gigatos | September 17, 2021


Alcibiades Cleinius of Athens (450 BC – 404 BC) was a prominent Athenian politician, orator and general. He was the last known member of the aristocratic family of the Alcmeonides. He played an important role in the second half of the Peloponnesian War as a strategic advisor, military and political leader.

During the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades changed his political alliances several times. In his native Athens, he adopted an aggressive foreign policy in early 410 BC and was a strong supporter of the Sicilian campaign, but fled to Sparta when his political enemies accused him of sacrilege. In Sparta he served as a strategic adviser, proposing or overseeing major campaigns against Athens. In Sparta too, however, Alcibiades made powerful enemies, so he fled to Persia. There he served as an advisor to the satrap Tissaphernes, until the Athenians asked him to return. Thus he served as an Athenian general for several years, but his enemies managed to exile him a second time.

The Sicilian campaign was Alcibiades” idea and some scholars claim that if Alcibiades had been in charge of the campaign and not Nikias, the campaign would not have been so disastrous for the Athenians. In his years serving Sparta, Alcibiades played a major role in the destruction of Athens. The capture of Dhekelia and the rebellions of several strategic vassal cities were carried out either at his suggestion or under his command. When he returned to Athens, he played a key role in a series of Athenian victories that forced Sparta to seek peace. He adopted unconventional tactics, taking cities often through treachery or negotiation rather than siege. Alcibiades” political and military talents proved useful to whichever state was loyal to him at the time, but his tendency to make powerful enemies meant that he could not stay in one place for long.

Alcibiades was born in Athens and was the son of Kleinias and Dinomache. His mother was the daughter of Megacles, a descendant of Eurysakis and Aeas of Telamonius. Alcibiades belonged, on his mother”s side, to the powerful family of the Alcmeonides – the famous Pericles and his brother Arifron were cousins of Deynomachis, as her father was their mother”s brother. His grandfather, named Alcibiades, was a friend of Cleisthenes, the famous constitutional reformer of the late 6th century BC. After Clement”s death at the Battle of Coronea, Pericles and Ariphron became Alcibiades” guardians. According to Plutarch, Alcibiades had several famous teachers, including Socrates, and was well practiced in the art of rhetoric.a[”] He was known, however, for his undisciplined character, which is mentioned by ancient Greek and Latin writers on several occasions.b[”]

Alcibiades participated in the battle of Potidaea in 432 BC, where it is said that Socrates saved his life, and again in the battle of Dilium in 424 BC.c[”] Alcibiades had a close relationship with Socrates, whom he respected. According to Plutarch, “Socrates” love, though he had many great antagonists, usually prevailed for Alcibiades, as his words affected his noble nature.”..,

Alcibiades married Hippareti, daughter of Hipponikos, a wealthy Athenian. According to Plutarch, Hippareti loved her husband, but tried to divorce him because she consorted with courtesans. She lived with him until the end of his life and gave birth to two children, a daughter and a son, Alcibiades.

Rise to prominence

Alcibiades first came to the fore when he began to support the aggressive moves of the Athenians after the signing of Nikias” Peace. This agreement, a truce between Sparta and Athens in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, came after 7 years of war in which neither side achieved a decisive advantage. Historians Arnold Gom and Raphael Seeley believe, and Thucydides reports, that Alcibiades felt insulted when the Spartans decided to negotiate the peace treaty with Nicias and Lachis, overlooking him because of his young age.

Disagreements over the interpretation of the treaty led the Spartans to send ambassadors to Athens with full powers to settle all outstanding issues. The Athenians initially welcomed the ambassadors warmly, but Alcibiades met with them in secret before they spoke to the Church of the Demos and said that the Church Assembly was arrogant and overly ambitious. He suggested that they renounce their diplomatic authority to represent Sparta, and instead allow him to help them through his influence in Athenian politics. The delegates accepted and, impressed with Alcibiades, alienated Nicias, who wanted to sign an agreement with the Spartans. The next day, during the Assembly, Alcibiades asked them about the authority Sparta had given them to negotiate and they replied, as they had agreed, that they had come without absolute and independent authority. This was in direct contradiction to what they had said the day before and Alcibiades took this opportunity to denounce their character, express his suspicion of their aims and destroy their credibility. This ploy increased Alcibiades” influence while embarrassing Nicias. Alcibiades later became a general to orchestrate the creation of an alliance between Argos, Madinia, Elis and other cities in the Peloponnese, threatening Spartan hegemony in that region. According to Gom, “it was a grandiose plan for an Athenian general to put himself at the head of a Peloponnesian army and invade the Peloponnese, making a mockery of Sparta while its reputation was at its lowest point”. This alliance, however, was defeated at the battle of Mantinea.

