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Athenian General - Alcibiades

Updated on November 2, 2009

Alcibiades was an Athenian general and political leader. Born Athens, Greece, about 450 B.C. Died Hellespontine Phrygia, Asia Minor, 404 B.C.

Alcibiades came to power during the temporary halt in the Peloponnesian War known as the Peace of Nicias. He disapproved of the truce his political rival Nicias had obtained and soon maneuvered Athens back into war with Sparta. In 415 B.C., Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to send a military expedition to Sicily. He then became one of the three leaders of the Athenian expedition.

The expedition had just reached Sicily when Alcibiades was recalled to Athens. There he was to face charges of having mutilated the Hermae. These were busts of the god Hermes that stood at the doorways of temples and homes in Athens. Instead of proceeding to Athens to face certain conviction, Alcibiades fled to Argos and finally to Sparta, where he was promised safe conduct. Learning that Athens had condemned him to death, he vowed: "I will make them feel that I am alive."

He became adviser to King Agis I of Sparta and revealed Athens' plans for the conquest of Sicily. On his advice, Sparta sent aid to Syracuse, its ally in Sicily, and dispatched a general to direct the defense against the Athenians. These measures resulted in a catastrophic defeat for Athens. In addition, Alcibiades counseled the Spartans to carry the war into Athens' home territory, and his advice ultimately brought Sparta its final victory. He also helped persuade Persia to join in the war against Athens.

However, Alcibiades fell into disfavor with King Agis. Fearing for his life, he sought protection from Tissaphernes, a Persian governor in Asia Minor. There he entered into negotiations with Athens and claimed that he could get Tissaphernes' aid. At his insistence, an oligarchy replaced the democratic assembly in Athens, but Alcibiades found the new government as unwilling to recall him as the old. In the meantime, the Athenian fleet, with most of the city's fighting men, was stationed at Samos on the coast of Asia Minor. These men established a new democratic government and summoned Alcibiades to Samos. There he was pardoned and elected general in 411 B.C.

Alcibiades led the Athenians to victory after victory during the next four years. At the Battle of Cyzicus, in 410 B.C., the Spartan navy was destroyed, and the Athenians began to recover the ground they had lost. Democracy was restored in Athens, and in 407 B.C. he returned to the city in triumph.

Then at the height of his popularity, Alcibiades was placed in command of the Athenian forces. But he again received a major setback when Lysander, a young and brilliant Spartan general, defeated an Athenian fleet near Ephesus in Lydia. Alcibiades, although not present at the battle, was blamed for the defeat, and he was replaced by another general. Alcibiades retired to a stronghold he had established on the Thracian coast of the Hellespont.

He was there in the summer of 405 B.C. when an Athenian fleet followed Lysander into the Hellespont. Although he warned the Athenians their position was precarious, they ignored his advice. The Athenians were defeated and Athens itself fell in April 404 B.C. Still fearing the wrath of the Spartan king, Alcibiades again fled to Asia Minor. He received the protection of the Persian governor of Hellespontine Phrygia, but was assassinated on orders from Sparta a short time later. A primary source for information on Alcibiades is Plutarch's Lives, which is available in many editions.


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