The Athenian general Alcibiades (ca. 450-404 B.C.) served Athens and its enemies alike and caused damage to every state that employed him.
Alcibiades was the son of Cleinias, a brilliant but unstable Athenian politician. Wealthy, handsome, and aristocratic, Alcibiades was brought up in the house of his guardian, Pericles, and groomed for a political career. He had every possible advantage and in addition possessed exceptional charm and ability as a conversationalist, thinker, and diplomat. Entering politics in the wartime atmosphere of the Peloponnesian War, he represented youth and became an intimate of the teacher of young men, Socrates. (They were portrayed together by Plato in his dialogues Alcibiades and Symposium.)
Alcibiades chose extreme democracy and an aggressive, imperialistic policy. In 420 B.C., during an uneasy peace with Sparta, by clever tactics he drove Athens into an alliance with Argos and other Greek states against Sparta. This policy, which never gained the full support of the majority in Athens, failed completely in 418, when Sparta defeated the coalition's forces at Mantinea. The debacle caused Athens to conduct an ostracism in order to decide between the conservative Nicias, the advocate of peace with Sparta, and the aggressive Alcibiades. With characteristic ingenuity Alcibiades arrived at a compromise with Nicias, a third party was ostracized, and the fundamental difference of policy was not resolved.
Even in the permissive society of his day, Alcibiades became proverbial for his extravagant and reckless behavior, and the distrust he aroused wrecked his career. In 415 he was the prime mover of the proposal to attack Syracuse and, together with Nicias and Lamachus, commanded the naval expedition to Sicily. Alcibiades was soon recalled on charges of having profaned the Mysteries and of having mutilated religious statues (hermae) in a drunken spree on the eve of the fleet's departure.
On the way home Alcibiades escaped, reached Sparta, and became a military adviser to the Spartans. He gained for Sparta the alliance of Persia, instigated revolt by some colonies of Athens, and encouraged Sparta to base troops inside Attica against Athens. But he fell into disfavor with the Spartan king Agis, whose wife he seduced. Alcibiades subsequently transferred his services to Persia and then to Athenian antidemocratic extremists, with whom he planned a coup d'etat in Athens. When he failed to obtain Persia's aid, they discontinued to support him and seized power in Athens without him.
Alcibiades's political career now swung full circle. With the help of the Athenian extreme democrats, who still controlled the fleet, he was installed as commander of the navy. Winning brilliant victories against Sparta, which resulted in the restoration of democracy in Athens, he came home in 407 as the favorite of the democrats. But when the Athenian navy under a subordinate officer was defeated at Notium by the Spartan naval commander Lysander, Alcibiades anticipated trouble and withdrew into retirement near the Dardanelles. After the Peloponnesian War, Sparta demanded his head, and he was assassinated while a fugitive in Phrygia.
Ancient sources on Alcibiades include Thucydides's The History of the Peloponnesian War, Books V-VIII; Xenophon's Hellenica I; Plato's Symposium and Alcibiades I; and the "Life of Alcibiades" in Plutarch's Lives. For modern accounts see the chapter by W.S. Ferguson in J.B. Bury and others, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5 (1927), and H. D. Westlake, Individuals in Thucydides (1968). Background information is in J.B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (1900; 3d rev. ed. 1951), and N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (1959; 2d ed. 1967). □
Circa 450-404 b.c.e.
Athenian statesman and general
Controversy . An aristocratic protégé of Pericles and devotee of the philosopher Socrates, Alcibiades was the mostflamboyant and controversial man of his times. A man of great charm and ability, he was also self-centered and unscrupulous. He came of age just as Athens appeared to have ended the Second Peloponnesian War with Sparta in 421 b.c.e. Appointed a general the next year, he renounced the Peace of Nicias and encouraged an anti-Spartan alliance between Athens, Argos, Elis, and Mantinea. When the Spartans defeated this alliance at the Battle of Mantinea in 418, Alicibiades avoided ostracism by joining with his political rival Nicias to denounce Hyperbolus, leader of the democratic faction.
