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Interstitial Politics: Thucydides, Demosthenes, and the Athenian Character

Branden D. Kosch

University of Chicago

When comparing Thucydides and Demosthenes, Wilamowitz (1911) said of the latter, “Thukydideische Gedankentiefe fehlt; ein Menschenkenner war er[Demosthenes] nicht….” In more recent studies, scholars have continued to view the relationship as a more or less appropriative one: Demosthenes adopted the Periclean ethos (Yunis) or simply reversed and negated Thucydides’ characterizations of Athens in its Golden Age (Mader). In this paper I argue that he was a much more sensitive reader of Thucydides than has generally been claimed. In particular, I focus on two elements of their intertextual relationship: first, I examine each author’s characterization of a distinctive intellectual capacity of the Athenians. In Thucydides they are able to envision possibilities in such a way that they inevitably become reality (e.g. 1.70: μόνοι γὰρ ἔχουσί τε ὁμοίως καὶ ἐλπίζουσιν ἃ ἂν ἐπινοήσωσι). In Demosthenes this visionary capacity to make the possible actual devolves into obsession with an imaginary world of festivals parades (4.26) and building projects (3.28-9). Using a variety of images, he repeatedly characterizes the Athenians as being stuck in an interstitial state between the reality of the political crisis facing them and the fantasy world they have constructed for themselves. So in the First Philippic he describes them as men playing with clay puppets (4.26), in the First Olynthiac as living a life of luxury on credit (1.15), and in the Third as sick patients being kept alive at a subsistence level by their doctors (3.33).

 This intellectual problem is connected with the second issue on which the paper focuses: the relationship between λόγος and ἔργον in each author. For Thucydides’ Athenians there is “a dynamic harmony of λόγος and ἔργον” (Parry 1981, 131). For Demosthenes’ it is not just a matter of words without deeds, as Mader claims (2003, 66); rather, deeds have affected words (3.32), that is intellectual decline has been caused by a specific instance of misguided action, namely the use of mercenaries. The Athenians’ refusal to participate directly in the war has affected the way they deliberate about it. Their interstitial mentality and their fixation on an imaginary world can be traced back to this pathological development of the λόγος/ἔργον dynamic.

 In articulating his pathology of contemporary Athenians, Demosthenes thus demonstrates both a sensitive engagement with Thucydides’ portrayal of Athens and his own ability to develop this portrayal to account for the political crisis that he himself was attempting to address. Accordingly, Demosthenic political thought should be characterized not as an appropriation of the Thucydidean but rather as a meaningful development thereof. In representing the Athens of his own day, Demosthenes produced a powerful positive image of its intellectual transformation from a city expanding to a city evanescing.

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Historiography and Identity

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