Alcibiades: The Shrewd Athenian Opportunist Of The Peloponnesian War
The famous city states of ancient Greece were filled with capable leaders, statesmen, generals, and heroes. Athens, one of the world’s oldest named and inhabited cities, became the leading city state in ancient Greece. And it could never have reached that position without great men at its helm. Alcibiades was one such man, a famous orator, a general and a strategist who became one of the most important figures of the Peloponnesian War. This war itself became an event that shook the Greek world of that era, shaping the future of this nation for centuries to come, and sealing the fate of Athens. Alcibiades was one of the most skilled Athenian leaders, but he made many enemies along the way, switching sides frequently. Could it be that the fate of Athens rested only on his shoulders? Would Athenian history be different if he had led Athens’ armies? Time to find out.
Alcibiades And His Rise To Power
Alcibiades was born around 450 BC into the Alcmaeonids family, a powerful aristocratic family of Athens. He was a member of this family on his mother's side. However, the Alcmeonids were already largely impoverished by that point. His father Cleinias was also a prominent man during that era, distinguishing himself in the Persian Wars even before his son’s birth. It was his mother however, who came from a more prominent background, as the Alcmaeonids were a very old and noble family. Thus, he was, even from his youth, destined to greatness and prominence, like his forebears.
Even so, much of his youth remains clouded and unknown to history. Plutarch, the famous ancient Greek philosopher and essayist, writes that Alcibiades was tutored by several influential figures, the most important of these being Socrates. During his childhood, it is probable that he was taught the art of rhetoric, which could have benefited his oratorical and stately skills in later life.
Socrates looking for Alcibiades and finding him at the House of Aspasia. (Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public domain)
The relations between Socrates and Alcibiades are mentioned in several contemporary writings, indicating that the latter was surely a “well off” person to receive the former’s tutelage. However, these writings mention that Alcibiades was of an “unruly” nature and had difficulty conforming to rules of society. Whether a youthful “rebel spirit” or simply a natural born leader, Alcibiades could not be properly swayed, and as Xenophon of Athens claimed, Socrates failed to teach him the importance of morality.
As a young man he is reported to have taken part in some of the battles that were precursors to the Peloponnesian War. In 432 BC, it is written that he took part in the Battle of Potidaea, against the Corinthians. Plato, in his Symposium, wrote that during this battle Socrates saved Alcibiades’ life. In the following year he was present at the Battle of Delium where apparently he returned the favor, saving Socrates from demise.
Alcibiades Rise Based On Learning From The Greek Greats
It is interesting to mention here the complex relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates. The latter was one of the most important ancient Greek philosophers, often considered to be the founder of Western philosophy. On numerous occasions, especially in Plato’s writings, it is stated that Alcibiades and Socrates had a close relationship. Alcibiades revered and respected his teacher, perhaps even more so after he saved his life at Potidaea. However interestingly enough, both Plutarch and Plato state that Alcibiades was Socrates’ beloved! Plutarch goes as far as to write of how Alcibiades “feared and reverenced Socrates alone, and despised the rest of his lovers.” The accuracy of these claims and the true nature of their relationship was never fully understood by scholars, even though pederasty was a known phenomenon in ancient and classical Greece, as a socially accepted romantic relationship between an older man and a younger one.
An overview of the Peloponnesian War with the orange areas showing the empire and allies of Athens and the green the Spartan Confederacy. (U.S. Army Cartographer, as amended by uploader to correct spelling mistake / Public domain)
The Peloponnesian War was a very important event for Greece in this era. However, it was quite a lengthy conflict, and is usually split into several distinct phases. And after the first phase was over, Alcibiades began his steady rise and established a solid political career.
The Peace of Nicias was a treaty signed in 421 BC, somewhat uneasily, between Athens and Sparta. It brought an unstable peace and the end of the first phase of the war. However, it was Alcibiades that rose as a staunch advocate for Athens’ continuation of aggressive action.
