- James Houser
411 BC - The Astounding Career of Alcibiades and the Athenian Revival
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
DECEMBER 20 - 411 BC. The city of Athens is in serious trouble. It has wasted much of its military strength in the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, where most of its great leaders and many of its best citizens were killed. Now Athens is once again at war with Sparta, and in their desperation they turn to Alcibiades – an Athenian general who has turned traitor three times to three different sides. What could go wrong? A lot, as it turns out.
Welcome back to the Peloponnesian War! I will post the four previous parts to this saga, but in case you need a refresher I will also catch you up. Today is something like another character dive, as we see Ancient Greece through the eyes of one of its most charismatic, famous, infamous, loved, hated, respected, and despised figures. This, of course, is the story of Alcibiades, whose name has been a byword for changing sides ever since his death. Why? Well, let’s find out.
The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was one of the dramatic periods of ancient history. Athens and Sparta, who only fifty years ago had allied against the mighty Persian army of Xerxes, had assembled competing alliances of Greek cities. Their mutual spheres of power came into conflict and open fighting began in 431 BC, with Athens at the height of its Golden Age under its democratic government and great popular leader Pericles. The war soon severely damaged both Athens and Sparta. A great plague hit Athens, which killed almost half its population including Pericles in 429 BC. This was not enough to defeat the Athenians, however, and they began to inflict military setbacks on Sparta. While Sparta and its allies were undoubtedly dominant on land, the Athenian Navy ruled the Mediterranean, and was able to win multiple victories along the coast. Athens’ most notable triumph was at Pylos & Sphacteria in 425 BC, where in a shocking blow to Spartan pride many of their elite soldiers were captured.
1Exhaustion from almost a decade of war, and the ensuing military stalemate, caused Sparta and Athens to conclude a peace in 422 BC. This was only possible after the mutual death of the two cities’ most prominent war hawks, the great Spartan Brasidas and the Athenian demagogue Cleon, at the Battle of Amphipolis that year. The peace treaty was largely the work of the new preeminent leader in the Athenian democracy, a man known as Nicias. It would be stamped the “Peace of Nicias” based on his efforts. The big problem with the Peace of Nicias, though, was that it solved none of the problems that had started the war, and both sides began the period of “peace” with subterfuge and deceit. Many people on both sides disparaged the Peace of Nicias, and wanted the war to resume. In Athens, the most prominent leader of the war party was a young, handsome Athenian named Alcibiades.
Alcibiades was only about 28 years old when the Peace of Nicias was signed, but he had worked his way up through the Athenian democracy to be one of its most prominent figures. A scion of one of Athens’ oldest and most noble families, with family connections in Sparta and other Greek cities, he was a relative of the great Pericles and was brought up as the brilliant leader’s foster son. From a very young age Alcibiades was brilliant, charismatic, charming, handsome, and remarkably persuasive. He would become one of the greatest orators of Classical Greece, despite a prominent lisp – which he somehow used to sound MORE convincing, not less. He was also LEGENDARILY attractive, apparently, which would also cause problems – as we will see. When people say that someone is “like a Greek god,” they may have been looking at a statue of Alcibiades.
In short, this guy had everything you might need to succeed in the Ancient World, or hell any world: connections, money, good looks, talent, charm. Hell, he even had education. Who else can say that freaking Socrates was their teacher? Alcibiades wasn’t just Socrates’ student; he was one of the STAR students. Though he was famous for respecting and admiring almost no one, Alcibiades admired and respected Socrates, with whom he may have had a physically intimate relationship. Socrates even saved Alcibiades’ life at the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BC near the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, while they were both serving as hoplites in the Athenian phalanx. So why is Alcibiades not the great success story of Athens?
The answer is character, pure and simple. Alcibiades was glory-seeking, power-hungry, unscrupulous, offensive, and inordinately vain. He had very little sense of honor or loyalty. He was dissolute in his personal habits, including gambling, alcohol and women. His main impulse in every circumstance was for his own self-advancement. He was personally brave in battle, but was never one to sacrifice himself. His ultimate goal was not the advancement of his city, or his people, or his family, or even the cause of justice. Alcibiades was shamelessly, in every circumstance, out for Number One. It is possible that he was given to Socrates early on to see if the great philosopher could “straighten him out.” What seems to have happened is that Socrates taught Alcibiades to be better at hiding how shamelessly terrible he was.
