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Plutarch's Death of Demosthenes

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by Emily Lnenicka – November 8, 2011

Introduction Edit

When constructing a biographical account, the biographer is faced with important decisions concerning what should be included, and why. Such decisions are indicative of the biographer’s style, and in the case of ancient biographers, we can study these decisions to garner a better understanding of what any given ancient biographer focused on. Plutarch, for example, makes many interesting and unique choices about how his account of a significant life can best be articulated in a tragic narrative. In “Life of Demosthenes,” Plutarch illustrates various aspects of Demosthenes’ character throughout his narrative in order to suggest many different possible motivations behind Demosthenes’ suicide. Including multiple illustrations of Demosthenes’ character was a deliberate attempt, on the part of Plutarch, to complicate an understanding of Demosthenes’ death by giving the reader numerous possible answers to the question of why Demosthenes committed suicide.

Modernization Project: Retelling Plutarch as a Graphic Novel Edit

In order to modernize Plutarch’s account, with a focus on how he supports various interpretations of Demosthenes’ death, I chose to retell the account in the form of a graphic novel. My choice supports an exploration of numerous possible motivations for Demosthenes’ suicide, largely due to the complex nature of our modern understanding of suicide. For instance, the act of committing suicide is a crime in the United States, yet physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill is increasingly accepted as a suitable means of offering a dignified and humane death for the patient. Also, suicide-bombers commit suicide as a means of protest, and Japanese kamikaze attacks were glorified during World War II and honored by the Japanese people. The existence of so many diverse interpretations of suicide in the modern world promotes a nuanced understanding of suicide, as a general concept. Thus, examining Plutarch’s depiction of Demosthenes’ suicide through a modern lens inevitably encourages the reader to be open to a variety of possible motivations that may explain Demosthenes’ choice to take his own life. The decision to use a graphic novel format was strategic; it can incorporate a portrayal of Plutarch’s narration along with visual cues that more explicitly foreshadow Demosthenes’ death. I purposefully drew my graphics in a cartoony style in order to divorce the style of my adaptation even further away from Plutarch’s style, thereby forcing the reader to focus on the content that my graphics conveyed. In my graphic novel adaptation, I chose to depict a few strong passages of the narrative in which Plutarch illustrates different characteristics of Demosthenes, each of which motivates a complex understanding of Demosthenes’ suicide. While these passages are by no means exhaustive of the various examples of support Plutarch gives for different interpretations of Demosthenes’ death, they are certainly illustrative of the kinds of examples given throughout the narrative. By examining these passages and representing them visually, we are prompted to view Demosthenes’ suicide as the result of many different possible motivations.


Demosthenes’ Death (According to Plutarch) Edit

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The manner of Demosthenes’ death, as told by Plutarch, is deliberately open to interpretation. In short, Demosthenes commits suicide by poisoning himself with the poison stored in his quill (Plutarch 559-560). Plutarch describes the act as follows: “…[Demosthenes] went into the temple as though he would have dispatched some letters, and did put the end of the quill in his mouth which he wrote withal, and bit it as his manner was when he did use to write anything, and held the end of the quill in his mouth” (Plutarch 559). As Plutarch relays the act, Demosthenes takes his own life in a very private manner, by removing himself from any potential witnesses in order to ingest the poison. He tells no one of his intentions, and hides his true motives by pretending that he is merely leaving to send off some letters. As a biographer, Plutarch does not want to support conclusively one interpretation of Demosthenes’ death, but rather aims to provide support for numerous (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations throughout his account. The support he provides is primarily through anecdotes that give insight into Demosthenes’ personal and psychological characteristics. By describing different aspects of Demosthenes’ character, Plutarch’s narrative supports a more complex account of different possible interpretations explaining why Demosthenes committed suicide. The character traits demonstrated in the following passages each support a different interpretation of the motivation for Demosthenes’ suicide. I am not advocating for any one interpretation, but rather giving equal consideration to each. By considering each interpretation as equally plausible, we can come to appreciate the complex nature of Demosthenes death, as articulated by Plutarch.

Illustrations of Character Traits and Implications for Demosthenes’ Suicide Edit

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The first passage in which Plutarch noticeably articulates an important characteristic of Demosthenes occurs early in the narrative. Here, Plutarch details the moment when Demosthenes decided to become an orator, which supposedly occurred after observing Calistratus’ oration. Plutarch writes, “when Demosthenes had heard the case pleaded, he was greatly in love with the honour which the orator had got, when he saw how [Calistratus] was waited upon home with such a train of people after him” (Plutarch 536). It is important to note the emphasis that Plutarch places on Demosthenes’ infatuation with the honor bestowed on an orator. Plutarch could have simply said that Demosthenes was inspired after observing Calistratus in action, and left it at that; but his choice to illustrate Demosthenes’ psychological characteristics that motivated his inspiration demonstrates that stressing Demosthenes’ desire for honor is important to Plutarch’s narrative. In particular, it is important for understanding Demosthenes’ death.