In the years 416-415 BC a conflict broke out between Hyperbole on one side and Nikias and Alcibiades on the other. Hyperbolus tried to ostracize one of them, but Nicias and Alcibiades combined their influence and managed to convince the Athenians to banish Hyperbolus. This incident revealed that Nicias and Alcibiades were influencing a personal audience whose vote was dictated by the will of the two leaders.

Alcibiades was not among the generals involved in the capture of Milos in 416-415 BC, but Plutarch describes him as a supporter of the decree for the death of the men of Milos and the enslavement of women and children. The orator Andocides claims that Alcibiades had a child with one of these enslaved women.

Campaign in Sicily

In 415 BC, ambassadors from the city of Segesta (Greek: Egesta) arrived in Athens to ask for support in their war against Selinounta. During discussions about the operation, Nicias opposed Athenian intervention, explaining that the campaign could be costly and criticized the character and motives of Alcibiades, who was in favor of the operation. On the other hand, Alcibiades claimed that a campaign in this area would bring wealth to the city and expand its empire, as it had done in the Greco-Persian Wars. In his speech, Alcibiades predicted (over-optimistically, according to historians) that the Athenians would gain allies in this region and impose their rule on Syracuse, the most powerful city in Sicily. Despite Alcibiades” enthusiasm for this campaign, Nicias took command of the expedition, as he had a plan for the safe conquest of Sicily. On his recommendation, the size of the fleet was increased from 60 ships to “140 triremes, 5,100 men, and about 1,300 archers and lightly armed men”. The philosopher Leo Strauss points out that the Sicilian campaign surpassed any of Pericles” operations. It is almost certain that Nicias” intention was to shock the assembly with the high force estimates he required, but rather than discourage his fellow citizens, he made them more willing to attempt the campaign. Despite his displeasure, Nicias was anointed leader of the expedition jointly with Alcibiades and Lamachus.

One night, during the preparations for the campaign, numerous busts of Hermes were desecrated all over Athens. This was a religious scandal and was seen as a bad omen for the campaign. Plutarch explains that Androcles, a political leader, used false witnesses who accused Alcibiades and his friends of mutilating the statues, while also parodying the Eleusinian Mysteries. Later his enemies, particularly because of Androcles and Thessalus (son of Cimon), recruited orators to argue that Alcibiades should set sail as planned and be tried upon his return. Alcibiades was suspicious of their intentions and requested that he be allowed to be tried immediately, despite the risk of being killed, in order to clear his name. This request was denied and the fleet sailed shortly afterwards, with unresolved issues.

While Alcibiades waited, his absence encouraged his enemies and they began to accuse him of other sacrilegious acts and comments and even claimed that these acts were related to a conspiracy against the republic. According to Thucydides, the Athenians always received something with fear and suspicion. When the fleet arrived at Catania, they found the sacred trireme Salaminia waiting to bring back to Athens for trial Alcibiades and the other accused of mutilating the Hermes and desecrating the Eleusinian Mysteries. Alcibiades told the heralds that he would return to Athens in his ship, but at Thurius he escaped with his crew – in Athens he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. His property was confiscated and the Athenians promised a talent to the man who could kill the accused. Meanwhile the Athenian force in Sicily, after victories at first, moved against Messina, where the generals were waiting for their secret allies to lead the citizens into treason. Alcibiades, however, fearing that he would be outlawed, gave information to friends of the Syracusans in Messina, who succeeded in preventing the Athenians from entering. With the death of Lamachus in a battle shortly afterwards, command was taken over by Nicias, whom modern scholars consider an inadequate military leader.

Apostasy in Sparta

After his disappearance from the Thurians, Alcibiades quickly made contact with the Spartans, “having promised to help them with more fervour than he had done before as their enemy” if they offered him asylum. The Spartans accepted his offer. In the debate that erupted in Sparta over whether they should send a force to help Syracuse, Alcibiades spoke and demonstrated the dangers of Athenian ambition to the Spartan ephors, informing them that the Athenians hoped to conquer Sicily, Italy, and even Carthage. Historian Donald Cagan believes that Alcibiades exaggerated the Athenians” plans to convince the Spartans that they could benefit from his help. Kagan confirms that Alcibiades had not yet achieved his “legendary” reputation and the Spartans saw him as a “defeated and hunted man” whose policies “produced military failures” and brought “indecisive results”. If we are accurate, this assessment highlights one of Alcibiades” greatest talents, his highly persuasive rhetoric. After the threat was removed, Alcibiades advised the Spartans to send an army and, more importantly, a Spartan commander to discipline and assist the Syracusans.