With the signing of the Peace of Nicias, Alcibiades became the primary leader of the pro-war faction in Athens at the remarkably young age of 28. His silver tongue was extremely persuasive, and soon he had a large power bloc in the Athenian Assembly to challenge the cautious older Nicias. But Alcibiades didn’t limit his efforts to open democratic processes. He used diplomatic tricks to undermine the peace settlement every chance he got. He lied to Spartan diplomats, convincing them to make an argument to the Assembly in order to keep the peace, then leading the assembly in a denunciation of the confused diplomats when they made the argument, torpedoing one of the peace negotiations. During the treaty, Alcibiades and his faction used underhanded means to try and rile up opposition to Sparta across Greece, resulting in several large battles where Athenians and Spartans actually fought each other but pretended they didn’t.
Was Alcibiades pro-war? Probably not, not really. He just saw an issue that he could use to gain political power and latched onto it. If there’s one thing to remember about Alcibiades, it’s that he had virtually no consistent values. He was brilliant, charismatic, and persuasive – but with no principles or morals backing these qualities up.
It was Alcibiades, then, that proved the primary advocate of the Sicilian Expedition. In his passionate, overwhelming speech to the Assembly he pitched a military expedition to the island of Sicily as the solution to all of Athens’ problems, and maybe even the ticket to domination of the Mediterranean. It was a measure of Alcibiades’ charm and ability that this 30-something persuaded a crowd of much older, more experienced men to sign on to the enormously costly and risky venture. The Sicilian Expedition was just NOT a good idea, which every historian since has noted, but Alcibiades pitched it as the best thing since sliced bread. (Actually, no. There was no sliced bread back then. The best thing since bread?)
Nicias’s protests failed to convince the Assembly, and Alcibiades was placed in charge of the campaign upon which all Athens’ hopes and dreams rested. Nicias was reluctantly appointed as a co-general so that there would be a steady hand on the rudder. As the fleet kitted out, huge sums of treasure were sunk into the project, and many of Athens’ most prestigious citizens signed on. If Athens pulled this off…and with the largest force ever assembled by a Greek state, there was a damn good chance…it would be the crowning achievement of young Alcibiades’ career.
But the night before the fleet was to sail in 415 BC, something strange happened. All across Athens, statues of Hermes were defaced without a single witness. This sacrilegious act was an incredibly bad omen on the cusp of a great voyage, and it’s unclear to this day who committed it. But for many, the answer was clear. Alcibiades and his youthful faction were known for their disrespect for the Gods and contempt for traditional morality, so they had to have done it.
Thing was, not everyone in Athens was on the Alcibiades train. His overpowering personality was as divisive as it was appealing, and he had gained many enemies in his remarkable political career. Among these was Androcles, who hauled out false witnesses to accuse Alcibiades of the crime. But Alcibiades was set to leave on the expedition, and there was no time for him to stand trial. His enemies encouraged the city to allow him to set sail, but Alcibiades was suspicious (rightfully, as it turned out) and wanted to stand trial immediately. This request was denied…but barely a minute after Alcibiades and the fleet had disappeared over the horizon, Androcles and his other enemies got to work preparing charges against the young upstart. In essence, they had waited for Alcibiades to be gone and unable to defend himself before preparing a rigged trial that would get him condemned. This was a dirty trick, dirty as hell, but it wasn’t like their target had done nothing of the sort before.
When the Athenian fleet arrived off the coast of Italy to pick up supplies, they discovered that a fast messenger boat from Athens had beaten them there. This boat contained an order for Alcibiades to return to Athens immediately so he could stand trial for sacrilege. This was a hugely destabilizing move to the expedition, since it took the mission’s leader, brainchild and resident genius out of the top command literally days before the attack would begin. Alcibiades obeyed – he had no other choice – but as he was following his escort back to Athens a day later, he suddenly diverted course and made a break for it.
Having been forced to abandon his fleet, Alcibiades knew what probably lay in store for him back in Athens. Without his supporters, alone to face his enemies, his fate would be either death or exile. The strong feelings that Alcibiades inspired in anyone and everyone had come back to bite him, and he was probably sailing to his death. So he ran. So might anyone, to be honest, but not everyone would do what Alcibiades did next. He ran…to Sparta.
As soon as he had made it away from his escort, Alcibiades got in touch with the Spartans, promising to benefit them far more as a friend than he had ever harmed them as an enemy. The Spartans were pretty eager to get the views of one of Athens’ most prominent politicians and military leaders, and Alcibiades soon found himself at the Spartan court. Due to his defection, Athens had sentenced him to death and confiscated all his riches, so there was no holding back now. In a remarkable speech, Alcibiades exaggerated the Athenian threat to Sicily and riled up fears of Athenian dominance. His silver tongue worked wonders yet again in the strangest of ways; he persuaded the Spartans to fear and declare war on Athens by describing the very expedition he had conceived and helped to launch. It was as if Eisenhower had flown to Berlin to warn Hitler about D-Day.
