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.