Greeks You Should Know: Alcibiades
Alcibiades (c.450-404 B.C.)
Alcibiades of Athens was one of the most notorious, controversial, and polarizing figures of the Peloponnesian War. Born into the Athenian aristocracy, he was raised under the roof of the most powerful man in Classical Athens. During his youth he was celebrated for his extraordinary beauty; as a man, he became renowned for his persuasive speech and skill in combat. He was at turns revered as a hero and reviled as a traitor. He was a man of great charisma and cunning, of military ability and political savvy. Yet his vanity, ambition, and duplicity led to his undoing, and he died in exile.
Alcibiades was born about 450 BC to a wealthy and distinguished Athenian family. His mother Dinomache, the daughter of Megacles, connected him to the infamous Alcmaeonidae clan, one of the most powerful and wealthy families in Athens. His father, Cleinias, was killed in the battle of Coronea in 448 BC, and Alcibiades and his younger brother were raised in the home of Dinomache’s cousin, the famous statesman Pericles.
Alcibiades was “foremost in beauty and stature” among all the youths of his day and the object of adoration and flattery from an early age. The philosopher Socrates, an associate of Pericles, soon took an interest in him, wishing to see that the boy was not corrupted by such attentions.
Despite a lifelong friendship with the humble and austere Socrates, who actually saved the young man's life at the battle of Potidaea in 432 BC, Alcibiades proved to be arrogant, narcissistic, and deceptive. In sharp contrast to his guardian Pericles, who was widely respected in Athens for his integrity and unpretentious lifestyle, Alcibiades became notorious for his lavish displays of wealth. He was criticized for excessive drinking and gambling, and admonished for his habit of wearing luxurious purple robes which he allowed to drag behind him in the street. He spent an enormous sum on his horses, and became the first man ever to enter seven chariots in the Olympic games, taking first, second, and fourth places.
Military and Political Career
Rise in Athens
The Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens broke out in 431 BC, when Alcibiades was just coming of military age. However, he did not become a prominent figure until several years into the war, when the battle of Amphipolis led to the deaths of Brasidas, the leading Spartan general, and Cleon, the top politician in Athens.
Alcibiades then demonstrated the cunning brand of foresight and willingness to undercut his own allies that would characterize his career. In 421, the Spartan king Pleistoanax negotiated peace terms with Nicias, a respected Athenian general, and other leading figures in Athenian politics. Being still a young man, Alcibiades was not invited to participate in the negotiations. Offended by this slight, he pounced on an opportunity when a dispute arose over the terms of the peace. When the Spartans sent envoys to discuss the dispute, Alcibiades sabotaged the negotiations by tricking the Spartan ambassadors into portraying themselves as liars. Nicias, in turn, was seen as ridiculous for having sincerely sought peace with untrustworthy foes. As a result of this double-dealing, Alcibiades was made a general. A shrewd politician, he later formed an alliance with Nicias when, around 417 BC, he and Nicias were targeted for ostracism by Hyperbolus. Alcibiades joined his supporters to those of Nicias, and together their followers had Hyperbolus exiled instead.
Victories in warfare being the most reliable road to fame and glory, Alcibiades initiated a proposal to attack and conquer Sicily. The assault was approved and Nicias, though reluctant of the plan, was assigned to join Alcibiades on the venture. Shortly before the ships were set to sail, however, nearly all of the statues of Hermes throughout Athens were mutilated. This was a terrible sacrilege, and due to his reputation as a mischief-maker and the fact that the only bust left unscathed was that of his friend Andocides, Alcibiades was accused of the crime. At the same time, Alcibiades’ enemies seized upon the scandal to accuse him of profaning the Eleusian mysteries, claiming that he had been seen dressing up with his friends as priests and priestesses in mockery of the rites.
Alcibiades requested to be tried then and there, for he understood what would happen if he were indicted after he departed. But his accusers agreed to wait until he returned—then, exactly as he had suspected, promptly prosecuted him in absentia the moment he set sail. When a ship was sent to bring him back to Athens, he realized the probable outcome and fled to Thurii, a Greek colony in Italy. He was condemned, declared cursed by the Eleusian priests, his property confiscated, and sentenced to death.
Enemy of My Enemy
Alcibiades sought refuge in the unlikeliest of places: Sparta. Offering up invaluable information about Athens’ weaknesses, he suggested that Sparta fortify a garrison at Decelaia that would blockade Attica. He persuaded the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor to abandon their alliance with Athens, and helped Sparta win the alliance of the Persian king. Finally, he betrayed Athenian plans to take the Sicilian city of Messina; thus the Sicilian expedition, his design from the start, ended in disaster under the command of Nicias (effectively ending Nicias’ career, as well.)
Yet Alcibiades’ inability to behave forced him to flee once again when he had an affair with the queen of Sparta. When King Agis discovered this betrayal (his wife became pregnant at a time when he could not possibly be the father), Alcibiades sought shelter in Ionia, eventually finding his way to the court of the King of Persia’s satrap, Tissaphernes.
