The Spoiled Rich Kid Who Turned Ancient Athens Upside Down
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 the most dynamic, adventurous, and catastrophic leader of Classical Athens. 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. Pederasty was widespread and acceptable, and he was passionately pursued by many, and showered with flattery and lavish gifts.
Even Socrates was among his admirers. When the Peloponnesian War began, Alcibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent. He also became known as a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Athenian Assembly. A hawk, by 420 BC he had become one of Athens’ generals, and strongly opposed reconciliation with Sparta. In 415 BC, 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 Athens were desecrated. Suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety.
Alcibiades demanded an immediate trial. Instead, 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 home 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 reportedly advised the Spartans to adopt the strategy that led to 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. It was the most catastrophic, and bloodiest, defeat suffered by Athens during the war.
Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, precious few ever saw Athens again. Those who were not massacred were enslaved, then sent to Sicilian quarries where they were worked to death. Alcibiades also convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Attica each campaigning season, to burn and loot, then retreat and repeat the cycle the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica. That 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 King Agis II. He fled again, this time to the Persians. Alcibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy to prolong the war as long as possible, and keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests. Back home, Athens reeled from the string of military catastrophes that Alcibiades had helped inflict on his city, and 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, and won a series of victories that turned the war around.
Suddenly, it was Sparta that was on the verge of collapse. Alcibiades returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome. His earlier treasons were forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and he was given supreme command to conduct 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. Since he had burned bridges with all sides, he holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace for a while. Then he fled 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.
Hatice Sultan (1660 – 1743) had a lavish wedding for the ages. The daughter of Sultan Mehmed IV, and sister of sultans Mustafa II and Ahmed III, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. In 1675, fourteen-year-old Hatice was married to Musahip Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman Navy’s Admiral of the Fleet. Her imperial family and the groom pulled out all the stops to make sure that the princess would kick off her marriage with celebrations of unrivaled opulence. The wedding, which took place in Edirne, lasted for twenty days, and the city was decorated with artificial trees that featured silver leaves. The biggest one was about sixteen-feet-wide, and was pulled by 200 slaves. To avoid navigating the city’s warren of twisting streets, all buildings in its path, including houses, were razed.
There were parades, fireworks, wrestling, and other athletic contests, in addition to daily banquets and ceremonies. Musicians, artists, and actors were brought in from all across the Ottoman Empire and beyond, to put on concerts, and other performances. The bride’s dowry was carried by eighty-six mules, each covered in expensive fabrics. Their haul included an abundance of diamonds, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and other jewelry and precious stones. That was aside from delicate porcelain, gold candlesticks, pearl-covered stools, and the era’s finest and most expensive shoes, slippers, and boots. Also prominently featured were the priciest Persian rugs, carpets, beds and table cloths. It was the era’s most lavish marriage celebration, bar none.
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