by Ronan McLaverty-Head
October 02, 2020
Demosthenes Practicing Oratory
by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy
Whether or not you watched the
'US presidential debate' this week,
you've likely heard about it.
And what you have likely heard,
regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, is that as
a debate, it fell short of a civilized exchange by a long shot.
are taking this as a sign of a fracturing, even doomed America,
others cross their arms and say it's not that easy to topple a
My reaction was neither. Instead, I had a flashback to classical
The nasty exchanges between Demosthenes and Aeschines in
fourth century Greece give the Trump-Biden tug-of-war a run for its
money, let me tell you.
Indeed, character assassinations are nothing new to the political
order, as Classical Wisdom contributor Ronan McLaverty-Head makes
abundantly clear in the inclosed article on corruption in the
Whether it's Biden accusing
Trump of being a flat-out liar ("Do you
believe for a moment what he's telling you, in light of all the lies
he's told you about the whole issue relating to
Covid?") or Trump
Biden's intelligence ("Did you use the word
'smart'?"), ad hominems took more than their fair share of the
spotlight in Tuesday's September 29, 2020 debate.
Accusations of corruption were also on display, as they were in
What Ronan's article asks of Athenian society, we
can ask about US society:
What do such accusations say about how
Americans view political corruption today?
The barbs traded between
Aeschines in 4th century BC
Athens would not be out of place on cable news today.
attempt to draw up a treaty between Athens and Philip of Macedon,
Demosthenes and Aeschines fell out spectacularly.
accused Aeschines of corruption of the highest order - treason (παραπρεσβεία
γραφή "false embassy") - claiming that Aeschines had been bribed by
Aeschines countered with an ad hominem, claiming that
had backed Demosthenes, was allegedly a male prostitute whose
reputation as such invalidated him.
Demosthenes replied by accusing Aeschines of a further raft of deceit.
Demosthenes tried to prove
bribery, but lacked sufficient evidence.
Here we have one of the major problems with accusations of
they are intended to denigrate an opponent...
they are character assassinations and should often be taken with a
pinch of salt.
However, the point here is not so much whether Aeschines was in fact corrupt but that Athenian society clearly had
a view of something that counted as corruption:
"As for the question of bribery or no bribery, of course you are
agreed that it is a scandalous and abominable offense to accept
money for acts injurious to the commonwealth…
The man who takes
them and is thereby corrupted can no longer be trusted by the state
as a judge of sound policy".
Demosthenes, On the False Embassy
Views on corruption in ancient Rome were similar.
In 70 BC,
made his name as a lawyer in a series of speeches in the corruption
Gaius Verres, the former governor of Sicily.
charges against Verres included embezzlement and extortion.
As is often
the case with Cicero, it is sometimes difficult to
separate his rhetorical flourishes from the facts, but again, what
matters here is that his audience already considered embezzlement
and extortion to be practices unbefitting a public official.
Frank H. Cowles says, Verres,
"stood for the whole
leaving the Assembly in shame
after his first failure at
by Walter Crane
Concern about corruption went to
the very top of Roman society.
Alexander Severus (AD 208 - 235) indicted an imperial
official who had received money for peddling influence at court.
This practice was known as
fumum vendere - "smoke-selling" - and the
punishment was grimly appropriate: a fire of wet logs was set around
the accused and he suffocated to death.
"Thereupon Alexander ordered him to be indicted, and when all the
charges had been proved by witnesses…
He issued instructions to
bind him to a stake [and] ordered a fire of straw and wet logs to be
made and had him suffocated by the smoke, and all the while a herald
'The seller of
smoke is punished by smoke'."
Augusta: Life of Severus Alexander
(Ironically, Alexander Severus, when campaigning against Germanic
tribes, tried to buy peace by engaging in bribery. This alienated
many in his army and eventually led to his overthrow.)
Manuscript Pal. lat. 899
which contains the Historia Augusta.
Any modern reader of the classics might conclude that the ancient
world mostly turned a blind eye to what we would consider to be
corruption, given that the subject doesn't come up all that often.
Such a conclusion, however, would be mistaken.
Why is this?
First of all, in both the ancient and modern world,
corruption is often quite difficult to prosecute. Second, what we
might see as corruption may not have been corruption when judged by
Officials were often unsalaried and the
charging of fees was a way of collecting income and managing access
to an official's time.
Similarly, a whole system of patronage - you scratch my back, I'll
scratch yours - could be bypassed by those without connections by the
exchange of money.
"Bribery" was in this sense a social leveler...
Does such a thing count as corruption? Much depends on who benefits.
Cicero's admonition still rings true:
"Let those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of
one, that they so watch for the well-being of their
fellow-citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do,
forgetting their own private interests.
the other, that they care
for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion
of it, neglect other portions".
Cicero, On Moral Duties
Ultimately, Demosthenes was right:
"injurious to the commonwealth"...
recent UN panel concluded, modern high-level
corruption in the form of tax evasion and money laundering costs
society $500 billion each year:
"We're all being
robbed, especially the world's poor."
Alas, Cicero's salus populi is not yet