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Alcibiades: The Gifted Politician and General of Ancient Greece

Alcibiades and Pericles
Pericles teaching young Alcibiades, created in 1900. Author unknown. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Alcibiades was a gifted politician and general, but, due to his unscrupulous behavior, he is remembered as a traitor to Athens for defecting to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War. He was one of the most divisive personalities of Classical Athens and a significant influencer of Greek politics.

The Athenian general made unfathomable mistakes during his military career, and his erratic behavior had him ousted from Athens, yet his good looks, charm, and manipulative character kept him out of harm’s way.

Nonetheless, switching sides during the Peloponnesian War—between the two most powerful city-states in Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta—marred his great achievements and led to his tragic death by lynching for treason.

Born in Riches, Tutored by the Best

Alcibiades was born to a wealthy family in Athens around 450 BC. His father was Cleinias, brother of Axiochus, and member of the Alcmaeonidae family. His mother was  Deinomache, daughter of Megacles.

He was about four years old when he lost his father, commander of the Athenian army, in a battle in Potidea. His raising was left to the great statesman Pericles, a distant relative, who was too preoccupied with governing Athens to provide the guidance the boy needed.

As a young man, Alcibiades was tutored by several prominent figures, the most impressive of these being Socrates. It is said that the Greek philosopher had saved Alcibiades’ life during the Battle of Potidaea and earned great respect from the young man.

However, Socrates’ teaching appeared to have little effect on unruly Alcibiades. He was rich and charming with loose morals, and he lived a glamorous life. It was the exact opposite of the virtuous life the great philosopher instructed his students to aim for.

Alcibiades continued his military service into adulthood, while at the same time honing his oratory skills.

Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War

In order to defend Greece against the Persians, several city-states allied and formed the Delian League, which was led by Athens. At some point, Athens began to use the League’s funds for its own purposes. This led to conflicts with the less powerful cities.

Sparta, on the other hand, felt that its hegemony was threatened by the Delian League.

Battle of Potidaea
Socrates defending Alcibiades at the Battle of Potidaea. Sculpture by Antonio Canova. Public Domain

When Potidaea revolted against Athens, the Corinthians sent a force to aid Potidaea in their revolt. Corinthos was a member of the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. This effectively sparked the Peloponnesian War in 431 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 battles fought during this war took place at Delium, a small town in Boeotia, where Socrates and Alcibiades again fought side by side.

The Archidamian War was a long and bloody one, with no side claiming victory. Both alliances were weary of the fighting and decided to stop. The peace treaty that followed was called the Peace of Nicias, named after a prominent Athenian general. It lasted until 413 BC.

The treaty was disputed by the Spartans who sent ambassadors to Athens to sort out the details. This is when Alcibiades used an artful trick. He met secretly with the Spartan ambassadors and asked them to renounce their diplomatic authority and allow him to assist them through his influence in Athenian politics.

At the same time, Alcibiades was advocating for a more aggressive policy against Sparta. The success with the Spartan ambassadors raised him in the eyes of the Assembly, and he was subsequently appointed general.

The Sicilian Expedition and Treason

In 415 BC, Alcibiades persuaded the Assembly to send the powerful Athenian navy to attack Syracuse in Sicily. His persuasive argument was that the campaign would bring riches to the city and expand the Athenian empire.

The Athenians obliged to his request, but the night before they were due to set sail, an anxious Alcibiades inexplicably decided to settle his nerves by mutilating statues of Hermes in Athens. Disrespect to the gods was tantamount to signing his death sentence. It was hubris.

Alcibiades with his courtesans
Alcibiades with his courtesans, by Felix Auvray, 1833. Public Domain

Enraged, the powers that be condemned Alcibiades to death and ordered him to return to Athens. However, cunning Alcibiades offered them to return with the fleet and be tried immediately so that he could clear his name. His request was denied, and he was ordered to complete the mission.

Suspicious that the Athenians would condemn him, Alcibiades escaped with a trireme and ran to join the enemy, Sparta. He provided the Spartans with Athenian military secrets and encouraged allies of Athens to revolt. The Spartans secured several crucial victories with the aid of Alcibiades.

Throughout this ordeal, he secretly seduced the wife of the Spartan King Agis II, according to Plutarch. Whether or not that was the reason he fell out of favor with the Spartan king is uncertain.

Alcibiades and Persia

After losing his influence in Sparta, Alcibiades decided to try his luck in Persia. Meanwhile, Agis had grown frustrated with Alcibiades and ordered his death. The Athenian once again escaped by switching sides, this time seeking the friendship of Persian satrap Tissaphernes.

He counseled the Persians in what they could do to weaken the Peloponnesians and told Tissaphernes that the best policy for Persia was to allow the Athenians and Spartans to wear each other out. He said that Sparta, with its strong infantry land forces, was the stronger of the two enemies and therefore the most dangerous.

Alcibiades hoped that this would lead to Athens requesting his return. Yet, some Athenians pointed out that Alcibiades cared about no one except himself. One of his opponents, the Athenian general Phrynichus, sent a letter to the Spartans to inform them that Alcibiades was manipulating 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.

A group of Athenian generals on Samos were planning a similar coup, and they recalled Alcibiades. When he arrived to Samos, he gave a speech about his misfortune that had him banished and his supposed clout among the Persians. The Athenians on Samos elected Alcibiades as their general.

Back to Athens

As a general, Alcibiades enjoyed several victories at sea as a naval commander. He defeated the Spartan fleet in the Hellespont at Abydos (411) and Cyzicus (410) and regained control over the vital grain route from the Black Sea.

The Athenians welcomed him back with enthusiasm in 407 BC. They restored his property and pronounced him supreme commander of land and sea. However, the naval Battle of Notium, fought some time between 408 and 406 BC, was a total disaster, for which Alcibiades was blamed, and he was removed from command.

According to Plutarch, Alcibiades then crossed the Hellespont and sought refuge in Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor. However, the Spartan commander of the fleet, Lysander, was not about to allow Alcibiades to escape unscathed. He contacted the Persians and asked them to have Alcibiades murdered.

Alcibiades had settled in a village in Phrygia, where he lived in a house with a courtesan named Timandra. Persian assassins surrounded his house and set it ablaze. 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.

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