324 BC | Athens

Mixed Motives

Plutarch on the dangers of a public career.

Harpalus the treasurer had run away from Alexander the Great because he was conscious that his prodigality had led him into criminal practices, and because he was afraid of his master, who was now becoming harsh to his friends.

After he had taken refuge with the Athenian people and put himself in their hands with his ships and his treasures, the orators at once fixed their longing eyes upon his wealth, came to his aid, and tried to persuade the Athenians to receive and save the suppliant. At first Demosthenes counseled them to drive Harpalus away, and to beware lest they plunge the city into war upon an unnecessary and unjust ground. A few days afterward, however, while they were making an inventory of the treasure, Harpalus saw that Demosthenes was eyeing with pleasure a cup of barbarian make, with a keen appreciation of its fashion and of the ornamental work upon it. He therefore bade him hold it in his hand and see how heavy the gold was. And when Demosthenes was amazed at its weight and asked how much it would amount to, Harpalus smiled and said, “For you it will amount to twenty talents,” and as soon as night came he sent him the cup with the twenty talents. Now, Harpalus was skillful in detecting the character of a man who had a passion for gold, by means of the look that spread over his face and the glances of his eyes. For Demosthenes could not resist, but was overcome by the bribe, and now that he had, as it were, admitted a garrison into his house, he promptly went over to the side of Harpalus. Next day, after swathing his neck carefully in woolen bandages, he went forth into the assembly, and when he was urged to rise and speak, he made signs that his voice was ruined. The wits, however, by way of raillery, declared that the orator had been seized overnight, not with an ordinary quinsy but with a silver quinsy. And afterward, when the whole people learned that he had been bribed and would not permit him, when he wished it, to have a hearing and make his defense, but were angry and raised a tumult against him, someone rose and said jokingly, “Men of Athens, will you not listen to the man who holds the cup?”

At that time, then, they sent Harpalus away from the city, and fearing lest they should be called to account for the money the orators had seized, they made a zealous search for it and went around to their houses on the quest.

Speak without regard for the consequences, and it is too late for silence when disaster strikes.

—Huan Kuan, 81 BC

Demosthenes put a bold face on the matter and introduced a bill providing that the case should be referred for investigation to the council of the Areiopagus, and that those should be brought to trial who were found guilty there. He was himself, however, among the first condemned by the council and came before the court for trial, where he was sentenced to a fine of fifty talents and delivered over to prison in default of payment. Out of shame at the charge under which he lay, as he says, and owing to the weakness of his body, which could not endure confinement, he ran away, through the carelessness of some of his keepers and the connivance of others.

He bore his exile without fortitude, taking up his quarters in Aegina and Troezen for the most part, and looking off toward Attica with tears in his eyes, so that utterances of his are on record which are not generous or consonant with his spirited efforts as a statesman. Moreover, when young men came to visit and converse, he would try to deter them from public life, saying that if two roads had been presented to him in the beginning, one leading to the podium and the assembly and the other straight to destruction, and if he could have known beforehand the evils attendant on a public career, namely, fears, hatreds, calumnies, and contentions, he would have taken that road which led directly to death.

Contributor

Plutarch

From Parallel Lives. Born in Boeotia around 46, Plutarch studied in Athens and was made a priest in Delphi. His Lives consists largely of twenty-two pairs of biographies juxtaposing similar historical figures from Greece and Rome. Demosthenes is partnered with the Roman statesman and writer Cicero. “The exile of the former was shameful,” writes Plutarch, “since he was convicted of theft, but the latter suffered it on account of the most glorious action, the elimination of men who were bringing destruction on his fatherland.”