Title: Who was Alcibiades?
Author: Dick Cheney.

Who was Alcibiades?
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts”

- -William Shakespeare

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

- -Thomas Carlyle

"Not the Son of Achilles, but Achilles himself."
-Plutarch on Alcibiades.

Alcibiades (450–404 BC)

He has been called an Alexander in the wrong place at the wrong time [1][2]. To more serious-minded historians, he was a traitor, a demagogue, and a scoundrel. In his own time however, he may have been known as the greatest Athenian of his generation, while also an archnemesis to Athenian religion and democracy. Born with a huge assortment of many positive traits, including personality, charm, good looks, physical prowess, perseverance, and above average intelligence, along with a privileged background that connected him with the likes of Pericles, Socrates, and members of the Athenian elite, there can be no doubt that Alcibiades fits Thomas Carlyle’s depiction of a great man. However, given the many variations of Alcibiades, including representations by Plutarch, Thucydides, and Plato, along with one of the more bizarre roles ever played in the Peloponnesian War, we are still left to wonder, who was Alcibiades? Did he influence events or did events influence him? Was he all that important? And why, this most colorful figure of all of antiquity, did he fail? Alcibiades biography of course, is as dense and as complicated as the Peloponnesian War, and historians like us will never be satisfied with less than complicated answers.

Some discussion points:

Love of Preeminence or Self-Indulgence?

Any serious discussion on Alcibiades must begin with his love of preeminence, his most important trait. However, it’s not clear if Alcibiades was a megalomaniac hellbent on ruling the Athenian Empire or just a typical aristocrat predisposed towards fame and self-indulgence. In his youth of course, he stood apart from others, hogging the limelight at every opportunity. Whether it was hosting extravagant dinner parties, racing chariots at the Olympics, accepting bribes and gifts, outsmarting teachers, wrestling with other boys, or punching politicians on a dare (then marrying that politician’s daughter), and making spectacular donations before the assembly, it’s quite clear Alcibiades had all the fame and confidence he would need to be a leading man in Athens. His tutor, Socrates, even famously asked a young Alcibiades if he wished to conqueror the world, to which he replied yes. While the exact nature of Alcibiades relationship to Socrates is still somewhat debatable (and may have been a bromance), the character contrast -to the modest but virtuous philosopher- is clear; Alcibiades was a man of notable ambition (along with many passions) and may have seen himself as an anointed successor to Pericles.

Scoundrel or Loyal Athenian?

The most interesting parts of Alcibiades biography are the many roles he played in the Peloponnesian War, where he effectively served on all sides. In fact, we can even say there were four sides to the Peloponnesian War; Athens, Sparta, Persia, and Alcibiades.

While his mercenary roles in Athens, Sparta, and the Ionia are all too lengthy to describe here (along with the many accusations of treason), the most notable event in Alcibiades’s life is arguably the Peace of Nicas.

Here a debate begins, was Alcibiades a scoundrel or a loyal Athenian? The Peace of Nicas was supposed to mark a 50 year ceasefire between Athens and Sparta, yet Alcibiades (according to Plutarch) seized an opportunity to trick the Spartan delegation into saying things that would offend the Athenian assembly. While the result of Alcibiades treachery was a restoration of hostilities that eventually accumulated into the Battle of Mantinea, it did also push Argos, Mantinea, and the Eleans into Athens’s sphere of influence, a remarkable alliance at the time. Alcibiades, for his part, was also appointed general, and his rival, Nicas, was soundly trashed and humiliated before the assembly. While it is clear that Alcibiades had always planned to benefit politically at Nicas expense, a case can be made that Athens had benefited too. The alliance with Argos was arguably the closest Athens came to directly winning the Peloponnesian War, and it had gained a powerful land army inside the Peloponnese. And if Athens would have won the Battle of Mantinea against Sparta, who knows what would have happened. Alcibiades might have gone down as one of the greatest conquerors of all time. Instead, we’re left to wonder, was Alcibiades really trying to benefit Athens, or was he always planning to benefit himself? Its a question that reoccurs constantly throughout Alcibiades career, along with his many shifting loyalties and power grabs.

