"What do you think of Alcibiades?"
The final question to the contestants in Aristophanes' 'The Frogs"
This Athenian general embodied the youth and over confident spirit of his city, especially during the last 15 years of the Peloponnesian War. As a political and social figure he strongly influenced his era to which he dominated. His dangerous grand schemes and war plans mirrored the desire for Athens to expand her influence and though his fellow citizens repeatedly voted him into high command, their mistrust of him for his private debaucheries and ambition would ultimately lead to the destruction of them both. He is the leader of the 'hawks' faction in Athens, and his grandest plans to invading Sicily, should be seen in the same light as the English plans for invading the Americas. To both invaders, it was like a conquest of a 'new' world.
Alcibiades was born into a rich and powerful Athenian family during the Athenian heyday. His mother, Dinomache, belonged to the aristocratic Alcmaeonid clan; for those of you that are very interested in knowning about Alcibiades, it would be worthwhile reading about his maternal mother, her history and upbringing will greatly allow you into his mindset, this can be done here..Who is Dinomache?. After his father, Cleinias, was killed at the Battle of Coronea when he was about five years old, Alcibiades was raised as a ward of Dinomache's previous husband and kinsman, Pericles; the preeminent Athenian statesman. Breeding and privilege produced a youth who was confident, handsome, and spoiled, and he became a rowdy and glamorous figure in the homosexual milieu of upper-class Athens; Plutarch's account is full of gossip about men's infatuated pursuit of the teenage Alcibiades. Later he also showed a taste for women, especially for elegant courtesans. He married an Athenian noblewoman, Hipparete, whos story is probably the best account of how women were seen and treated in Athenian society. They had two children, but Alcibiades' conduct remained notoriously licentious. We are told that he had a golden shield made, emblazoned with a figure of the love god Eros; but armed with a thunderbolt, this is no doubt as he saw himself.
In his teens Alcibiades became a follower of the Athenian philosopher Socrates, who habitually tried to prompt innovative thought in young men bound for public life. This is the background for the scene in Plato's Symposium where a drunken Alcibiades praises Socrates to the assembled drinkers: According to Plato's version, the middle-age Socrates was in love with Alcibiades but never flattered the younger man or had sexual relations with him, despite Alcibiades' seductive advances.
Alcibiades reached manhood at the start of the Peloponnesian War. At about age 18 he was wounded in the Battle of Potidaea (432 B.C.) while serving as a hoplite alongside Socrates. (Socrates stood guard over him during the combat.) Alcibiades repaid the favor years later at the Battle of Delium (424 B.C.): On horseback, he found the foot soldier Socrates amid the Athenian retreat and rode beside him to guard against the pursuing enemy. Although an aristocrat, Alcibiades rose in politics as leader of the radical democrats, as his kinsman Pericles had done. He was only about 30 years old when he was first elected as one of Athens' 10 generals. Meanwhile, he pursued fame with scandalous extravagance, sponsoring no less than seven Chariots at the Olympic Games of 416 B.C.—the most ever entered by an individual in an Olympic contest. His chariots took first, second, and fourth places, and inspired a short poem by Euripides. Many right-wing Athenians were alarmed by this flamboyance, so reminiscent of the grandiose Tyrants of a prior epoch. Alcibiades doing nothing but continuing to portray a view which seemed aimed at seizing absolute power at Athens.
Alcibiades' political leadership was similarly reckless. In 420 B.C. he helped sabotage the recent Peace of Nicias (which had been meant to end Spartan-Athenian hostilities), by convincing the Athenians to ally themselves with Sparta's enemy, the city of Argos. The outcome was a Spartan field victory over an army of Argives, Athenians, and others at the Battle of Mantinea (418 B.C.).
Although a brilliant leader in battle, he was prone to dangerously grand schemes in war strategy and politics. In 415 B.C. Alcibiades led the Athenian Assembly into voting for the most fateful undertaking of Athenian history—the expedition against the Greek city of Syracuse. Not trusting Alcibiades as sole commander, the Athenians voted to split the expedition's leadership between him and two other generals, including the cautious Nicias. But the force, with 134 warships, had barely reached Sicily when Athenian envoys arrived, summoning Alcibiades home to face criminal charges of impiety.
One accusation (possibly true) claimed that on a prior occasion Alcibiades and his friends had performed a drunken parody of the holy Eleusinian Mysteries. A second accusation concerned a strange incident that had occurred just before the Sicilian expedition's departure: An unknown group had gone around overnight smashing the herms (hermai, marble figures of the god Hermes that stood outside houses throughout Athens), perhaps to create a bad omen against the invasion. Alcibiades was charged with this mutilation—although this charge was certainly false.
