Post 15: Alciabiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor

Written by P.J Rhodes and published by Pen & Sword in 2011, this book is possibly the only one in recent years to act as a biography of Alciabiades (as the subtitle says, a famous Athenian playboy, general and traitor). If that’s exactly what you’re looking for you probably don’t have many options in terms of popular history, but for most people it would act to give more detail on particular aspects of the Peloponnesian War, life in ancient Athens and to shine more light one of the fascinating characters of ancient Greek history. Rhodes’ academic qualifications are fantastic (formerly Professor of Ancient History and the resident Greek specialist at Durham Uni, now an Emeritus Professor) but how well can he transfer this to a general audience?

CoverThe book opens somewhat abruptly with a terse but useful description of the sources from which this portrait of Alciabiades’ life is drawn. This would certainly allow the reader to investigate and follow up the book for themselves, but I was slightly disappointed that Rhodes did not add more of his own insight to this. After this there is another brief chapter which runs through the history of the Peloponnesian War, and Alciabiades part in it, at breakneck speed. I was slightly reminded of reading a wikipedia article – even if you have no background knowledge it tells the basics to you, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable read. I wouldn’t judge the book on these sections, they’re really a prelude to the main event, but it’s a different approach to other classical biographies I’ve read which have a tendency to extend these out more and use the character as a means to tell the history of the period. From early on it is clear that this is a true character-focused biography, and with barely one hundred pages it’s a lean one at that – not much filler here!

MapTo you the reader, I’ll now give my own breakneck speed version of the story so far. In the aftermath of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. Greece was divided into two power blocs led by the Spartans and the Athenians. Inevitably friction occurred and war broke out. A peace was made that lasted thirty years, but finally things started heating up again. The Athenians were a naval power with a network of walls and defenses to protect them by land, while Sparta was a formidable land power. With these different strengths, an outcome was never going to be trivial. The great Athenian leader Pericles (a relative of our own hero) started well, but a plague struck down many of his concentrated forces and himself, then the Athenian results afterwords were mixed – they had a run of successes but it ended and they made an uneasy peace around 421 (where our story begins).

The author explores each of these key events in turn: we begin with Alciabiades childhood and early forays into politics. He’s not involved in too much of importance at this point, but various sources help to build a picture of his character. He’s aristocratic, but young and energetic – not afraid to go against tradition and join with the populist demagogues. He’s an attractive man who attracted followers and wasn’t above a bit of adultery. He’s somewhat spoilt and out for himself. The chapter runs up to the making of peace in 421 B.C. Alciabiades may have wanted or even expected to play a role in this but it was his rival Nicias who led it from an Athenian perspective. Unfortunately the treaty did not last long and only a year later the states were entering into talks to renegotiate or reaffirm this it – here Alciabiades did play a role, he spoke against a settlement with the Spartans and in favour of allying with Argos, Mantinea and Elis. Athens did indeed go for this more aggressive strategy, but it did not go well initially for the Athenians and in 418 the allies were defeated at the Battle of Mantinea.

The next chapter continues on with Athens at a low point, and with a number of leading Athenians jostling for power – most notably Alciabiades, Nicias (in many ways his polar opposite – a new man, traditional, defensive) and Hyperbolus (a populist demagogue). Hyperbolus proposed a vote for Ostracism (a democratic process in which the populous voted for someone to be exiled) with the aim of exiling Alciabiades or Nicias (or possibly Phaeax) from the more aristocratic faction. In the end however, the people voted for Hyperbolus himself to be exiled – this unpredictability meant that this was probably the last time ostracism was used in Athens. At this point in 415, the next big incident occurs as Segesta in Sicily sends representatives to Athens to ask for their military support. Our hero supports this aggressive move, while the more peaceful Nicias pointed out the cost and dubious motives of its proponents. Alciabiades however won the day, with somewhat optimistic promises that this war would bring wealth and power which in turn would help them finally defeat Sparta.

HermaiHowever as the expedition (led by Nicias and Alciabiades) was about to set off, a number of scandals rocked Athens. Hermai (busts of Hermes that for some reason also featured a penis) were vandalized. At the same time Alciabiades and friends were accused of mocking the Eleusinian Mysteries – a serious religious rite. Alciabiades, suspecting what would happen, wanted to stand trial immediately and clear his name but he was denied and instead told to wait until he returned from Sicily. He set off and predictably was sentenced to death in absentia. He managed to escape, first to a number of Athenian allies and then eventually to Sparta.