Champion and Villain . Alcibiades regained popular support after he won a chariot race at Olympia in 416. The next year he persuaded Athenian leaders to authorize an expedition to Syracuse on the island of Sicily and to appoint him to joint command of the military forces; however, before the expedition set sail, a scandal occurred concerning the Hermae. Someone had mutilated these busts of Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, and in the ensuing investigation, Alicibiades was accused of being the perpetrator.
Defection . Alcibiades sailed to Syracuse while an inquiry was being made into the sacrilege. When he simultaneously received both orders to return home and information that he had been condemned to death in absentia, he made his way to Sparta, where his services were decisive in turning the tide of the war against Athens. He quickly became embroiled in more controversy by seducing the wife of King Aegis II. His attempts in 412 to instigate revolt among the Athenian settlements of Ionia failed, and he soon fled Sparta for Sardis in Asia Minor.
Recall . In 411 Athenian naval authorities requested his services, and Alcibiades redeemed himself by not only defeating the Spartan fleet at Abydos (411) and Cyzicus (410), but also by recovering the vital Black Sea grain route. He returned to Athens a hero in 407 and assumed complete control of the city’s war efforts. Nevertheless, within the year Alcibiades lost popular support after a minor naval defeat and fled to Thrace. Still considered by his rivals to be a disturbing influence on Athenian politics, Alcibiades sought refuge with the Persian governor of Phrygia in Asia Minor, where he was murdered at the instigation of the Spartans.
Historical Judgment . Thucydides summed up the Athenians’ attitude toward this enigmatic figure: “Although he performed his military responsibilities most favorably for the people, privately everyone objected to his behavior, and having turned their affairs over to others, they quickly destroyed their city.”
Walter M. Ellis, Alcibiades (London & New York: Routledge, 1989).
Plutarch, Life Stories of Men Who Shaped History, from Plutarch’s Lives (New York: New American Library, 1950).
c. 450 b.c.e.–404 b.c.e.
Creating the Right Impression.
Public figures in Greece often dressed to create an impression, and none more so than Alcibiades, the Athenian general who assumed the leadership of the extreme democrats in Athens in 420 b.c.e. and contributed as much as anyone to the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War which ended in 404 b.c.e. with the surrender of Athens to Sparta and her allies. Alcibiades intended for his fashions and his private life to attract notice as a member of the "smart set" in Athens, a group typically condemned by conservative Athenians as having no respect for principles or tradition. Plutarch (c. 46–later than 120 c.e.), in a short biography of Alcibiades, compared his shrewdness as a statesman with the profligacy of his private life.
But with all these words and deeds, and with all this sagacity and eloquence, he mingled exorbitant luxury and wantonness, in his eating and drinking and dissolute living; wore long purple robes like a woman which dragged after him as he went through the market-place; caused the planks of his trireme to be cut away, so that he might lie more softly, his bed not being placed on the boards but upon girths.
Alcibiades took great care of his appearance; he refused to learn to play the aulos—the reed woodwind often mistakenly called a "flute"—because a person playing it had to screw up his face so much that it looked ugly. Alcibiades considered the lyre to be a far more becoming instrument, particularly since one could still talk and sing while playing the lyre.
Alcibiades promoted the ill-fated Athenian expedition against Sicily (415–413 b.c.e.) which ended in complete disaster. Alcibiades himself was recalled from Sicily in 415 b.c.e. to face a charge of sacrilege; not daring to face an Athenian court, he deserted to Sparta. Once there, he adopted the austere Spartan way of life, abandoning his expensive mantle of Milesian wool. He took cold baths and exercised regularly, naked, like the Spartans. Then when he wore out his welcome at Sparta, he transferred his services to Persia, and adopted Persian dress and the Persian way of life. Finally he answered a call from the sailors of the Athenian fleet to lead them and he became an Athenian general once again until his fleet suffered a defeat by Sparta. He was not personally responsible for the defeat, but nonetheless he lost his command and did not dare return to Athens. Athens surrendered in 404 b.c.e., and after the surrender, Alcibiades was assassinated at the instigation of Sparta out of the belief that Athens would never acquiesce in her defeat as long as Alcibiades was alive.
Edmund Bloedow, Alcibiades Reexamined (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1971).
Walter M. Ellis, Alcibiades (London, England: Routledge, 1989).
Donald Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987).
—, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981).