Alcibiades the Lad

MOVING ON from the 300 Spartans (a couple of posts back), I thought you might be interested in a resourceful, not to mention ambitious, chap called Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles (see 300 Spartan post). He was an ancient Athenian, who was a prolific general during the Peloponnesian War (between Athens and Sparta) which followed the Persian invasion of Greece and the 300 Spartan defence at Thermopylae. What we know of this three-phase war was written by the Athenian historian, Thucydides, whilst he was in exile in Sparta (for his failing in the first phase of the war).

Thucydides (460-395 BC)

Alcibiades came to one’s notice in the second phase of the war – the Sicilian expedition. He was keen to invade Sicily as he considered it easy prey. Syracuse (eastern Sicily) was exerting its power and was threatening Segesta (western Sicily), who was at war with Selinus (southeast Sicily), an ally of Syracuse. Segestia called to Athens for help, warning the Athenians that if Syracuse overran Segesta it would soon rule Sicily and ally with Sparta (fellow Dorians).  However unlikely, it gave Athens ‘food for thought’ that assisted Alcibiades in his cause for war (and glory). The cautious Athenian general, Nicias, was against the war. He considered it unnecessary to seek another conflict (after the first phase of the war) and asked how a government could work successfully so far away; how a revolution could be controlled; and how an army could be sent such a distant with an antagonistic Sparta already on the doorstep? He added that there was no danger from the Sicilians and so why provoke it. The money could be better utilised on home improvements.  Sensible chap.

Bust Alcibiades Musei Capitolini MC1160.jpg

Alcibiades (450-404 BC)

The assembly was swayed by Alcibiades and, with fellow generals, Nicias and Lamachus, preparations were made for the expedition.  However, each had a different plan of attack. Nicias simply wanted to make a show of strength and scare the enemy but there was little point in this idea as it would achieve nothing (basically boring).  Lamachus felt an outright attack on Syracuse to be more appropriate, particularly while Athenian morale was high. In principle, this was a good plan but it was discarded because there was no base from which to moor the ships and gather supplies. Alcibiades suggested that the most sensible way to defeat Syracuse was to incite riot with other cities and gain Messana (northeast coast of Sicily) as an ally.  Lamachus was persuaded to support this notion and so it won the vote.  Unfortunately, it gave Syracuse an opportunity to prepare itself, although, initially, it did not really believe Athens would embark upon such a venture (probably a pretty sensible belief even if to prove false).

Nicias (470-413 BC)

In 415 BC, a force of one hundred and thirty ships and thirty thousand men set sail for Rhegium, in southern Italy. However, immediately prior to the departure certain statues of Hermes were mutilated.  Alcibiades, with his reputation of indifference to the gods, was blamed and recalled to Athens for trial. This left a very shy and unimaginative Nicias in command, with only Segestians as allies.  Realising he had no support in Athens (all his democrats were with him on the expedition), Alcibiades eluded his escort and fled to Sparta (possibly by invitation from the already exiled Athenian historian, Thucydides).

Sicily during the Peloponnesian War

Syracuse sought Spartan assistance against Athens. The Spartans turned to Alcibiades for his opinion (well, why not!).  He commented that Athens was looking to conquer Sicily, Italy and then Carthage, followed by the rest of the Greek world. He suggested that a force should be sent to assist Syracuse, otherwise it would be lost when reinforcements arrived from Athens. King Agis of Sparta sent Gylippus to Syracuse in 414 BC.

Cutting a longish story short, Lamachus was killed and, basically, Nicia messed up and the Athenians suffered an embarrassing defeat in Sicily (Nicias was executed by the Sicilian mobsters despite protests from Gylippus). This led to the third and final phase of the Peloponnesian War, called the Ionian war – because it took place in Ionia (west coast of Asia Minor aka Turkey), which skirted the Persian Empire.

