The political pragmatist

The adventures of Alcibiades

One cannot examine the Athenian scoundrel Alcibiades without providing a potted history of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

Written by Josho Brouwers on

When it comes to famous Greek historical figures, the Athenian aristocrat Alciabides (ca. 452-404 BC), a gifted orator and ambitious scoundrel, has always drawn a lot of interest, and he was the subject of a (somewhat dubious) biography in ancient times penned by Plutarch in his series Parallel Lives. A few modern books have also appeared that deal specifically with this rather scandalous figure, including a biography written by P.J. Rhodes and published in 2011 by Pen & Sword Books.

He’s certainly a colourful character, who rubbed shoulders with some well-known Athenians, including the philosopher Socrates. Indeed, in Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades even says that he tried to become the eromenos of Socrates. In a Greek pederastic relationship, the adult man is referred to as the erastes, while the object of his affection is referred to as the eromenos, a younger, usually teenage male. There is a strong suggestion of a homosexual relationship between Alcibiades and the philosopher.Show Daniel Ogden, “Homosexuality and warfare in ancient Greece”, in: Alan B. Lloyd (ed.), Battle in Antiquity (2009), p. 127.

The Peloponnesian War

Certainly, Alcibiades and Socrates have considerable history together. Plato reveals that, in 432 BC, when the remarkably handsome Alcibiades must have been young (probably around 20 years of age), they fought together at the Battle of Potidaea, and Socrates actually saved his life. Potidaea was founded by Corinth on the Chalcidice peninsula, in the north of the Aegean. Potidaea had been pressed to become a member of Athens’ Delian League.

Originally, the Delian League had been founded by Athens as a defensive alliance following the Persian Wars of the earlier fifth century BC. Over time, the League had grown to become what was essentially an Athenian Empire, with its members obliged to pay tribute. When Potidaea revolted in 432 BC, the Athenians sent troops to pacify the unruly city, and both Socrates and Alcibiades had been part of the expedition.

“Socrates reproaching Alcibiades”, a painting by Anton Petter (1781-1851). Alcibiades was ambitious, handsome, wealthy, and a member of a renowned family. His extravagant lifestyle made him suspicious in the eyes of the common people, who feared, not without reason, that he was hostile towards the ideals of democracy. At gatherings, the philosopher Socrates actively pursued Alcibiades, though supposedly not out of a desire for intercourse. Socrates flattered him, but realized that this was not enough: for all that Alciabides already possessed, he wanted more.

The Corinthians sent a force to aid Potidaea in their revolt. This effectively set the stage for full-scale war across the Aegean, in which the Delian League (led by Athens) would face off against the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta), of which Corinth was also a member. This large-scale conflict is referred to as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

The first part of the Peloponnesian War is often referred to as the Archidamian War (431-421 BC), named after Archidamus II, one of Sparta’s two kings. One of the many battles fought during this war took place at Delium (a small town in Boeotia), where again Socrates and Alcibiades fought side by side. The Archidamian War was a long and bloody conflict, that ultimately left Athens in a slightly stronger position. In any event, by 421 BC, both sides were weary of the fighting, and a peace was brokered: the Peace of Nicias, named after an important Athenian general.

The Sicilian Expedition

In ancient Greece, peace treaties usually specified how long they were supposed to remain intact. The Peace of Nicias, concluded in 421 BC, was supposed to hold for at least five decades. It didn’t mean the end of all hositilies (witness, for example, the first Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC), and not all Athenians were in favour of the truce. Among them was Alcibiades. He had felt personally slighted by the Spartans because they chose to forge the treaty with Nicias and Laches, rather than him, presumably on account of his youth (Thuc. 5.43).

It would be a while before opportunity presented itself to Alciabides to take up arms against Sparta again. But in 416/415 BC, envoys from the Sicilian city of Segesta arrived in Athens to beg for support in their war against Selinus, another city in Sicily. Selinus had even forged an alliance with Sicily’s most powerful city, Syracuse. The Segestans argued that if Athens did nothing, Syracuse might establish its hegemony over the entire island, and perhaps, as Dorian Greeks themselves, feel the need to come to the aid of their Dorian brothers, the Spartans, posing a significant threat to Athens and its allies (Thuc. 6.6).

