Alcibiades: cad, charmer, hero, foil to Socrates

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I’m finding myself intrigued in the extreme by a figure from antiquity as colorful as Hannibal: Alcibiades. He is such a good character, he might be worth another book.

Why? Mostly because he was a (bad) student of Socrates‘, and indeed the perfect foil for the great old man:

  • Socrates: ugly. Alcibiades: gorgeous.
  • Socrates: wise, deep, profound, intellectual, curious. Alcibiades: confused, cynical, shallow, but clever!
  • Socrates: interested in justice. Alcibiades: interested in himself.
  • Socrates: tried to teach Alcibiades inner values. Alcibiades: tried (and failed) to sleep with Socrates

Let me give you an abbreviated and simplified biography of this man. (One reason why many people never learn to appreciate history is that many teachers get bogged down in boring detail. So let’s not make that mistake today.)

Alcibiades, his father having died young, was raised in the home of his uncle, Pericles, the greatest statesman of Athens, which was in turn the greatest power of Greece. Alcibiades was thus a rough equivalent of, say, a Kennedy heir in the 60s and 70s–a party boy in a powerful family.

On the eve of Alcibiades’ own entry into Athenian politics, Socrates took an interest and, using his customary Socratic irony (in which Socrates pretends to be less than he is), got Alcibiades to talk about what he wants Athens to do, in the process exposing him to be the confused young man that he was.

Alcibiades, being good-looking (and very much the ladies’ man, of which more in a minute) and charming, rose politically. He became a general in the Peloponnesian War, one of two to take a huge invasion army to Sicily in what was to be one of the dumbest pre-emptive strikes in history.

Just after they sailed, however, the Athenians discover that somebody had, apparently as a prank, broken off all the erect phalluses on the statues of Hermes, which was sacrilege. This was exactly the sort of thing that Alcibiades got up to when he was drunk, so he was presumed guilty. (Then again, he was such an obvious culprit that he may have been framed.) So the Athenians sent another ship after the invasion fleet to arrest their general and bring him home for trial.

Alcibiades did not like that idea and defected to … Sparta! The enemy.┬áBecause he was so charming, the Spartans accepted him, and Alcibiades helped them defeat the Athenians. But then it was found out that Alcibiades was sleeping with the wife of one of the Spartan kings, so he made a hasty exit.

Next he went to Persia, Athens’ other enemy. He charmed them, advised them …. (you get the pattern).

Such was his charm and charisma that, after having been a traitor to his native country so long, he then persuaded the Athenians to take him back! For a while, he became their general again. But then he fell out again and crossed back over the Hellespont to another kingdom.

He was sleeping with a girl there one day when his political enemies (he had amassed a few by then) surrounded the house. Alcibiades grabbed a dagger and, possibly naked, attacked. He died in a hail of arrows.

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