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All Hat and No Cattle

I HAVE NEVER really understood the extraordinary magnetic charisma generated by Alcibiades, both throughout his lifetime (c. 450-404 BCE) and among the many modern scholars who have continued to be dazzled by it. Whether as spoilt aristocratic brat, narcissistic pretty-boy trading on his looks (and famously trying to seduce Socrates), spendthrift partier and adulterer, smart-alecky backstairs pol, or hit-and-miss (mostly miss) commander, Alcibiades always smells of unswerving egotism and the con-man’s self-promoting patter. His betrayals—in turn of Athens (both democrats and oligarchs), Sparta, and at least one Persian satrap—show no real convictions, merely a steely determination to look after his own interests. The charm is flyblown, the political and military schemes are mostly hot air with disastrous practical consequences, their long-term damage incalculable. The achievements for which Alcibiades took the credit —the famous Olympic chariot victories, the naval campaigns around the Hellespont—were won by other men’s expertise, horses, and money, and in the case of the Olympic teams, continued to spawn lawsuits into the fourth century.

The list of those whose judgment failed when confronted by Alcibiades’s all too persuasive, if factitious, charm is a long one, beginning, unfortunately, with Thucydides, a historian whose habit of affirming his own impartiality has taken in almost as many innocents over the years as Alcibiades’s cunningly flung gold-dust. He may well have interviewed Alcibiades when both were in exile (Thucydides 2.43 reads like a straight transcription of such an interview), and at least to begin with seems to have been impressed by the young buck’s tale of noble endeavor undermined by nasty lower-class cabals.    

After the end of the ten-year Archidamian war against Sparta in 421, Alcibiades certainly never lost an opportunity to urge a renewal of hostilities, in which he saw himself playing a leading role. We have Thucydides’s record of two speeches delivered by Alcibiades during this period. The first sets out to his fellow-Athenians his arguments in favor of a Sicilian expedition. The second was made, only a few months later, to the Spartans. Having escaped facing a capital charge at home (over the mutilation of the Herms and alleged blasphemous parodying of the Eleusinian Mysteries) only by deserting from the Sicilian invasion force (of which he was joint commander) he had then, in vengeful mood, offered his services to the enemy.

In the first of these two speeches, Thucydides sets out clearly, and at length, what sound like Alcibiades’s careful efforts to make the conquest of Sicily sound easy; in the second, his blatant act of treachery is justified as having been forced on him by his personal enemies in Athens. By now the historian is a little worried: he mentions Alcibiades’s spendthrift habits as a possible motive for conquest. But the damage has been done. Had Alcibiades only been left in Sicily, and in sole command, we are led to assume (and too many historians have claimed) how differently things might have turned out!

But the brutal truth of the matter is that the Sicilian Expedition was a pipe-dream from the start, culpably detached from logistical and strategic realities. It would have needed skills far greater than those of a fantasizing egotist with the gift of gab to bring about victory in Sicily, and a miracle to add Carthage or hold these acquisitions for any length of time. When dealing with the final stage of the Peloponnesian War (412-404), Thucydides would seem to have had a nervous inkling of these harsh realities. How he might have finally revised his opinions we do not know, since he died when his final draft had only reached the year 411. Surviving narratives that pick up the story are those of the contemporary Xenophon, like Thucydides a gentlemanly conservative with a weakness for limited oligarchy, and Diodorus Siculus, a first century BCE cut-and-paste historian who until very recently most scholars dismissed as a mindless copyist.

At this point Alcibiades was in deep trouble. In Athens, the oligarchs he had been cultivating looked at his record and decided they were better off without him. He had fouled his nest in Sparta by sleeping with King Agis’s wife Timaea, and boasting that it would be his blood-line that perpetuated Spartan royalty: as a result he had to leave town in a hurry, and Timaea’s son Leotychidas (whether by Alcibiades or not) was in due course declared illegitimate. Alcibiades then made approaches to the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, over whom he claimed great influence, a claim that looked a little shop-soiled when the satrap afterwards threw him in jail. Finally he offered his services to the currently exiled democrats of the fleet at Samos. One of their leaders, Phrynichus, pointed out correctly that this was an unprincipled rogue ready to side with anyone to save his skin. But the renegade’s charisma remained strong, and Phrynichus was overruled. The stage was set for Alcibiades’ most elaborate, and successful, exercise in self-promoting propaganda.

