Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ian Worthington's "Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece"

Ian Worthington is Professor of History at the University of Missouri and author of Alexander the Great: Man and God and Philip II of Macedonia.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece:
Demosthenes was the most powerful politician of ancient Athens and Greece's greatest orator. The movie should not portray his entire life (as my book does), from the boy who was poked fun at for his stammer and sickly disposition to the most powerful man in Athens, but focus on one aspect of his career, a defining moment against all odds, which I'd suggest was the lead up to the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. Here, Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great's father) defeated a coalition of Greek states to end the centuries-long autonomy of Greece and plunge the country under the rule of foreign powers – from Macedonia, to Rome, to the Turks – until 1832, when Greece was proclaimed an independent and free country.

Chaeronea is one of history's most significant battles. It took place because of Demosthenes' anti-Macedonian policy, which saw him publicly ridiculed and attacked, but which he steadfastly maintained as he strove to unite his countrymen against Philip's imperialism and tyranny. The movie would focus on Demosthenes' policy at this time and his great speeches to rouse the people to war – and of course re-enact the battle with all its blood and guts. Flashbacks would show Demosthenes' emergence into politics and his initial lack of success and despair. A flashforward to 330 BC, when he was brought to trial for failing Athens, but justified his cause so persuasively that his opponent (Aeschines) lost the case and quit Athens, could round off the film. How did Demosthenes defend his unsuccessful policy? By arguing that it was the right and only policy to advocate against a tyrant. The Greeks lost, but they were still heroes and to be emulated because they had fought and died for the noblest ideal: freedom. Isn't that argument just as powerful today?

Demosthenes in the movie would therefore be portrayed as a man in his mid forties by the time of Chaeronea. For me, the best actor would be Kim Coates. That choice may come as a surprise to some, but I think he is vastly under-rated as an actor. He has a tough presence that diverts people's attention to him, just as Demosthenes had to have had when speaking before the assembled Athenians and laying out his plans to resist Philip, despite the fierce opposition and attacks he faced. Demosthenes also tried to move the people to action by striking fear into their hearts about Philip's intentions to destroy Athens – Coates as Tig Trager on Sons of Anarchy is a genuinely scary individual. Moreover, add to Coates' gaunt features and piercing eyes that straggly beard and unkempt hair as Tig and he even looks a lot like Demosthenes (just google Demosthenes' statue!). In the flashbacks, I have no idea who could play a sickly, stammering young boy. For the young adult Demosthenes I think Jim Parsons would surprise. Demosthenes was overwhelmed when he first entered politics; his early speeches were failures, he was mocked, and there is a story that he was in tears when he bumped into an actor who taught him about delivery. Many of the mannerisms Parsons brings out in Sheldon Cooper would perfectly fit Demosthenes at this time, but swapping the humor for pathos.
Learn more about Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue