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Demosthenes Epitaphios (60), Chaeronea and the Rhetoric of Defeat

Max L. Goldman

Demosthenes was chosen, so he tells us (Dem. de Cor. 285), for the unenviable task of delivering the funeral oration for the Athenians who died at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. The task was even more difficult because the soldiers, whose death he needed to praise, had died fighting a losing battle, a battle he had vigorously advocated for.  The funeral oration transmitted in the Demosthenic corpus, 60, fits this situation, although its genuineness has been questioned since antiquity.  Dionysius of Halicarnassus was convinced that Demosthenes could not have written such a “vulgar, trite, and childish epitaphios,” a style he sensed was so uncharacteristic of the master (Dion. Hal. Dem. 44).  Ian Worthington has recently defended the authenticity, if not the style, of the speech (2003: 152-157).  If authentic, as I believe it is, the speech provides a precious insight into how a society and political leader responded to a disastrous military defeat.

The main explicit function of a funeral oration, the praise of the war dead, allows Demosthenes to reframe defeat as a species of victory.  He accomplishes this reframing by diminishing the fault for the victory while highlighting the bravery of fighting men. In 19, he begins with the banal generality that a battle necessarily involves a winner and a loser. This very banality diminishes the importance of victory while permitting Demosthenes to assert that the true victors are the men on both sides who died fighting at their post. He goes as far as to claim that the failure of the enemy (Philip is deliberately not named) to invade Athens was a result both of the foolishness of the enemy and especially the bravery of the dead men, whose descendants the enemy feared (19-20).  In this way, Demosthenes deploys a commonplace of the epitaphios, the praise of Athens through her citizens, to encourage the descendants of the dead by praise of the valor of their ancestors. The defeat is thus turned to a sort of victory through the unique qualities of the Athenians. This focus on Athenian identity, emphasized through the long discussion of the tribal affiliations (27-31), reinforces the importance and greatness of Athens while diminishing the importance of the defeat.

Demosthenes similarly diminishes the importance of the defeat while praising the dead when he refers to fate (tyche) or a divinity (daimōn) who disposes victory or loss (19-22, 35).  This rhetoric again puts defeat outside the hands of the defeated, although Demosthenes does reserve some blame for Theban commanders (21).  The main rhetorical thrust deploys conventional ideas about bravely facing misfortunes sent by the gods to praise the dead and encourage the living. The very conventionality of the speech, so often criticized (cf Blass 1898: 356-8), its standard topoi praising Athenian democracy, autochthony, historical and mythological battles, provides the Athenian audience a ready made rhetoric for addressing disruptive defeat by minimizing fault through the continuity of Athenian exceptionalism.

Session/Panel Title

The Other Side of Victory: War Losses in the Ancient World

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