The Athenians sent envoys of their own to Segesta, who return in the spring of 415 BC with favourable, but, as it would later turn out, ultimately untrue, reports of the situation in Sicily (Thuc. 6.8). The Athenians then voted in favour of mounting a Sicilian expedition and appoint Nicias as its commander, much to his chagrin. According to Thucydides, Nicias gave a lengthy speech, in which he pointed out the folly of responding the Segestans’ plight, and included a swipe at Alcibiades (Thuc. 6.12.2), in the translation from the Landmark Thucydides:

And if there be any man here, overjoyed at being chosen to command, who urges you to make the expedition, merely for ends of his own – especially if he is stll too young to command – who seeks to be admired for his stud of horses, but on account of heavy expenses hopes for some profit from his appointment, do not allow such a one to maintain his private splendor at his country’s risk, but remember that such persons injure the public fortune while they squander their own, and that this is a matter of importance, and not for a young man to decide or hastily take in hand.

Alcibiades has been a vocal proponent of the Sicilian expedition. After Nicias had had his say, he gave a speech in which he argued that the expedition offered an opportunity for Athens to expand its sphere of influence and to acquire more wealth (Thuc. 6.16-18). Nicias then took the stage again, but he failed to convince the listeners of the folly of their ways. Reconciling himself with their decision, he argues that the Athenians should, if their minds are set, send 100 triremes, transports, 5,000 hoplites, and other troops.

While the Athenians were making their preparations, one night all of the stone herms in the city were defaced. These herms (hermai; singular: herma) were slabs of stone with a sculpted head or torso, and usually featuring male genitalia at the appropriate height: they were often made to represent the god Hermes, and used to mark boundaries. An investigation suggested that the perpretrators had been drunken young men. His rivals were quick to include Alcibiades among their number, and they argued that the proof was “the general and undemocratic license of his life and habits” (Thuc. 6.28).

Alcibiades demanded a trial, but his rivals feared that he might have the support of the army, and so postponed it until after the Sicilian expedition, in which he was set to take part. A short time later, the fleet departed Piraeus, Athens’ harbour town (Thuc. 6.32). In the meantime, further investigation of the incident with the herms, as well as what was considered an impending threat from the Spartans, convinced the Athenians that Alcibiades was plotting against the democracy, and so they recalled him (Thuc. 6.61).

Switching sides

When Alcibiades received word that he was to return to Athens to stand trial, he returned home aboard his own ship, but disappeared at Thurii on the Tarentine Gulf. Alcibiades opted not to return to Athens, and instead headed to the Peloponnese. Now considered an outlaw, the Athenians sentenced him and his associates to death.

With the Athenians having arrived in Sicily, the Syracusans sent envoys to Sparta and Corinth to ask for help. At the same time, Alcibiades also popped up in Sparta. He addressed the Spartans and claimed that Athens had mounted the expedition to conquer Sicily and Italy, ostensibly as a prelude to the ultimate conquest of the whole of Greece. He urged the Spartans to come to the aid of Syracuse in order to prevent the city’s fall. Furthermore, he urged them to fortify the town of Delecea in northern Attica (Thuc. 6.89-91).

Alciabides had turned traitor, but in anticipation of this he argued to the Spartans that he was only “an outlaw from the iniqtuity of those who drove me forth”, adding that “my worst enemies are not you who only harmed your foes, but they who forced their friends to become enemies” (6.92). The Spartans believed Alcibiades and heeded his council, sending support to Syracuse and making work of fortiftying Decelea.

By now, in 414 BC, the Athenians were besieging Syracuse. Meanwhile, back in Greece, Sparta invaded Argos, with whom the Athenians had earlier forged an alliance. Athenian forces were sent into the Peloponnese, where they conducted raids. These hostilities formed a convenient pretext for the Spartans to focus their military efforts once again more seriously towards Athens itself (Thuc. 6.105).

In Sicily, things weren’t going well for the Athenians, and Nicias feared the worse if no relief is sent (Thuc. 7.8). Worse still, the Spartans were about to invade Attica to pursue Alcibiades’ advice of fortifying Decelea, thereby embroiling the Athenians in a war both at home and abroad (Thuc. 7.18-19). A naval force sent by Athens with the goal of relieving the forces in Sicily is successfully intercepted by the Corinthians (Thuc. 7.19), adding further fuel to the fire.