Possibly King Agis of Sparta (reigned 427-401 BC)

In 413 BC, following Alcibiades’ advice, Agis occupied Decelea, north of Athens. This caused the closure of the Athenian silver mines of Laurium and the corn route from Euboea. This loss of silver and the drop in tributes from the Aegean cities meant that Athens was in serious financial difficulties, particularly as it needed to rebuild its fleet and pay its crews. Sparta realised that the only way to finish off Athens was at sea as this had been the main Athenian lifeline in the past. Sparta attempted to build a fleet of its own but even with the help of its allies it was still short on resources and so it turned to Persia. Family squabbles had weakened Persia and its king, Darius II, had left Asia Minor in the hands of his satraps, Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, who were seeking repossession of the Ionian cities lost after the invasion. In Sparta, Alcibiades was not receiving the honour he believed due to him and decided to join Tissaphernes, in Sardis, on the pretence of an alliance with Sparta (although there was a rumour that he had been indiscreet with the wife of Agis and considered it prudent to make haste from Sparta – sounds like Alc). Tissaphernes did agree to contribute finances for ships and a Phoenician fleet in return for Spartan assistance in recapturing the Ionian states. However, he was very casual with the payments and the Phoenician fleet only sailed as far as Crete.  Although Tissaphernes was intent on an Athenian defeat, he did not wish for a completely victorious Sparta for fear that it became too ambitious and a threat to Persia. On Alcibiades’ advice, Tissaphernes chose to sit back and let the Greeks wear each other down. Cutting another longish story short, this is exactly what they did and Athens suffered the most.

Map of the Peloponnesian War (436-404 BC) (Sardis is just east of Ephesus)

In Sardis, Alcibiades suggested that Tissaphernes should support the now weaker Athenians, reminding him of the danger of an ambitious Sparta growing in strength. It is unlikely that Tissaphernes would have supported Athens as he knew it too was ambitious and he could have as much trouble with the Athenians as he could with the Spartans. It was his intention to continue to play the two sides off with each other. It would appear that Alcibiades was trying to regain favour in Athens. Then, in 410 BC, Sparta attempted to regain the Propontis (Sea of Marmara east of the Hellespont) but, on the arrival of Alcibiades, the Spartan fleet was overcome at the battle of Cyzicus. Within two years Alcibiades had recaptured Byzantium and re-established Athenian control over the Propontis.  Despite his successful war-mongering he did not actually return to Athens until 407 BC, at which time he was received with honour.

Propontis (Asia Minor)

Alcibiades had proven his worth on behalf of Athens but he had his enemies who were waiting for any mistake that he may make. This came in 406 BC. He was at Notium watching the Spartan fleet, under Lysander, moored at Smyrna. Leaving instructions to his commander, Antiochus, not to engage the Spartans in battle, he made a brief expedition to reinforce Thrasybulus at Phocea. In his absence, Antiochus sailed too close to the Spartans who came out from the harbour to meet him. Lysander was victorious and destroyed fifteen Athenian ships. The news reached Athens and Alcibiades was blamed by his enemies for the defeat and for not counter attacking and was duly exiled.

The Athenian empire had now collapsed. Alcibiades decided to go to Persia as there was no point in returning to Athens. On his way through Asia Minor he was murdered, possibly on the Persian king’s instructions, as he had no time for a man who was responsible for the Athenian recovery.

Death of Alcibiades (by Michele de Napoli, c 1839)

The treatment of Alcibiades had a great bearing on the outcome of the Athenian quest for power. To the Greek people he could be described as an enigma, but his enigmatic changes all had basic reasoning about them.  He was, without doubt, a supreme commander with every intention of gaining glory for himself and, in an unscrupulous manner, for whichever power was to support him. He played a part on the sides of all three major powers, but on each occasion he was only attempting to find a position of high esteem which was to result in the downfall of the Athenian empire and the end of an era of Athenian dominance in Greece.  So, there you are: I told you he was ambitious – playing for all three teams!


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