Knowing that these accusations had been orchestrated by his enemies to destroy him, Alcibiades accompanied the Athenian envoys by ship from Sicily but escaped at a landfall in southern Italy. Crossing on a merchant ship to the Peloponnese, he sought refuge at Sparta, where his family had ancestral ties. The Athenians condemned him to death in absentia and confiscated his property.
Then Alcibiades spent three years as a refugee turncoat, working for the Spartans (414–412 B.C.), in Alcibiades the Spartans found a most helpful traitor. At his urging, they sent one of their generals to Syracuse to organize that city's defense; within two years the Athenian invasion force was totally destroyed. Also, on Alcibiades' advice, the Spartans occupied Decelea, a site about 13 miles north of Athens, to serve as their permanent base in enemy territory (413 B.C.). By now Athens had begun to lose the war.
In 412 B.C. Alcibiades went on a Spartan mission to the eastern Aegean to foment revolt among Athens' Delian League allies and to help bring Persia into the war on Sparta's side. Yet again fate stepped in and the Spartans soon condemned Alcibiades to death—they mistrusted him, partly because he was known to have seduced the wife of the Spartan king Agis. Now with Sparta and Athens both against him, Alcibiades fled to the Persian governor of western Asia Minor. From there he began complex intrigues with commanders at the Athenian naval base on the nearby island of Samos in hopes of getting himself recalled to Athenian service.
His chance came in June 411 B.C., after the government at Athens fell to the oligarchic coup of the Four Hundred, and the Athenian sailors and soldiers at Samos defiantly proclaimed themselves to be the democratic government-in-exile. Alcibiades was invited to Samos and elected general. After the Four Hundred's downfall (September 411 B.C.), he was officially reinstated by the restored Democracy at Athens, although he stayed on active duty around Samos.
Then about 40 years old, the theater of war shifted to Asia Minor's west coast and to the Hellespont seaway, where Spartan fleets, financed by Persia, sought to destroy Athens' critical supply line of imported grain. Alcibiades managed to keep the sea-lanes open. His former ambition and recklessness now shone through as bold strategy and magnetic leadership. (For example, he once told the crews of his undersupplied ships that they would have to win every battle, otherwise there would be no money to pay them.) His best victory came in 410 B.C. at Cyzicus, where he surprised a Spartan fleet of 60 ships, destroying or capturing every one. In 408 B.C. he recaptured the strategic but rebellious ally city of Byzantium. In 407 B.C., at the height of his popularity, he returned ceremoniously to Athens to receive special powers of command. Then he sailed back to war, destined never to see home again.
In 406 B.C. a subordinate of Alcibiades was defeated in a sea battle off Notium, near Ephesus, on Asia Minor's west coast. The fickle Athenian populace blamed Alcibiades and voted him out of office. Alarmed, he fled from his fellow citizens a second time—only now he could not go to Sparta. He eventually settled in a private fortress on the European shore of the Hellespont. But, with Athens' surrender to Sparta in 404 B.C., Alcibiades had to flee from the vengeful Spartans, who now controlled all of Greece.
He took refuge with Pharnabazus, the Persian governor of central Asia Minor. But too many people desired Alcibiades' death. The Spartan general Lysander and the Athenian quisling Critias feared that Alcibiades would lead the defeated Athenians to new resistance and the Persians were fearful of Spartan agression against them and were tired of Alcibiades' antics. At Spartan request, Pharnabazus sent men to kill him. Alcibiades was in bed with a courtesan when he awoke to find the house on fire. Wrapping a cloak around his left arm as a shield, he dashed out naked, sword in hand, but fell to arrows and javelins. The woman escaped and later had him buried.
So died the foremost Athenian soldier of his day. The historian Thucydides sums up the dual tragedy of Athens and Alcibiades:
"He had a quality beyond the normal, which frightened people. …As a result his fellow citizens entrusted their great affairs to men of lesser ability, and so brought the city down."
The Athenians' puzzlement over him is suggested in Aristophanes' comedy 'The Frogs', staged in 405 B.C., the year before Alcibiades' death. The play involves a poetry contest in the Underworld; the final question to the contestants is:
"What do you think of Alcibiades?"
Text Citation: Sacks, David. "Alcibiades." Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1995. Facts On File, Inc. Ancient History & Culture. <www.factsonfile.com>.