On Alcibiades’ advice, the Spartans ended up declaring war on Athens and sending military aid to Sicily. Basically, Alcibiades played a pivotal role in sabotaging his own city’s campaign, resulting in the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition and the death of many Athenians, including a number of his supporters and his old political foe Nicias. Alcibiades continued to serve as a military advisor to Sparta even as they went into open warfare against his home city once again starting in 413 BC. He wasn’t just giving advice, either. He was pointing them at Athenian weaknesses that he only knew about because he had been an Athenian politician. He even led a Spartan fleet to the Athenian islands and encouraged them to rise up against Athens. It was no wonder that Athens condemned him to death. He was making war against his own country.
But Alcibiades got into trouble once again. Apart from his ability to make unusual allies, he had an ability to make usual enemies. But unlike what had happened in Athens, this one was ALL his fault. See, Alcibiades was hanging out in Sparta throughout 412 BC while the Spartan King Agis II was away attacking the Athenians. So he was around to hear the wonderful news that King Agis’s young wife Timaea was pregnant! Delightful news. Except that Agis had been away for many months. Wait…Alcibiades had certainly been talking with the Queen a lot…hanging out…in private…oh. Oh NO.
Oh YES. Alcibiades had an affair with and impregnated the Spartan King’s wife, and she never made any effort to hide that her son Leotychidas was Alcibiades’ daughter. With a very angry Agis returning with his army and sending out orders to kill the Athenian exile, Alcibiades decided…to get out while the getting was good. So would anyone, right? Well, not everyone would do what Alcibiades did next. He ran…to Persia.
Persia?! The hated enemy of all Greeks, the killers of Leonidas and the destroyer of Athens? Oh yes. As soon as Alcibiades arrived on the coast of modern Turkey, he made contact with Tissaphernes, the local Persian satrap (governor). Alcibiades immediately spilled everything he knew about both Athens AND Sparta, but particularly gave out information that would hurt his former hosts in Sparta. Tissaphernes, like so many men before him, was taken in by Alcibiades’ persuasive skills, charisma, and charm.
The Persians had been making regular payments to Sparta in an effort to keep the Peloponnesian War going and keep Athens weak, distracting their fleet from the Persians’ own territories. Alcibiades gave constant advice to the Persians, encouraging them to be cautious and stinting in their support of the Spartans. He convinced Tissaphernes that it was in Persia’s best interest to keep Sparta weak as well. It is possible that Alcibiades even advised the Great King Darius II in person at Babylon.
(Side note: Persia was ecstatic about the Peloponnesian War. Watching their former enemies fight each other brought warmth to the Great King’s heart. It brought so much warmth that the Persians happily funded whichever side seemed to be losing, in order to keep the conflict going for as long as possible. The Athenians and Spartans proclaimed freedom for the Greeks in public but always took this money in private. War. War never changes.)
If anything, you have to respect Alcibiades’ incredible ability to get people to trust him. I mean, who WOULD trust him at this point? He had changed sides twice, and each time he had changed sides he persuaded his new hosts to sabotage the side he had just left. The worst part of it was, the advice he gave them wasn’t even WRONG. With some room for exaggeration, Alcibiades gave good and logical advice to every side he served. Due to his lack of scruples or loyalties, he was eminently capable of seeing things from different points of view. He advised the Spartans well, and he advised the Persians well. But that was the problem: he was an equal-opportunity traitor. Don’t turn your back on him.
Throughout his service in Persia, in 412 and 411 BC, Alcibiades was trying to get back in good with Athens. His home city had been in political turmoil ever since the failure of the Sicilian Expedition, but no one was in a hurry to bring Alcibiades back. I mean, would YOU be? This guy has betrayed you once, and has betrayed everyone else ever since. But Alcibiades was playing the long game. He wanted to be the top dog in Athens, not an advisor in exile at some court. He had been advising the Persians to stop helping Sparta so that Athens would be as strong as possible when he took over.
His opportunity came in 411 BC, when the Athenian democracy was temporarily overthrown by an aristocratic faction known as the 400 Tyrants. The 400 immediately decided to try and make peace with Sparta, even inviting the Spartan fleet to occupy the port of Athens. This shocking swerve in Athenian politics caused the Athenian Navy to revolt against their new government, and Alcibiades had found his moment. Through his contacts in the Navy, he abandoned his Persian hosts, quickly rowed out to join the Athenian fleet, rallied them to “defend democracy,” and led the Athenian fleet back to his city. The Spartan fleet was fended off, and Alcibiades returned home, after four years of exile, as a conquering hero.