By now, the Peace of Nicias was well and truly a thing of the past. This continuation of the Peloponnesian War is referred to as the Decelean War (414-404 BC). The war on two fronts began to weigh heavy on the Athenians all ready by 413 BC. Nicias also painted a grim picture of the situation, adding that failure in Sicily would ultimately lead to Athens’ defeat by Sparta (Thuc. 7.64), a prescient note perhaps invented by Thucydides with the benefit of hindsight. After further hardship, Nicias sought no other solution but to surrender; he was executed a little later (Thuc. 7.85-86).

Further complications

Meanwhile, Alcibiades managed to become friends with the Spartan ephor Endius. He convinced Endius to send him to Chios in order to convice the cities there to revolt against Athens, and to forge an alliance between the Persian Empire and Sparta (Thuc. 8.12). Alcibiades’ aim here was to ensure that Endius would be credited with starting the revolt rather than the Spartan king Agis, who was hostile towards Alcibiades. Thucydides doesn’t explain why, but Xenophon and, much later, Plutarch claim that Alcibiades was having an affair with Agis’ wife and even fathered a son by her (Xen., Hellenika 3.3.1-2; Plutarch, Alcibiades 23).

Alcibiades convinced the cities in Asia Minor to rebel, telling them that the Athenians had suffered defeats in naval engagements and had been left weakened by the wars in Sicily and Attica. In reality, it had been the Peloponnesians who had been bested in recent naval engagements, but Alcibiades had simply moved quicker than the Athenians in reaching these cities. He arrived in Miletus right before the Athenian fleet and convinced the city to revolt, thanks no doubt due to the personal friendships he had forged among Miletus’ leading men. Almost immediately, Alcibiades brokered a (somewhat uneasy) alliance between the Persians and the Spartans (Thuc. 8.17-18).

Meanwhile, Agis had grown frustrated enough with Alcibiades that he had ordered his death. The Athenian once again escaped by switching sides, this time seeking the friendship of the Persian Tissaphernes. Almost immediately, he began to counsel the Persians in what they could do to weaken the Peloponnesians (Thuc. 8.45.1-3). When Chios approached Alcibiades about bowing out of paying tribute to the Persians on behalf of the Spartan-Persian alliance, Alcibiades dismissed them, saying that before they had no trouble paying the Athenians and therefore couldn’t count on the Persians “to risk not only their lives but their money as well on behalf of their freedom” (Thuc. 8.45.4).

Alcibiades then told Tissaphernes that the best policy for Persia was to let the Athenians and Spartans wear each other out, going so far as to say that Sparta, with its strong land forces, was the stronger of the two enemies and therefore the most dangerous (Thuc. 8.46). But this was not the end of Alcibiades’ schemes: in a downright cynical turn of events, he tells the Athenian generals on the island of Samos that he could bring Tissaphernes over to their side if the Athenians were to abandon democracy and instead install an oligarchy (Thuc. 8.47). The reasoning for the latter was simple: it was always easier for the Persians to deal with single rulers (kings and tyrants) or (small) oligarchies rather than a capricious and unstable democracy.

Alcibiades hoped that this would lead to him being recalled to Athens, and some of his Athenian rivals dutifully pointed out that Alcibiades cared about no one except himself (Thuc. 8.48). One of his opponents, the Athenian general Phrynichus, sent a letter to the Spartans to tell them that Alcibiades was playing both sides. In turn, Alcibiades wrote letters accusing Phrynichus of duplicity. Nevertheless, the conspirators managed to overthrow the Athenian democracy in 411 BC and established a short-lived oligarchy known as the Four Hundred (Thuc. 8.63-73).

A similar coup was planned on Samos among the Athenian generals there. One of their number, Thrasybulus, recalled Alcibiades. When he arrived at Samos, Alcibiades gave a speech, where he “complained of and deplored his private misfortune in having been banished”, and also “extravagantly magnified his own influence with Tissaphernes” (Thuc. 8.81.1-2). Because of his supposed clout among the Persians, the Athenians on Samos elected Alcibiades general. When the Peloponnesians heard about this, they naturally grew distrustful of the Persians (8.83).

