Demosthenes was a Greek orator, speech-writer, and politician. He was known as a great champion of democracy and an advocate of the right of Greece to exist as a separate nation from Macedonia.
One of Demosthenes’ claims to modern-day fame, especially among speech-language pathologists, was that he was said to stutter (some say his problem was with articulation) as a young boy, and to have overcome it. However, this notion is not easy to substantiate, since there was no separate term for stuttering in his day and his speech may have been merely indistinct as a child. Aeschines, Demosthenes’ political enemy. referred to Demosthenes in his speeches by the nickname "Batalus", a term apparently invented by Demosthenes' teachers in his early schooling or by his childhood playmates. The term can be taken to mean “stutterer.”
According to Plutarch, Demosthenes as a youth spoke with "a perplexed and indistinct utterance and a shortness of breath, which, by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke." (Plutarch, 75 AD).
Demosthenes is said to have created his own speech therapy regimen, working on his voice, on his articulation (diction) and on his gestures. He is also said to have talked with pebbles in his mouth and to have recited verses while running along the seashore, shouting over the roar of the waves in order to improve his speech.
Plutarch described the process through which Demosthenes taught himself to be a public speaker:
Hereupon he built himself a place to study in under ground (which was still remaining in our time), and hither he would come constantly every day to form his action and to exercise his voice; and here he would continue, oftentimes without intermission, two or three months together, shaving one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much.
Demosthenes delivered his first speeches at the age of 20, arguing at first for his claim to his family inheritance. For a time, he worked as a lawyer and a professional speech-writer, writing speeches for other lawyers to use in legal suits. He then served in the Greek governmental assembly as a public speaker and gained considerable influence. He became famous in Greece for his special talents as an orator.
The oratorical prowess of Demosthenes was said to have been due to his passionate way of expressing himself. His speeches were both practical and appealing to popular audiences with his arguments being not only compelling and lucid, but also intricate. His examples were vivid. The speeches were carefully prepared but appeared to be spontaneous.
According to Dionysius, a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric, Demosthenes used several oratorical styles available at the time (normal, archaic, and plain) bringing together the best in each. His main focus was on Attic prose—a kind of oratory that was unadorned, as opposed to the more ornate style of traditional oratory.
The main criticism of Demosthenes' performance as an orator was his reluctance to speak extemporaneously. He declined to comment on topics that he had not studied and to form arguments he had not practiced. (Might this have had to do with his worry he would stutter?)
According to Cicero, Demosthenes regarded "delivery" (gestures, voice etc.) as more important than style. He made efficient use of his body to accentuate his words. Thus he managed to project his ideas and arguments much more forcefully.
Other orators who were contemporaries of Demosthenes regarded him as a great orator. According to Longinus, Demosthenes "perfected to the utmost the tone of lofty speech, living passions, copiousness, readiness, speed”, Cicero acclaimed him as "the perfect orator" who lacked nothing, and Quintilian described him as setting a standard for all orators. Demosthenes skills were not praised by everyone. Demetrius Phalereus ridiculed Demosthenes' for being too theatrical, and Aeschines, his political enemy, described his falling silent when speaking to Philip II, king of Macedonia:
in a voice dead with fright, and after a brief narration of earlier events suddenly fell silent and was at a loss for words, and finally abandoned his speech. Seeing the state he was in, Philip encouraged him to take heart and not to supposed that he had suffered a complete catastrophe . . . But Demosthenes . . . was now unable to recover; he tried once more to speak, and the same thing happened. In the ensuing silence the herald asked us to withdraw (Aeschines 2.34-35; cf. 38).
Aeschines desribes Demosthenes as follows: Demosthenes’ throat is stoppered with fear and choked with indignation, and when he opens his mouth he can only squeak and flap about (Worman, 2004, p. 16).
Demosthenes’s gave many speeches critical of King Philip II of Madeconia. Alexander, Philips son, and later ruler of Greece, insisted that the Athenian orators who had criticized his father be punished for treason. Demosthenes fled to a temple of Poseidon for sanctuary. Realizing he was to be killed, Demosthenes committed suicide by poisoning himself.
For an argument that Demosthenes did not stutter see:
Rose, Martha (2003) The staff of Oedipus: Transforming disability in ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
For more on Demosthenes and his speeches see:
Demosthenes (2010) Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demosthenes on February 28, 2010.
Plutarch, (75 AD). Demosthenes. http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/demosthe.html. Retrieved January 8, 2010.
Worman, Nancy (2004). Insult and oral excess in the disputes between Aeschines and Demosthenes. American Journal of Philology, 125, 1-25.
Worthington, Ian (2000). Demosthenes: Statesman and orator. London & New York, Routledge.
Worthington, Ian (2006) Demosthenes: Speeches 60 and 61, Prologues, Letters, The Oratory of Classical Greece Series Vol. 10 Austin, University of Texas Press.