In This Article Alcibiades

  • Introduction
  • Alcibiades in Xenophon’s Hellenika and Diodorus Siculus
  • Alcibiades in the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia
  • Alcibiades in Inscriptions
  • Alcibiades and Ancient Art
  • Alcibiades’ Family
  • Alcibiades’ Sexuality
  • Alcibiades and Sparta

Classics Alcibiades
by
Brian Warren
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0254

Introduction

Alcibiades began his political career in Athens in the 420s BCE, and became an important politician and general during the Peloponnesian War. His story survives in a rich record of literary, historical, rhetorical, and philosophical works by his contemporaries, including Aristophanes, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plato. These texts convey a complex account of a charismatic man’s ill-fated relationship with his city. When Alcibiades was a child, his father died in battle; afterwards, he was raised by Pericles. As a good-looking, intelligent, and promising youth, Alcibiades began a complicated relationship with Socrates and won a prize for valor in battle. Later, he demonstrated a talent for diplomatic and political intrigues, and became notorious for his promiscuous sexuality. To avoid ostracism, he subverted the vote by colluding with his chief political rival Nicias. At the Olympics, he won a victory in chariot racing, stacking the odds by entering seven teams. Unsettled by Alcibiades’ transgressions of social, political, and sexual norms, some Athenians feared that he would become a tyrant. In 415, he was elected one of the generals of the Sicilian Expedition, but in the aftermath of the Mutilation of the Herms was recalled to stand trial for sacrilege. He escaped his Athenian enemies by defecting to Sparta. Soon he had to flee his Spartan enemies by defecting to the court of the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. In 411, Alcibiades used promises of Persian aid to incite an oligarchic revolution among the Athenians; in the middle of the coup, however, the oligarchs turned against him. Even as an oligarchy replaced the democracy in Athens, the pro-democratic Athenian fleet at Samos elected Alcibiades general because they hoped he could win them the war. After the Athenian victories at Abydos and Cyzicus, Alcibiades briefly, and for the last time, returned to Athens. The Athenians sent him back to the Ionian campaign, but after a subordinate suffered a defeat at Notium, Alcibiades again fled the Athenians. He became a hunted man, on the run from his many enemies—Athenian, Spartan, Persian. It is not clear who sent his killers, but Alcibiades was murdered in Phrygia soon after Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404. Five years later, in 399, Alcibiades’ scandal-plagued career likely weighed on the minds of the jury at Socrates’ trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. What Alcibiades did and said provoked a historical drama of love, strife, hate, desperation, hope, and loss. His historical significance, however, has perhaps been exceeded by his cultural significance as a subject of discourse among his fellow Athenians and the many others who have attempted to interpret and understand Alcibiades’ tumultuous life, argued about its meaning, and tried to come to terms with his legacy.

General Overviews

The fullest, most-detailed scholarly examination of Alcibiades’ life and career remains that of Hatzfeld 1951. Although Hatzfeld’s assessment is more critical than earlier romanticized views, he still sees Alcibiades as an extraordinary individual—relentless and insatiable, always pushing against limits, full of the dynamic energies of his time. Hatzfeld’s study includes chapters on Alcibiades’ family, his first successes and disappointments, the heights of his prestige, his imperialistic vision of the Sicilian Expedition, his condemnation for sacrilege, his machinations among the Spartans, Persians, and the Athenians in Ionia, his military victories, his triumphant return to Athens, his final fall from power, and his violent death. More recent book-length treatments have been pitched to a general audience, though each still contains much of interest to academics. Ellis 1989 sees Alcibiades as one of Athens’ greatest military strategists, a common view both in ancient and modern times, but contested by Bloedow 1990, among others (see the section titled Assessments of Alcibiades’ Career). Romilly 1995 gives a sense of the profound influence Alcibiades had on his generation, seeing him as a spiritual incarnation of Athenian imperialism, full of all its many potentials for achievement and glory, but also for insolence and scandal. Romilly also views Alcibiades as caught between two ways of life, each, in some sense, characteristically Athenian—the otherworldly, spiritual quest for beauty and truth, and the relentlessly competitive pursuit of worldly power and glory. Rhodes 2011 offers a less sweeping interpretation that is more critical than admiring, seeing Alcibiades as charismatic and clever, but also imprudent and selfish. Heftner 2011 aims to demythologize Alcibiades while still respecting his importance to his contemporaries. Nails 2002 includes a concise article on Alcibiades with valuable references to modern scholarship as well as a complete list of references to Alcibiades in classical sources. The article also features a family tree; succinct discussions of his family, of his career, of the evidence about him in inscriptions, of references to him in comedy and in the later literary tradition, and of his familial relationship to Pericles. Delaunois 1978 is a journal article that calls attention to the many tensions, reversals and ambiguities in Alcibiades’ career and character that make him such a difficult figure to understand. Rhodes 1985 offers a succinct overview of Alcibiades’ life and career in an inaugural lecture about the interest and importance of studying ancient history.

  • Delaunois, Marcel. 1978. Les Leçons d’Alcibiade. Les études classiques 46:113–126.

    E-mail Citation »

    Emphasizes the many contradictions and ambiguities of Alcibiades’ character and career, and the problems they have posed for both ancient and modern observers. A broad discussion incorporating Plutarch and Plato, as well as Thucydides.

  • Ellis, Walter M. 1989. Alcibiades. London and New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focuses more on Alcibiades’ career as a general than his cultural significance. Ranks Alcibiades as one of Athens’ greatest military strategists, on a par with Themistocles and Cimon. Includes genealogical trees, a chronological table, select bibliography. Reissued in 2013 in the Routledge Revivals series.

  • Hatzfeld, Jean. 1951. Alcibiade: Étude sur l’histoire d’Athènes à la fin du Ve siècle. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thorough, comprehensive scholarly work, superseding earlier modern studies. First edition, 1940; 2nd edition, with minor revisions, 1951. Sees Alcibiades as the last great man of his age, a world-historical Faustian spirit. As the work’s subtitle suggests, Hatzfeld’s examination of Alcibiades serves the broader purpose of a study of the history of Athens at the end of the 5th century BCE. Analytical index. Useful references in footnotes. No bibliography.

  • Heftner, Herbert. 2011. Alkibiades: Staatsmann und Feldherr. Darmstadt: Primus Verlag.

    E-mail Citation »

    Clear, well-researched, well-organized, and balanced account. Aims both to study Alcibiades as a means to understand his era and to assess his life and his career. Sections address Alcibades’ childhood and early life; his entry into politics; his exile, recall, and death; his legacies in literature and historiography; and new questions for research. Informative endnotes, useful bibliography. Index, illustrations, maps.

  • Nails, Debra. 2002. The people of Plato: A prosopography of Plato and other Socratics. Indianapolis, IN, and Cambridge, MA: Hackett.

    E-mail Citation »

    See the entry on Alcibiades III. Because the work focuses on the classical period, references to Alcibiades in later sources, such as Cornelius Nepos and Plutarch, receive limited attention. An excursus discusses the sacrilegious crimes of 415 BCE that led to Alcibiades’ recall from the Sicilian Expedition. Alcibiades’ relatives, including his son, also named Alcibiades, have their own informative entries.

  • Rhodes, Peter J. 1985. What Alcibiades did or what happened to him. Inaugural lecture, University of Durham, 15 November 1984. Durham, UK: Univ. of Durham.

    E-mail Citation »

    A succinct overview of Alcibiades’ life and career in the context of a discussion of Aristotle’s reflections on the differing natures of philosophy, poetry, and history in a passage (Poetics 9.1451 B 5–11) where Aristotle uses “what Alcibiades did or what happened to him” as an example of history. References in footnotes. No bibliography.

  • Rhodes, Peter J. 2011. Alcibiades. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword.

    E-mail Citation »

    A nuanced account. Includes a brief survey of ancient sources and modern scholarship. Provides historical background. Discusses Alcibiades’ childhood and early career; the Sicilian Expedition, Alcibiades’ recall, and first exile; his intrigues among the Spartans, Persians, and Athenians in Ionia; his election as general by the Athenian navy on Samos; his return to Athens; his fall and final exile. Maps; plates; informative endnotes. Bibliography.

  • Romilly, Jacqueline de. 1995. Alcibiade ou les dangers de l’ambition. Paris: Éditions de Fallois.

    E-mail Citation »

    An evocative study. Focuses more on Alcibiades’ cultural significance than his record as a military commander. Written with suggestive implications for contemporary democracies, an historical study as modern parable. Highly engaged with ancient sources, less engaged with modern scholarship. Informative endnotes with references. No bibliography.

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