In 404 BC, a band of Persians dispatched under the command of Magaeus, the brother of the Persian satrap Pharnabazus, arrived in a remote village in Phrygia (west-central Turkey) to execute the Athenian Alcibiades. They were sent at the behest of the Spartan general Lysander – the admiral most responsible for defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). Alcibiades, now in his late forties, was living with his mistress Timandra as an exile, having fled his homeland – and not for the first time.
Despite being ruined and on the run, Alcibiades displayed his heroism to the very end. According to Plutarch, the Persian assassins, terrified about facing the wild Alcibiades himself, decided to burn him out and set his property on fire. Alcibiades stormed out brandishing a sword and promptly dispersed the throng of hitmen by the sheer effect of his intimidating presence. However, this was not enough. For all his bravery, the war hero fell in a shower of arrows. Thus ended the life of this Athenian statesmen, a fittingly extraordinary end for a man who had lived perhaps the most colourful and unusual life of his Athenian contemporaries.
Alcibiades is perhaps the most complex and multifaceted Athenian statesmen in the Classical period. At times, he appears a cut-throat political opportunist grasping at any means to promote and salvage his own position. At others, he is the last great Athenian general who defended the vital Black Sea trade routes which were essential for feeding the city of Athens. At the battle of Aegospotami (405 BC), he allegedly warned the Athenians of the weakness of their position – a warning that was subsequently ignored, resulting in their devastating defeat to the Spartans. But, despite his assertions of patriotism, Alcibiades’ self-interested manoeuvring and unscrupulous opportunism make the former interpretation hard to put to rest.
Alcibiades is a confusing figure, not least because his very character was subject to much debate and scrutiny in antiquity, as it has been ever since. He looms out of the historical record as one of the best-documented characters, yet he seems oddly bipolar, represented variously as hero and villain. His own legend distorted the historical record, making it hard, despite the wealth of literary evidence, to access the actual man himself.
His actions were detailed in his lifetime by Thucydides and Xenophon, both of whom knew him personally. He was also frequently invoked in Athenian law-court oratory, such as in the speeches of Lysias and Isocrates. He appears multiple times in Plato and was a popular parodic figure in comedic drama. The Greek orator Libanius remarked how seemingly every comedy featured Alcibiades; he was, at any rate, evidently a favourite of the playwrights Aristophanes and Eupolis. Later biographies by Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch provide detailed accounts of his life. In fact, Alcibiades became such a well-known character that it was later a common rhetorical exercise to debate whether to defend or convict him. The fourth-century BC speech Against Alcibiades, historically misattributed to the orator Andocides, is a striking survival in this genre.
The overall outlines of Alcibiades’ biography are clear. His role in Athens’ losing the Peloponnesian War – and in turn their democracy – may reveal the dangers that charm and personality can pose to political governance. Ever dependant on popular power and his oratorical prowess, the ambitious Alcibiades seems to have hijacked the mechanisms of state to promote himself, often at the expense of the people. What route led the man to such a controversial career?
Alcibiades was born around 451 BC to an aristocratic family, especially on his mother’s side: Deinomache was a member of the famous Alcmaeonid clan, which traced its lineage back to Nestor. His father Cleinias lost his life at the battle of Chaeronea (447 BC) and Alcibiades ended up being raised by extended family on his mother’s side, including Pericles (c. 495–429 BC), the most renowned statesmen of the fifth century.
We can assume that, despite the loss of his father, Alcibiades enjoyed a fairly typical Athenian aristocratic upbringing. Various anecdotes about his rash behaviour are preserved by Plutarch. These are not necessarily recorded as factual fragments from his life but rather serve to illustrate his character and its manifest wildness. We read how he killed a slave attendant in the palaestra with a stick, assaulted his schoolmaster for not possessing an edition of Homer, and even cut the tail off a dog so that those rumours would circulate instead of his other misdemeanours.
Alcibiades is also meant to have been exceptionally attractive; even his slight lisp was said to add to his charm and beauty, while somehow helping his rhetoric. As one might expect with such good looks, they attracted much attention, including from the philosopher Socrates (469–399 BC). A notorious womaniser, Alcibiades and his antics forced his wife Hipperate actually to flee the house in order to initiate divorce proceedings. That plan failed, however, when Alcibiades forcibly dragged her back to the house through the agora. No one dared to oppose him.
