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.
Now, already we’ve uncovered some pretty big dichotomies: Athens, a democracy born out of a revolution against aristocrats, but now effectively governed by aristocrats. Athens, a democracy that was at the same time at the head of an empire—treating subject states, moreover, in a distinctly undemocratic way. To navigate the potential minefield of Athenian politics, people such as Pericles needed to be very astute indeed—in fact, it’s fascinating to see how far he went to seem to slough off his aristocratic roots. He was distinctly unostentatious; he made sure never to show emotion in public; and he never ever was so flamboyant as to enter a chariot to race at the Olympic Games.
How unlike his ward, Alcibiades! From the very start, Alcibiades embraced his bloodline with passionate enthusiasm. Even from childhood, he seems to have been motivated not by contemporary values of demokratia (literally ‘People Power’) but by the creed of the Homeric heroes whose blood pumped in his veins, the creed that urged them ‘aien aristeuein kai hupeirochon emmenai allon’, ‘always to be best and to surpass all others’. Now, the most famous of all the Greek heroes, whose father sent him off to Troy with these very words, was not in fact one of Alcibiades’ supposed ancestors. It was Achilles, and what I’d like to do in this talk is not simply give a potted biography of Alcibiades, but rather to explore how Alcibiades did everything he could to live up to Achilles’ creed, and how—in doing so—he set himself on a path that would see him not only mirroring or surpassing many of Achilles’ triumphs but repeating many of the Homeric hero’s mistakes.
Aien aristeuein. Even as a child, Alcibiades wanted to be best. In later years, he was accused of refusing to take part in athletic contests, because to do so meant competing with the low-born and ill-educated. In fact, it was probably because he was afraid of being defeated. He refused to learn the aulos, an instrument rather like an oboe, because (he claimed) it made his cheeks puff out and spoilt his beauty, but again it was probably because he knew he’d never be a virtuoso.
Beauty, by the way, was something he needed to have no worries about. He was quite simply the most handsome youth in Athens. And—according to his biographer Plutarch, at least—remained handsome throughout his life. Sadly there are few, if any, reliable representations of him, so we need to take accounts of his good looks on trust, but they and his fiery character do seem to have made young Alcibiades a problematic pupil. But fortunately, just as legend tells us how the hero Achilles was educated by the wise centaur, Cheiron, Alcibiades too found a charismatic teacher. Not the old bumbling tutor Zopyrus that Pericles found for him, but the rapier-sharp, argumentative, and controversial Socrates.
Socrates’ and Alcibiades’ relationship shines through contemporary literature, but there was more to it than philosophy. Famously the two are said to have served on campaign together when the Athenians sent an army north to Potidaea, when that city tried to break away from Athens’ empire. Almost as soon as they arrived they were involved in a hard-fought battle:
A forest of spears jabbing, thrusting, breaking now; the clash of shield on shield; the dust, the shouting and the screams; the sudden impact of a heavy blow; a flash of swords; a blossoming of pain; a jet of blood; a jostling of bodies, before one side collapsed in disarray, and its hoplites fled in panic, while close at their heels the enemy, a pack of bronze men, masked in the anonymity of grim, gleaming helmets, ran in merciless pursuit. ‘In battle’, as one poet proclaimed, ‘it’s the sweetest thing to slice your running enemy full through the midriff.’
Which is how it all unfolded on that warm September day at Potidaea, on a narrow spit of land between two lazy seas. A battle like so many others. A skirmish, which so easily might be forgotten. Except for an image which seared itself into the minds of those Athenians who saw it: a young man plunging fearlessly into the heart of the melée; a young man fighting with ferocious bravery; a young man falling, wounded on the blood-red soil. And then, within a heartbeat, an older man stood over him, battling the enemy as they swarmed around him, scooping up the young man and supporting him, desperately slicing a path back to safety, an act of almost superhuman strength and fearlessness, an act which saved the young man’s life.
Almost certainly, in that moment Socrates (for the older man was he) rescued the injured Alcibiades from an all-too-early grave. But when the battle was over and the Athenians victorious, when the generals were discussing whom they should honour with the coveted award for bravery, the philosopher refused it, insisting instead that it should go to Alcibiades. And so in a ceremony held before the gathered troops, wounded but triumphant, his beauty not only undiminished but burnished by his brush with death, the son of Cleinias claimed his prize—a suit of armour and a victor’s wreath.
The prize was called the aristeia, the prize awarded to the best man in the army. ‘Aien aristeuein kai hupeirochon emmenai allon’: already in his first encounter with the enemy, Alcibiades had lived up to Achilles’ creed.