Alcibiades served as a military advisor to Sparta and helped Sparta win several important battles. He advised them to build a permanent fortress at Dhekelia, 10 miles (16 km) from Athens and within sight of the city. In doing so, the Spartans cut the Athenians off from their homes, their crops and the silver mines they had at Sounion. This was part of Alcibiades” plan to restart the war with Athens in Attica. This move was disastrous for Athens and forced the Athenians to stay within their great walls for a year, taking supplies from sea routes. Seeing Athens besieged on a second front, members of the Delian Alliance began to contemplate rebellion. In the aftermath of the Athenians” disastrous defeat in Sicily, Alcibiades sailed into Ionia with a Spartan fleet and managed to convince the Ionian cities to start a revolt. Despite his valuable advice to the Spartans, Alcibiades lost the favour of the Spartan government, led by Aghius II. Leotychidas, son of Agis and Timaea, who was born afterwards, is believed to have been the son of Alcibiades. Alcibiades” influence was further diminished after the departure of Edius, an ephorus, with whom he was on good terms. Allegedly, Astyochus, a Spartan admiral, ordered his death, but Alcibiades learned of this and defected to the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, who financially supported the Peloponnesian forces in 412 BC.

In Asia Minor

Upon his arrival at the Persian court, Alcibiades gained the trust of the powerful satrap and made several political proposals, which were well received. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades immediately began to do what he could, collaborating with Tissaphernes to hurt the Peloponnesian cause. He urged the satrap to reduce the payments he was making to the Peloponnesian fleet, which he was now providing at irregular intervals, and to begin their irregular surrender. Then, Alcibiades advised Tissaphernes to bribe the generals of the cities to gain valuable information about their activities. Finally, and most importantly, he advised Tissaphernes not to rush the Persian fleet into conflict, as the longer the war went on, the more exhausted the warring factions would be. This would allow the Persians to more easily conquer the area after the battle. Alcibiades tried to convince the satrap that it was in Persia”s best interest to exhaust Athens and Sparta first, “and after cutting down the Athenian force, to be able to immediately rid the country of the Peloponnesians”. Although the Persians benefited from Alcibiades” advice, this was for a purpose: Thucydides tells us that the real aim was to use his supposed influence with the Persians to effect his restoration to Athens.

Negotiations with the Athenian oligarchs

Alcibiades seems to have understood that “radical democracy” would never agree to his recall to Athens. Therefore, he exchanged messages with the Athenian commanders in Samos and suggested that if they could establish an oligarchy friendly to him, he could return to Athens and bring with him Persian money and possibly a Persian fleet of 147 triremes. Alcibiades tried to win over the most influential military men and succeeded by proposing a threefold plan: the Athenian constitution had to be changed, the recall of Alcibiades had to be voted on, and Alcibiades had to convince Tissaphernes and the King of Persia to take Athens” side. Most commanders of the Athenian fleet accepted this plan and welcomed the prospect of a narrower constitution, which would allow them to have a greater stake in determining policy. According to Thucydides, only one Athenian general in Samos, Frinius, opposed the plan and claimed that Alcibiades cared not for the proposed oligarchy but for traditional democracy. The involvement in this story of another general, Thrasybulus, remains unclear.e[”]

These commanders of the Athenian fleet formed a group of conspirators, but met with opposition from most of the soldiers and sailors, who calmed down at “the prospect of a reward from the king”. The members of the group prepared to send Pisandros, one of the members, as an ambassador to Athens to negotiate for the recall of Alcibiades and the abolition of democracy in the city, to make Tissaphernes a friend of the Athenians.

