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Alcibiades: Biography & Overview

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Read this lesson to learn about the Athenian statesman Alcibiades, one of the most interesting and yet most hated people in Ancient Greece during the fifth century and the Peloponnesian Wars.

Athenian Hero

Have you ever seen one of The Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character is widely considered a fan favorite. In the movies, Sparrow is always too valuable to kill, but is such a pain to have around that all the other characters consider offing him anyways. The lovable pirate is in many ways a more modern version of an ancient Athenian known as Alcibiades.

Alcibiades was born in 450 B.C.E., the cousin of the famous Greek leader and reformer Pericles. Because of his family's wealth, Alcibiades was educated by the greatest teachers, including the famous Socrates, and because of his family's power he was introduced to Athenian politics early in his life. This was important because the Athens that Alcibiades grew up in was involved in a series of conflicts called the Peloponnesian Wars, in which Athens and the members of the Greek and Ionian Delian League were matched against Sparta and every other city-state in Greece and Asia Minor.

In 425 B.C.E., Athens and Sparta signed the Treaty of Nicias, which returned both city-states' holdings to the same status they held before the war. Alcibiades, like Jack Sparrow in many ways, took advantage of several unclear points in the treaty to outmaneuver the leading politicians of his day while vilifying the Spartans, gaining power along the way.

Alcibiades hen used his improved status to negotiate an alliance with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis - three city-states in the same region as Sparta. The alliance weakened Sparta by putting enemies near her but also by demonstrating to her allies that Sparta was too weak to prevent it from happening. Alcibiades was also involved in the capture of an important trading island named Melos.

Alcibiades at a bordello, where he spent much of his time
Alcibiades

In 415 B.C.E. Athens was asked to lend its aid in a war on the island of Sicily. Alcibiades, opportunistic as a pirate, saw the delegation as an invitation to conquest and argued that a Sicilian campaign would increase Athens' resources in its war with Sparta. He won the day and was also given joint command of the expedition. But the opportunity of improving his standing was a double-edged sword; his political enemies saw his absence from Athens as an opportunity to be rid of him.

On the eve of his departure, sacrileges were committed all across the city. Alcibiades was blamed and officially charged with the crime. Alcibiades insisted that the trial take place before he left for Sicily, but he was denied. Instead it was decided that the trial would wait until he returned. While he was gone his enemies turned public opinion against him, and he was sentenced to execution when he came back. When Alcibiades heard about this, he sabotaged the Sicilian campaign and defected to Sparta.

Spartan Hero

While in Sparta, Alcibiades again proved useful to his employers. He convinced the Spartans to send their own expedition to Sicily in order to neutralize Athens there. At his suggestion, the Spartans built a permanent fortress at Decelea. The site was ten miles from Athens and effectively cut the city off from its crops and silver mine, forcing Athens to rely on seaborne trade. Alcibiades then sailed to several cities of Athens' Delian League and convinced them to revolt, further weakening Athens' military and economic standing.

Persian Exile

Alcibiades made enemies in Sparta, too. He is thought to have fathered a son by the king's wife. So he again defected, this time to the Persian governor of Asia Minor, Tissaphernes, who had been supporting the Spartans.

While with Persia, Alcibiades convinced Tissaphernes to reduce his aid to Sparta and to deliver it less consistently. He also had the Persians bribe the Spartan generals for information about the military. Finally, he persuaded Tissaphernes to wait in making his own attack on Greece until both Sparta and Athens had exhausted themselves. While all of these strategies benefited Persia, they also helped Athens.

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