Alcibiades was a brilliant and colorful Athenian politician with a penchant for switching sides during the Peloponnesian War. He was a lover, student, and comrade of Socrates, he cuckolded the King of Sparta, and he was one of the best strategists to sail the seas in the 5th century BCE.
However, his flamboyant manner caused a scandal back home in Athens. He embraced wantonness, excessive luxury, drinking, and brothel houses. He almost exclusively wore long purple robes akin to a woman and he had the planks of his ship taken out to make room for his much softer pillow-filled hammock. His shield did not bear the traditional military insignia but was embossed with a Cupid holding a thunderbolt in its hand.
Aristophanes the comic playwright summed it up perfectly when he said of the Athenians that: “They love, and hate, and cannot do without him” (Plutarch [Trans. Eliot], 2010).
Alcibiades: Early Life
Born in Athens in around 450 BCE, Alcibiades was the son of Clinias and Dinomache. Both of his parents stemmed from prominent Athenian families. His mother, in particular, belonged to the ancient aristocratic family, the Alkmeonidai. His father was a wealthy politician and soldier who died in the battle of Coronea when Alcibiades was still very young. Soon after his father’s death, he was sent and raised by his father’s near-distant relative the leading Athenian statesman Pericles.
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According to Plutarch, Alcibiades possessed ample charm and a healthy constitution from childhood. He was noted for his confidence and rapid speech, further highlighted by his rhotacism lisp. The comic playwright Aristophanes pokes fun at his speech impediment, remarking “How very happily he lisped the truth” (Plutarch [Trans. Eliot], 2010).
From early childhood, Alcibiades displayed a varied and often inconsistent character that foreshadowed his impulsive life as an adult. However, the one constant was his ambition and desire for superiority. When wrestling as a child, he was about to lose to his opponent and decided to bite them instead of succumbing. His opponent called him out, saying that he bites like a woman, to which Alcibiades replied, “no, like a lion”(Plutarch [Trans. Eliot], 2010).
When he began to study, Alcibiades showed a natural aptitude for almost every activity he tried. The only skill he could not seem to master was the flute. He claimed that the instrument was beneath a person of his station as it prohibited him the ability to sing as one could do with the harp or lute. He recommended that the flute be left to those who can’t speak such as Athens neighbors the Thebans.
As a child, Alcibiades was suspected of misconduct and impulsive behavior. For example, Antiphon accused him of killing his servants with a staff in the Sibyrtius wrestling grounds as a boy. However, these accusations only appeared much later, during Alcibaides’s political career. Plutarch suggests that there is no substance to the accusations and saw it as a meager smear campaign.
Alcibiades and Socrates
As he matured from boy to young adult, Alcibiades attracted many, all captured by his extraordinary charm and beauty. Based on his station and natural charisma, many people attached themselves to him in the hopes to elevate themselves through his potential political career. However, some could see past the charm and beauty, someone who saw the potential abundance of noble and good qualities that could flourish in him if only he had good council. This council eventually found him in the form of the famed philosopher Socrates.
Socrates is considered by many to be the founder of western philosophy; he pursued truth and implored his students to question everything around them. Alcibiades quickly determined that Socrates genuinely wished to help him improve himself and quickly became one of his most talented students and very close friends. Alcibiades became enamored with Socrates who couldn’t help but feel similarly to his young student. Athenians watched in awe as the boisterous and flamboyant young man followed Socrates around, eating and sleeping in the same simple manner the philosopher embraced. The two fought together during the Athenian expedition against Potidaea. During the battle, Socrates defended an injured Alcibiades, saving his life. Alcibiades would eventually return the favor during the battle of Delium where he rescued a retreating Socrates on horseback.
Although the two men had a deep friendship and love of intellectual inquiry, their relationship was rather turbulent and arguably unhealthy nearing its end. There is a lot that suggests that the two were lovers and, although the recorded history never states it outright, it is evident that the relationship ascended beyond platonic friendship. In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades and Socrates debate the subject of love, beauty and sexual attraction (Plato, Symposium, 216c – 223d). A drunken Alcibiades draped in finery and crowned in a bushy wreath of ivy and violets asserts that Socrates pretends to be attracted to young men and ignorant of all things. Alcibiades states that Socrates is a man of moderation with incredible self-control.
