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Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould


 

 

THE ORATOR

"THE sword-maker is dead," said one citizen of Athens to another.

"Has he not left a young son?"

"Yes, the poor child is only seven years of age, and he has no mother."

"Who will look after him?"

"His father chose certain guardians to look after the boy and take charge of the money (for he had gained a big fortune by sword-making), and see to his education."

But I am sorry to say the guardians kept much of the money for themselves, and did not send [109] him to good schools or pay for his being taught at home. So when the lad, whose name was Demosthenes (Dee-mos-then-eez), about 384–322 B.C., grew to manhood, he found himself a good deal less learned than other young fellows of his age. He longed to be a speaker to the people—an orator. But his lungs were weak, and so his voice was not strong. Also he had trouble in saying words plainly. He stammered; that is, instead of saying easily such a sentence as, "My dear friends, allow me to remind you," he would say, "My dear friends—ah—my dear friends—hm!—allow me to—ah—ah—ah—to—ah—remind you!" And he could not readily pronounce the letter R, just as some persons in England to-day say "weddy" instead of "ready," and for "blackberries" they say "blackbewies." He made up his mind to improve his style of speech. In an underground cave he fitted up a room where he could read aloud and practise himself in the art of addressing a crowd of people. Perhaps he would eat, drink, and sleep in this strange dwelling for two or three months; and he would shave the hair off one side of his head so that he might not like to go out and show himself to the citizens, and thus he forced himself to stay indoors and study. Sometimes he would watch his reflection in a mirror of polished copper or silver, so that he might note his face and limbs and make sure that his actions were grace- [110] ful as he spoke. You know some speakers are not graceful, and while they are talking they will scratch their heads, roll their eyes about, or swing their arms.

At other times he would put stones in his mouth and then speak; and, of course, it was a great struggle to pronounce distinctly. If you were to put several pebbles in your mouth and say, "Please, mother, may I have some more marmalade?" your mother would smile at the sounds you made. Though, indeed, some persons that I know speak their words with so little care that you might suppose they always carried pebbles in their mouths. Well, this exercise obliged Demosthenes to utter each syllable with much pains, so that when the stones were taken out he could speak both readily and plainly. Also he would now and then walk along the seashore near Athens, and, on a windy day, when the water rolled noisily on the shingle, he would make a speech as if he were addressing a disorderly mob of city folk. Another amusing plan was to run up a hill while uttering sentences, so that you might have seen this young man hastening up a mountain-side while he cried aloud: "O, Athenians, it is your duty to defend the temples of the gods; you will be covered with shame if you do not"; and now and then he would sit on a rock to take breath again! Often, when he was about to address the citizens, he would sit up [111] at night, by the glimmer of an oil lamp, writing out and repeating what he meant to say at the meeting; and a man who was jealous of him once sneered:

"Demosthenes, your speeches smell of the lamp!"

In the days of Demosthenes a danger hung over the lovely land of Greece. The danger was in the north, in the kingdom of Macedonia (Mas-se-do-nia), which was ruled by King Philip. Bold and strong were the soldiers of Philip, and especially to be feared was their manner of fighting in the phalanx (fal-anks). In a phalanx the men formed sixteen ranks, and each held a lance eighteen feet long, pointing it toward the enemy, so that the sixteen rows of warriors, with their great lances, made a dreadful wall for footmen or horsemen to dash against.

Now, it was in the heart of Philip to conquer all the States of Greece—Sparta, Athens, and the rest; and the Greeks were not so willing to fight for their land as their fathers had been. They rather wanted other men to fight for them in return for wages; but these paid armies would not fight so bravely as men who, out of love for their country or city, took up arms and went forth to war. When the troops of King Philip took various towns on the borders of Greece, and were little by little approaching nearer to Athens, Demos- [112] thenes tried to waken his countrymen by such words as these:

"The fortune of King Philip has been very great. But the fortune of Athens will be greater still, and she will deserve the help of the kind gods, if only you, Athenians, will do your duty. Yet here you are, sitting still, doing nothing. A sluggard cannot get his friends to work for him, and neither will the gods work for him. I do not wonder that Philip is stronger than you, for he is always in the field, always in movement, doing everything for himself, never letting a chance slip; while you talk, and argue, and vote, but do no soldier-like deeds."

