The Greek General Who Served Athens, Sparta & Persia

“Loyalty’s first, all the bullshit second.” —Obie Trice

In A Nutshell

Alcibiades was a prominent Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War against Sparta. After being accused of an act of gross vandalism and sentenced to death, he fled to Sparta, gave the Spartans useful advice against Athens, and slept with the queen. After earning the king’s ire, Alcibiades fled to Persia, where he advised a local governor and seeded an oligarchic coup in Athens. He eventually fought for Athens again but was murdered in 404 BC.

The Whole Bushel

Alcibiades was born around 450 BC to an aristocratic Athenian family. He was raised in the home of a relative, Pericles, a prominent Athenian politician. From a young age, Alcibiades was known for his beauty and intelligence, though he was also reckless and narcissistic. Some attribute this to Pericles, his guardian, being too busy with politics to give the boy enough attention.

Growing up, Alcibiades was mentored by Socrates, who was impressed by his intellect. Socrates even saved Alcibiades when the later was wounded in battle in 432.

Alcibiades returned the favor by protecting Socrates during the Athenian retreat from the Battle of Delium in 424.

Alcibiades became known for his bravery, as well as for his extravagant ways, and he was made general in 420. At the time, he was 30 years old, the minimum age at which one could become a general. By then, the Peloponnesian War against Sparta had been going on for over a decade.

As general, he forged an alliance against Sparta with Argos, Mantineia, and Elis. His reputation took a hit in 418 after defeat by the Spartans in the Battle of Mantineia, but having forged the right political alliances, he managed to escape punishment.

He restored his reputation in 416 by competing in Olympic chariot races. Over seven races, he took first, second, and fourth place, a feat which earned him great fame.

In May 415, Alcibiades was set to be part of a large military expedition against Syracuse in Sicily. Shortly before the ships were to depart, however, hermae across the city were vandalized. Hermae were man-sized stone slabs featuring busts of the god Hermes on top and an erect penis and testicles sculpted roughly halfway up the slab.

Those recognizable features were all smashed off.

This proved devastating to the morale of the expedition’s sailors, as Hermes was the patron of travelers. The vandalism was even seen as an attack on Athenian democracy.

Alcibiades was held as the prime suspect, although there is no evidence to indicate that he was responsible for the vandalism of divine genitalia. He was also accused of other profane acts. He demanded an immediate inquiry but was forced to leave before the matter was resolved.

Shortly after he reached Sicily, Alcibiades was recalled to Athens, having been sentenced to death.

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Alcibiades fled to Sparta instead. There, he advised the Spartans to send a good general to Syracuse against the Athenian expedition (which was defeated) and to take the Athenian fortress at Decelea.

Both moves were major blows to Athens. According to some (such as his enemies in Athens), Alcibiades freely gave Athenian state secrets to the Spartans. He also caused Athenian rivals to revolt in 412. In addition to giving military advice, Alcibiades also slept with the queen of Sparta while the king was away.

Unsurprisingly, the Spartans (like King Agis II) eventually turned against Alcibiades, so he fled to Persia. There, he advised the Persians (who had been working with Sparta to build a fleet to counter the Athenian fleet) to remain on good terms with both the Spartans and Athenians.

He also made contact with an Athenian fleet at Samos and convinced them that he was the best person to broker an alliance with the Persians.

Such an alliance would only be possible with an oligarchic revolution in Athens. The fleet officers planned such a coup, and it was successful. Although the original oligarchs who took over were soon deposed by other oligarchs, Alcibiades led the Samos fleet in a major victory against the Spartans in 410.

In 407, Alcibiades returned to Athens as a hero, the charges against him having long since been dropped. This time, he was made commander-in-chief of all of Athens’s armed forces. His success didn’t last. In 405, he departed on an expedition to northern Ionia, leaving a man named Antiochos in charge of the fleet. Antiochos led the fleet to a disastrous defeat by the Spartans.

Though he was absent, Alcibiades was held responsible for leaving a lesser man in charge. He fled to Persia again, taking refuge with a local governor. The Spartans paid the governor to have him murdered in 404.

The Spartans won the Peloponnesian War. In 399, Alcibiades’s legendary selfishness, unscrupulousness, and ambition fueled charges against Socrates of corrupting the youth of Athens.

Show Me The Proof

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Alcibiades
Ancient History Encyclopedia: Alcibiades
“The Mutilation of the Herma,” by George Grote
The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens, by Eva C. Keuls

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