It was in his thirties, the age when a man could enter politics, that Alcibiades most avidly pursued his dream to be the best—not just in Athens but in the whole Greek world. And the setting in which he chose to realise this dream was the highest-profile gathering, where men from across the whole Greek world, and especially the great and good, came every four years to take part in a festival in honour of the great god Zeus, to sacrifice, to banquet, to indulge in top-level (often secret) diplomacy: the festival of the Olympic Games. Alcibiades, you will recall, refused to compete personally in athletic contests because it might mean being defeated by someone whom he classed as his inferior. But his ancestors had an enviable track record of winning chariot races, and for Alcibiades chariots were an obsession.
The horses that pulled the chariot of the hero Achilles were immortal and endowed with human speech. Alcibiades’ horses weren’t quite in the same league, but he did have enviable stud farms on his estates in Attica; he personally tracked down the best, most streamlined chariots; and come the Olympic Games of 416 BC, he was determined that nothing but nothing would come in his way of winning. That August, with dazzling self-confidence, magnetic poise and an unerring instinct for self promotion, he entered into the Olympic Games not one but seven chariots. For the four-horse chariot race. Which meant that he brought with him no fewer than twenty eight horses. The result was breathtaking, if unsurprising. As Alcibiades watched the chariots shoot past the post, he felt enormous satisfaction: first, second, third—they all belonged to him. It was a cause of great rejoicing, a well-earned pretext for an orgy of self-aggrandizement.
At Olympia Alcibiades held a lavish banquet, sponsored by friends and allies in Ionia and the east Aegean islands, a banquet to which he invited every single person attending the Olympic Games. It was a stunning demonstration of his power and popularity. But not everyone was as impressed with it as Alcibiades. For many Athenians it was simply anathema to see a pampered young aristocrat swanning around town with the kind of airs and graces normally associated with hateful oligarchs—or worse, the tyrants they had driven out a century before, in whose blessed absence Athens instigated her democracy. And when Alcibiades proposed his latest great idea, there were not a few who feared it represented just the next step on his path towards a power grab, towards tyranny. And what was that idea? To lead Athens to glory, as Achilles led the Greeks at Troy, by launching a military expedition against Sicily.
Now, this wasn’t actually anything particularly revolutionary. There had already been two expeditions sent to Sicily within the past fifteen years with the intention of helping allied cities, who felt threatened by Peloponnesian colonies. But what made this expedition controversial was in part the hostility of Alcibiades’ greatest political rival, Nicias, a hostility that ended up backfiring, because, rather than stopping the expedition, the Athenian Assembly voted to double the numbers of men and ships involved, and turned it into something Alcibiades never intended in the first place: an invasion force of such size that it seemed as if its purpose was nothing short of the annexation of the whole of Sicily. The other things that made the expedition controversial was a scandal that erupted just before it sailed, a scandal that would almost ruin Alcibiades.
For some time before the expedition sailed the atmosphere in Athens was febrile as Alcibiades and Nicias traded insults like two Homeric heroes. What made things worse was that both were part of the expedition’s leadership. Then one morning, a dreadful sacrilege: throughout the city, statues had been systematically disfigured and defaced. But not just any statues. Whoever was behind it had chosen their targets carefully: the so-called Herms—squared pillars topped with the head of the god Hermes, and furnished, halfway up, with genitalia and an exuberant, erect phallus. Hermes was the god of travellers, the god who would protect the expedition as it sailed. A committee of enquiry was hurriedly set up offering not just immunity from prosecution but rewards to any who came forward with information about not just the mutilation of the Herms but any other irreligious act that might have been committed in the city.
And at once the floodgates opened. At a stroke, anyone wishing to make accusations of the most malicious kind against his enemies had effectively been granted carte blanche. And Alcibiades’ enemies jumped at the opportunity. At a meeting of the Assembly a slave was brought in who accused him of having desecrated what was arguably the most sacred religious ceremony in all Attica, the Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, a ritual that promised life after death. The febrile atmosphere became positively incandescent, but rather than allow Alcibiades to stand trial (as he requested) and demonstrate his innocence, his enemies engineered for him to sail to Sicily with the charge still hanging over him. It was a clever move. Many of Alcibiades’ supporters were army men, and with them out of the city it would be easier to secure a prosecution. So just weeks later they recalled him to stand trial on a charge for which, if found guilty, Alcibiades would almost certainly face execution.
Arguably at the Olympic Games the year before Alcibiades had demonstrated that most disturbing quality found in so many tragic heroes: hubris, when a man crosses the dividing line between what is acceptable within the bounds of human behaviour and what is not. And there were not a few who saw in Alcibiades’ ostentatious displays at Olympia, which cannot but have eclipsed the ceremonies in honour of Zeus, or in his behaviour back home in Athens—more than a little evidence of hubris on a quite spectacular scale. And as everyone knew, man’s hubris attracts the anger of the gods and brings about their punishment, his nemesis.