When translating this passage into graphic form, I focused on emphasizing Demosthenes’ desire for honor through images. I de-emphasized the character and actions of Calistratus, himself, by drawing him only from behind. By drawing the crowds of people as if they are facing the reader, I kept the focus on honor Calistratus received from the crowds that celebrated his orations. I drew a significantly more detailed image of Demosthenes (as compared to the stick figures that represent the people in the crowd) as he observed the veneration. In the final frame, I chose to juxtapose Demosthenes’ desire for honor with suggestions of his mortality, by drawing him with his skeleton exposed while contemplating his desire for honor. Such juxtaposition makes thinking about Demosthenes’ desire for honor in connection with his death unavoidable. One interpretation, then, is that Demosthenes chose to commit suicide as a result of his desire to maintain the honor he had garnered throughout his life. Suicide can be seen as a means of preserving one’s honor by dying on one’s own terms, in a private manner. Perhaps Demosthenes chose suicide as a means of preserving his honor—the thought being that dying privately and one his own terms would be more honorable than being paraded around in public.

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After Demosthenes sets his sights on becoming an orator, Plutarch details the journey he takes in order to fulfill his dream. He tells of Demosthenes’ shortcomings, including his strange manner of speech and a naturally weak voice, which were subject to public ridicule (Plutarch 538). If Demosthenes were to become a great orator, he would first need to make drastic improvements in these respects—especially with regard to the strength of his voice. An important aspect of a great orator is the ability to give an impressive delivery of one’s oration (which is part of what Demosthenes responded so positively to when hearing Calistratus). Demosthenes recognized that his weak voice was, in its natural condition, simply incapable of achieving such an impressive delivery. However, Plutarch demonstrates an important characteristic of Demosthenes by showing that instead of giving up on his dream of becoming an orator, Demosthenes takes matters into his own hands, and works to eliminate his deficiencies. Plutarch describes, “Thereupon he built him a cellar under the ground…and he would daily go down into it, to fashion his gesture and pronunciation, and also to exercise his voice, and that which such earnest affection, that oftentimes he would be there two or three months one after another” (Plutarch 539). Here, Plutarch is illustrating Demosthenes’ incredible determination and perseverance. In addition, he shows that Demosthenes is a person who takes control of the situation, rather than letting the situation (in this case, his shortcomings) control him. Plutarch certainly was under no obligation to describe how Demosthenes tirelessly worked towards being an orator; but since Plutarch did choose to include such a description, it is reasonable to assume that his reasons for doing so were, in some way, integral to his narrative. One point in the narrative to which such inclusions were integral was, again, Plutarch’s depiction of Demosthenes’ death.

In order to translate this passage graphically, my aim was to focus on Demosthenes’ efforts to overcome his shortcomings, rather than on the public’s mockery of these deficiencies. While focusing on Demosthenes’ efforts, I also intended to highlight the implied character traits that motivated these efforts, and to suggest that the reader begin thinking about these characteristics in conjunction with Demosthenes’ eventual death. My attempts at both highlighting Demosthenes’ character traits and introducing the idea of death are most evident in the second and fifth frames of the sequence. In these frames, I explicitly state Demosthenes’ motivating traits in the captions, as well as hint at the traits within the thought bubbles. To bring in a suggestion of the traits contributing to the manner of Demosthenes’ death, I illustrate Demosthenes with the classic “X” in place of his pupils. The implication, then, is that his thoughts (about his actions, and subsequently, his character traits propelling his actions) are somehow connected to his death. One interpretation of how to understand this connection is that since Demosthenes is a person who takes control of his situations (whatever they may be), perhaps he also wanted to take control of his death, and did so by dying by his own hand rather than by the hands of another. Another interpretation might be that since Demosthenes was a man who persevered and refused to let roadblocks defeat him, he would similarly be extremely hesitant to give up on his life. Thus, his suicide would result from a feeling that he had exhausted all other options, and that he simply could no longer live the life that he built for himself. This interpretation stands in stark contrast with a “common interpretation” of suicide—mainly, the interpretation that one who commits suicide is simply “giving up” on life. Therefore, it makes sense that Plutarch would introduce support for the opposite interpretation, and show that the “common interpretation” of suicide may not have held in the case of Demosthenes.