Whether he went to Sparta to spite Athens or simply because he was given no other option is contentious, but once there he began to provide them with information and military advice. First sending reinforcements to Sicily, where the Athenian invasion ended in disaster, and then helping plan the Spartan campaigns in the Aegean. At this stage he was still early in his career, without a particularly good track record of success, so it says a lot for his charisma and oratory that he was so accepted by the Spartans. Here too though he showed a talent for making powerful enemies, and despite his contributions to the war (in which Athens was beginning to falter), he was suspected of having an affair with King Agis’ wife and defected once again – this time to Persia.

Dealing with the satrap Tissaphernes, who was assisting the Spartans, he began to play a clever double game – at first appearing to help the Spartans, yet paving the way for his return to Athens by holding the Persians back. The author here is dubious of these claims saying that he was neither as influential as he liked to pretend nor as influential as he thought. He did indeed manage to rejoin Athens, though he was not yet safe to go back to the city itself, and continued with an apparent plan of wooing Persian support. This came to nothing in the end, but after a number of constitutional changes (through an oligarchy or two then back to a democracy of sort) he did win back his place as an Athenian general. Here he went on to win impressive naval victories at Abydos and Cyzicus – although here again, his ability for self promotion backfired and led some to pick out Thrasybulus as the real genius behind things. He then went on to capture Chalcedon and Byzantium in 409. Amid this string of victories, Sparta offered peace to the Athenians but it was rejected – Alciabiades’ thoughts on this aren’t clear but it would certainly come back to haunt Athens.

At this point, the high of his career, he finally made it back to Athens. He was accepted as their most senior general, received repayment for property he had lost and made up for his previous religious misdemeanors by protecting leading the traditional solemn procession to Eleusius. At this point things go downhill – he failed to capture Andros then left his navy at Notium under the command of his companion Antiochus. This did not appear that bad an idea, Antiochus was not a general but he had naval experience and Alciabiades perhaps felt he could be better used in the siege of Phocaea. As it turned out, it was a bad idea. Antiochus was lured into a trap and defeated by the Spartan commander Lysander. This was not the end for Athens or for Alciabiades, but the momentum had been lost and he would no longer play a major role in the war. Finally in 405 Lysander defeated another Athenian fleet and the war was over.

Athens was placed under a Sparta-friendly oligarchy. This would not last long; by 403 democracy would be restored and soon Acliabiades’ old companions would be attempting to restart an Athenian empire. He would not live to see this though. According to some stories he was caught by enemies at the house of his mistress in Phyrgia, they set fire to the house and killed him with a volley of javelins as he charged out. Which enemies were these you might ask? The Spartans who feared his potential to revive democracy? A Persian statesman Pharnabazus who feared his ability to steal the limelight at court? Or the Athenians oligarchs? Even the outraged family of one of his affairs? This part remains a mystery – though the Spartans may be the most likely option.

The author finishes by mentioning some of the classical opinions of our man, and providing his own. He was spoilt and selfish as a man, and exciting and ambitious as a public figure. He made clever plans but not all were destined to be successful. He was looking out for himself, but clearly had more than a little affection for his home city. He inspired a mixed but intense reaction there – as Aristophanes put it “they longed for him, they hated him, they wanted to have him”, and it would have been fascinating to see what role he could have played in the post-war revival.

As for my thoughts on this biography: it’s slim and efficient, and would perhaps be best suited to a basic pre-existing knowledge of the war, but once it gets going it’s really rather exciting. It’s a touch academic and runs the risk of being dry, but the material and sources are handled in a balanced, careful manner which uses recent findings to give the reader a full picture of this important figure. Controversies are talked through and the authors own conclusions explained. The book is obviously a lot more detailed that I have recounted here, I didn’t trust myself to go into the intricacies of Athenian political structure or the make up of their Alliances, so I have tried to skim past those – it is in there though, the author is clearly a lot better at it than me! The story itself is also a good one – I ended the book wondering why there aren’t more biographies of him out there.


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