Frenichus, fearing that if Alcibiades is reinstated, he will avenge his opposition, sent a secret letter to the Spartan admiral, Astyochus, to tell him that Alcibiades had broken their agreement by making Tissaphernes a friend of the Athenians, while the letter revealed the rest of the intrigue. Astyochus went to meet Alcibiades and Tissaphernes in Magnesia and showed them the letter of Frynichus. Alcibiades responded by sending commanders in Samos a letter against Frynichus, stating what he had done and calling for his death. In desperation, Frynichus sent another letter to Astyochus, suggesting that he destroy the Athenian fleet at Samos. This letter fell into the hands of Alcibiades, who notified the commanders in Samos that they had been betrayed by Frinias. Alcibiades was unable to accomplish anything, as Frunichus warned, before the fighting began, that he had received information of an enemy plan to attack the camp and that they should leave Samos as quickly as they could.

Despite these events, Pisandros and the other envoys of the conspirators arrived in Athens and spoke before the Athenian citizens. Pisandros won the debate, putting Alcibiades and his promises in the center. The Church deposed Phrynichus and elected Pisandros and 10 others to negotiate with Tissaphernes and Alcibiades.

At this point, the regime of Alcibiades faced a serious obstacle. Tissaphernes would not sign a conditional agreement, expecting them to follow his policy and neutrality. As Kagan states, Tissaphernes was a prudent leader and had recognized the advantages of each side without direct Persian involvement. Alcibiades realized this and by presenting the Athenians with harsher demands in Tissaphernes” name, he tried to convince them that he had persuaded Tissaphernes to support them, but that this was not enough. Although the envoys were angry at the audacity of the Persian demands, they were under the impression that Alcibiades could reach an agreement with the Persians. This fiasco at Tissaphernes” court, however, put an end to the negotiations between the conspirators and Alcibiades. The group was convinced that Alcibiades could not advance his position in the negotiations without demanding excessively high concessions from them and consequently abandoned their plans to restore him to Athens.

Restoration as an Athenian General

Despite the failure of the negotiations, the conspirators managed to abolish democracy and imposed the oligarchic government of 400, led by Phrynichus and Pisander. In Samos, however, a similar coup instigated by the conspirators did not go smoothly. The Samian democrats learned of the conspiracy and alerted four prominent Athenians – the generals Leo and Diomedon, the triarch Thrasybulus, and Thrasyllus, who was then a hoplite. With the support of these men and Athenian soldiers in general, the Samian democrats managed to defeat the 300 Samian oligarchs who tried to seize power. Later, the Athenian corps in Samos formed a political assembly, deposed their generals and elected new ones, including Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus. The army, clarifying that they had not defected from the city, but that the city had defected from them, decided to uphold democracy as they continued the war against Sparta.

After some time, Thrasybulus persuaded the Athenian houses to vote to recall Alcibiades, a policy he had supported before the coup. He then set sail to find Alcibiades again and return with him to Samos. The goal of this policy was to gain Persian support, as they continued to believe that Alcibiades had great influence on Tissaphernes. Plutarch claims that an army was sent for Alcibiades to use his help to move the tyrants to Athens. Kagan believes that this restoration was disappointing for Alcibiades, who wanted to return gloriously to Athens, but found himself restored to the disloyal fleet, where he was granted immunity from prosecution “which would protect him for the time being, but was not calculated to do so in the future”; moreover, the recall, by which Alcibiades wanted to restore his prestige and influence, was achieved thanks to the patronage of Thrasybulus.

In his first speech before the assembled troops, Alcibiades complained bitterly about the conditions of his exile, but for most of the speech he spoke of his influence on Tissaphernes. The main motive of his speech was to make the oligarchs in Athens fear him and to increase his credit with the army in Samos. After his speech, the corps immediately elected him General along with Thrasybulus and others. In fact, he roused them so much that they proposed to sail for Piraeus and attack the oligarchs in Athens. Alcibiades, along with Thrasybulus, calmed the people down and showed them the folly of this proposal, which would spark a civil war and lead to the defeat of Athens. Shortly afterwards, after Alcibiades was restored as Athenian general, the 400 were overthrown and replaced by a wider oligarchy, which paved the way for democracy.

Presently, Alcibiades sailed for the palace of Tissaphernes with a small fleet. According to Plutarch, the supposed aim of this expedition was to stop the Persian fleet from sending aid to the Peloponnesians. Thucydides agrees with Plutarch that the Persian fleet was at Aspendos and that Alcibiades told the corps that he would bring the fleet to his side or prevent them from participating in general, but Thucydides states that the real reason was to get around the new position on Tissaphernes and gain some real influence over him. According to the historian, Alcibiades knew that Tissaphernes did not plan for the fleet to participate in the conflict.