Perhaps the Persians...
Once again Alcibiades’ ability to ingratiate himself proved a valuable gift, and again he proved himself a powerful enemy, this time against Sparta. He persuaded Tissaphernes to cease offering aid to the Spartans by reasoning that in a protracted war, both the Athenians and Spartans would become exhausted, and Persia could then easily conquer them both.
Tissaphernes saw the wisdom in this plan and adopted the strategy Alcibiades suggested. Yet Alcibiades had no intention of remaining in the service of the Persians, Greece's most hated enemy. As the Spartans’ position deteriorated, Alcibiades saw his opportunity to return to Athens in good graces. He became friendly with Pisander, a leader in the Athenian fleet based at Samos, and convinced Pisander to take the message to Athens that he would bring the Persian king over to the Athenian side—on condition that they disband the volatile democratic government in favor of an oligarchy. After first bringing this proposal to his sailors and finding them open to to the idea, Pisander then spoke to the Athenian assembly, arguing that the type of government they employed was irrelevant if the state itself were conquered. With this reasoning, Pisander was able to convince the Athenians to abandon their democracy and install the limited ruling class of the Four Hundred.
The Ancient Greek World
Return to Athens
Alcibiades did not return immediately, thinking it safer to secure a few victories to solidify his position. After winning several battles, he sailed back to Athens and was met at the harbor by an enthusiastic throng. As always, his presence was welcomed by some, met with suspicion by others. Aristophanes wrote that the city “regrets him, hates him, and yet wishes to have him, all at the same time.” His property was restored to him, the death penalty revoked, and the curses of the Eleusian priests lifted. As a demonstration of his piety and patriotism, he escorted the initiates on the procession to Eleusis with a detachment of soldiers, the first time this had been possible by land since the Spartans had garrisoned Decelaia (at Alcibiades’ suggestion). He was given powers over the city and the fleet, finally achieving the supremacy he had always craved.
It was a short-lived ascendancy. Fully aware that his position was dependent upon his ability to continue winning battles, he set out to take the isle of Andros with a fleet of one hundred ships. Though he defeated the forces there, he failed to take the island, which immediately tarnished his newfound standing. With the Persians again backing the Spartan cause, money was rapidly becoming a factor. Alcibiades then made his gravest mistake: leaving his fleet temporarily to seek out financial backing in Caria, he gave strict orders to his lieutenant, Antiochus, not to bring battle to the Spartan fleet they knew was nearby. Antiochus ignored this order, provoked the Spartan admiral Lysander into an engagement, and was soundly defeated and himself killed. Alcibiades, as commander, was held responsible for the loss and stripped of his commission. He chose exile in Thrace rather than return to Athens, and gathered a following there among local kings and mercenaries.
The Last Campaign
Alcibiades’ last effort on behalf of Athens came at the battle of Aegospotami. After coming down from Thrace to offer his services, he saw that the Athenian ships were in a disadvantageous position and advised their commanders to withdraw to the more defensible harbor of Sestos. It was good advice but the new generals ignored it, possibly fearing that his true motive was to re-admit himself into Athens’ good graces by scoring another victory. Alcibiades was told to take himself off and not return.
The battle that ensued resulted in a defeat so overwhelming that it effectively ended the Peloponnesian War. The Spartan commander Lysander burned the remains of the Athenian fleet and ordered the Long Walls of Athens demolished, installing a tiny pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants. Alcibiades, now living in a village in Phrygia with his mistress, was nevertheless considered a threat as long as he lived, and Lysander ordered him killed. Assassins set fire to his house during the night and shot him with arrows as he attempted to flee, taking his head as proof of his death to the new Persian satrap, Pharnabazus.
Alcibiades serves as a remarkable example of the complexity and contradictions of human nature. Though bold and resourceful, his achievements were most often wrought through cunning and guile. This ability to turn a grim situation to his advantage might be admirable, had he not relied so often upon unscrupulous and duplicitous tactics to achieve his ends. Although the jealous plotting of his rivals doubtless forced his hand at times, his arrogance, vanity, and self-aggrandizing were factors in many of his more unfortunate escapades; and in the end, it was his reputation that prevented his countrymen from heeding his shrewd counsel. Had Alcibiades been a different kind of man, the Peloponnesian War might have followed a different course and, possibly, resulted in a different outcome.
Cornelius Nepos, Lives
Herodotus, Histories, trans. George Rawlinson (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1997), 437.
Plutarch, Lives, Volume 1, trans. Paul Dryden (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 258.
Plato, Alcibiades, trans. Benjamin Jewett.etext.library.adelaide.edu/p/plato/p71al/complete.html.
Thucydides, On Justice
Martha Taylor, “Implicating the Demos: A Reading of Thucydides on the Rise of the Four Hundred,” The Journal of Hellenistic Studies 122 (2002): 94-96.