- The Peloponnesian War: Intrigues and Conquests in Ancient Greece
- Sparta: An Ancient City of Fierce and Courageous Citizen Soldiers
- Socrates: The Father of Western Philosophy
It is clear that Alcibiades possessed great diplomatic skills and even charisma. After the signing of the Nicias treaty, and the resulting instability, Alcibiades received several Spartan ambassadors with the goal of settling these disputes. However, he arranged with them a secret meeting, urging the Spartan ambassadors to “renounce their diplomatic authority and allow him to assist them through his influence in the politics of Athens.” It seems that he managed to impress the Spartans and take them under his sway, thereby working against the Peace of Nicias treaty terms.
Using Trickery And Influence, Alcibiades’ Star Rises
This was all, in fact, a very clever ploy by Alcibiades, and an attempt to gain a quick rise to power. In the official meeting between the Spartan and Athenian ambassadors, the former changed their story, as agreed upon in their secret meeting with Alcibiades. As they appeared to contradict themselves and the aims of Sparta, Alcibiades quickly acted by denouncing their credibility, and raising suspicions about their aims. Through this ploy he emerged a shrewd and protective statesman, while Nicias, the man behind the hasty original treaty was embarrassed.
Following this example, Alcibiades quickly became a general and rose to prominence. Almost immediately afterwards, he relied on his newly acquired power to further the position of Athens and challenge Spartan power once more. To do this, he created an alliance between the smaller Peloponnese city states—Elis, Mantinea, Argos and others—which thus challenged Spartan domination.
Arnold Wycombe Gomme, an influential British historian, perfectly summed up the magnitude of this ploy of Alcibiades, and just how shrewdly it was orchestrated to secure Athenian domination. He writes that "it was a grandiose scheme for an Athenian general at the head of a mainly Peloponnesian army to march through the Peloponnese cocking a snook at Sparta when her reputation was at its lowest.” But, alas, no matter how shrewd the plan was, it failed. In 418 BC, at the First Battle of Mantinea, the Spartans crushed the allied city states headed by Athens.
The Sicilian Campaign that Alcibiades orchestrated was a huge and embarrassing defeat for Athens and this image shows their retreat from Syracuse. (English School / Public domain)
One of the major events of Alcibiades’ life is certainly the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. Trusting in his exceptional skills as an orator he managed to convince the populace of Athens that their fleet could conquer the wealthy city of Syracuse, the crown jewel of Sicily. He knew that it was extremely wealthy and that plundering it could further the influence of Athens as well as its wealth, not to mention his own. His plan soon turned into a full-scale campaign against Syracuse, and an enormous fleet and army were assembled to attack it. It is argued that Alcibiades never wanted the attack to be so massive, but it was, nevertheless.
However, all of this took place in the midst of intense political conflict in Athens and Alcibiades had many opponents. The night before the expedition to Sicily was to set sail, many religious figures in Athens were desecrated and Alcibiades was falsely accused by his opponents. When he departed Athens to lead Athens’ armies, more ridiculous claims were made, slandering his reputation.
As the campaign unfolded and the Athenian fleet reached Catania, Alcibiades was met with a delegation sent to escort him back to Athens for trial. However, he proceeded to escape with his associates, and soon after defected to the Spartan realm. In exchange for protection and “sanctuary”, Alcibiades promised his ex-enemies that he would "render them aid and service greater than all the harm he had previously done them as an enemy." Sparta accepted him and, in turn, the Athenians tried him in absentia, sentenced him to death, and confiscated all of his possessions and great wealth. In an odd turn of fate, one of Athens’ leading statesmen was now on the side of its enemy, Sparta.
And from his very first contributions to the Spartan cause, Alcibiades employed his persuasive orations, and worked to defeat Athens, the home he was estranged from.
Enemies, Allies, Or Simple Opportunities?
During the time he spent with the Spartans, Alcibiades proved to be a great boon to them as well. Serving mostly as a military adviser, his shrewd knowledge of his previous home helped Sparta achieve several major successes. Strategically, Alcibiades instigated the creation of a fort at Decelea, which was located within view of Athens. This shrewd move helped to cut Athens off from some of its silver mines at Sunium, which added to their diminishing power. However, time proved to be against Alcibiades, and his good relations with Sparta soon declined. With the political situation shifting, and his supporters in Sparta gone, Alcibiades’ life was soon threatened. But before his opponents could assassinate him, he fled and deflected to Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap state.
