Enviably well-connected, strikingly handsome, immensely rich, intensely charismatic, unashamedly louche, and, like the Homeric hero Achilles, motivated by the ambition ‘always to be best and to surpass all others.’” Is it any wonder that Alcibiades made so many enemies? Author David Stuttard’s description in his newest book, Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, captures perfectly the allure of the Athenian general, a chameleonic character who, for all his qualities, will always be remembered as one of the slipperiest statesmen in history.
Born around 450 B.C., Alcibiades had the mixed fortune of losing his father Cleinias as a boy and becoming the ward of Pericles, the most important figure of the period in political Athens. If he inherited something of his fighting spirit from his mother Deinomache (“Terrible in Battle”) and his ambition from his guardian, then Alcibiades owed his competitiveness to nature. By all accounts a born fighter, he is said to have boasted of squaring up to his peers and biting them “like a lion.” Tales of precocity and preternatural strength are commonplace in ancient biographies of politicians and rulers, but with Alcibiades you can well believe them. While vowing to write his own biography of the leonine leader with “a firm resolve to steer a course through the shoals and shifting sandbanks of contradictory evidence,” Stuttard is unafraid to draw on some of the more romantic stories. His book is all the livelier for it.
Alcibiades will always be remembered as one of the slipperiest statesmen in history.
Despite being one of the better-documented figures of antiquity, Alcibiades has often cut an elusive figure. Part of the difficulty of writing a biography of him today is that he was something of an enigma even in his own time. One of the few people who claimed to have understood what lay beneath his façade was Socrates. Much has been written about the nature of their relationship, both in antiquity and modern times, with Plato presenting Alcibiades as trying and failing to seduce the older man. For Stuttard, there is little doubt that Socrates “was infatuated with” Alcibiades, even if he did fear what he saw when he looked at him. On meeting him when he was not yet twenty, Socrates is said to have concluded that he would either live to do great things or wreak untold devastation.
One of the most interesting sources on their relationship, quoted in an endnote in Stuttard’s book, is a poem addressed to Socrates and ascribed to Pericles’ common-law wife Aspasia. It may well be spurious but, encouraging as it does the gadfly to pursue the gorgeous Alcibiades, makes for amusing reading:
Socrates, don’t think that I’ve not seen how you’re burning with desire
For the son of Deinomache and Cleinias! But if you want a good relationship
With such a boy, heed my advice, and don’t ignore me.
If you listen to me, it will go so much the better.
When I heard the news, my body glistened with delight;
Tears wet my eyes; this was the news I’d longed for.
So prepare yourself. Fill your heart with the persuasive Muse.
She’ll help you conquer him, if you instill her in his yearning ears,
For she is the beginning of a friendship for you both. With her help
You will have him
As you present him through your speech with your heart’s marriage gift.
Then there was the story of how Socrates rushed to Alcibiades’ side when the latter was injured in the Battle of Potidaea in 432 B.C., and carried him to safety. “Almost certainly,” writes Stuttard, “in that moment, Socrates . . . rescued the injured Alcibiades from an all-too-early grave.” Barefoot and wearing little more than a tunic, even in midwinter, Socrates is said to have shared his tent with the injured fighter. If he did, Stuttard speculates, then he might even have nursed his wounds. One is reminded of the famous ancient cup painting of Achilles bandaging up a grimacing Patroclus.
Potidaea effectively marked the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. It was in the course of this protracted conflict, which was fought between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies between 431–404 B.C., that Alcibiades had a chance to repay the favor, aiding Socrates when he was in retreat after the Battle of Delium and “arguably” saving his life.
Although Alcibiades was a skilled hoplite, his natural place was with the cavalry. He was obsessed with horses both on and off the battlefield. Stuttard is particularly good at conveying just how irritating Alcibiades’ hippomania was to those who were intent on disliking him. A theater director as well as an author, Stuttard searches Aristophanes’ comedies for jibes at Alcibiades’ weaknesses and finds his counterpart in the character of Pheidippides (“Horse-Sparer”), who squanders his money on horses in the Clouds. In truth, Alcibiades’ passion was no laughing matter. It was after making the case for strengthening Athenian control over the Aegean by launching an expedition to capture Melos—a quest in which his rival Nicias had failed a decade previously—that Alcibiades slipped away to the Olympic Games. As he watched his chariots race to victory, his fellow Athenians were preparing to lay siege to the island until it surrendered. The Melians were put to death or sold into slavery. Alcibiades meanwhile busied himself commissioning the poet Euripides and the painter Aglaophon to commemorate his sporting victories.