The battles of Abydos and Cyzicus

Alcibiades was recalled by the “intermediate regime” of 500 who succeeded the 400 in 411 BC, but it is likely that Alcibiades returned to the city in 407 BC. Plutarch tells us that, although his recall had gone through a suggestion by Crito, a political ally, Alcibiades decided to return in glory. As this was his aim, it still led to an end, and this end had been avoided on his return to Athens.

The next important part in which he played a role in the war was at the Battle of Abydos. Alcibiades was left behind in Samos with a small force, as Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus led most of the fleet to Hellespont. During this time, Alcibiades managed to obtain a large sum of money from Caria and other neighbouring regions, with which he could pay the rowers and gain their favour. After the Athenians” victory at the naval battle of Cynos Sima, both fleets called all their ships from the Aegean to join together before the next decisive battle.

As Alcibiades was on his way, the two fleets clashed at Abydos, where the Peloponnesians set up their main naval base. The battle lasted for a long time, but the Athenians gained an advantage when Alcibiades sailed into Hellespont with 18 triremes. The Persian satrap Pharnabazus, who replaced Tissaphernes as sponsor of the Peloponnesian fleet, moved his army to the coast to defend the ships and sailors who had anchored their ships. Only the support of the Persian army and the night saved the Peloponnesian fleet from total destruction.

Shortly after the battle Tissaphernes arrived at Hellespont and Alcibiades left the fleet at Sesto to meet him, bringing gifts and hoping again to try to gain influence with the Persian governor. Apparently, Alcibiades misunderstood the satrap”s intentions and was arrested on arrival. Within a month he managed to escape and regain command. It was now obvious, however, that he had no influence with the Persians – from now on his prestige depended on what he could achieve, not on what he promised to do.

After a break of several months, during which the Peloponnesians built a new fleet and the Athenians besieged cities and received money from the Aegean, the next major naval battle was fought in the spring of 410 BC at Cyzicus. Alcibiades moved his small fleet from Sesto to Kardia (probably in Thrace) to protect his fleet from the reconstituted Peloponnesian fleet, but as soon as the Athenian fleet was joined there, its commanders moved on to Cyzicus, where the Athenians had been informed that Pharnabazus and Mindaros, the commander of the Peloponnesian fleet, were plotting their next move. Thanks to the storm and the darkness, the Athenians got close without the Peloponnesians noticing them. There the Athenians devised a plan to lead the enemy into battle. According to Diodorus of Sicily, Alcibiades advanced with a small squadron to lure the Spartans into battle, and as Mindaros led the Spartans into battle, the squadrons of Thrasybulus and Theramenes came to help Alcibiades, cutting off the Spartans” retreat.f[”]

The Spartan fleet suffered losses in the battle. Alcibiades” military corps landed and tried to push the Spartan ships back to the sea. The Peloponnesians struggled to prevent their ships from moving away and Pharnabazus” troops came to their aid. Thrasybulus landed his troops to help Alcibiades, and in the meantime ordered Theramenes to join the Athenian army, which was nearby, and bring them to reinforce the sailors and marines on the beach. The Spartans and Persians, overwhelmed by the arrival of large forces from various directions, were defeated and retreated, and the Athenians destroyed all the Spartan ships. A letter sent to Sparta by Hippocrates, vice-admiral under Myndaros, was stolen and taken to Athens – it read as follows. The ships are lost. The men are starving. We don”t know what to do.” Shortly afterwards, Sparta offered peace, but the Athenians refused.

Subsequent military successes

After their victory, Alcibiades and Thrasybulus began the siege of Chalcedon in 409 BC with about 190 ships. Although unable to achieve a decisive victory or force the city to surrender, Alcibiades was able to win a small tactical battle outside the city gates, and Thiramenes signed a treaty with the Chalcedonians. They later signed a temporary alliance with Pharnabazus, which provided some useful immediate cash for the army, but despite this, Alcibiades was still looking for money to pay the soldiers and rowers in the fleet.

To secure these funds he travelled to the Thracian Peninsula and attacked Silyvria. Together with a pro-Athenian party in the city, he offered the Silivrians reasonable terms and imposed strict supervision of the observance of those terms. He caused no damage to the city, but only received a sum of money, appointed a guard and left. Epigraphic evidence indicates that the Silibrians surrendered as hostages until a treaty was ratified in Athens. His move is considered skillful by historians, as it saved time, resources and lives and still successfully met his objective.