Alcibiades saw this self-control as a challenge and began to actively pursue a romantic relationship with the older philosopher. In the symposium, he notes the numerous times he attempted to initiate an affair, like when he invited Socrates over for dinner. The two drank together and eventually Socrates spent the night. According to Alcibiades, the two got under their shared blankets and Alcibiades asked Socrates directly if he wanted to pursue a sexual relationship. He promised that if Socrates could teach him how to be a better person, then he would do anything in his power to gratify the man. Socrates replied that he would be getting the short end of the stick with such an arrangement, as he would be exchanging deep knowledge for cheap thrills.
However, their relationship was not entirely one-sided. Plutarch notes that Alcibiades would sometimes succumb to his impulsive nature and leave Socrates’ company to embrace hedonistic revels. During such instances, Socrates would go out searching for his young friend, dragging him away from the taverns and brothels if necessary.
Alcibiades took most people for granted, yet he never truly suffered consequences for his actions. For instance, the young noble Anytus perused Alcibiades romantically for some time, often inviting him over to dinner parties. On one such occasion, Alcibiades arrived drunk and late with his entourage and proceeded to steal half of Anytus’s cutlery. Afterward, Anytus still defended Alcibiades’ actions arguing that he was kind to leave the party guests the other half.
On another occasion, Alcibiades punched a wealthy Athenian named Hipponicus in the head after his friend made a bet with him. The random act of violence caused a stir among the Athenian elite and the next morning, he went to Hiponicus’s home to apologize. Upon being admitted into Hiponiucs’ home, Alcibiades stripped naked and demanded he be chastised for yesterday’s actions.
Alcibiades’ actions impressed Hiponicus so much that he forgot about the assault and immediately offered Alcibiades his daughter Hipparete’s hand in marriage. The couple’s relationship was rather brief. They had one child named after his father, but Alcibiades’ constant drinking and extramarital affairs eventually got to Hipparate. She attempted to divorce him because paid her almost no attention. When she arrived at the courthouse, Alcibiades found her and carried her back to their home, refusing to give her what she wanted. Unfortunately, she passed away not long after this occurred.
Socrates was one of the few people that Alcibiades did not take for granted. The two may have been lovers or at the very least close friends. However, Alcibiades’ innate ambition and desire for superiority eventually outweighed Socrates’ teachings about moderation. After Alcibiades entered Athenian politics his relationship with Socrates appears to have diminished significantly according to our historical records. However, the chaotic ramifications of his future career as a statesman and general found their way back to Socrates. During Socrates’ infamous trial that resulted in his execution, he was charged with corrupting the youth and the court used the future actions of Alcibiades as evidence of this corruption.
General of Athens
Alcibiades made a distinct impression the first time he entered the Athenian assembly. He was out with some friends when he heard that the Assembly was taking donations from the people. He made a large donation that sparked a round of applause, he was so flattered by this that he forgot about his pet quail under his robes. The quail escaped into the assembly whereupon he began to run around pushing through the assemblymen trying to catch it.
As a politician, Alcibiades was noted for his ability to discern exactly what the people wanted to hear. His public speaking led to no small number of political rivals, such as the famed general Nicas and the politicians Phanex and Hyperbolas. The latter of the three even tried to orchestrate Alcibiades’ ostracism in a public vote that could lead to a person being banished from the city for 10 years. However, Alcibiades managed to manipulate things to his advantage and got Hyperbolus ostracized in his stead.
In 421 BCE Nicias negotiated a peace treaty between Athens and Sparta, bringing an end to the extensive war between the two city-states. Nicias’s success angered Alcibiades greatly illustrating a darker aspect of his ambitious streak. Alcibiades decided to do all that he could to prevent the peace before it truly happened.
He found his opportunity when the Spartan ambassadors came to Athens to negotiate the peace. Alcibiades invited the delegation over for dinner the night before the negotiations. He asked them how much authority Sparta had given them regarding tomorrow’s negotiations. The ambassadors informed him that they had full authority to negotiate with Athens.