To many of his contemporaries, Alcibiades was an unknown quantity. While some found in his behavior the worrying symptoms of a would-be tyrant set on destroying their hard-won democracy, others could not help but be awed by his charisma and eloquence. Alcibiades acquired a reputation for his oratory despite suffering from a speech impediment. He might have been ridiculed for pronouncing his Rs as Ls, but this mannerism was said to “suit his voice perfectly, making his speech both charming and compelling.”
His skill as an orator was key to his success, but, as Stuttard reminds us, it was not necessarily innate. Initially, Alcibiades is said to have been terrified of speaking in the Assembly. Supposedly he confessed his nervousness to Socrates, who devised a typically ingenious argument for curing him of his fear. As they were walking together through the Agora in Athens, they are said to have seen men from various trades—a shoemaker, a town crier, a tent maker. With each one they passed, Socrates asked Alcibiades, “Are you afraid of him?” Since Alcibiades was not afraid of any of the men individually, Socrates showed him that he had no reason to be afraid of the Assembly, which was little more than the sum of the kind of people he had met.
Alcibiades experienced no such crisis of confidence when it came to women. A notorious playboy, who carried a shield decorated with the figure of Eros, Alcibiades married the daughter of one of the richest men in Greece (who happened to be a former husband of his mother), only to upset her with his philandering. In name, at least, his wife Hipparete (“Horse Virtue”) was a perfect match for him. When, however, Alcibiades proved himself incapable of resisting the charms of courtesans, she resorted to moving in with her brother and attempting to file for divorce. According to Plutarch’s Lives, a source Stuttard draws on often, Alcibiades carried her off home with him. She died a short time later, having given him two children. Stuttard quotes here the devastating words of the poet Hipponax: “A woman brings you pleasure only twice: The first time’s on your wedding night; the second’s at her funeral.”
Alcibiades changed allegiances more than once in his lifetime.
If Alcibiades’ faithlessness to women was acceptable to his male contemporaries, then his faithlessness to Athens ought not to have been. Long remembered as one of history’s traitors, Alcibiades changed allegiances more than once in his lifetime, defecting, most famously, to Sparta, where he is also said to have seduced the king’s wife and given her a son.
It was for his involvement in the disastrous Sicilian Expedition that led to this that Alcibiades remains best known. The episode in many ways encapsulates the drama of his life. Having defeated Nicias and his efforts to deter the Athenians from launching the invasion, Alcibiades found himself at the center of a peculiar furor. Stuttard recounts how, one morning in June 415 B.C., the Athenians awoke to discover that their herms (pillars with portrait heads of the god Hermes and male genitalia) had been desecrated. Placed outside houses and temples and other public buildings, herms were intended to ward off evil. Their destruction did not bode well for the expedition.
Who would have wanted to smash them? There were many theories. Some blamed the Corinthians, supposing that they wanted to stop the Athenians from attacking Sicily since they had established a colony at Syracuse. Others pointed the finger at the rich young men of the city and their heavy nightly drinking. Or might the incident be read as a strange attack on Alcibiades himself, wonders Stuttard? Aristophanes, after all, had given Alcibiades phallic names in his comedies. Might the smashing of the herms with their erect penises have been “a curious attempt to diminish his rampant political power?”
What is certain is that the episode damaged Alcibiades. A short time before the fleet was due to embark, rumor started to circulate that he had destroyed the herms himself. No sooner had the whispers begun than Alcibiades was accused in the Assembly of having profaned the sacred Mysteries of Eleusis as well. Alcibiades’ reputation for fast living had caught up with him. In his introduction, Stuttard compares Alcibiades’ life to Euripides’ Bacchae, which was performed in the penultimate year of the Peloponnesian War. Given the events surrounding the Sicilian Expedition alone, you can well understand how a tragedy about the irresistible allure of Dionysus could be read as “a reflection of [Alcibiades’] amoral influence on Athens.”
Stuttard’s interest in drama is superbly suited to his subject, even if his scene-setting occasionally tends towards cliché. Croesus the king of Lydia, for example, is “fabulously wealthy,” and the “rumor mill” really does work overtime: “As with Aspasia, so with Alcibiades—the rumor mill worked overtime. With gleeful outrage, it was noised abroad that he had run away from home and was living at the house of his lover.” Nonetheless Nemesis is a rich and rewarding biography, as thorough as it is bracing and as measured as it is entertaining. Stuttard is to be praised for capturing the complexity of both the man and the world he lived in with such sensitivity and clarity. If in life Alcibiades’ “magic evaporated with him” whenever he went away, then in death the force of his charisma has been restored.
1Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, by David Stuttard; Harvard University Press, 400 pages, $29.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 74
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