Scythians: Aischines’ ethnic invective against Demosthenes (mid-fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Scythians: Aischines’ ethnic invective against Demosthenes (mid-fourth century BCE),' Last modified October 17, 2022,

Ancient author: Aischines, Against Ktesiphon 3.169-176 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: That thoughts and stereotypes about foreign peoples were not merely a characteristic of ethnographic digressions in histories, but rather a reality of actual social interactions, is further indicated by speeches such as this one by Aischines (or: Aeschines). Both Aischines and Demosthenes had been ambassadors to Philip II of Macedon for the Athenians (ca. 347-346 BCE), but the two went separate ways on returning, to say the least.  In their roles as judicial orators and now arch-rivals they engaged in invective against one another on a regular basis. Regardless of what truth may or may not underly the mud-slinging, Aischines was prone to undermine Demosthenes by claiming he was “a descendant through your mother of the nomad Scythians” (On the Embassy 2.78; cf. 2.180 [Scythian], 183 [barbarian]). In the passage below, Aischines expounds this claim about Demosthenes in the context of assessing whether Demosthenes has the qualifications for being in support of the People of the Athenians. Aischines’ answer, of course, is “no!”

It is important to realize that labelling someone a “Scythian” had multiple implications in Athens. On the one hand, it was a way of saying someone was from a family of the most barbarous and unintelligent people imaginable (see Herodotos at this link). Scythians were often imagined to engage in human sacrifice, for instance, and Anacharsis’ wisdom was sometimes seen as a complete exception (but see contrary views at this link).

On the other hand, the choice of “Scythian” here is even more effective (as invective) since Scythians were a substantial contingent of the slave population of Athens and Attica (see the discussion of inscriptional evidence and the linked articles at this link). Early on, enslaved Scythian archers were imported from the Black Sea area to Attica and, initially, were sometimes put to work in policing, at least until 390 BCE (see some archeological and artistic evidence at this link). Scythians are regularly the brunt of jokes in plays of the fifth and fourth centuries. So the label “Scythian” in Aischines’ speech serves double-duty, asserting both foreign and servile origins for Demosthenes.

On the reference to a “Hellenizing” barbarian and similar ancient terms for acculturation to the practices of other peoples, see other posts discussing Medizing (link) and Hellenizing (link).

Works consulted: Deborah Kamen, “Servile Invective in Classical Athens,” Scripta Classica Israelica 28 (2009): 43–56 (link).

Source of the translation: C.D. Adams, The Speeches of Aeschines, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Against Ktesiphon

(169) I think you would all acknowledge that the following qualities ought to be found in a person who is in support of the People (dēmotikos): in the first place, he should be free-born, on both his father’s and his mother’s side. This will prevent the misfortune of birth from causing him to be disloyal to the laws that preserve rule by the People (or: democracy). In the second place, he should have as a legacy from his ancestors some service which they have done to the rule by the People, or at the very least there must he no inherited enmity against it. This will prevent him harming the city in the attempt to avenge the misfortunes of his family. (170) Thirdly, he ought to be temperate and self-restrained in his daily life. This will prevent him from taking bribes against the People in order to support his unrestrained extravagance. Fourthly, he ought to be a man of good judgment and an able speaker, because it is good for his discernment to choose the wisest course and his training in rhetoric and his eloquence to persuade the hearers. But if he cannot have both of these, good judgment is always to be preferred to eloquence of speech. Fifthly, he ought to be a man with a brave heart so that in danger and peril he may not desert the People. On the contrary, we should expect that the oligarch will have all the opposite qualities, so why do I need to go over them again? Examine, then, and see which of these qualities belongs to Demosthenes, and let the assessment be made with all fairness.

(171) Demosthenes’ [junior’s] father was Demosthenes of Paiania [subdivision of Attica], a free man, for there is no need to lie. But how the case stands as to his inheritance from his mother and his maternal grandfather, I will tell you. There was a certain Gylon of Kerameis [subdivision]. This man betrayed Nymphaion in the Pontos [near Chersonessos north of the Black Sea] to the enemy, for the place at that time belonged to our city. He was impeached and became an exile from the city, not awaiting trial. He came to the Bosporos [near Pantikapaion / Kerch] and there received as a present from the tyrants of the land a place called “the Gardens” [i.e. ancient Kepoi].

(172) Here Gylon married a woman who was rich, I grant you, and brought him a big dowry, but a Scythian by blood. This wife bore him two daughters, whom he sent here with plenty of money. One he married to a man whom I will not name because I do not care to incur the enmity of many persons. The other daughter of Gylon, in contempt of the laws of the city, Demosthenes of Paiania [the father] married. It was her who gave birth to your busy-body and informer. From his grandfather, therefore, he would inherit enmity toward the people, for you condemned his ancestors to death and by his mother’s blood he would be a Scythian, a Hellenizing barbarian. So his wickedness is not a product of our soil.

(173) But in daily life what is he? From being a commander of a navy vessel with three sets of rowers (trierarchēs), he suddenly came forward as a hired writer of speeches, when he had disreputably squandered his inheritance. But when he had lost his reputation even in this profession, for he disclosed his clients’ arguments to their opponents, he jumped up on the speaker’s platform. And though he made enormous profits from civic organization (politeia), he saved almost nothing. It is true that just now the Persian’s gold has floated his extravagance, but even that will not suffice. This is because no wealth has ever kept up with a wicked character. And to sum it all up, he supplies his wants, not from his own income, but from your perils.

(174) Now regarding good judgment and power of speech, how has he done? Eloquent in speech, evil in life! For his treatment of his own body has been so licentious that I prefer not to describe his conduct, because up until now I have seen people hated because they recount too precisely the shameful behaviours of their neighbors. Then again, what is the outcome for the city? His words are fine, his actions worthless.

(175) Now regarding his bravery, little remains for me to say. For if he denied that he is a coward, or if you did not know it as well as he does himself, the account of it would have detained me. But since he admits it himself in the assembly, and you are perfectly aware of it, it remains only to remind you of the laws as to this matter. For Solon, the ancient lawgiver, thought it was necessary to apply the same penalties to the coward as to the man who failed to take the field or the man who deserted his post. For there are such things as indictments for acting cowardly. Some of you may indeed be surprised to know that there are indictments for inborn defects. There are. For what purpose? In order that each one of us, fearing the punishment of the laws more than he fears the enemy, may become a better champion of his homeland.

(176) Therefore the man who fails to take the field, and the coward, and the man who has deserted his post are excluded by the lawgiver from the purified precincts of the market-place, and may not be crowned, nor take part in the sacred rites of the people. But you, Ktesiphon, command us to crown the man who by command of the laws is uncrowned.  By your decree you also invite into the orchestra at the time of the tragedies the man who has no right to enter, and into the shrine of Dionysos the man who has betrayed all our shrines through cowardice.

But that I may not lead you away from the subject, remember this when he says that he is a person in support of the People (dēmotikos): Don’t examine his speech, but his life,  and don’t consider who he says he is, but who he is.

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