From there, Alcibiades, together with Theramenes and Thrasyllus, moved to besiege Byzantium. A percentage of the city”s inhabitants, demoralized and starving, decided to surrender the city to Alcibiades on the same terms as the Silibrians. One night, as agreed, the defenders left their positions and the Athenians attacked the Peloponnesian garrison in the city and their ships in the harbor. The percentage of the inhabitants who stayed with the Peloponnesians fought so fiercely that Alcibiades announced in the middle of the battle that he guaranteed their safety and persuaded the remaining citizens to turn against the Peloponnesian garrison, which was utterly destroyed.

Back to Athens

After these successes, Alcibiades returned to Athens in the spring of 407 BC. Even in the aftermath of his most recent victory, Alcibiades was extremely cautious in his return, considering the changes in government and the great blow to Athens. Thus, instead of going directly to Athens, Alcibiades first went to Samos to take 20 ships and proceed with them to Kerameikos Gulf to collect 100 talents. Finally he sailed to Gythio to make inquiries, partly for the reported preparations of the Spartans there and partly to learn the feelings of the Athenians about his return. His inquiries assured him that Athens was friendly to Alcibiades” return, and that his friends were urging him to return.

Finally he sailed to Piraeus, where the crowd gathered, determined to see the famous Alcibiades. He entered the port full of fear, until he saw his cousin and other friends and acquaintances, who invited him ashore. When he reached the shore, he was greeted as a hero. However, some people saw a bad omen in the fact that he returned to Athens on the same day as the ceremony of the Plosion (a celebration during which the old statue of Athena is cleansed). It was considered the most unlucky day of the year to make a major change. Alcibiades” enemies took note of this and kept it in mind for a future occasion.

All criminal proceedings against Alcibiades were cancelled and the blasphemy charges were officially dropped. Alcibiades was able to reclaim his dignity and raise the morale of the Athenians by leading the sacred procession to Eleusis for the Eleusinian Mysteries ceremony by land, for the first time since the Spartans” capture of Dhekelia. The procession was replaced by a journey by sea, but this year Alcibiades used a detachment of soldiers to accompany the traditional procession. His property was restored and the church elected him as supreme commander of land and sea (General Emperor).

Defeat in the South

In 406 BC, Alcibiades left Athens with 1500 hoplites and 100 ships. He failed to capture Andros and then moved to Samos. Later he moved to Nothion, closer to the enemy, who was in Ephesus. Meanwhile Tissaphernes had been replaced by Cyrus the Younger (son of Darius II of Persia), who decided to support the Peloponnesians financially. This move began to attract Athenian deserters to the Spartan fleet. In addition, the Spartans replaced Mindaros with Lysander, a very capable admiral. These events led to the rapid growth of the Peloponnesian fleet at the expense of the Athenians. Seeking funds for a decisive battle, Alcibiades left Nothion to assist Thrasybulus in the siege of Phocaea. Alcibiades feared that the Peloponnesian fleet was close by and left 80 ships nearby to watch him, under the command of his personal helmsman, Antiochus, with orders not to attack. Antiochus disobeyed this simple order and tried to lure Lysander into battle using the same tactics as at Cyzicus. The situation at Nothion, however, was quite different from that at Cysico – the Athenians did not possess the element of surprise and Lysander knew a great deal about the Athenian fleet thanks to the deserters. Antiochus” ship was sunk and he was killed during a Spartan attack – the remaining ships moved back towards the Nothion, where the main Athenian force was unprepared for a sudden attack by the Spartan fleet. In the ensuing battles Lysander achieved an outright victory. Alcibiades quickly returned and tried to prevent the defeat at Nothion, scoring a victory, but Lysander could not attack the fleet again.

The responsibility for the defeat at Nothion fell on Alcibiades and his enemies saw the opportunity to attack him and remove him from command, although some modern scholars believe that Alcibiades should not have been condemned for Antiochus” mistake. Diodorus states that, in addition to his mistake at Nothion, Alcibiades was dismissed because of the false accusations brought against him by his enemies. According to Anthony Andrews, a professor of ancient history, although the long-held hopes that the successes of the previous summer would create something positive, they were ultimately a deciding factor in the fall. Consequently, Alcibiades condemned himself to exile. Alcibiades never returned to Athens again and sailed north to the castles of the Thracian Peninsula at Hellespont, which offered him security at the time. The consequences of the defeat were severe for Athens. Although the defeat was small, it caused the dismissal not only of Alcibiades from the fleet, but also of his allies such as Thrasybulus, Theramenes and Critias. These were the best commanders Athens had at the time, and their dismissal led to the complete surrender of the Athenians two years later, after the defeat at Aegos Potamos.


