Alcibiades—the famously handsome Athenian, ward of Pericles, friend and pupil of Socrates, and charismatic general infamous for serial disloyalty—was one of the most remarkable figures of the Golden Age of Athens. In Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, David Stuttard gives us a riveting account of the man and his age, “bringing to singing life,” per Paul Cartledge, “the mercurial, magnetic, passionate, and persuasive personality of this still hugely controversial Athenian aristocrat of the fifth century BC.” In what follows below, a slightly condensed version of his recent British Museum presentation on the book, Stuttard introduces us to one of ancient Greece’s most fascinating and slippery characters.
I want to take you back just over 2,400 years to the high Anatolian plain of central Turkey. It’s the year 404 BC; it’s Autumn; and it’s the dark hours of the night. Alcibiades, perhaps the most controversial Greek of his generation, is living in exile in a compound at Melissa—probably modern Afyonkarahisar—where strange rock formations erupt out of the rolling plain, near the fabled Royal Road that runs from Sardis in the west to Susa, capital of Persia’s Empire, in the east. For now, everyone inside is sleeping, but then something awakens them. Perhaps the barking of a dog. Or perhaps the acrid smell of burning creeping through the rooms, or the ever-louder crackling of fire as brown smoke pours in beneath the door, and through the cracks beside the doorposts.
Here, from my book, is what happened next:
Fully awake now, fully alert, Alcibiades leapt out of bed and threw the door wide open. Outside, stacks of dried wood had been piled high, and the flames were already tearing through them. Shouting to the people in the house to help, he dragged out rugs and mattresses and blankets, and flung them on the fire. The flames were smothered. At least for the time being. But now the smoke was bellying, and tongues of fire were licking at the edges of the blankets, and the orange heat was growing more intense. And then the arrows came. From all directions. Thudding into walls and roof and earth. Anonymous and deadly. The only warning of their approach a soft sighing of air.
The household was panic-stricken as Alcibiades, his instincts kicking in, reached for his weapons. But they had disappeared. Somehow in the night someone had taken them. All that he had now was a short knife, which a comrade pressed into his hand. But no shield. No armour. Just a blanket wrapped around his left arm as he stood, poised on the threshold. And then, calling to his friend to follow him, he bellowed his war cry and ran, naked and exposed, out into the darkness. Silhouetted against the burning house, he made an easy target. From all around him javelins rained and arrows thumped like hail as first one, then another, then another found its mark. All Alcibiades could do was run into the night, and run, and keep on running while he could, until the night engulfed him.
That description’s based meticulously on ancient sources, but all seems so theatrical, so filmic, so larger than life. But political assassinations can be larger than life, and Alcibiades’ life was every bit as complex and nail-biting as any modern political thriller.
Alcibiades was born bang in the middle of the fifth century BC, in 452 in Athens, a city that nearly sixty years before had expelled a hated ruler and established the most radical participatory democracy the world had ever seen. His mother’s family and his father’s were wealthy aristocrats from powerful families whose members numbered famous politicians, winners in Olympic chariot races, decorated war heroes—and, go back far enough, even Homeric heroes of the Trojan War. And when Alcibiades’ father, Cleinias, was killed in battle, the five-year-old boy was looked after by the most powerful politician of his day, the equally aristocratic Pericles, whose policy shaped democratic Athens, whose dream inspired the Parthenon, whose ambition was for the Athenian Empire to rule the waves.