Risk taker or Opportunist?

Another way to begin deciphering Alcibiades’s character is to argue whether he was an opportunist or a risk-taker. The difference is subtle but can be helpful for choosing how we choose to interpret Alcibiades. An obvious risk-taker, like Alexander for instance, engages in reckless behavior in hopes of generating a positive outcome. Complicated maneuvers, set piece battles, and suicidal cavalry charges of course, only serve to generate a chance of going either right or wrong. The exact odds that come with risk taking, very importantly, are also, more or less unknowable; which is why gambling can never be considered completely brilliant. Opportunists on the other hand, is more closely related to genius (and less so to courage) because it is about spotting and seizing advantages that arise through circumstances. Rather than rolling the dice, opportunists find more dice to roll, which deterministically increases the odds of success. An example of opportunism is Leonidas choosing to hold a narrow pass at Thermopylae, which offered a clear advantage when defending against a larger force.

When these definitions are applied to Alcibiades, the best case study is the Sicilian Expedition, of which Alcibiades is the principle author. The Sicilian Expedition of course, has a legacy that is comparable to Gallipoli and the Schlieffen Plan; brilliant conceptionally, but flawed in its logistical assumptions. An opportunity for sure at the strategic level, that played to Athens’s naval strength, but a gamble in that it required a huge investment, along with plenty of manpower and an aggressive timetable. Had it succeeded though, Athens would have been the first trans-Mediterranean Empire in history, and probably would have lasted against Macedonia and maybe against Rome. Instead, because of either poor execution, or just ridiculous planning, we’re left to wonder if the whole thing was a blunder.

Tyrant or Demagogue?

Its interesting that Alcibiades never tried to take the state, especially when he was more than once accused of crimes while heading an army. Despite this fact, we do know that Alcibiades represented a rebellious and imperialist faction that constantly struggled for more power in Athens. Prior to returning Athens, Alcibiades did help orchestrate a coup that put wealthy Athenian oligarchs in power. Given more time, would Alcibiades have made himself first citizen in Athens? Would he have completely done away with the last elements of democracy to the benefit of his supporters? Or, despite his ambition, would he have been okay to share power with the same citizenry who had once accused him of impiety and high crimes against the state. Its not clear what Alcibiades would have done with more power.

Competent or Mediocre General?

Alcibiades made himself useful for each side he fought for. He had a strategic mind and could conceptualize long-term strategies. On the tactical level, he distinguished himself as a naval commander. He was personally brave in battle, yet never reckless. Given the opportunity, he would use deceit and deception to outsmart his opponents. The naval battle of Cyzicus, along with his activities in the Hellespont, show some evidence of military genius. Though he was clearly an imaginative commander, the question is whether he always had the right ideas. Would the Sicilian Expedition had worked had he personally led it? It’s the ultimate stain on an otherwise decent military record, along with the fact that he never quite achieved unity of command.

Significance to History

Its hard to say what Alcibiades true legacy is. His skill and acumen in the political area is obviously complicated by a record that was absolutely terrible for Athens. More than once he steered the assembly into war, often for his own personal gain. Having said that, Alcibiades was a survivalist and showed he could reinvent himself and his city after failure, even when limited by a system that did not favor a single leader. Many historians think, in the long run, Alcibiades faults simply outweighed his positives. A point that is backed by his habit for making enemies. Yet, in the end, it was perhaps Alcibiades failure to control events that were too big for any one person to control. A rivalry between Athens and Sparta would have continued with or without Alcibiades. But without Alcibiades, there might not have been a Sicilian Expedition, and Athens might never have lost so much of its navy. For one person, capable of so much, and then so little, perhaps Alcibiades ultimate legacy is to show us how the virtues and vices of great people can and cannot influence history.

Comparison to Alexander


[2] Adolf Holm. The History of Greece from Its Commencement to the Close of the Independence of the Greek Nation (1893).