When Alexander left for the East, the orator Demosthenes began to urge the Greeks to rise up against him, and win back their freedom. All his eloquence, however, was not enough to persuade them to make war as long as Alexander lived.
But when the conqueror’s death was made known, Demosthenes again tried to arouse them, and this time with success. Phocion, a cautious Athenian, vainly begged the people to wait at least until the news was confirmed, saying, “If Alexander is dead today, he will still be dead tomorrow and on the next day, so that we may take counsel at our leisure.”
This wise caution, however, did not suit the Athenians, who were joined in their revolt by most of the little states and principal towns of Greece, except Sparta. The united Greeks soon raised an army, which marched northward, and met the Macedonian governor’s troops near Thermopylae.
The Greeks were successful here, and, after shutting up the enemy in the fortress of Lamia, closely besieged them. But after a time the Greek general was killed; and, when the Macedonians were reënforced, they gained a decisive victory. This really ended the war; for the Macedonian general, Antipater, broke up the union, and made separate terms of peace for each city.
In his anger, Antipater said he would punish all those who had encouraged the Greeks to revolt. He soon learned that Demosthenes had been one of the principal men to advise the uprising, so he sent his soldiers to make him prisoner.
Demosthenes, warned of his danger, immediately fled, but had only time to take refuge in the Temple of Neptune. There, in spite of the holiness of the place, Antipater’s guards came to get him.
Seeing that it would be useless to resist, the orator asked for a few moments’ respite, that he might write a letter to his friends. The men consented; and Demosthenes, closely watched, took up his tablet and the reed with which he generally wrote.
The soldiers saw him trace a few lines, then stop and bite the top of his reed, as if thinking about what he would say next. But, instead of going on to write his letter, the orator soon covered his head with his cloak and staid quite still.
After a few moments’ waiting, one of the men went to him, and, receiving no answer to his question, drew aside the folds of the cloak. He started back in terror, for the orator’s face was very pale, and he was evidently about to die.
The men quickly carried him out of the temple, so that it should not be defiled by death, and then they found that the reed with which he wrote was hollow, and had contained a deadly drug. Demosthenes had taken the poison, thinking that death would be better than prison.
The Athenians now saw that it would have been wiser to listen to the cautious Phocion: so they set him at the head of their affairs, and promised to obey him. Although honest, Phocion was not very clever, and his caution little by little became cowardice.