Alcibiades’ first entry into public life occurred when overhearing applause at the assembly. Keen to investigate the commotion, he discovered the citizens applauding individuals who were offering forth contributions of money. Desirous of the attention, Alcibiades on a whim also gave a donation; delighting at the attention this garnered, he temporarily lost track of the quail he happened to be carrying. It’s a rather odd anecdote, but does add to the generally troubling picture of narcissism.
But perhaps his most potent character trait was his philotīmiā – his excessively ambitious demands for glory, status, and recognition. This was clearly demonstrated by his thirst for victory at the Olympic games of 416, where he entered seven chariot teams (more than any other contestant). The strategy paid off: he won first, second and fourth places, and moreover staged a display of personal and civic ostentation that far outstripped his other competitors. This established him as a force to be reckoned with across the Greek world.
Alcibiades’ first substantive appearance in the historical record is when he served on campaign at Potidaea in 432. This military action against a colony of Corinth (then an ally of Sparta) was a major trigger for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. It was on this campaign that we first learn of Alcibiades’ close association with Socrates, who saved his life.
Alcibiades appears in three of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and perhaps even became Socrates’ erōmenos (passive pederastic lover). Yet, whether to dispel false rumours or to rewrite true events, Plato in his Symposium (and indeed elsewhere) claims that their relationship never came to full fruition – despite Alcibiades’ best efforts. Their closeness would later damage Socrates: Alcibiades became one of the most controversial figures in politics, and in turn one of the greatest threats to Athenian democracy.
Unfortunately for Socrates, others students of his tuition led similarly problematic lives, especially Critias, the most brutal of the Thirty Tyrants – the regime that replaced Athenian democracy at the end of the war in 404. These associations no doubt played a role in Socrates’ subsequent trial and execution in 399, where one of the two central charges was that he “corrupted the youth”.
Alcibiades was evidently (in)famous by the year 427, when he was parodied by Aristophanes in his play Banqueteers (Daitaleis, which only survives in fragments). However, he was not to exert a significant political role until the end of the decade. Alcibiades then sought to undermine peace negotiations by seeking a diplomatic relationship with Argos, in turn threatening Sparta in the Peloponnese – something Athens had failed to achieve in the first phase of the war, beyond the occupation of Pylos. Nicias, the lead negotiator for peace, became his chief rival, although his own pragmatism and self-interest knew no bounds. When Hyperbolus arranged an ostracism, the Athenian method of exile by popular vote, the two rivals teamed up and used their combined supporters to get Hyperbolus exiled himself.
Alcibiades’ desire for the war to continue and his hope of winning personal gain through jingoistic policies are perhaps best demonstrated by the Sicilian expedition (415), a cause that he successfully championed before the Athenian assembly. The goal was for Athens to intervene in a dispute between the Sicilian cities of Segesta and Silenus, ultimately bringing them into conflict with the island’s most powerful city Syracuse (then the third largest Greek city state). Nicias naturally fought against this proposal, rightly sensing that it would be a dangerous instance of military overreach, but he failed; in fact, ironically enough, he ended up commanding the expedition.
Alcibiades’ motivations were probably related to his own reputation and the status he might achieve through grand commands. But, just as the Athenian armada was setting out, two religious scandals occurred – the desecration of the herms (square pillars with a bust and genitalia, usually serving as a kind on marking post) and the alleged profaning of the Eleusinian mysteries by illegally exposing details of this secret cult to the uninitiated.
Defeats and defections
Largely as a result of political machinations against him, Alcibiades was implicated in these scandals and recalled from the expedition. However, instead of attending his trial he fled altogether, absconditing by boat. The Athenians doubled down: he was condemned in absentia, sentenced to his death, and all his property was confiscated.
This outcome would mean ruin for most Athenian politicians, but not for Alcibiades. He defected to Sparta and began advising them on the best strategy for countering the Athenians. According to Thucydides, he advised on fortifications at Delium (a strategic position cutting Athens off from their arable land in Attica) and dispatched a force to Sicily. Both proposals were followed, which much damaged the Athenian cause.
The Sicilian expedition ended in total defeat in 413; Athens was reduced to its weakest state since the start of the war. Alcibiades’ self-interest went so far that he happily defected to Athens’ arch-rivals, Sparta. However, his challenging personality soon resulted in him falling out with many influential Spartans. It was even rumoured that he was the real father of Leotychides, the new child of King Agis II. Unsurprisingly, his position soon became untenable, and he was forced on the run again (445–395 BC). This time he defected to an even more surprising enemy: Persia.
