10. The General Whose Repeated Last Minute Switches Roiled Ancient Greece and Wrecked Athens
Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was Ancient Athens’ most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic leader. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Raised without firm guidance, Alcibiades grew into a self-indulgent man, whose brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by narcissism, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. Early in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alcibiades gained a reputation for courage and military talent. By 420 BC he had become a general, and in 415 BC, he persuaded Athens to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. Soon before departure, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated, and suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose immoral clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. The expedition sailed to Sicily, with a cloud hanging over its leader. When Alcibiades was eventually summoned to stand trial before the Athenian Assembly, he fled and defected to Sparta.
Athens’ Catastrophic Defeat
Following his last minute defection, Alcibiades advised the Spartans to adopt a strategy that annihilated the Sicilian expedition – the army he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he had once led. It was the most catastrophic defeat suffered by Athens during the war, and of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful survived. The rest were either killed outright, or enslaved and worked to death in Sicilian quarries. Alcibiades also persuaded the Spartans to alter their strategy of marching into Athens’ Attica region each year, burning and looting, then withdrawing and repeating the process the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent base in Attica, from which they could pressure Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred Athens’ allies and client states into revolting.