Brian Warren

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online April 2017 | | DOI:

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Alcibiades began his political career in Athens in the 420s bce, and became an important politician and general during the Peloponnesian War. His story survives in a rich record of literary, historical, rhetorical, and philosophical works by his contemporaries, including Aristophanes, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plato. These texts convey a complex account of a charismatic man’s ill-fated relationship with his city. When Alcibiades was a child, his father died in battle; afterwards, he was raised by Pericles. As a good-looking, intelligent, and promising youth, Alcibiades began a complicated relationship with Socrates and won a prize for valor in battle. Later, he demonstrated a talent for diplomatic and political intrigues, and became notorious for his promiscuous sexuality. To avoid ostracism, he subverted the vote by colluding with his chief political rival Nicias. At the Olympics, he won a victory in chariot racing, stacking the odds by entering seven teams. Unsettled by Alcibiades’ transgressions of social, political, and sexual norms, some Athenians feared that he would become a tyrant. In 415, he was elected one of the generals of the Sicilian Expedition, but in the aftermath of the Mutilation of the Herms was recalled to stand trial for sacrilege. He escaped his Athenian enemies by defecting to Sparta. Soon he had to flee his Spartan enemies by defecting to the court of the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. In 411, Alcibiades used promises of Persian aid to incite an oligarchic revolution among the Athenians; in the middle of the coup, however, the oligarchs turned against him. Even as an oligarchy replaced the democracy in Athens, the pro-democratic Athenian fleet at Samos elected Alcibiades general because they hoped he could win them the war. After the Athenian victories at Abydos and Cyzicus, Alcibiades briefly, and for the last time, returned to Athens. The Athenians sent him back to the Ionian campaign, but after a subordinate suffered a defeat at Notium, Alcibiades again fled the Athenians. He became a hunted man, on the run from his many enemies—Athenian, Spartan, Persian. It is not clear who sent his killers, but Alcibiades was murdered in Phrygia soon after Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404. Five years later, in 399, Alcibiades’ scandal-plagued career likely weighed on the minds of the jury at Socrates’ trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. What Alcibiades did and said provoked a historical drama of love, strife, hate, desperation, hope, and loss. His historical significance, however, has perhaps been exceeded by his cultural significance as a subject of discourse among his fellow Athenians and the many others who have attempted to interpret and understand Alcibiades’ tumultuous life, argued about its meaning, and tried to come to terms with his legacy.

Article.  28923 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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