13 Jul 2018

That Scamp Alcibiades

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Peter Thonneman wittily reviews David Stuttard’s new Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens.

Of all personality traits, charisma is the hardest to appreciate at second hand. We read Cicero’s letters and can instantly tell that he was vain, insecure and ferociously clever; we read scraps of Samuel Johnson’s conversation in Boswell’s biography and know at once that he was magnificent, lovable and desperately unhappy. But as to what it was like to have Lord Byron turn the full force of his attention onto you – well, we have no conceivable way of knowing. We just have to trust his contemporaries that it felt like ‘the opening of the gate of heaven’.

This causes problems for a biographer of Alcibiades. On the face of it, the man was utterly insufferable. Born in around 450 BC into one of the oldest and richest families of ancient Athens, Alcibiades was the only Old Etonian (as it were) to play a leading role in the late-fifth-century radical democracy. The account of his childhood in Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades suggests a bad case of antisocial personality disorder: biting during wrestling, mutilating dogs, punching his future father-in-law in the face for a dare. His later political career makes Boris Johnson seem like a man of firm and unbending principle. Exiled from Athens in 415 BC over some particularly odious Bullingdon Club antics, Alcibiades promptly sold his services to Sparta (where he seduced the king’s wife) before double-crossing both sides and wheedling his way into the court of a Persian satrap.

But Alcibiades, like Byron, clearly had that indefinable something. One catches a glimpse of it in the unforgettable last scene of Plato’s Symposium, when he crashes into the room, blind drunk, flirting with everything on legs, shouting about his love for Socrates. Thucydides captures it in his report of Alcibiades’s speech whipping up the Athenian assembly to vote for the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415 BC – an extraordinary stew of egotistic bragging (about how successful his racehorses are), mendacious demagoguery and brilliantly acute strategic thinking. The unwashed Athenian masses, not usually prone to atavistic toff-grovelling, absolutely adored him: when Alcibiades finally returned to Athens in 407 BC after eight years of exile, sailing coolly into Piraeus on a ship with purple sails, they welcomed him back with paroxysms of joy.

Behind the Peloponnese-sized ego, Alcibiades was a general of spectacular genius – when he could be bothered. In 410 BC, shortly after his controversial reinstatement as admiral of the Athenian navy (on the back of a bogus promise of Persian support), he wiped out the entire Spartan fleet at the Battle of Cyzicus; two years later, through sheer chutzpah, he captured the city of Selymbria near Byzantium with only fifty soldiers, and without striking a blow. When things went wrong – as in 406 BC, after a disastrous campaigning season in the eastern Aegean – he showed an infuriating ability to wriggle out of trouble. His final years (406–404 BC) were spent once again in exile from Athens, holed up in a private castle on the Gallipoli peninsula. The circumstances of his death are still shrouded in mystery. One story tells that he died in the remote mountains of central Turkey at the hands of the brothers of a Phrygian noblewoman whom he had decided to seduce. This is, I fear, all too believable.

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Old Salt

Alcibiades is example #1 why pure democracy is a terrible idea. He talked Athens into the Sicilian expedition.

As soon as he and all his supporters got on their ships, his enemies became the majority. So they put him on trial, convicted him of a trumped up charge, and sent a note to the fleet ordering him to come home so he could be executed.

Of course he took off for Italy while the fleet sailed off to disaster without their leader.



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