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At the same time, in a later passage Plutarch illustrates a potentially conflicting character trait of Demosthenes, which would argue for the interpretation that Demosthenes committed suicide because he “gave up” on life. In this passage, Demosthenes has just finished speaking words of encouragement to the public, reassuring them that there is no cause to anticipate a loss in the upcoming battle (Plutarch 550). After Demosthenes reassured the public and ventured into battle himself, Plutarch writes, “Until this present time, Demosthenes showed himself always an honest man: but when it came time for battle, he fled like a coward, and did no valiant act anything answerable to the orations whereby he had persuaded the people” (Plutarch 550). This quotation from Plutarch gives a more negative portrayal of Demosthenes’ character—namely, it indicates that Demosthenes exhibited a fearful and defeatist attitude, which may have arisen from a cowardly aspect of his character.

When creating a graphic representation of this passage, I wanted to emphasize this possibility, which could paint Demosthenes’ suicide in a more negative light. I explicitly illustrated Demosthenes’ fearfulness and defeatist display with graphic depictions of Demosthenes’ fear as well as captions suggesting that he gave up, so to speak. In addition, I implicitly emphasized these qualities by drawing Demosthenes’ saying “venture into battle” in the first frame, and then drawing Demosthenes “fleeing the battle scene” in the fifth and final frame. Thus, it is clear that “fleeing the battle scene” was not necessarily part of Demosthenes’ initial plan, and therefore arose in the heat of the moment in response to his inner characteristics. It is in this final frame that I, once again, introduce the concept of death by depicting an image of the Grimm Reaper following Demosthenes as he leaves the battlefield. Thinking about these characteristics (as laid out by Plutarch) as contributing to Demosthenes’ suicide yields different interpretations of the motivation behind the suicide. One possibility is that Demosthenes committed suicide because he was scared—scared to remain in the life he had made for himself, and scared of what his death would be like if it was at the discretion of someone else. Another option is that Demosthenes did, in fact, give up on life, therefore resorting to suicide as a response to the defeatist attitude he was experiencing. Either way, from this passage we gain support for a significantly more negative interpretation of Demosthenes’ suicide.

Concluding Remarks Edit

So, by examining various passages in which Plutarch illustrates different aspects of Demosthenes’ character, and thinking about these passages in connection with Plutarch’s portrayal of Demosthenes’ death, we can see how Plutarch’s narrative supports multiple interpretations of what may have motivated Demosthenes’ suicide. The choice to focus on Plutarch’s depiction of Demosthenes’ death naturally arose after comparing Plutarch’s biographical style with those of other ancient biographers. Biographers of ancient lives all deal with death very differently in their accounts. For example, in “The Life of Aristophanes,” the author does not even mention Aristophanes’ death. Conversely, in “Hypatia the Intellectual,” author Silvia Ronchey spends the majority of the discussion focused on various interpretations of Hypatia’s death. Due to such vastly different treatments of death on the part of the biographers, it was natural to focus on how Plutarch dealt with death in his account of Demosthenes’ life.

Focusing on this aspect through the modern form of a graphic novel further enriched the exploration of possible interpretations. The graphic novel, itself, allows for the juxtaposition of Demosthenes’ death with earlier passages in which Plutarch foreshadows the death, thereby encouraging the reader to consider how these passages support different interpretations of why Demosthenes committed suicide. Furthermore, suicide has many varied connotations in modern society, so depicting a suicide in a modern form immediately superimposes modern thought onto the ancient articulation. Suicide, as a modern concept, cannot be classified under one interpretation. Applying a modern understanding of suicide (as a complex concept with many possible motivations) to the reading of a text encourages an exploration of various explanations for the motivations behind the articulated suicide. Admittedly, the reader feels a bit dissatisfied by Demosthenes’ death, because the definite reason for committing suicide is not determined. However, I believe that this is how Plutarch intended the reader to feel—so, rather than providing the reader with a clear-cut explanation, he gave numerous possible explanations for what may have motivated Demosthenes to take his own life.

Works Cited Edit

Plutarch. “Life of Demosthenes.” Selected Lives, Trans. Thomas North. Comp. Judith Mossman. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998. 533-562. Print.

Ronchey, Silvia. “Hypatia the Intellectual.” Roman Women. Ed. Augusto Fraschetti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. 160-189. Print.

“The Life of Aristophanes.” The Lives of the Greek Poets. 169-172.

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