Alcibiades approached the Persian satrap Tissaphernes and tried to persuade him to disrupt the Peloponnesian cause by refusing the use of his fleet and by making his payments to fund their war effort more irregular. He then later used this new connection to negotiate with the Athenian commanders on the Aegean island of Samos for his return to Athens. This outcome was initially delayed by the Oligarchic coup of 411 – a year of chaos, when the ‘Four Hundred’ first seized power, before being replaced by the ‘Five Thousand’, until order was restored in 410. Yet Alcibiades used this crisis for his own benefit via his negotiations with the commanders on Samos. Apparently, however, he overplayed the weight of his influence on Tissaphernes and was unable to provide Persian aid to the Athenians beyond convincing the satrap to allow the strongest powers in Greece to wear each other out. A weak Greece was naturally in the Persians’ interests.
Coming full circle, Alcibiades did then achieve some significant naval victories for the Athenians, especially at Cyzicus (410). After being granted his return, he took a few years to reach Athens – no doubt there were still major concerns about obstructions from his rivals. He eventually arrived in the city in 407 and was elected stratēgos autokratēr, the chief commander. Yet this glorious return was to be short-lived after his defeat at the battle of Notium (406): there he passed the command to Antiochus, a subordinate who failed to follow his orders – and, incidentally, was the chap who had allegedly rescued his escaped quail at the assembly. The wheel turned once more, and Alcibiades was forced to flee again. He returned to Persia, living off their financial support for a couple of years until his end came, by a fittingly theatrical death for such a dramatic figure.
The limits of democracy
In his lifetime, Alcibiades defected from Athens to Sparta to Persia to Athens and then back to Persia, always reliant upon his pragmatism and charisma. Plutarch called him “the least scrupulous and the most entirely careless of humans”, and clearly this must have had some truth, given how dramatic and flamboyant his career was.
Despite his military successes, it seems that Alcibiades pursued grandiose foreign policy objectives primarily for his own reputational gain. Relying on his ability to charm the demos with his charisma, many of his key policies, especially the Sicilian expedition (which was perhaps doomed to failure, whoever was in charge), played a large role in Athens’ subsequent defeat and the resultant loss of democracy.
Alcibiades presented a strain on Athenian democracy; the democratic institutions were jeopardised by demagogues whose celebrity could have immense influence on political decisions. In the case of Alcibiades, his following was at times suggestive of a personality cult. Athens’ inability to control or expel a politician who was so self-interested and opportunistic, who defected to the enemy multiple times, and who was even sentenced to death, perhaps illustrates how weak the workings of her democracy had become. This episode reveals a problem that can still be found in democracies more broadly, namely the intoxicating effects of personality and its ability to catalyse acts of national self-harm.
Alcibiades’ popularity made him almost invincible within the Athenian state, and despite his numerous defections he was still able to return unharmed. He avoided ostracism, the mechanism literally invented for removing problematic demagogues. Given Alcibiades’ power to persuade or to evade the city’s demos, Athenian democracy in the late fifth century struggled to live up to its name. As ‘Pseudo-Andocides’ later summarised Alcibiades’ reversal of the city’s power dynamics, “instead of holding that he ought himself to conform with the laws of the state, he expects you to conform with his own way of life”. Neither the veneer of patriotism nor the faded glory of military success can obscure how large Alcibiades’ ambition loomed and how deleterious its effects proved to be on the city of Athens.
Alfred Deahl is an undergraduate reading Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His previous article for Antigone surveys the history of Roman coinage.
Without a doubt, the best places to start reading about the extraordinary life of Alcibiades are some of the ancient sources, especially Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades – an entertaining overview of his entire life, career, and character, and Plato’s Symposium, where his drunken entrance and spirited portrayal really brings his character to life. Useful modern biographies of the statesman include David Stuttard’s Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2018), a highly entertaining and suitably dramatic account, and Peter J. Rhodes’s Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2011), which provides a solid narrative of his career with a particularly competent and concise summary of the ancient sources as well as the broader historical context. For those who want to learn more about Alcibiades and his association with Socrates, I would recommend Ariel Helfer’s Socrates and Alcibiades (U. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2017), which offers insightful discussions of the Platonic dialogues containing Alcibiades.