One evening, while the chief magistrates of Athens were at supper together, a messenger ran in from the north to say that King Philip had captured a town on the road to Thebes. All the city were alarmed at the news, for Thebes was a strong town, and its people were known to favor Philip, and if Thebes cast in its lot with the foe, the way of Philip to Athens would be easy. A meeting was held in the market-place as soon as the sun rose the next morning. A herald asked, in a loud voice:

"Who wishes to speak?"

No answer from the vast crowd.

"Who wishes to speak?"

No answer.

[113] At length up rose Demosthenes; and he advised that men be sent to Thebes to persuade the people of that city to join Athens in withstanding the northern king and his terrible phalanxes. Several messengers were sent, and among them was Demosthenes. Messengers from Philip also arrived in Thebes. To which side would the Thebans turn? Philip's messengers spoke of his power, and the strong friendship he would show to such as aided him; and the Thebans cheered loudly at the words. Then Demosthenes spoke, and begged the Thebans to remember they were Greeks, of the same race as the Athenians, and speaking the same noble Greek language, and worshipping the same gods. The Thebans were touched by his pleading; they voted to side with Athens.

Alas! a battle followed, and the power of the phalanx won the victory. A thousand Athenians lay dead, and two thousand were taken captive; and the Thebans lost as many. Demosthenes himself was in this battle, and he had to join in the retreat. When the news came to Athens, the terror was great, and old men, women, and children went up and down in the streets with much outcry.

The walls were made stronger; trees were hastily felled to make new defences; and the fleet was prepared for action. Philip, however, made peace with Athens, and gave up the two thousand prisoners; only he forced Athens to agree that he [114] should be called the Chief of Greece. When Philip died, his famous son, Alexander, took the lordship of Greece and Macedonia.

Demosthenes was fairly rich, and, at his own expense, he rebuilt the walls of Athens, and the people showed their esteem for him by giving him a crown of gold. It was said by certain of his enemies that he would take the part of any one who would give him gold—that is, bribe him. And once, when Harpalus, the treasure-keeper, fled from Alexander, and came with his bags of money to Athens, some persons whispered that he had bribed Demosthenes to defend his character by the gift of a cup full of golden coins.

Next day, when Demosthenes was asked to come to the public assembly and state what he thought of the dishonest treasurer, he came with woollen wraps about his neck, saying he had a very bad cold, and could not use his voice! Such is the story related in some books; but you must not believe all you read in the books of history; and I think this account of Demosthenes and the cup of gold is not true.

In the year 322, some time after the death of Alexander, the orator returned to Athens from exile, for he had been banished for a while because of the tale of the bribery. The Athenians met the galley that bore him with shouts of joy. But when the Macedonian generals heard of the return of [115] Demosthenes, they sent to arrest him. He fled across the water to an island on which stood a temple to the Sea-god. In this building he hoped to remain in safety. But his enemies came in boats, and demanded to speak with him. They said his life should be spared if he surrendered. He did not trust their promise. Retiring to a chamber of the temple in order to write a letter, he seemed to be biting the pen while he was thinking how to compose. He was, in fact, sucking poison from the hollow of the pen. Presently he rose up as if to walk from the temple, but he fell near the altar and died. In his memory the Athenians set up a statue of brass.

Orators serve their fatherland by speech, as other men serve it by the sword, or, far better, by their daily labor. Demosthenes was the chief orator of Greece; Cicero was an orator in Rome. In England two great orators were the Earl of Chatham and Mr. Gladstone. In America we think readily of Patrick Henry, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.


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