Great oratory is not reserved to the modern media age. The ancients, especially the Athenians, produced their own great men of words. Unfortunately, only a number of orations from classic antiquity and the middle ages remain. The following represent ten of the finest addresses in not only ancient history, but in world history. Topics vary from war to peace to philosophy to warnings of tyrants. History’s greatest orator, Cicero, has two entries on the list while Pericles “Funeral Oration” might be the greatest speech in history. These are the first five entries in chronological order.
Pericles Funeral Oration
Athens and Sparta went to war in 431 B.C. At the end of the first year, Athens held a public funeral for its honored dead. Pericles led Athens into the conflict and delivered the eulogy for the deceased. He transformed the occasion into an inspirational exposition into the virtues of the democratic system. Pericles compared Athenian freedom to Spartan martial dictatorship. The address culminated with the Athenian leader lauding the dead for “choosing to die resisting rather than live submitting.” Abraham Lincoln borrowed many of Pericles’ themes for The Gettysburg Address.
While Pericles celebrated democracy, Socrates questioned its utility. Athens lost the war with Sparta and fell under a dictatorship. In 399 B.C., Athenian aristocrats charged Socrates with corrupting the youth and impiety. Socrates taught the young and many worried Socrates influence would undermine the state. The Apology represented Socrates defense. The philosopher began by admitting his own ignorance and wisdom emanated from admitting that ignorance. Socrates demanded the jury base their decision on truth and not on his oratorical skills nor the slanders directed at him. The accused shreds the charges against him, but he refused to show contrition. He intentionally insulted his accusers thereby ensuring a guilty sentence. In the end, Socrates chose the death penalty.
Demosthenes Third Philippic
Fifty years after Socrates execution, Philip of Macedon represented the greatest threat to Athens since the Spartans. Philip used Athenian military maneuvers as a pretext for invasion. He demanded Athens remove troops from the disputed territory of Cardia. Demosthenes addressed his countrymen with a call to arms. He demanded Athens defend itself and strike against Macedonia before it was too late. Demosthenes argued Philip was responsible for any bloodshed since he provoked a conflict.
Alexander’s Address to his troops in India
Athens fell to Philip of Macedon. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, expanded his father’s empire from Macedonia to India. Alexander began expanding his kingdom in 336 B.C and reached India in nine years. Along the way, Alexander became Egyptian Pharaoh, King of Persia, and King of Asia. The Indian invasion confused his troops. The Macedonians defeated Greece’s traditional Persian enemy, so the men could not understand why Alexander wished to continue to the Indian subcontinent. The troops finally had enough and revolted. Alexander addressed his men reminding them of their successes, but the exhausted troops wanted to see their loved ones again. The king recognized the merits of their case and agreed to return home. He died in 323 B.C.
Cicero Against Catiline
Alexander the Great was a legitimate king. Catiline appeared to want to become a king. The Roman politician ran for Consul of Rome, but lost the election. He tried again with a platform directed toward the poor. Catiline demanded land redistribution and debt cancellation. The incumbent Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero outmaneuvered Catiline. He outlawed Catiline’s platform before the election. An angry Catiline plotted to murder Cicero and overthrow the Roman Republic. Catiline lost the election, joined an army formed as a contingency, and planned to launch a scorched earth policy across Italy. On November 8, 63 B.C., Cicero addressed the senate about the threat. Catline was present during the address. Cicero unleashed a barrage of sarcasm and lament in the traitor’s direction. Fellow senators discreetly moved away from Catiline as the speech continued. Catiline fled the senate house to join his army. The next day, Cicero outlined the conspiracy, revealed the evidence, and subtly directed the senate to vote to execute Catiline. The speech undercut Catiline’s support, 70% of his army deserted, and Cicero’s forces smashed the rebel army. Catiline died in combat. Cicero temporarily saved the Roman Republic.