The Ancient Greek orator, philanderer, drunk, traitor and hero would have felt at home in modern politics


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The career of the aristocratic Athenian politician, lover, general and traitor Alcibiades (c. 451–404 BC) is so well documented and colourful that it would surely have spawned numerous Hollywood movies and novelistic treatments, had his name not been so long and complicated (the standard English pronunciation is Al-si-BUY-a-deez).

His popularity, duplicity and unwavering self-regard make for ready points of comparison with modern politicians. The sheer amount of historical detail attached to his story is reflected in Aristotle’s comment in his Poetics: “Poetry is more scientific and serious than history, because it offers general truths whilst history gives particular facts … A ‘particular fact’ is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him.”

We know about “what Alcibiades did and what was done to him” from several authoritative ancient writers. The most entertaining portrayal, however, is that of the philosopher Plato (c. 425–347 BC), whose dialogue Symposium relates how Alcibiades gatecrashed a party at the home of the playwright Agathon, where several speeches had already been delivered on the theme of eros (love):

Suddenly there was a loud banging on the door, and the voices of a group of revellers could be heard outside along with that of a piper-girl. Agathon told his servants to investigate: “If they’re friends, invite them in,” he said.” If not, tell them the party’s over.” A little later they heard the voice of Alcibiades echoing in the courtyard. He was thoroughly drunk, and kept booming “Where’s Agathon? Take me to Agathon.” Eventually he appeared in the doorway, supported by a piper-girl and some servants. He was crowned by a massive garland of ivy and violets, and his head was flowing with ribbons. “Greetings, friends,” he said, “will you permit a very drunken man to join your party?”

Alcibiades proceeds to eulogise the wisdom and fortitude of his beloved mentor, the philosopher Socrates, detailing how the latter saved his life in a battle in Northern Greece in 432 BC at the start of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, a conflict that dragged on until Athens’ defeat in 404 BC.

The prominence of Alcibiades in Platonic writings stems from his long and close relationship with Plato’s teacher Socrates. He was born in Athens to aristocratic forebears and at around the age of four lost his father Clinias, who was killed in battle in 447 BC. Along with his brother, Alcibiades entered the guardianship of Pericles, his mother’s cousin and Athens’ leading politician.

Shortly afterwards, Pericles was to take Aspasia of Miletus, a clever woman admired by Socrates, as his partner. Aspasia’s sister was married to Alcibiades the Elder, Clinias’ father, so Aspasia was Alcibiades’ great-aunt by marriage. Her acquaintance with Socrates might have been what led Pericles to appoint Socrates as a mentor for his young ward.

As a teenager Alcibiades was widely admired for his good looks and spirited personality, but he was also notorious for misdemeanours, such as when he struck a teacher for dishonouring Homer, released a bird into the Council chamber to disrupt proceedings, and paraded his dog in public with its tail docked.

Ambitious Athenians were expected to espouse a “love of honour” (philotimia), and Alcibiades displayed this to extremes. He married the daughter of a wealthy Athenian, and when she tried to divorce him because of his affairs, he lifted her bodily and carried her home through the crowded Agora.

Alcibiades’ political career took a serious turn in his thirties. He became a popular speaker, despite being mocked for his inability to pronounce the letter “R” (he made it sound like “L”), and he was appointed to the highest military rank of strategos (general). When in 415 BC an embassy from the Sicilian city of Segesta arrived to request Athenian support in its struggle with Sicilian cities hostile to Athens, Alcibiades argued that the conquest of Sicily would enrich Athens.

In Sparta, Alcibiades characteristically embarked on an affair with the king’s wife

His opponents countered that a huge force would be needed, hoping to dissuade the Athenian Assembly. But their arguments had the opposite effect; the Athenians voted to launch a huge campaign, with Alcibiades one of three generals appointed to lead it.

An unprecedented force was prepared, but one morning before the fleet set sail Athenians awoke to the sight of a fearsome sacrilege. Stone images of the god Hermes — his bearded head mounted on square blocks of stone with an erect phallus carved in relief on the front — had been vandalised in the night. Alcibiades was a suspect, after someone claimed to have witnessed him and his friends participating in a mockery of the sacred rites of the Mysteries.

His political opponents waited for him to set sail for Sicily before bringing charges. A few weeks later a ship was despatched to arrest him on charges of “profaning the Mysteries”. Alcibiades agreed to return in his own ship, but instead he sought refuge at Sparta. His flight was taken as proof of guilt, and he was condemned to death.

There, Alcibiades helped the Spartans obtain critical intelligence for the war, and the Athenians’ Sicilian expedition came to a dismal end in 413 BC with the deaths of around 40,000 soldiers and sailors. Athens’ democratic constitution was discredited and replaced for a short time by a regime of 400 prominent citizens.

In Sparta, meanwhile, Alcibiades characteristically embarked on an affair with the king’s wife Timea, who bore him a son. Spartan goodwill was strained, and, after being warned that his life was in danger, Alcibiades fled again. He had previously met and impressed Tissaphernes, a Persian official who had been arranging financial transfers to Sparta. He now joined him as a trusted adviser, but tacitly manoeuvred on Athens’ behalf so that he might eventually be recalled home.

In 410 BC, Alcibiades was finally recalled to Athens after the regime of the 400 was succeeded by a more broad-based governing class. Before returning, he helped the Athenians win victories by sea and land. When he eventually entered the city in 407 BC, he received a hero’s welcome, and the charges against him were officially dropped.

The following year, however, Alcibiades was unfairly blamed after the Athenians suffered a defeat in a sea battle. He again withdrew into exile and made his way to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), hoping to revive an association with Persia on behalf of Athens. In 404, the house he was staying at with his mistress was surrounded and set on fire by Persian troops, probably sent at the behest of the Spartans. Rushing out of the house, sword in hand, he fell dead in a hail of arrows.

A year earlier, in 405 BC, the comic playwright Aristophanes had produced his comedy Frogs at Athens. Towards the end of the play, the god Dionysus poses the question: “Should Alcibiades be recalled?”

The answers given by the participants are deliberately abstruse, though they suggest a qualified approval in favour of recalling the errant general.

“What are we to do with Alcibiades?” was a refrain that must have been repeated throughout his life. To this day, his actions, aims and personality remain a matter for question and debate: he is the very model of a biographical conundrum.

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