How the HELL did this happen. How the HELL did the guy who had betrayed Athens after being convicted in absentia of sacrilege, given up all his city’s military secrets to Sparta, been forced out of Sparta after knocking up the Spartan Queen, carried out subterfuge against Sparta in the Persian court to strengthen Athens, then wheedled his way back into the fleet, manage all this? How the HELL did this guy end up as the leader of the city he had publicly betrayed, after betraying two other hosts in the process?
The man must have been really persuasive. That’s all I gotta say.
From 411 to 406 BC, almost five years, Alcibiades would lead Athens to victory after victory. Even after the disaster of Sicily, even after the political turmoil, the coup and counter-coup, even after all that he had done, Alcibiades of Athens had proven that he was the most able person in Greece. Even with the total lack of any moral compass, he would show his utility to the city he had charmed, betrayed, and returned to as the Prodigal Son.
Reinstated as an Athenian general, Alcibiades took the fleet to amazing victories over the Spartans. The Spartans aimed to cut the Athenian grain shipments from the Bosporus, where the besieged city imported food from the plains of Russia – a strategy that Alcibiades had recommended to them during his exile. Now, Alcibiades led the Athenians to defeat his own strategy. At two major battles, Abydos and Cyzicus, in 411 and 410 BC the Athenian wunderkind outmaneuvered and destroyed entire Spartan fleets. In one case he literally drew away the crews of the beached Spartan ships with an attack on the land side, then rowed in and stole his enemy’s triremes before they even knew what hit them. Alcibiades had always been a trickster and deceiver, and this showed in his military tactics. He always won by deception and intrigue rather than blunt force and brutal combat. He could be brave when he wanted to be, but why be brave when you didn’t need to be?
Despite his glowing successes, year after year, Alcibiades still had his enemies. It only took one slip for them to come after him. In 406 BC, he took most of the fleet to help defend an Athenian city that was under attack, leaving a force of 80 ships under his subordinate Antiochus to keep a watch on the Spartans – though he gave express orders not to attack the larger enemy fleet. Antiochus disobeyed this single order (you had ONE JOB) and at the Battle of Notium his force was crushed by the Spartans. Alcibiades’ enemies blamed him for this defeat and prepared to remove him from command. In part, this was because he had promised so much for years but had failed to decisively turn the tide against Sparta; in part, it was because Alcibiades just had too much power for anyone to trust.
As a result of this reversal, Alcibiades…got out while the getting was good for the final time. He abandoned Athens and sought refuge in some of his fortresses that he had taken during the war. When his downfall came, though, many of his most favored subordinates fell with him, and this included most of Athens’ most talented generals and admirals. Without them, Athens would soon be defeated and brought to heel by Sparta – though that is a subject for my very last Peloponnesian War post.
Alcibiades spent his last years in exile along the Bosporus, the critical strait that he had kept open for the city he had twice betrayed. On the eve of Athens’ great defeat by Sparta, he offered military advice and political counsel – but even if the advice was good, no one would have trusted him, and for good reason. Alcibiades watched from afar as the city he had served twice, betrayed twice, but I guess still had his ultimate affection, was slowly subdued by the Spartans.
With no real alternative, Alcibiades decided it was time to try and join the Persian court once again. They were the *least* mad at him. But the Spartans decided it was time for this troublesome asshole to meet his end. In 404 BC, when Alcibiades was about to pack up and leave for Persia, his house was surrounded by Spartan assassins and set aflame. With no other option – no one had ever accused him of physical cowardice – he charged out dagger in hand and was immediately shot full of arrows. Alcibiades died as he lived: almost literally in the process of switching sides.
What to make of this guy? Alcibiades is the ultimate example of enormous talents balanced by complete lack of character. He could have been great, perhaps the greatest of all the Greeks, but no one could trust him…for obvious reasons. He could persuade anyone of anything, but he couldn’t hold up his façade forever. In the end, I think he DID love Athens, but he definitely loved himself more. In the end, he tried to change sides one too many times and was finally too dangerous to be left alive.
But seriously. A novelist couldn’t have invented this guy. He’s truly stranger than fiction. Despite his amazing assholery and complete depravity, he’s kinda one of my favorite people in history. How do you change sides FOUR times in a single conflict and almost make it out alive? Beats me.
But if you ever ask me “What historical figure would you invite to dinner,” Alcibiades would be pretty high on that list.