration

  • DATE: Delivered probably summer 351 BCE
  • AUTHOR: Demosthenes (see above)
  • GENRE: This is the published version of a speech that was actually delivered in the Athenian assembly - political rhetoric

SITUATION: Philip of Macedon, seeking conquests in Thrace (a region to the north and west of Greece) is distracting Athens from intervening by stirring up trouble in Euboea, an island very near Athens and an Athenian possession. Philip is also attacking Athenian shipping and has staged a humiliating naval raid on historic Marathon. Demosthenes argues that Athenians can't any longer afford to deal reactively with Philip but proactively.

Though Demosthenes doesn't use the word parrhesia ("frank speech") or related, he certainly does "talk turkey" and contrasts his own tough talk with the demagogic coddling of his opponents.

QUESTIONS. Much the same as for the Third Olynthiac.


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