Demosthenes & Cicero

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Author: Justin D. Lyons
Date: May-June 2017
From: Dig Into History(Vol. 19, Issue 5)
Publisher: Cricket Media
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,165 words

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Even today, more than 2,000 years after they lived, Demosthenes and Cicero are still considered two of history's most outstanding orators. The two men resembled each other not only in their rhetorical abilities but also in their backgrounds. Each came from humble beginnings and rose to positions of influence through the power of speech. Both opposed kings and tyrants; both were, for a time, exiled from their countries; and both were finally seized by their enemies-their deaths marking the end of liberty in their countries.

Demosthenes ...

lived in Greece in the fourth century B.C.E. His father died when he was very young, and he had a difficult childhood. His health was fragile, and his guardians stole much of the money his father had left for his education. Nevertheless, he was determined to succeed, and he soon found the field in which he would excel. After hearing the orator Callistratus argue in court, Demosthenes resolved to learn the art of public speaking in order to sue his guardians for the stolen money. He then took them to court and won. Soon after, he became involved in politics.

Many of Demosthenes' early attempts at speaking were unsuccessful. He had a weak voice and shortness of breath that marred his delivery. Luckily, he was given advice by older men, and he had the good sense to listen to it. He began to study seriously and to practice energetically the art of speaking. He trained as if for physical competition, perfecting his pronunciation by speaking with pebbles in his mouth, overcoming his shortness of breath by talking while running, and refining his delivery by performing in front of a mirror. So determined was Demosthenes to devote himself to his studies that he shaved half of his head so that embarrassment would keep him from going outside!

Demosthenes' reputation as an orator is founded mainly upon the speeches he gave that were aimed at spurring his countrymen to resist expansion into their lands by the Macedonians to the north. At the time, the ruler of Macedon, Philip II, was determined to increase his power by conquering the Greeks. In speeches known as the Philippics and the Olynthiacs, Demosthenes tried to rouse Athens, his native city, to take the lead in an alliance against Philip to preserve Greek freedom. But Philip's advance south was relentless, and, in 338 B.C.E., the Greeks were defeated at Chaeronea--Macedonia now ruled Greece (see also page 35). The following year, Philip bound the Greeks under his leadership as part of the League of Corinth. His triumph, however, was short-lived. He was assassinated in 336 B.C.E. Demosthenes publicly celebrated Philip's death and began to encourage renewed resistance to his son and successor, Alexander (later Alexander the Great). Fortunately for Demosthenes, Alexander was more interested in war against Persia than in punishing him.


When Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C.E., Demosthenes again urged the Athenians to seek independence. The resulting Lamian War was unsuccessful, and Demosthenes had to leave the city. When the Macedonians discovered his whereabouts, he committed suicide rather than be taken captive. Many years later, the Athenians erected a statue honoring him as a defender of freedom.

Marcus Tullius Cicero ...

lived in Rome in the first century B.C.E. Always eager to learn, Cicero's abilities were evident early in his school years. The fathers of the other students even visited the school to witness the talents of the boy who would one day be considered the best orator and poet in Rome.

As a young man, Cicero was determined to make a name for himself by going into politics. What discouraged him were the political struggles plaguing Rome at the time. In 79 B.C.E., fearing the tyrant Sulla, Cicero traveled to Greece, where he studied philosophy. When Sulla died the following year, Cicero resolved to return to public life. He did not return to Rome immediately, however. Instead, he sought out teachers to train his voice for public speaking, carefully heeding their advice on tone and delivery.


When Cicero returned to Rome, he became a leading lawyer, arguing his cases with eloquence. His gifts soon delivered him his first political office, financial administrator of the island of Sicily. In the years that followed, his career advanced until, in 63 B.C.E., he became consul, the highest elected political office in Rome. His greatest achievement while consul was thwarting a plot to overthrow the Roman Republic that was led by Lucius Sergius Catalina, better known as Catiline. His four speeches-the Catiline Orations--exposed the conspirators and led to their being executed or exiled from the city. The Senate bestowed the title Pater Patriae ("Father of the Country") on Cicero, to honor his defense of liberty.

But civil war soon broke out again--this time between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Cicero found himself caught in the middle. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., Cicero argued that the action should be pardoned, even though he had played no part in the conspiracy. Devoted to the cause of freedom, Cicero opposed the growing political power of Caesar's lieutenant, Mark Antony, denouncing him as a would-be tyrant. Caught once again in the power struggles of Rome, he was assassinated. His head and hands were cut off and nailed to the Rostra, the platform in the Roman Forum where orators spoke.

A Look at Oratory

An orator is a very good public speaker. Oratory can be divided into three basic categories: judicial, political, and ceremonial. The first accuses or defends an individual, as in a law court. The second urges or discourages a course of action, as in a political assembly. The third honors or disgraces someone's memory, as at a funeral. Oratory can also be called rhetoric.

What's in a Name?

"Cicero" is actually a family nickname derived from an ancestor who had a dent on his nose that made it resemble a chickpea-cicer in Latin. When Cicero's friends urged him to drop the name, he refused, replying that he would make the name glorious instead.


Hortensia: Roman Heroine

To fund the fight against the assassins of Julius Caesar, the political alliance called the Second Triumvirate placed a tax on the property of Rome's 1,400 wealthiest women in 42 B.C.E. Outraged at being burdened with paying for a war in which they played no part and over which they had no control, the women turned to Hortensia, daughter of the orator Quintus Hortensius, to present their case. In a powerful and courageous speech, she rebuked the triumvirs and questioned the double standard of taxing women while excluding them from public office. As a result, the triumvirs reduced the number of women subject to the tax to 400 and required Rome's wealthiest male citizens to pay more.

Caption: Cicero

Caption: "What now, Catiline? ... Why wait for the authority of the words [of these Senators] when you see their wishes in their silence?"says Cicero to Catiline, who sits, abandoned, at right.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A496345849