With one exception, Alcibiades” role in the war ended with his administration. Before the naval battle at Aegos Potamos, in the last battle of his career, Alcibiades recognized that the Athenians were anchored at a strategic disadvantage and advised them to move their ships to Sesto, where they could take advantage of the port and the city. Diodorus, however, does not mention this advice, claiming instead that Alcibiades would offer reinforcements from Thrace to the generals if he received a share of the command. g[”] Be that as it may, the Athenian generals, “considering that in case of failure the responsibility would fall on them, while in case of victory all men would believe that Alcibiades had brought them victory”, asked Alcibiades not to come near the camp again. A few days later, the fleet would be destroyed by Lysander.

After the battle of Aigos Potamos, Alcibiades crossed the Hellespont and took refuge in Phrygia, in order to secure Artaxerxes” help against Sparta.

Many facts about Alcibiades” death remain unclear, as there are conflicting reports. According to the oldest of these, the Spartans and more specifically Lysander were responsible for Alcibiades” death. Although much of his account is not independently confirmed, Plutarch”s theory is this: that Lysander sent an envoy to Pharnabazus, who in turn sent his brother to Phrygia, where Alcibiades lived with his mistress, Timandra.h[”] In 404 BC, as he was about to set out for the Persian palace, his house was surrounded and set on fire. Seeing that there was no hope of being saved, Alcibiades attacked the assassins and managed to kill one of them. According to Aristotle, the place of Alcibiades” death was Mount Elaphos, a mountain in Phrygia.

Political career

In ancient Greece, Alcibiades was a famous person. Thucydides chastises the Athenian politician for his political behaviour and motives. According to the historian, Alcibiades, who was “overly ambitious”, proposed the campaign in Sicily in order “to increase his wealth and fame thanks to his victory”. Thucydides does not hold Alcibiades responsible for the destruction of Athens, as “his habits offended everyone and caused the Athenians to establish relations with the other side long before the city was destroyed”. Plutarch regards him as “the least fastidious and the most careless of all human beings”. On the other hand, Diodorus Sicilianus claims that he was “in spirit a diamond, which shone in great enterprises”. The Sharon Press of Brown University points out that Xenophon emphasizes Alcibiades” service to the state, rather than the harmful effects he caused. Demosthenes defends Alcibiades” effectiveness, saying that he has taken up arms in the cause of democracy by demonstrating his patriotism, not for money and speeches, but as a personal service.

For Demosthenes and other orators, Alcibiades epitomized the figure of a great man during the glory days of Athenian democracy and became a rhetorical symbol. One of Isocrates” speeches, delivered by Alcibiades the Younger, claims that the politician deserves the gratitude of the Athenians for his services. Lysias, on the other hand, asserts in one of his works that the Athenians must regard Alcibiades as an enemy because “he paid with trauma for the open help of any friend of his.” In the Constitution of the Athenians, Aristotle does not include Alcibiades in his list of the best Athenian politicians, but in the Analects he claims that the traits of a proud man like Alcibiades are “calmness in the midst of life”s adversities and impatience of disgraces”. Alcibiades is seen by his contemporaries as a threat to the security of the political order. Andocides says of him that “instead of participating as the law of the city required, he preferred to conform to his own way of life.” A key element in the portrayal of the Athenian politician is Cornelius Nepot”s well-known quote that Alcibiades “surpassed all Athenians in splendour and magnificence of life”.

