Demosthenes, the Philippics and the Macedonians

AncientsDemosthenes, the Philippics and the Macedonians

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An important point of reference in ancient history and the ongoing question of whether the Macedonians were Greeks is the Athenian orator Demosthenes. He left us important testimonies on this question, which we will now briefly consider here. Because, in our opinion, there is no doubt. Demosthenes made it absolutely clear what the ancient Greeks thought of the Macedonians.

Demosthenes was one of the most important and famous Greek orators. After the Peace of Philocrates in 346 BC, he rose to become the leading statesman in Athens. Accordingly, his statements made have weight. His opinions gain even more weight from the fact that, as Athens’ leading statesman, he forged an alliance against Philip II of Macedon. This alliance was defeated by Philip in 338 BC at the Battle of Chaeronea.

The Athenian was born in 384 BC, he lived until 322 BC when he committed suicide. He was being hunted by a later Macedonian king and he wanted to evade arrest.

Demosthenes speeches against Philip – Philippic

The Athenian orator is more than present in historiography. The label “Philippic” refers to his speeches against the Macedonian king Philip, who expanded his power and set about subjugating the Greeks. The Athenian opposed this with all his might, and with all his words, as we shall soon see.

However, the speeches known as the Olynthian Speeches, On Peace, and On Halonnesos also fall under the synonym “Speeches against Philip.”

From the Philippics we shall draw a quotation, another from the speech On the Crown, which came later. These quotes clearly and unequivocally show what the ancient Greeks thought about the Macedonians.

“Not Greek nor related to the Greeks”

In these “hate speeches” against Philip, Demosthenes spoke unequivocal words. Clear words that modern Greek propaganda tries to avoid.

Let’s take a look at what is probably the best-known quote from Demosthenes, which he uttered in his third speech against Philip. In historiography, this passage is referred to as “Dem. 9.31”.

But if some slave or superstitious bastard had wasted and squandered what he had no right to, heavens! how much more monstrous and exasperating all would have called it! Yet they have no such qualms about Philip and his present conduct, though he is not only no Greek, nor related to the Greeks, but not even a barbarian from any place that can be named with honor, but a pestilent knave from Macedonia, whence it was never yet possible to buy a decent slave.

We see two important core statements. First, Demosthenes refers to Philip as a barbarian, which in the eyes of the ancient Greeks was at the same time a synonym for a non-Greek or a stranger. Modern Greek propaganda tries to interpret this circumstance as a “political statement” made by Demosthenes, because among the ancient Greeks it was not unusual for “a Greek to call another Greek a barbarian”.

However, this reasoning is only partially correct. Yes, there were other examples where Greeks referred to each other as barbarians. But, one should not forget that we are talking about ancient times when there was not yet a unified Greece (whether as a state or an empire), or even a Greek nation in the modern sense.

We now come to the second core statement of Demosthenes in the quoted passage. He called Philip, and thus the Macedonians, “he is not only no Greek nor related to the Greeks“. This unequivocal statement is mostly sidestepped by Greek propaganda by focusing on the “political barbarian statement”.

Because, in contrast to the term barbarians, historiography is not aware of any example where Greeks call each other in such a way that they are not related or are not Greeks!

“Man of Foreign Origin”

In the speech “On the Crown” we see another statement by Demosthenes to the Macedonians and their king. And again it is unmistakably clear that the ancient Greeks did not see the Macedonians as Greeks.

In this speech it becomes even clearer. While Demosthenes refers to the Macedonians as strangers, in the following sentence he says that the Athenians do not regard the Thebans as strangers “neither in race nor in nationality”!

Let us read through the two passages known as Dem. 10.185 and Dem. 10.186.

185 and exhort them not to be dismayed at Philip, but to hold fast to their own liberty and the liberty of the other Greeks, assuring them that the people of Athens, harboring no ill will for previous mutual differences between the states, will help them with troops, money, ammunition, and arms, knowing that, while it is an honor able ambition for Greeks to dispute with each other for the hegemony, yet to be ruled by a man of alien race and to be robbed by him of that hegemony is unworthy both of the reputation of the Greeks and of the merits of their ancestors.

186 Furthermore, the People of Athens regard the people of Thebes as in no way alien either in race or in nationality. They remember the services rendered by their own ancestors to the ancestors of the Thebans, for, when the sons of Heracles were dispossessed by the Peloponnesians of their paternal dominion, they restored them, overcoming in battle those who were trying to oppose the descendants of Heracles; and we harbored Oedipus and his family when they were banished; and many other notable acts of kindness have we done to the Thebans.

If we analyze these two passages, it’s pretty clear. Demosthenes did not see the Macedonians as Greeks, but as strangers. For Demosthenes, being ruled by a Macedonian was “unworthy of the reputation of the Greeks”. While the Thebans were not considered foreign “by race or nationality”.

References used: Demosthenes, On the Crown and Demosthenes, Philippic 3 from the English translations by J.H. Vince, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1930. and C.A. Vince, M.A. and J.H. Vince, M.A. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1926 published at

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