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Good Man, Bad Man, Traitor: Aspects of Alcibiades
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Good Man, Bad Man, Traitor:
Aspects of Alcibiades
Alcibiades was a good illustration of a basically negative human being. Loaded with good qualities, he misused them in order to pursue his ambitions and his thirst for power. Tellingly, he was considered immoral even by ancient Greek society, a society not known for its strict morality. Secondly, he was driven by ambition, and stopped short of nothing in order to gain more power. Thirdly, he was an excellent general, and an eloquent speaker, but used these qualities negatively most of the time.
This paper is primarily based on This Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, who undoubtedly knew Alcibiades personally. According to Thucydides, Alcibiades was an immoral man. He was never able to be loyal to his country, his wife or his friends. As a teenager, he was Socrates' protégé and pupil but was not faithful to him. Alcibiades also liked to be flattered, and indulged himself in sensual pleasures. He was famous for his parties which scandalized the citizens of Athens. His behavior made many enemies, a small but important example being that he liked to wear long, red robes, just like Athenian women, disturbing behavior for a man who wanted to be considered a fearless general.
Once, his wife was about to divorce him, and according to the Athenian custom, went to a designated place. But Alcibiades found out, grabbed her, and brought her home. He had numerous mistresses, and male lovers. Alcibiades showed no respect for other people's feelings, and for them as human beings all together. Sometimes he did certain things to redeem himself, but not because he was sorry for the wrong he caused, but because he realized that even he needed to maintain a certain level of decency in the public eye.
People of Athens tolerated his behavior for two reasons. First, he was a good general, and they needed him, and he knew how to get their clemency, by being very eloquent. He was a very charming man, and knew how to use that. But a time came when even the Athenian people had enough, and one day Alcibiades, having too many enemies, was accused of a religious sacrilege. He escaped to Sparta where the most unforgivable example of his immoral character occurred.
Alcibiades convinced the Spartans that he was their friend, and indeed helped them, against his own city, but in the meantime he was very busy himself, seducing the wife of his Spartan protector King Agis. Incredibly, Alcibiades seduced King Agis's wife to have a successor to the Spartan throne. He thought that he was able to manipulate everything. She gave birth to a baby boy, and even if according to Plutarch, the boy's name was not Alcibiades, she used to call him that when she was in a circle of good friends. Word got back to King Agis, and he got suspicious of Alcibiades. The king knew that the baby was not his own, since he hadn't been with his wife for about ten months prior to the child's birth. When he realized the boy's father was Alcibiades, he planned to get revenge. Alcibiades, who up to then had pretended to be the king's friend, being scared, fled Sparta for the chief enemy of all the Greeks, The King of Persia and his satrap Tissaphernes. Once there, he behaved unscrupulously. But what should not be forgotten is he left behind to who knew what sort of dangerous fate his own son and the woman with whom Alcibiades conceived him. He never thought of the king's wife’s situation, or the child's. But Alcibiades had never proved himself to be faithful before that time or afterward. He committed evil deeds because he thought he would be manipulating a situation for his own self-interest or simply because of whatever short-term pleasure it offered and he did not care about the harm that he caused. If he actually cared, he could have taken the mother, or at least the child with him. Of course, he did not. He did not go back to get them, or attempt to.
Secondly, Alcibiades was a very ambitious man. He was eager to get to the top of the political ladder, and his desire to rule was notorious. Alcibiades started to show signs of what he was to become early in his childhood. Alcibiades, according to Plutarch, was unable to accept defeat, even at an early age. He once bit a wrestling opponent, and when asked about it, he replied that he bit like a lion, not like a girl. As an adult, he became a general using a trick that not only brought him a title, but also broke the fragile Peace of Nicias. Alcibiades convinced the Spartan ambassadors to lie about their powers as plenipotentiaries, and then accused them of being dishonest. Nicias was confused, and the ambassadors were rejected.
The best example of how far Alcibiades went in order to satisfy his desire for superiority is when he helped Sparta to almost destroy his native city, Athens (Thucydides 112-128). Alcibiades was in favor of an expedition to conquer Sicily, Carthage and Libya since he envisioned himself as a great conqueror. He persuaded the Athenians to give a green light to the expedition, despite the opposition of Nicias, a much older and experienced general.
When Nicias and Alcibiades were about to embark on the expedition, however, accusations of a secret religious ritual, or more precisely the profanation of it, broke out. Alcibiades was the main suspect. He was sent nevertheless to Sicily. While there, the Athenians sent a ship to bring him back to stand trial. Alcibiades escaped and went straight to the enemy. The Spartans welcomed him with open arms, and he gave them advice on what to do next against the Athenians. As a direct result, the Spartans sent troops to Sicily, commanded by a good general, and defeated the Athenians. They also opened a second front in Greece, and won.
As Plutarch adds, Alcibiades could not even manage to make Sparta his new and permanent home. He cuckolded the king himself and made him a mortal enemy. As a result Alcibiades ultimately had to flee for his life to the king of Persia's minister, or satrap. Turning traitor a second time, Alcibiades advised the Persians how to best defeat the Spartans. Later on, having worn out his welcome with the Persians, Alcibiades took advantage of a pair of revolutions in Athens, the first of which overthrew the democracy and the second of which overthrew the oligarchy that had taken over. Alcibiades participated in the revolution that returned the city to democracy and then came back to Athens. .
