You are here

Demosthenic influences in early rhetorical education: Hellenistic rhetores and Athenian imagination

Mirko Canevaro

This chapter discusses the afterlife of Demosthenes as a political model in Hellenistic times, and through his image the afterlife of Athenian democratic values in the Hellenistic world. Scholars have usually agreed that Demosthenes’ fortune was very limited and controversial during the Hellenistic period, due to changing stylistic predilections and the Peripatetics’ incisive criticism (e.g. Adams 1927; Mathieu 1948: 179-82; Carlier 1990: 277-86; Kennedy 1994: 96; Cooper 2000). Drerup (1923) in particular has fostered this view, which sees a reversal of Demosthenes’ fortune only in the first century BCE, when he becomes the model of the orator, and as such is considered throughout the Imperial age.

This chaper first shows how political struggles in Athens between the heirs of Demosthenes’ ‘party’ and pro-Macedonian politicians and philosophers shaped the later reception of Demosthenes’ figure. Through an analysis of the sources of Demosthenes’ biographical tradition it will be shown that this tradition had its foundation in slanderous assessments of his character and ability by writers such as Theopompus and various Peripatetic philosophers – Demetrius of Phalrum, Theophrastus and Critolaus - who shared Macedonian leanings or at least relied on sources with such leanings. Their statements were part of a debate which saw on the other side politicians and writers such as Demochares, Demosthenes’ nephew, who memorialized the uncle, in his historical writings and in the decree in his honour, as a staunch democrat and the defender of the freedom of Athens. Building on the work of Asmonti (2004) and Marasco (1984), I shall show how Demosthenes’ action, style and motifs were a key element of Demochares’ writings.

Against the scholarly consensus (e.g. Cooper 2000), I shall argue that the anti-Demosthenic tradition was a minority tradition in the Hellenistic age. Far from ignoring Demosthenes, a flourishing rhetorical and political tradition in the Hellenistic poleis saw Demosthenes as a political and rhetorical model symbolizing the civic virtues of a free city. This tradition is less represented in the works transmitted, but allusions to rhetorical exercises and to Demosthenes’ influence in Polybius (e.g. 18.14) and elsewhere, and Polybius’ own rhetorical style (as shown by Wooten 1974; cf. e.g. Polyb. 9.32-9).

The evidence of two Egyptian papyri (Pack3 2511 = P.Berl. 9781 and Pack3 2496 = P.Hibeh 1.15) from the third century BCE can help us flesh out this picture, and assess more closely the themes and the nature of Demosthenes’ fortune in the Hellenistic age (these and more fragmentary papyri all dated between the third and the first century BCE have been recently studied by Kremmydas 2013). These papyri attest that the practice, usually ascribed to the Second Sophistic, of composing fictitious speeches in the style of Demosthenes and the Attic orators, and setting them in a classical Athenian context (cf. Russell 1983: 3–9; Gibson 2004: 126–8), was already common as early as the 3rd century BCE. They have both been identified as school excercises, possibly however composed as model speeches by teachers rather than the work of some pupil, due to the remarkably high quality of their prose and contents. The first papyrus is supposed to be a speech by Leptines against Demosthenes (cf. Dem. 20) and the second a speech by Leosthenes encouraging the Athenians to fight after the death of Alexander.

These meletai appropriate very thoroughly Athenian democratic ideology, and reproduce convincingly a Demosthenic persona. They are witnesses of a deep engagement with the Athenian material: it is the ideas, the institutions and the political context that the authors of the meletai are interested in. Teachers and rhetoricians in the third and second centuries BCE are trying to reproduce a political paradigm of public life and political action which was, as soon as the third century, and as far as Hibeh and Hermoupolis, the main attraction of Demosthenes and the orators.

Session/Panel Title

Civic Responsibility

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy