10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens

Khalid Elhassan - August 4, 2017

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Alcibiades. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Alcibiades

Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general. A relative of Pericles, he did not share his famous kinsman’s probity or commitment to democracy and was perhaps the most dynamic, adventurous, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era.

Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Pericles became his guardian but was too busy with his duties as a statesman to provide the boy with the necessary guidance. Alcibiades thus grew into a dissipated man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery.

Growing up, Alcibiades was considered Athens’ most beautiful youth, and in an era when pederasty was widespread and acceptable, he was passionately pursued by many, and showered with gifts and flattery. Even Socrates was among his admirers. When the Peloponnesian War began, Alcibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent in battle, and for being a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Assembly.

A hawk, by 420 he had become one of Athens’ generals, and strongly opposed reconciliation with Sparta. In 415, he convinced the Assembly to send a massive expedition to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. On the eve of sailing, however, statues of the god Hermes throughout the city were desecrated. Suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. He demanded an immediate trial, but his enemies allowed the expedition, whose ranks were disproportionately comprised of Alcibiades’ supporters, to sail on with the charges still hanging over him. Then, after the city had been largely emptied of Alcibiades’ partisans, a ship was sent to Sicily, summoning him to return to Athens and face trial before an Assembly in which his enemies were now a majority.

Rather than obey the summons, Alcibiades fled and defected to Sparta. He is credited with advising the Spartans to adopt the strategy which culminated in the near-complete annihilation of Athens’ Sicilian expedition – the force he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he once led. That was the most catastrophic, and bloodiest, defeat suffered by Athens during the war. Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a relative handful ever saw Athens again: those who were not massacred in the fighting were enslaved, then sent to Sicilian quarries where they were worked to death.

Additionally, he convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Attica each campaigning season, burning in looting, then retreating and repeating the cycle the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica, which allowed them to exert direct pressure on Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred up a revolt against Athens by her allies and subject cities in Asia Minor.

Despite the valuable services he rendered Sparta, Alcibiades wore out his welcome after he was caught in bed with the wife of the Spartan king Agis II. Fleeing again, this time to the Persians, Alcibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy that would prolong the war as long as possible, keeping the Athenians and Spartans too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests.

Back in Athens, which was reeling from the string of military catastrophes that Alcibiades had helped inflict on his city, political turmoil led to an oligarchic coup. However, the Athenian fleet remained pro-democracy, and in the chaos, Alcibiades used his charisma to persuade the fleet to take him back.

From 411 to 408 BC, he led the Athenian fleet in a dramatic recovery, winning a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. He returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and was given supreme command in conducting the war.

However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again and having burned bridges with all sides, holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace, before fleeing even further away to take refuge in Phrygia. However, a Spartan delegation traveled to Phrygia and convinced its Persian governor to have Alcibiades murdered in 404 BC.

10 Prominent Figures From Ancient Athens
Plato. Encyclopedia Britannica

Plato

Plato (427 – 347 BC) was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, and the trio laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato ranks among history’s most influential figures, and for over two millennia has been one of the world’s most widely read and studied philosophers. In addition to his writings, he founded the Western World’s first institution of higher learning, The Academy in Athens.

Plato was born in a wealthy and conservative, even reactionary, family. He was related to two of the “Thirty Tyrants” who overthrew Athenian democracy and instituted a reign of terror after the city’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War. That family influence is reflected in Plato’s political philosophy, which is skeptical of democracy and favors enlightened authoritarianism.

The Thirty Tyrants were in turn overthrown, democracy was restored, and a counter-reaction set in against conservatism and anti-democratic thought, culminating in Socrates’ execution in 399 BC. Many of the Thirty Tyrants had been students of Socrates, as had been the traitorous Alcibiades. From the perspective of pro-democracy Athenians, Socrates was not a harmless old man whose only crime was to ask questions, but a pernicious guru whose teachings catered to rich aristocrats hostile to democracy. Many of Socrates’ students had gone on to commit treason, joining the enemy during wartime in fighting against their city as did Alcibiades, or overthrowing the democratic government and replacing it with a repressive regime that engaged in widespread murder as did the Thirty Tyrants.

When the Athenians looked back at the glory days under Pericles, only three decades past, contrasted them with their reduced circumstances in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat and violent repression, and asked themselves “what went wrong?“, Socrates and his boat rocking were among the answers. Athens became unhealthy for students of Socrates, so Plato left and traveled around the Mediterranean, returning years later, after passions had cooled, and founded The Academy in the 380s BC. There, Plato would spend most of his remaining years teaching and writing.

The origins of Western political philosophy can be traced back to Plato’s writings, particularly the Republic and Laws. In addition to his impact on science, philosophy, politics, and education, Plato greatly influenced spirituality and religion. His impact on Christianity can be seen in the strong influence his philosophy exerted on Saint Augustine of Hippo, early Christianity’s most influential theologian, and one whose writings played an oversized role in shaping that religion and subsequent Western thought.

Among Plato’s innovations was the introduction of dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophical writings. In his books, characters engage in intellectual debates, during the course of which philosophic points are advanced, challenged, shot down, or honed.

Nothing written by Socrates has survived, and virtually all we know of his philosophy has been transmitted through Plato, whose early writings are generally considered to be Plato’s account of Socrates’ life and thought. Plato’s later writings, such as his best-known book, the Republic, are deemed to contain Plato’s own philosophy, as the main characters speak for Plato himself.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

World History – Ancient Athens

The Atlantic – What Made Ancient Athens a City of Genius?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Solon

Constitutional Rights Foundation – Solon Put Athens on the Road to Democracy

Ancient Origins – Assassins in Ancient Athens: The Tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton

History Hit – How Significant Was the Battle of Salamis?

Greek Reporter – How Ancient Greeks Harnessed Wind Power to Win the Battle of Salamis

Mvorganizing – What Was A Helot In Spartan Society?

The Collector – The Ancient Festivals Of Dionysus In Athens: ‘Euhoi Bacchoi’

Aeschylus – The Oresteian Trilogy

Aeschylus – The Persae

Getty – A Guide to Aeschylus’s “Persians”

PBS – How Salamis was remembered – Aeshylus’ The Persians

New York Times – ‘The Persians’ Review: Aeschylus’s Ancient Portrait of Defeat

ThoughtCo – Biography of Alcibiades, Ancient Greek Soldier-Politician

Grin – Why Did the Sicilian Expedition Fail?

Daily History – What Was The Impact Of The Defeat Of The Sicilian Expedition On Athens?

History Collection – Democracy, Disability & Death: 7 Amazing Facts About Ancient Greece

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