Even today, Alcibiades causes much disagreement among scholars. For Malcolm McGregor (former head of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of British Columbia), Alcibiades was a smart player rather than an opportunist. Evangelos Fotiadis, a prominent Greek philologist, believes that Alcibiades was a “diplomat of the first order” and had “great qualities”. Nevertheless, his intellectual powers were not compensated by his extraordinary mind and he had the cruel luck to lead a people susceptible to demagogy. The great Greek historian Constantine Paparrigopoulos highlights his ”spiritual virtues” and compares him to Themistocles, but claims that all these gifts created a ”treacherous, bold and impious man”. Walter Ellis believes his actions were outrageous, but they were carried out with pride. David Gribble claims that Alcibiades” actions against his city were incomprehensible and believes that “the tension that led to Alcibiades” split with the city was between purely personal and political values”. Russell Meiggs, a British ancient historian, claims that the Athenian politician was utterly ruthless despite his great prestige and extraordinary abilities. According to Meiggs, his actions were dictated by selfish motives and his conflict with Cleon and his successors undermined Athens. The same scholar highlights the fact that “the example of his tireless and undisciplined ambition reinforced the accusations against Socrates”. Even more critically, Athanasios Platias and Konstantinos Kaliopoulos, professors of Strategic Studies and International Relations, state that Alcibiades” arguments “should be sufficient to end with the notion that Alcibiades was a great politician, as some still believe”. Writing from a different perspective, psychologist Anna Salter cites Alcibiades as an example of “all the classic characteristics of psychopathy”.

Kagan believes that while Alcibiades was a commander of great ability, he was not a military genius and his confidence and ambition went beyond his abilities. Thus he was capable of committing major errors and serious miscalculations. Kagan argues that at Nothion, Alcibiades made a serious mistake by leaving the fleet in the hands of an inexperienced officer and that the responsibility for the important victory at Cyzicus must fall on Thrasybulus. Furthermore, Kagan agrees with Cornelius Nepotas, who said that the Athenians” outrageous opinion of Alcibiades” abilities and bravery was his chief misfortune.

S. Press argues that “although Alcibiades can be considered a good general on the basis of his battles at Hellespont, he could not be considered a good general on the basis of his campaign in Sicily”, but “Alcibiades” performance as a general outweighs his mistakes”. Professors David McCann and Barry Strauss attempted to compare Alcibiades to Douglas MacArthur, noting that “both men stood out as strategic leaders to whom a secret was attributed.”

Skills in rhetoric

Plutarch claims that “Alcibiades was a skilled speaker along with his other gifts”, while Theophrastus believes that Alcibiades was the most skilled at discovering and understanding what each situation required. Despite this he often stumbled midway through his speech, but then he was able to resume and continue, holding the attention of the whole world. Even his sigmatism, as Aristophanes mentions, made his speech convincing and full of fervour. Eupolis says that he was “the prince of speakers, but in the spoken word the most incompetent” – that is, he spoke more eloquently in his private conversations than when he spoke before the City Church. For his part, Demosthenes emphasizes the fact that Alcibiades is regarded as “the most able speaker of the day.” Paparrigopoulos does not share Demosthenes” view, but acknowledges that the Athenian politician could adequately support his case. Kagan acknowledges his rhetorical power, while Thomas Habinek, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Southern California, believes that the orator Alcibiades seems to be exactly what his audience needed in any case. According to Habinek, in the field of rhetoric, people responded to Alcibiades” affection with love. Hence the orator was the “bearer of the city, speaking with – and loving – himself.” According to Aristophanes, Athens “longed for him and hated him too, but wanted him back”.

In various ancient comedies and stories, an epic confrontation between Alcibiades and Eupoli is presented, reminiscent of the confrontation between Aristophanes and Cleon. He also appears as a character in several of Socrates” dialogues (Symposium, Protagoras, Alcibiades I and II, as well as in the eponymous dialogues of Aeschines Socrates and Antisthenes). Based (as he says) on personal experience, Antisthenes describes Alcibiades” strange physical strength, courage and beauty, saying, “If Achilles was not like this, he was not really handsome.” At his trial, Socrates had to refute his guilt for the crimes of his former students, including Alcibiades. Therefore, he states in his Apologies: “I was never anyone”s teacher”.

Even many years after his death, Alcibiades continues to appear in art, both Medieval and Renaissance, and in important works of modern literature. He continues to fascinate the modern world, as a major character in the historical novels of such authors as Anna Bowan Dodd, Gertrude Atherton, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Daniel Savary, Stephen Pressfield, and Peter Green. He is also the central character in Paul Levinston”s time-travel novel The Plot To Save Socrates, Kurt Giabastiani”s time-travel novel Unraveling Time, Eric Satie”s Socrate, a work for voice and a small orchestra (the text is an excerpt from Victor Cushin”s translations of Plato”s works), and Joel Richards” Nebula Award-nominated short story The Gods Abandon Alcibiades. Alcibiades also appears in Joseph Heller”s satirical novel Picture This and William Shakespeare”s Timon of Athens.

Texts and analyses


  1. Αλκιβιάδης
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