Alcibiades fabricated a story; he informed the ambassadors that under no circumstances should they reveal to the people and assembly the true extent of their political authority in case they try to take advantage of them. He advised them to tell the assembly that they only had limited authority and promised that he would assist them with this matter. When the ambassadors approached the assembly and informed them of their apparent powers, Alcibiades stood in protest calling the Spartans dishonest and untrustworthy for the lack of respect Sparta gave Athens. The assembly turned on the confused ambassadors who were run out of town, the peace was abolished and Nicias looked like a fool.
With the war renewed, Alcibiades was made a general and went to help communities oppressed by the Spartans. He subsequently managed to liberate the Argives, the Eleans and Mantinea and he forged a coalition with them against Sparta. With the help of the new alliance, he liberated the people of Argos and Patrea. He convinced them to rebuild their fortifications using Athenian materials and craftsmen, an act that made him very popular among Athenian artisans.
The Sicilian Expedition
In around 415 BCE, Alcibiades began to push Athens toward invading the island of Sicily, a territory the Athenians had been eyeing since the rule of Pericles. His close friend Socrates and fellow general Nicias tried to prevent the invasion. However, Alcibiades’ charisma and speaking abilities managed to sway the assembly who appointed him, Nicias, and Lamachus as generals of the expedition.
Plutarch suggests that Nicias was appointed to general to balance to impulsivity of Alcibiades and Lamachus. However, soon before the expedition, an ill omen appeared. During the feast of Adonis, several sacred Herms (busts resembling the god Hermes’s face) were mutilated.
The vandalism caused a wave of panic among Athenians who saw it as a sign of bad luck for the expedition. Although initially thought to be the work of Corinthian spies, many rejected this over the work of drunken young men. Alcibiades’ enemy Androcles accused him and his friends of the crime and demanded that Alcibiades be taken off the Sicilian expedition to stand trial.
However, the Argives and Mantineans auxiliary troops had only joined Athens in the Sicilian expedition because of Alcibiades and the assembly feared that they would leave if he did not go with them. The assembly agreed to postpone his trial until after he had returned from the expedition, despite Alcibiades requesting it happen beforehand as he feared that time away may exacerbate people’s perceptions about him.
The Sicilian expedition began with an Athenian victory at Catana. At the same time, Alcibiades’ enemy managed to take him to trial. Tried in absentia, Alcibiades was convicted on all accounts and sentenced to execution upon his return. Plutarch argues that the witness testimonies used during the trial were baseless and he saw the entire process as a way for jealous enemies to get rid of him.
The Athenian assembly sent the ship Salminian to bring Alcibiades back from the Sicilian front. The sailors were given explicit instructions not to let him find out why they were summoning him, fearing he may cause a mutiny in the army. Alcibiades left with them, but not before sending his agents to help prevent Messena from falling into Athenian hands. He was under no illusions as to why he had been summoned back to Athens. When the ship resupplied at Thurii, Alcibiades made his escape, exclaiming “I will make them [Athens] feel that I am alive” (Plutarch [Trans. Eliot], 2010).
Alcibiades in Sparta
Alcibiades fled to Argos but soon found it too dangerous and asked Sparta for sanctuary. He promised to advise Sparta in their war with his homeland in return for safe conduct and protection. Sparta welcomed him, and he advised them to send aid to the Syracusans, to renew their war with Athens, and most importantly to fortify Decelea.
Sparta listened and began to achieve several victories against Athens, most notably, helping the Ionian islands of Chios and Lesbos revolt against Athenian control. The flashy and flamboyant Alcibiades embraced stoic Spartan culture earnestly. Plutarch calls him a chameleon for his natural ability to take on different cultural practices without difficulty. While in Sparta, Alcibiades had cold baths, cut his hair, and ate minimalist meals with the Spartan troops. His actions seem a far cry away from the extravagant sailor who commissioned a pillow stuffed hammock for his ship.
Alcibiades was a genius adapter, shifting his mannerisms and character to suit the culture he found himself in. He would later do the same in Persia where he oozed pomp and ceremony, and in Thrace, where he embraced heavy drinking and horseback riding.