During his time in Tissaphernes, Alcibiades once more showcased his ability to think in advance, and to shape the situation he found himself in relation to the future he wanted for himself. He quickly gained the trust of the powerful Persian satrap, who was already financing the Peloponnesian War for his own gain. Alcibiades gave him valuable advice, suggesting that the Persians wear the warring states down, and then take the “easy pickings.”
However, Alcibiades was merely using his influence with the Persians to get his power reinstated back home in Athens. This he gradually achieved, winning over the Athenian oligarchs and ensuring support for his reinstatement in exchange for bringing over massive Persian wealth and naval power. Thus, through winning over the powerful Persian satrap and his wealth, he also won back support for his ideas in Athens.
So, after exchanging sides a few times, each time shining through with his skills in convincing those around him towards the course of action best suited for his needs, Alcibiades was once more a strategos in his native Athens. However, returning to Athens was no easy task, and involved a great deal of scheming.
Alcibiades actually got involved with the Athenian Coup of 411 BC in which the ancient and venerable democratic government that was at the head of Athens for so long was replaced with the (short lived) oligarchy known as the “Four Hundred.”
Soon after, Alcibiades found himself reinstated as a general of the Athenian forces, mostly through the support of the oligarchs whom he had won over. His influence over Persian military and financial support against the Spartans was the main reason for this. Many risks were taken by Alcibiades during this time, as he never fully won over the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. Moreover, he believed that the Persians would never send a full fleet to aid the Athenian forces.
The system of the oligarchs, the Four Hundred, was soon after overthrown, and replaced by a broader oligarchic system, the so-called “Five Thousand.” That system would, later on, give way to democracy once again.
As a general, Alcibiades was present at some important battles of the Peloponnesian War. At the naval battles of Abydos and Cyzicus, he displayed great skill as a naval commander, utilizing a daring “lure” strategy to trap and defeat Spartan fleets.
Alcibiades’ triumphant return to Athens surrounded by his countless fans. (Walter Crane / Public domain)
Around 407 BC, Alcibiades at last decided to return to Athens following a string of victories in the war, many of which were achieved under his leadership. For him, it was a risky move: he was unsure of how he would be received and was fearful. Nevertheless, his fame preceded him. When he sailed into Athens, he was hailed as a hero by the gathered masses.
Alas, the fruits of glory are sweet but rarely filling. The very next year, Alcibiades encountered bad luck. Contrary to the previous year, he now faced a string of defeats, many of them costly for the Athenian fleet.
And then, after suffering a crushing defeat at the Battle of Notium at the hands of the Spartans, Alcibiades knew that his glory was at an end. The enemies that he still had aplenty in Athens would surely use this loss against him.
The assassination of Alcibiades at Phrygia by the Persians in 404 BC. (Michaël Martin (photographer). Philippe Chéry (18th century) / Public domain)
The Final Defeat Of Alcibiades
The blame for the defeat fell entirely upon Alcibiades, and he was soon relieved of his command and condemned by his enemies in Athens. Seeing all was lost, Alcibiades went into exile, fleeing to Hellespontine Phrygia, another Persian satrap, where he sought refuge.
It is this final part of his life that is most clouded by the passing of time and few historical details about this period in his life are known. Without a doubt, he fled to Phrygia to secure the support of the Persians, but it was not to be. With many enemies in both Athens and Sparta, and the loss of support from the Persians, Alcibiades was assassinated in 404 BC. Most historical accounts argue that Sparta was behind his murder.
Above all, Alcibiades was a great opportunist. His thirst for fame, power, and wealth was the driving force behind his efforts related to the Peloponnesian War, which, in the end, largely contributed to the defeat and weakening of Athens. But even so, his skill at oration, his ability to influence his foes and allies, are, above all, great history lessons from which a lot can be learned.
Top image: Alcibiades receiving the early part of his classical education from Socrates. Source: François-André Vincent / Public domain
Helfer, A. 2017. Socrates and Alcibiades: Plato's Drama of Political Ambition and Philosophy. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lattimore, S. 1998. The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides. Hackett Publishing.
Vickers, M. 2014. Sophocles and Alcibiades: Athenian Politics in Ancient Greek Literature. Routledge.