Ancient Greek politicians: not dissimilar to our own?


On May 6th in the UK, the nation went to the polls in perhaps the most contested and unpredictable election for several decades. Televised leaders’ debates revolutionized the election campaign with each leader having to explain and defend their policies to millions of viewers.


But what was the rough and tumble of politics like in ancient Greece and particularly in the heart of the famous Athenian democracy?

One of the best archaeological sites to visit in Athens today is the Pnyx – the site of the democratic Athenian assembly. At its centre is the ‘bema’, the speakers’ platform, on which any citizen could stand and have their say.

But, of course, amongst the body politic, there were certain individuals who were able to sway the assembly more eloquently and more frequently than most. These individuals, who have been called the ‘demagogues’ of ancient Athens, or even ‘proto politicians’, are infamous in history: Pericles, Alcibiades and Kleon to name a few from the 5th century BC alone.

But perhaps one of the most famous is Demosthenes: the orator who, over the course of 20 or more years in the 4th century BC, constantly harangued the Athenian assembly into making a stand against Philip of Macedon, and, consequently, spent a good deal of time in the law courts of Athens defending his record.

Demosthenes is one of a larger group of orators who strove to gain influence over Athens and direct her policy during this crucial period of Greek history in the second half of the 4th century.

Thankfully not just their names survive but many details about their lives and many of their speeches (mostly their law courts speeches): men like Aeschines (the arch rival of Demosthenes and supporter of Philip), as well as orators like Demades, Dinarchus, Hyperides, Eubulus, Phocion, Lycurgus and others.

But what fate awaited these men in the long run? Often not an enviable one: several would be executed by the Athenian state.

But one of the fascinating things about Demosthenes’ career I think is that after he had managed to convince the Athenians to stand again Philip at the battle of Chaeronea, which Athens lost, and from which Demosthenes may even have run away, he was not universally condemned by the city. In fact he was invited to give the eulogy for the war dead in the city’s cemetery soon afterwards.

What upset Demosthenes’ standing, ironically, was not the fact that he had guided Athens into defeat, but a much later event when he was suspected of stealing public money, for which Athens put him on trial and expelled him. It was financial scandals that brought down politicians even then!


Reprinted from Neos Kosmos