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From The Greek Orators by J. F. Dobson, M. A., London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1919; pp. 308-314.


By J. F. Dobson




OWING to the extraordinary success of the Macedonian arms, Hellenic culture spread rapidly over a great part of the world; but it was beaten out thin in the process.1

The conditions of life in Greece underwent a great change in the generations which succeeded the death of Alexander. Athens, which had for so long been the intellectual headquarters of the world, was now only a station of secondary importance. Alexandria, founded by the king himself, became under the divine auspices of the Ptolemies not only the great mart of the world but the greatest centre of learning; Pergamus in the course of time rivalled Alexandria, at any rate in literary resources; while Antioch and Tarsus also became prominent in the history of learning.

From early times men of genius born elsewhere in Greece, in the Ionian cities, and in Magna Graecia, had turned to Athens for appreciation of their powers. It is easy to see at a glance how much Athens owed to these aliens for her intellectual advancement — Gorgias of Leontini, Protagoras of Abdera, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon. Her dramatic poets were her own, and so were her great orators, 309 with the exception of Lysias; but this is partly due to the fact that the constitution of her laws gave little opportunity for aliens to win distinction on the platform or the stage. Of her great historians, one was not of Athenian birth and even wrote in a foreign dialect; in philosophy no true-born Athenian before Plato won real distinction. In the Macedonian era a distinguished stranger had more prospect not only of appreciation but of material advancement in one of the royal cities than in a city-state which had become little better than a minor satrapy in one of the great empires, and traded only on the fading memories of its former magnificence. Life in the great cities was very different, too, from life in democratic Athens. From the time of Pericles to that of Demosthenes, all citizens had at least a strong corporate feeling; all citizens knew each other. The sculptor fought side by side with the tanner, the Alcmaeonid met the lamp-seller in debate; there were many common grounds in which all could meet under conditions of equality. In the law-courts the orator must satisfy not only the learned few but the unlettered many; in the theatre the poet and his actors appealed to all classes, from the high-priest who must not be allowed to slumber on his central throne to the people who ate sweetmeats in the back rows, and, if dissatisfied, with true Athenian spirit, threw these harmless missiles at the performers.2 Moreover, all spoke the same language. The diction of tragedy gradually put off its artificiality, and the orators approached nearer and nearer to the idiom of common speech.

In Alexandria, on the other hand, to take one typical 310 example, there was no such unity. Among the Greek inhabitants there were many classes — the court-circle, the scholars of the Museum, the merchants, the mercenary troops, all with different aims and occupations; and these formed but a minority. In addition there would be thousands of Jews, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Mesopotamians, and others, to whom Greek was at first a foreign language, and who when they had acquired it spoke, in the κοινή, a dialect corrupted by innumerable foreign elements. Thus, though scholarship persisted and flourished, there must always have been a sharp distinction between the lettered classes and the common people.

Oratory, like all other arts, faded away in Athens after Alexander’s death, partly from the general causes indicated, partly on account of the special conditions of Athenian life.

Forced to submit to Antipater in 322 B.C., Athens was allowed to exist on humiliating terms. She received a Macedonian garrison into Munychia, the democracy was overthrown; 12,000 of the poorer citizens were not only disfranchised but expatriated, and an oligarchy was instituted. Five years later a temporary revival occurred, when Polysperchon (317 B.C.) overthrew the oligarchy; but a few months after this Cassander obtained possession of the city and again established a government on narrower lines, installing as governor a man of great erudition, and culture, Demetrius of Phalerum. This Demetrius, though practically a satrap of Cassander, governed the city wisely for ten years; but in 307 B.C. he fled before the approach of Demetrius Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus. The Besieger made a proclamation of freedom, which the 311 Athenians by this time were unworthy to enjoy; they ascribed to him divine honours, and in 301 B.C. he took up his quarters in the Parthenon. No wonder that Pallas Athene fled in disgust when her shrine was polluted by the licentious orgies of this new war-god.