Accepted as a fellow-commander by the fleet’s two veteran admirals, Thrasybulus and Thrasyllus, Alcibiades campaigned with them for the next several years, in the course of which they notched up striking naval victories off Cyzicus, Cynossema, and Byzantium. The question is, how far was Alcibiades responsible for these successes? Almost entirely, if we believe Xenophon. But the detailed account preserved by Diodorus, together with Cornelius Nepos’s Life of Thrasybulus, which clearly relies on the same source, tells a different story. Here Alcibiades is, at best, a second-in-command. That he puffed his achievements for home consumption is clearly indicated by Nepos’s scathing observation that “whereas Thrasybulus achieved much without Alcibiades, Alcibiades achieved nothing without Thrasybulus, yet by some innate quality got the credit for everything.” This exactly squares with all we know of his previous career.

It also won him a triumphant rehabilitation in Athens in 407, when the fleet returned laden with the fruits of victory. His condemnation was annulled, he was appointed the commander-in-chief that his reports had made him out to be, and sent back to the eastern Aegean, haloed with magical charisma, to work miracles. Instead, while on a cash-hunting trip, he left the fleet in charge of his steersman and drinking-buddy, with orders not to engage. The orders were ignored, the fleet was beaten in the ensuing battle, and Alcibiades’ career as C-in-C was over almost before it had begun. Knowing his likely fate if he returned home, he retreated to a fortress he had providently acquired in Thrace, where he lived for a while as a condottiere. Yet even now, as Aristophanes’s play The Frogs demonstrates, Athenians still felt the old love-hate attraction for him. Rebuffed in an attempt to warn the Athenian fleet of its dangerous position at Aegospotami, in 404 he was murdered in Phrygia by agents of Tissaphernes, perhaps on the instigation of the Spartans.

There are (considering his enduring popularity with modern historians) surprisingly few biographies of Alcibiades. The most thorough—which still exaggerates his naval and military skills—is that of the French scholar Jean Hatzfeld. In 1989 we got Walter M. Ellis’s Alcibiades: well-documented, retailing most of the popular anecdotes, but still convinced that Alcibiades “was one of Athens’ great military strategists and deserves to be mentioned in the same company as Themistocles.” This is interesting, since a decade and more earlier a skeptical historian, Edmund F. Bloedow, in a monograph entitled Alcibiades Reexamined, had analyzed the evidence closely (and in my opinion irrefutably) and reached very much the conclusions I have laid out above. Ellis simply mentions this monograph as an “eccentric thesis” that garnered little support. The charisma, clearly, is still going strong.

So how does P.J. Rhodes deal with his subject? I was put off, at first sight, by the portrait on his dust jacket. We have two attributed likenesses of Alcibiades; a mosaic from Sparta, and an Aphrodisias bust lacking half its face, both agreeing with tradition in making him clean-shaven. Rhodes chose, instead of the mosaic (showing a convincingly tousled young aristocrat), a quite different and bearded herm once touted as “possibly” Alcibiades. More statesmanlike, perhaps? He also, perhaps in pursuit of scholarly seriousness, shies away, regrettably, from any detailed account of those numerous anecdotes, as credible as they are scabrous, that accumulated round his subject. Indeed, he goes so far in this direction that his short text—which has the great advantage of close familiarity, not only with all the ancient texts, but with every latest epigraphic discovery—is, in effect, an updated précis of fifth-century Athenian history, with Alcibiades playing no more prominent a part in it than any other well-known character.

It was only on a second reading that I realized just how clever Rhodes had been. He does claim that from 420 “to the end of the war Alcibiades was to be one of the major actors,” but makes it very clear that his role was primarily that of self-promoting intriguer, and that in essence Bloedow’s verdict is correct. Quietly he endorses the view that the Sicilian Expedition was a mad idea, and that Alcibiades “deserves criticism for urging the Athenians to a campaign in which the likely outcome did not justify the risks.” In the Hellespontine naval campaigns, he remarks slyly, when quoting Nepos, that Alcibiades’s “own contribution was probably more to morale than to strategy” (charisma again!). His summing-up is just, and damning: “He was loyal to Athens when loyalty to Athens could be combined with success for himself … but enjoyment and success for himself were what counted for most.” It is a fascinating tribute to the enduring power of his subject’s charm that he has felt the need to deliver this verdict, so to speak, out of the corner of his mouth.

Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics, a professional historian and translator, and an occasional poet and novelist.