Aeschines (c. 390-314 BCE) was a prominent Athenian politician, orator, and teacher of rhetoric in the tumultuous 4th century BCE. He lived during the meteoric rise of Macedonian dominance in the Greek world, which was set on track by King Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-336 BCE) and was brought to further fruition by the famed Alexander the Great (r. 336-322 BCE). As a politician and statesman, Aeschines advocated for Athenian peace and coexistence with the Macedonians. Yet, in the battle to shape debate and policy, Aeschines was defeated by his arch-rival orator, the great Demosthenes (c. 384-322 BCE), who became the spokesman for Athenian resistance to Macedonian influence. Active Greek military defiance of the Macedonians was gutted, however, when King Philip II and Alexander won the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE, which cinched the Macedonian hegemony over Greece. Despite failing to stop the ascendance of Philip and Alexander in Greek politics, Demosthenes remained an incredibly popular figure in Athens, and his bitter feud with Aeschines continued in daily Athenian life. Demosthenes charged Aeschines with treason, and Aeschines similarly litigated a case about Demosthenes illegally receiving a golden crown. Both Demosthenes and Aeschines failed to get the results they wanted in their cases, but Aescheines was the least popular of the two, and he decided to go into exile around 330 BCE. Aeschines retired to Rhodes, where he gave up his political ambitions and devoted himself to teaching rhetoric.
Aeschines had witnessed the power of Demosthenes’ oratory firsthand—it had driven him out of Athens, after all—and so, for teaching purposes, Aeschines was said to have tamped down his own pride in order to use his rival’s speeches for the purpose of educating his students about the art of speech and persuasion. As a talented orator himself, Aeschines could reproduce Demosthenes’ speeches to great effect, often eliciting the applause of his audiences. Yet, according to legend, these bursts of applause for performances of speeches that he did not personally write started to irk Aeschines. During one such instance when he was being cheered over lines he had not personally penned, Aeschines politely and wittily chided the applauding crowd and humbly reminded them that the original performance of the speech by its actual author was much better than his own rendition. This tale survived for centuries to find its way to the mind of the Roman writer, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/61-113), who recalled in a letter, “the tale of Aeschines at Rhodes, who countered the general applause he won for reading one of Demosthenes’ speeches with the words: ‘Suppose you had heard the beast himself?’ And yet, if we are to believe Demosthenes, Aeschines had a very good voice; all the same, he admitted that the speech had been much better when its author delivered it himself” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.3). Such tales are food for thought in an age filled with speechwriters and teleprompters.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of a study for Anthony’s Oration over the body of Caesar, by Edwin Austin Abbey (c. 1852–1911), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Yale University Art Gallery).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.