Phocion, Demades, and Dinarchus, from among the contemporaries of Demosthenes, lived to see their city under Macedonian rule, but they left no successors. There were few opportunities left for an orator. The ecclesia, when it met on sufferance, could debate only on matters of domestic import; and proposals to improve the water-supply, or erect statues to a tyrant, give less scope for eloquence than the great issues of peace and war which had formerly been the subject of their deliberation. Men of political ability had no scope when politics were dead. In the courts, too, there could be no public cases of great interest comparable with the case of the Crown or the impeachment of Demosthenes. Private cases, in which aspiring politicians had hitherto found it convenient to try their strength, were more suited to the attainments of professional lawyers, and these cases must have greatly decreased in numbers and importance when all the dependencies of Athens were taken from her.3 The oratory of display, brought to perfection by Isocrates, had likewise but few opening. No orator could rise at the Olympic Festival to summon all Greeks to brotherhood in arms; no funeral speech could move a people to tears or exalt them to enthusiasm when battles 312 were waged by mercenaries and war declared not by a nation but by a foreign prince. The art of rhetoric was still practised, but already Aristotle, by going back to first principles, had composed the first and last scientific treatise on this subject, and shown that it must be put into its true place as a branch of philosophy, to be studied in combination with its counterpart, Dialectic.4 Political theory, which figures prominently in Isocrates and Demosthenes, had likewise become the property of the philosophical schools.

Demetrius of Phalerum, the regent of Cassander, is reckoned by Quintilian as the last of the orators. Such time as he could spare from the management of the city and the contemplation of the 360 statues erected to him by an admiring or subservient populace,5 was devoted to the study of philosophy, history and oratory. He wrote more than any other Epicurean on record6 — philosophical dialogues, historical works, erudite researches, literary and rhetorical studies, speeches, all testified alike to his industry and the wide extent of his interests. His Rhetoric, which contained personal reminiscences of Demosthenes, is quoted by Plutarch on that account; his treatise on Demagogy contained his ideas of political science; his history of his regency (περὶ  τῆς  δεκαετείας) might, if we could recover it, add much to our scanty knowledge of that period. So short are the fragments remaining of his work that we must turn chiefly to Cicero and Quintilian for an estimate of his value. We gather that he was an excellent example of the ‘tempered style,’ excelling in grace and brilliance, but deficient in vigour and in real passion. A philosophical 313 treatment of his subject-matter was one of his marked characteristics.7

A few facts about his life are known chiefly from Diogenes. He was the son of Phanostratus, an enfranchised slave. He studied under and entered political life about 324 B.C. Belonging to the Macedonian party, he took part in the negotiations after the Lamian war. In 317 B.C., when Phocion was put to death, he fled, but was chosen by the citizens, with the approval of Cassander, to be their governor, and ruled from 317 to 307, when he was superseded by Demetrius Poliorcetes. He retired to Thebes, and twenty years later went to Egypt. Exiled from Alexandria by Philadelphus, he died of a snake-bite in one of the remote demes of Egypt about 280 B.C.

Demochares and Charisius belong also to this period; the former, one of the few Athenians who retained any independence of spirit, was a nephew of Demosthenes, whose style he imitated; Charisius imitated and exaggerated the simplicity of Lysias.8

From this time onward, oratory is practically dead; declamations on fictitious subjects took the place of real speeches in the assembly or the courts; oratory became an element in education and nothing more. We need mention only Hegesias of Magnesia (c. 250 B.C.), the founder of what was subsequently known as the ‘Asian’ school of rhetoric, the characteristics of which were affected expression, grotesque metaphor, plays upon words, incongruous rhythms, and general lack of ideas.9 314 Dionysius quotes an extract, with the remark that it looks as if it had been written for a joke. Hegesias is important only on account of the debasing influence which he exercised over his Greek and Roman followers.

For a genuine revival of oratory we must wait till the last years of the Roman Republic.


 1  The general decline of taste reacted on literary style, cf. infra, pp. 309-310.

 2  Arist., Eth. Nic., x. 5. 4, οἱ  τραγηματίζοντες. Demos., de Cor., cf. supra, p. 249.

 3  E.g. many of the private speeches of Demosthenes refer to maritime speculations; many of these cases, under Macedon, would be settled in local courts instead of being brought to Athens, and the diminution of Athenian commerce would still further reduce their number.

 4  Arist., Rhet., I, i., ad init.

 5  Diog. Laert., v. 75.

 6  Ibid., v. 80-81.

 7  Cicero, Brutus, § 37; Orator, § 92; de Oratore, ii. § 95; Quint., x. 1, 80; Diog. L., v. 82.

 8  Cicero, Brutus, § 286.

 9  He was over-fond of the ditrochaeus (  ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘  ) at the end of the sentence, vide Cicero, Brutus, § 286; Orator, §§ 226, 230; Dion., de Comp. Verb., ch. xviii.

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