However, Alcibiades’ time in Sparta came to an abrupt end when it was revealed that he was having an affair with the Spartan King’s wife. While King Agis was away fighting the Athenians, Alcibiades got his wife Timaea pregnant who gave birth to a son named Leotychides. Alcibiades’ blatant cuckolding, coupled with the Spartan military’s jealousy that he was receiving all the credit for Sparta’s victories, led to another fast exit for Alcibiades. With the two most powerful Greek nations wanting him dead, Alcibiades made his way to Persia.
Alcibiades, Persia, and the 400
Alcibiades found sanctuary with Tisaphernes, a Satrap of the Persian king. Alcibiades managed to embrace the pomp and ceremony attributed to the Persian court and charmed Tisaphernes who famously hated the Greek people. The Persians had been aiding Sparta in their fight against Athens, Alcibiades advised the Persian to keep on friendly terms with both groups. At the same time, Alcibiades sent word to the nearby Athenian navy at Samos. Alcibiades promised them that he could arrange a Persian-Athenian alliance. However, Alcibiades knew the Persian empire would never help a democratic republic like Athens, so Alcibiades decided to overthrow Athenian democracy and set up a more amicable oligarchy. Alcibiades sent his friend Peisandros to Athens to instigate a revolution among the aristocrats. The revolution was a success and democracy changed to an oligarchy of 400 aristocrats.
Alcibiades then joined the Athenian navy at Samos, who were themselves pro-democracy. They appointed him general and begged him to sail home and restore democracy. However, Alcibiades convinced them that Athens in its current state could not survive a civil war. With the navy at his back, Alcibiades went on to defeat Sparta at Abydos. Alcibiades then returned to Persia where he was immediately arrested and placed in prison.
Tisaphernes feared the Persian king who did not like the Satrap meddling so much in Hellenic politics and hoped to blame everything on Alcibiades. After a month, Alcibiades escaped and made a point of telling everyone he met that Tisaphernes helped him escape. This was a lie, but a lie Alcibiades knew would taint the Satrap’s reputation for the rest of his life.
Alcibiades rejoined the Athenian navy and went on to defeat Sparta at Cyzicus and Selymbrains. Alcibiades eventually returned to Athens a celebrated hero. He was officially acquitted of all his previous crimes and had all his property and wealth restored to him. To further improve his images, Alcibiades organized protection for participants of the Eleusinian mysteries, who had not been able to make their pilgrimage to Eleusis since Sparta had fortified Decelea making the roads dangerous. Back home in Athens, Alcibiades became very popular and he was soon sent back out to war. Many of Athens’s political leaders feared that he may attempt to become a tyrant due to his popularity and hoped that keeping away from the city could avert this.
Unfortunately, Alcibiades’ history of success came back to bite him. The Athenian navy needed funds to compete with a Persian backed Sparta, so he left the navy under Antiochus while he searched for funds. Alcibiades ordered the brash Antiochus not to engage the Spartans in battle. Belligerently, a few days later he did, resulting in an all-out Spartan victory.
Back in Athens, Alcibiades’ enemies accused him of mismanaging the army. They argued that he left the army in Antiochus’s care so he could go drinking and visit brothels. The people of Athens once again turned on Alcibiades, who was forced to flee to Thrace. Alcibiades embraced Thracian ways, organized a Thracian mercenary army, and began to plunder northern Greece. During Alcibiades gallivant in Thrace, Sparta took control of Athens bringing the war to its end.
The Spartan King still wanted Alcibiades dead and sent assassins after him. Alcibiades fled to Persia, hoping to get aid for Athens from the Persian King directly. Alcibiades resided in a small village with his mistress Timandra, while awaiting the king in Phrygia. One night, assassins burned his house down while he slept.
Some accounts claim he ran out of the burning building dressed in women’s clothing and fought the culprits to his death, while others claim he died in the fire. All we do know is it was Alcibiades’ final fight; he was buried by his mistress in the hinterlands of Phrygia.
Alcibiades of Athens lived life to its fullest, he had a natural ability to both befriend and anger almost everyone he encountered. He was a chameleon changing his personality and manner to best charm the people around him.