Alcibiades knew what would happen if he returned to Athens. He knew he’d be killed. But not for him to be a man of sorrows. Not for him to be acquainted with grief. Oh, no. Alcibiades had once beaten up a teacher who couldn’t put his hand immediately on a copy of the Iliad, and now, imbued with the ethos of Achilles, he turned his back on his fellow generals, and on his army, and on Athens and for four years he courted Athens’ enemies—first the Spartans, then the Persians—while by their ships’ sterns and the salty sea the Athenians were slaughtered, first in Sicily where the bungling, disease-ridden Nicias allowed the expedition to stagnate into disaster, then in Ionia, where Alcibiades helped lead a joint force of Persians and Spartans to a string of victories. In many ways these years are years of romance and adventure, perhaps the most compelling in all Alcibiades’ career. If only we had time to explore them now!
But since we don’t, suffice it to say for now that partly as a result of Alcibiades’ defection and hostility, Athens was brought almost to her knees. With many men killed, and many ships lost in Sicily, and her democracy in such tatters that for uneasy months it was actually overthrown, she should have been easily defeated. But the reason she survived—and prospered—for seven more years was in part thanks to Alcibiades. The Athenian fleet, worn down by defeat and alienated by the newly installed oligarchic government in Athens, recalled Alcibiades. Whether it was his brilliant generalship or simply his morale-boosting charisma, almost immediately after Alcibiades rejoined Athens’ fleet and army, their fortunes changed. The Spartans and their Persian allies were beaten off time and again for the following five years as Alcibiades blazed in glory through the Hellespont and Bosporus and Sea of Marmara. At last he returned to Athens in triumph, all charges were dropped, and he was appointed strategos autocrator: Commander in Chief.
But even now the shadow of Achilles haunted him. You will recall how, in the Iliad, Achilles and the Greeks reached a compromise: rather than do battle himself, Achilles allowed his friend, Patroclus, to don his armour and go out to fight. But Patroclus is killed, Achilles is consumed by self-reproach, and so begins the sequence of events that leads to his own destruction. Well, when Alcibiades and the fleet returned east to confront the Spartan fleet at Ephesus, Alcibiades, forced to do all he could to raise funds to allow him to continue the war, left in charge of the ships at Notium his own close friend, Antiochus. It was disastrous. Somehow Antiochus and a handful of ships managed to be intercepted by the Spartans. Antiochus was killed. And when the Athenian fleet came to the assistance of their colleagues, they did so in no order, and a significant number of ships were either holed or captured. Alcibiades’ enemies had a field day.
Again it seemed that he would be recalled to stand trial. And again he chose to flee, this time to Thrace, where he already had a private army and considerable estates. Again, I think it’s likely that he harboured hopes that his city would at last recall him—he even tried to engineer a recall when the Athenians were drawn up on the beaches of the Hellespont at Aegospotami, a disastrous location in Alcibiades’ opinion—and he rode into the camp where he argued with the generals, offered his help, and was inevitably rebuffed. The subsequent battle saw Athens’ fleet all but annihilated, and the next year Athens was forced to surrender. Once she had been the proudest of all cities. Now Nemesis had struck her, too.
As for Alcibiades, he fled back to the Persians, perhaps holding out the promise that he could help the Persian king. Just let him travel east to Susa, and they’d see how useful he could be! Which was why we find him in the compound at Melissa, in the company of his two travelling companions, the beautiful courtesans Theodote and Timandra, kicking his heels, waiting for the paperwork to come through to allow him to journey on the Royal Road. But what came instead were his assassins. Perhaps it was his enemies in Athens, perhaps it was the Spartans, maybe it was both—but the local Persian governor, Farnavaz (whom Greeks called Pharnabazus) received a request that in the current climate he simply could not refuse, and so he sent a death squad to Melissa. And so, just as Achilles had fallen in the dust of Troy, an arrow lodged deep in his heel, Alcibiades ran into the night to face the hail of arrows.
When the new day broke, Theodote and Timandra and all the household were already grieving, the women scouring their long nails across their lovely cheeks and screaming in their sorrow as they laid out the corpse. And then they washed him gently and wrapped him in their finest robes. But they could not comb his hair or close his eyes. For, as they galloped to Dascyleum, the assassins carried with them, tied tight to a saddle, a heavy, dripping sack, a trophy to present to Farnavaz as evidence that they had done their work. And, when he opened it and lifted out the blood-drained head to look upon the face that once had been the handsomest in Greece the satrap knew for certain: Alcibiades was dead.
I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of Alcibiades’ life today. But I hope I’ve given you a flavour. In so many ways Alcibiades is an enigma, an aristocrat with Homeric heroic intentions living in an age of People Power, for some a roguish hero, for others an unscrupulous traitor. I’ve spent several years of my own life tracking his, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I hope that, if you read the book, you will enjoy it equally.