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!


300 [Spartans]: Hollywood fact or fiction?

Gerard Butler as King Leonidas of Sparta in 300

The 2014 film 300 relates to the tale of the 300 Spartans who fought and fell at the hands of the Persians. How much of the film was fiction? Well, the inclusion of the ‘monster rhino’ in the battle towards the end rather gave the answer to this question away! And the portrayal of Xerxes, the king of Persia, was a bit ‘punk rock’ to say the least. However, the film did have some truth in it – somewhere. What ‘truth’ of the conflict we may know comes from the 5th century BC Greek historian, Herodotus and his Histories.

Herodotus (485-425 BC)

The 300 Spartans (see also the rather less bloody-thirsty 1962 film version of that name) is about the Battle of Thermopylae (‘The Hot Gates’ in the film) which enjoyed a cameo role in the second Persian invasion of Greece in the 5th century BC. But that is not where it all began. The small island of Naxos in the Aegean is where it all began. During most of the 6th century BC (and before) Athens had been controlled by oligarchs – aristocratic families. Then around 510 BC, it became a democracy courtesy of a chap called Cleisthenes. The democratic rule spread among the colonies of Athens – except the island of Naxos. There the oligarchs hung onto power until they were finally thrown out by the democrats in 503 BC. And rightly so.

The less blood-thirsty 1962 film version of the events

That’s when the trouble started. The Naxos oligarchs headed in search of sympathy to fellow Ionians (Greeks) on Miletus (Myletus) on the east  coast of Persia (now Turkey). This place was governed by Aristagoras who sought assistance for his beleaguered oligarchs from Artaphernes, the Persian satrap of Sardis. Artaphernes saw ‘£ or $ signs’ (actually darics) and control of Naxos ahead so he sent a Persian fleet to give Naxos a seeing-to. The Naxians were expecting the intrusion and defeated the Persian invaders.


Map of Aegean showing Naxos (centre) 

Aristagoras panicked as he thought Artaphernes would be severely vexed and take it out on him, so he called for Athenian help. Cleisthenes sent a force and took Sardis but, hearing of a large Persian army heading their way, the Athenians hastened home. This was the Ionian revolt of 500 BC and the remaining Ionian fleet was defeated by the Persians at Lade off the coast of Miletus (see map) in 495 BC. So ended the revolt.

1st Persian invasion

Darius I, king of Persia was none too pleased with the Athenian interference and so began the 1st Persian invasion in 490 BC . Now, looking at the map below, who do you think is going to be victorious?

 The Persian Empire is shaded brown. Greece is up there top left (in white) opposite Lydia – William Hill were offering odds 300 to 1 against a Greek victory

Darius’ force, under Artaphernes and Datis, first overpowered Naxos (well, it started it) then landed at Marathon, on the Greek mainland (see 1st map above) with about 600 hundred ships and some 30,000 soldiers (estimates vary). There were only around 9,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans opposing this Persian force. This is where the marathon runner comes in. He, Phidippides (or Philippides), was sent to summon Spartan assistance [1]. Unfortunately Sparta was otherwise engaged in a religious festival and declined the summons until the festival was over (in about 10 days). The battle could not wait that long but it is not entirely clear why the engagement then took place. The odds were certainly against the Greeks. Herodotus makes no mention of Persian cavalry, so one suggestion is that they (the cavalry) were embarking onto ships to sail around to attack an undefended Athens. The Athenian generals, Callimachus and Miltiades, took advantage and attacked the Persians whilst they were preoccupied with this manoeuvre. Whatever the strategies, the Athenians were victorious with only 192 losses (plus 11 Plataeans) to some 6,400 Persians. The Spartans turned up the next day! [2].

Darius I

2nd Persian invasion

After Darius’ death, his son Xerxes decided that it was time the Greeks were punished for their audacity at Marathon. In 481 BC he set out with another vast army of possibly 150,000 men (we don’t know the exact figure), under Mardonius. In fact, there were two Persian forces – one travelling by land and one by sea. The latter sailed towards Athens and the former came around the mainland and crossed the Hellespont by way of a ‘bridge’ of ships – the first was destroyed by storm but Xerxes persevered and built another. Then the land force marched into Greece and headed for Thermopylae.

