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Aeschines (c.390-c.315): Athenian politician and orator.


During the fourth century, the Greek towns were even more divided than in the fifth century, when the Peloponnesian League and Delian League had given some semblance of order to the Greek world. During the Peloponnesian War (431-404), however, Persian gold started to play a role and this was usually sufficient to ensure an endless series of wars among the "Yaunâ". Meanwhile, Macedonia was united by king Philip II, gained strength, and after 346, it was clearly the strongest power in Europe.

The Athenian politician Aeschines, the son of Atrometos, tried to make the best of it. In his view, the best way to protect Athenian independence was peaceful coexistence with Macedonia. A war could not be won.

He started his career as actor, but several of his relatives (including his brothers Philochares and Aphobetus) were politically active and Aeschines followed their example in the late 350s, when he married into the family of the influential politician Philocrates. When the latter signed a treaty with Macedonia (347/346), Aeschines held speeches in favor of it.

Many Athenians, however, were unconvinced that cooperation with Philip was prudent. One of the terms of the Peace of Philocrates was the surrender of Amphipolis to Macedonia, something that most Athenians found unacceptable. Their leader was Demosthenes (384/383-322), who had been one of the negotiators but started to distance himself from the treaty, and accused Aeschines for his conduct during the negotiations, claiming that he had accepted bribes. The accusation was probably untrue, but Demosthenes was popular. In the end, Aeschines was only acquitted because he was supported by influential friends, the military leader Phocion and the orator Eubulus.

In 340, the Macedonian king made things more complex when he laid siege to Perinthus and Byzantium, from where he would threaten the Athenian food supply. Demosthenes had prepared his country for war, which was duly declared. However, Aeschines was among those who believed that it was not inevitable. In 338, he was still conducting peace negotiations, but events moved swifter than he expected. In August 338, a united army of Athenians and Thebans was defeated at Chaeronea by king Philip and his son Alexander.

Although Demosthenes' policy had ruined Athens, he remained popular, and an otherwise unknown politician named Ctesiphon even proposed to offer Demosthenes a gold wreath. Aeschines was against this and indicted Ctesiphon as the author of an illegal measure, which appears to be a correct assessment of the proposal. This famous speech is called Against Ctesiphon (more...).

Demosthenes' even more famous counter-speech On the crown, however, convinced everybody that Aeschines' accusations were mere formalities. Demosthenes presented himself as the true patriot, said that all his acts had been supported by many people, and implied that the Athenians, if they found him guilty, in fact condemned themselves. His speech was a triumph and in a hostile, anti-Macedonian climate (the Spartan king Agis III was preparing for war against the Macedonians), Aeschines was fined and retired into exile in Asia Minor (330).

He appears to have started a school where he taught rhetorics. To be more precise: he specialized on show orations, because political speeches were no longer important in the hellenistic world that had started with the conquests of Alexander. Because he changed the scope of public speaking, Aeschines is therefore called the 'father of the Second Sophistic'.


A biography was included in the Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius (here).

This page was created in 2005; last modified on 23 April 2020.

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