Fortunes of war

Alcibiades tried to make the most out of the influence he had among both the Athenians and the Persians. He enjoyed a number of military successes, such as at the battles of Abydos and Cyzicus. A siege against Chalcedon, in the northern part of Greece, ended in an agreement between Thrasybulus and the Chalcedonians (Diodorus Siculus 13.67.1). Eventually, Alcibiades returned to his home city in 407 BC (Xen., Hellenika 1.4.8-12). When he arrives in the Piraeus, he is greeted enthusiastically. In the words of Xenophon, who wrote a continuation of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War (Hellenika 1.4.13; Landmark edition):

Some said that he was the ablest of the citizens and the only one to have been exiled unjustly; that he had been slandered by those who were less able than himself, those who have the people wicked advice and conducted public business with an eye toward their own private gain, whereas Alcibiades had always increased the state’s wealth, from both his own resources and those of the state.

In other words, those favourably disposed towards him simply said that he had been forced to betray his countrymen because they had betrayed him first: an argument that Alcibiades himself had made earlier. Not only did the ekklesia, or assembly of the people, restore his property to him: if Plutarch is to be believed, they even made him supreme commander of land and sea, or strategos autokrator (Alcibiades 33.2).

Alcibiades continued to serve as a military commander for nearly the entire remainder of the Peloponnesian War, with some success. However, the naval Battle of Notium (a city in Asia Minor), fought some time between 408 and 406 BC, was an unmitigated disaster, for which Alcibiades was blamed and removed from command (Plutarch, Alcibiades 35). But his role in the Peloponnesian War hadn’t been entirely played out.

Xenophon mentions that right before the Battle of Aegospotami (in the Hellespont), Alcibiades pointed out that the Athenian ships were anchored too far away from a city, while the enemy were stationed close to a city and therefore had everything they needed close at hand. But the Athenian commanders, Tydeus and Menander, told Alcibiades flatly that they were now in charge, and ordered him to get lost (Hellenika 2.1.25-26).

According to Plutarch, Alcibiades then crossed the Hellespont and sought refuge in Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor. But the Spartan commander of the fleet that had defeated the Athenians at Aegospotami, Lysander, was not about to let Alcibiades escape unscathed. He contacted the Persians and asked them to kill Alcibiades.

Death of Alcibiades (1839) by Michele De Napoli (1808-1892). According to Plutarch, Alcibiades was killed in 404 BC. His killers set fire to his house, but he leapt from the burning building and was slain by arrows and javelins.

Meanwhile, Alcibiades had settled in a village in Phrygia, where he lived in a house with a courtesan named Timandra. Persian assassins surrounded his house, but dared not enter, preferring instead to set fire to it. Alcibiades wrapped his cloak around one arm and drew his sword with the other before bursting out of the house and attacking his assailants. None dared to get too close to him and they killed him using arrows and javelins instead. Timandra then buried him (Plutarch, Alcibiades 39).

Of course, it wouldn’t be Alcibiades if matters were this simple. Plutarch adds that according to some, neither the Persians nor Lysander were the cause of Alcibiades’ death, but rather the Athenian himself. According to this version of his death, Alcibiades had corrupted a girl from a well-known family and it had been her brothers who had set fire to his house during the night, and who killed him when he leapt out of the burning building.

Further reading

For more on Alcibiades, you can start with Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades, which is available on the Perseus website. You may also want to check out P.J. Rhodes’s Alcibiades (2011). When it comes to the Peloponnesian War, you should obviously read Thucydides’ History and Xenophon’s Hellenika. An influential modern work on the Peloponnesian War is Donald Kagan’s not very imaginitively entitled The Peloponnesian War (2004), but it’s rather out of date: stick to the ancient sources instead.

For an accessible overview of warfare in Classical Greece, you might want to start with The Greeks at War: From Athens to Alexander, edited by Philip de Souza, Waldemar Heckel, and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. For the cultural aspects behind Greek warfare, there is no substitute for Hans van Wees’s Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.