Xerxes’ bridge of ships across the Hellespont

At Thermopylae, in 480 BC, Xerxes came up against Leonidas, king of Sparta, along with 300 Spartans, 4,500 Peloponnesians, 1,000 Phocians and 1,000 Lacedacmonians. For several days Leonidas held the pass at Thermopyae to allow the remaining Greeks to gather forces to defend Athens. Eventually, a treacherous Malian, Ephilialtes, led 10,000 of Xerxes ‘immortals’ (his top soldiers – sort of ninjas in the film) around a goats’ path in the mountains and came up behind the Spartans. Leonidas had been aware of this track and had position the Phocians to defend it but they were surprisingly surprised by the Persians and fled.  Great!  (Leonidas had sent the other Greeks away by now realising his task was doomed and was just a delaying tactic). Leonidas and his fellow Spartans were all killed at Thermopylae (all except one, Aristodemus who let the field with an eye infectious – bless – but you knew that if you had seen the film [3]) and Xerxes marched into Attica and to Athens.

Persian routes 480 BC

Xerxes entered Athens unobstructed and burned the city to the ground. Believing the Athenians to be in a state of despondency he then attacked their fleet in the Salamis. To his surprise the Athenians were ready and waiting for him. Themistocles was able to keep the Athenian fleet together, engaging the enemy within a confined space, cancelling out the Persian superior number advantage (3:1 advantage over the Greeks – even though a large portion of the Persian fleet had been destroyed by storm on route to Athens – just not their day!). The Greek ships, although smaller in size were less crowded and more skilfully managed. This resulted in the defeat of the Persian fleet, watched by the anxious Xerxes. Retreating Persian ships collided with each other and those soldiers/sailors that managed to escape sought refuge on Psyttaleia, the only Persian occupied island in the vicinity. The Athenian, Aristides, was able to land on the island and disposed of these survivors. As with the previous invasion, Greek loses were small compared to the enormous loses from the Persian camp. A touch of deja vu for the Persians. The Persian land force under Mardonius was finally defeated at the battle of Plataea in Boeotia by the Greeks under Pausanias (not the Greek traveller – he was much later, in 2nd century AD). Plataea, although the major victory by the Greeks over the Persians, does not get the same press as Thermopylae as it does not conjure up the same heroic imagination as Leonidas and the 300 Spartans. Such is life ….. or death.

Leonidas I of Sparta.jpg

Leonidas, king of Sparta

Statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae – the mountains in the background show the barrier the Persians were up against

The remainder of the Persian fleet was destroyed at Mycale, in the eastern Aegean, rumoured (by Herodotus) to have taken place on the same day as the battle at Plataea. It was, in fact, a battle on land not sea, as the Persians, worried about their naval defeat at Salamis, beached their ships at Mycale and awaited the Greeks. The ensuing fight resulted in the total destruction of the Persian force, ending the Persian threat against the Grecian states …….. all because of Naxos.

So all’s well that ends well …… if you were Greek. Under Pericles, Athens went on to build the Parthenon and associated buildings on the Acropolis as a result of Xerxes’ destruction of the city. This, of course, led on to another battle – that of the ‘Elgin’ Marbles (sorry Greek Marbles) which is yet undecided (see post in February).



[1] The actual marathon running race was introduced to the first modern Olympics Games in 1896. It gets its length of 26 miles (around 40 km) from the distance from Marathon to Athens – the other story is that the runner ran this route to announce the Athenian victory at Athens, then dropped dead. The distance from Marathon to Sparta is 150 miles (240 km) which is pushing it a bit even for an Olympic race, so the Marathon-Athens story is the link the Olympic ‘authorities’ stick to.

[2] Whilst visiting Athens in 1972, I dragged my parents and brother to the Marathon site. There is just a mound and a monument there. “We’ve all this way for this!” complained my brother.

[3] In fact, Herodotus tells us that two were sent away with eye infections but one, Eurytus, returned to the battle and his death.