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6 May 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Gordon Brown, classicist

Did the Prime Minister bungle the classical allusion at the end of his Citizens UK speech?

By Jonathan Derbyshire

I blogged on The Staggers on Monday about Gordon Brown’s remarkable speech, which ended with an allusion to Cicero and Demosthenes:

When Cicero spoke to the crowds in ancient Rome, people turned to each other when he had finished and said: “Great speech.” But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece, people turned to each other and said: “Let’s march!”

Someone called Jack Cunningham (not that Jack Cunningham, surely?) left a comment on the blog suggesting that Brown had in fact bungled the classical allusion, and that the correct comparison was not between Cicero and Demosthenes but between Aeschines and Demosthenes. It turns out there’s been quite a bit of discussion among classicists in the blogosphere about this. There’s a detailed exploration of the provenance of the story over at the blog Heresy Corner, where someone luxuriating in the title “The Heresiarch” starts by noting (and this is something I’d forgotten) that Brown has invoked Cicero and Demosthenes before: “at Michael Foot’s funeral, in a Time magazine article about Barack Obama, at the 2008 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, even at a gay/transgender rights conference at Downing Street two years ago.” He goes on to suggest that the anecdote continues to circulate in several distinct versions:

Demosthenes led the Athenian opposition to the rise of Macedonia under Philip and then Alexander, a policy that, given the reality of power in the second half of the fourth century BC was almost suicidal to his native city. Suicidal it would probably have been had his fellow citizens done as Gordon Brown asserted they did. On those occasions when the Athenians did march with Demosthenes they usually suffered catastrophic defeats. More often, though, they listened, cheered, and then paid heed to more cautious voices.

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But where does the story come from? It’s unclear. The version quoted by Brown has been sourced to a 1906 book about rhetoric William Jennings Bryan, where it is attributed to “someone”. Bryan adds, “the difference being that Cicero impressed himself upon the audience, while Demosthenes impressed his subject upon them.” But the anecdote exists in several other versions, too. Sometimes Demosthenes is replaced by Caesar – which makes more sense, given that Cicero and Caesar were contemporaries. But that would change the meaning to a contrast between the man of action and the man of words.

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Alternatively, a version attributed to advertising mogul David Ogilvy contrasts Demosthenes with his greatest rival Aeschines, who may not have been as memorable a speechmaker but who proposed a more subtle accommodation with Philip’s expansionism. The story may in any case be a modern summation. A favourite among business gurus, it’s most often attributed to the advertising mogul David Ogilvy. And it ignores the fact that the Athenian citizenry often sided with Aeschines. In 343 BC Demosthenes accused his rival of taking bribes from the Macedonians and at the subsequent trial made one of his greatest speeches, which Bury described as “a triumph in the art of sophistry”. Aeschines was acquitted.

Passing classicists are invited to leave their views on the question in the comments below.