These 360-degree changes in his loyalties best show Alcibiades' thirst for power. He used his natural eloquence to convince the Athenians to send troops to Sicily, and that he was the person to be in charge of them. He was helped by the fact that he was a good general, and had proved it quite a few times. But when he was recalled to Athens, instead of going there and defending himself, he was outraged about the fact that he might not be able to accumulate more power, and fled to Sparta. Instead of just being a good citizen there, he demonstrated that nothing was able to stop him in his race to the top. He committed treason, not only once, but twice. Remember that Alcibiades was born in a good family, and had all sorts of good qualities. The problem was that all those virtues were shadowed by his ambitions. This is best explained by David Lewis Shaefer when he wrote, "Although Alcibiades is not…a Machiavellian, Thucydides allows us to foresee the basis of the Machiavellian transformation of the meaning of virtue and the phenomena that make that transformation plausible"(1445).
It might here be objected that Alcibiades did return to Athens in the end; that he seemed to have regretted the evil deeds that he committed against that city, and tried to repent. Well, he did so, but he had, as usual, his own reasons for that; in other words, a hidden agenda. Alcibiades was afraid of the Spartan King Agis. Plutarch says Alcibiades "began to be troubled…and to fear lest, if that commonwealth were utterly destroyed, he should fall into the hands of the Lacedamonians, his enemies" (129).
One other interpretation of the fact that he started to help the Athenians again was that he saw the trouble they were in, and knew they needed him. Plus, once again there was room for advancement. If he was able to prove his qualities to his fellow countrymen, he was able to command again. He was able to prove himself the best, and to achieve more power.
Thirdly, Alcibiades was a remarkable general, and an eloquent speaker. Unfortunately, he did not always use these qualities towards good, but evil also. He was a very courageous man, and he proved that he was able to control himself, if he desired to. Actually that happened only when the situation dictated. When he lived in Sparta, according to Plutarch, he changed his behavior in order to please the citizens of that city. Plutarch best describes his transformation when he says:
Not that his natural disposition changed so easily, nor that his real character was so very variable, but, whenever he was sensible that by pursuing his own inclinations he might give offense to those with whom he had occasion to converse, he transformed himself into any shape, and adopted any fashion he observed to be the most agreeable to them. (127-28)
After he deserted Sparta and helped the Persians against the Greeks, Alcibiades tried to gain the trust of the Athenians again through his eloquence, in writing this time. Only one man, Phrynichus, saw through him and advised the Athenians that Alcibiades was not interested in the welfare of their city, but in getting back in command. According to Mabel L. Lang, Phrynichus appeared to be a traitor, in the eyes of the Athenians, thanks to Alcibiades' manipulations and schemes. Later on back in Athens Phrynichus was stabbed with a dagger.
But, Alcibiades also showed a lot of courage, and when he tried to come back to Athens, he gave the Athenians good advice. The Athenians were able to avoid a civil war. Because of that, Thucydides said about Alcibiades' good deed, "Then, when they wanted to sail to Athens and put down the oligarchy, Alcibiades talked them out of it, thus averting a civil war that would have been damaging to Athens" (158).
He also went and fought with his own fleet, causing confusion at the beginning, because the two sides did not know what to expect from him. The Athenians thought that he was on Sparta’s side, and vice versa. He, as a good general, took advantage of that, and beat the Spartans. He won a series of battles before returning home to Athens, where he was well received.
The only objection to his remarkable abilities, as a military man, is that he lost some battles after he returned to Athens. But no general won every battle. They all won and lost, over a lifetime, and Alcibiades was human after all.
Alcibiades was a man of great abilities. He had everything a man could desire: a good home, wealth, beauty, charm, eloquence, and courage. He used them all the time. Alcibiades used his beauty to seduce women, and men, equally. He used his charm to get his way especially when things were not going his way. He was not honest with money either. Alcibiades was accused of some sort of tax evasion. Some of his accusers said that he not only married his wife for money, but he tried to get double her dowry.
Plato noted in Protagoras, that Alcibiades was a handsome man, but that there were others with more wisdom. He was a man that in our days would be considered enterprising. Others might even consider him a good politician.
Alcibiades lived a life that he chose, and it might be said that there is a moment when a person has to pay for his or her mistakes. He died mysteriously, some say killed by King Agis' order, others just because he lived with a girl whose brothers were enraged by that fact, and they burnt his house down. They say he died with courage, a fact that should not surprise anybody. For even though he had a treacherous character, Alcibiades was not a coward. He was a favorite of women, even though he cheated on and used every single one of them. After his death some seemed to actually mourn Alcibiades, one of them being a courtesan named Timandra. She wrote a poem about Alcibiades' death, and in it she says:
I buried Alcibiades after He was pierced by arrows and javelins. ...How fitting after all those victories--Cyzicus, Byzantium, and the festal
Procession to Eleusis restored to the priests - that he perishes in Persian Lands, by Persian hands, at Sparta's command.
What could indeed express better than these verses, written by a woman who knew Alcibiades, his life's tragedy? A man that betrayed two nations, one of them his own and perished in a foreign country. He was probably mourned, and probably many rejoiced at the news of his death. Alcibiades caused a lot of harm, and probably regretted only the fact that he was not able to continue to pursue his ambitions. Only one thing is positive about him. That is the fact that he was a good general. But even that is overshadowed by the fact that he went to Sparta and gave away Athenian secrets.