Alcibiades Biography

Alcibiades, a prominent Athenian statesman, orator, and general, played a significant role in the tumultuous times of Classical Greece. Throughout the Peloponnesian War, he showcased his strategic prowess as a military commander and advised both Athens and Sparta, often switching sides. Despite his impressive achievements, Alcibiades faced relentless opposition from powerful enemies, leading to his eventual assassination in the Achaemenid Empire.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 46
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Hipparete (m. 424 BC)
    • Father: Cleinias
    • Mother: Deinomache
    • Siblings: brother of Alcibiades, Cleinias
    • Children: Alcibiades the Younger
  • Born Country: Greece
  • Political Leaders
  • Greek Men
  • Died on: 404 BC
  • Cause of Death: Assassination
  • City: Athens, Greece

Childhood & Family Life

According to most sources, Alcibiades was born in 450 BC in the deme of Scambonidae, Athens. His father Cleinias was a valiant soldier. His mother was the daughter of the patriarch of the Alcmaeonidae family, Megacles. The family prided themselves for being the descendants of Eurysaces and the Telamonian Ajax. Pericles, who was one of his uncles and his mother’s cousin, became his guardian.

Plutarch revealed that Alcibiades studied under several exceptional teachers, including Socrates. He was a gifted student in the art of rhetoric. However, his behaviour, the ancient writers noted, was unruly even as a young boy. Throughout his life, he remained excessively vain, especially because of his physical attractiveness.

His wife was Hipparete, the daughter of a wealthy Athenian named Hipponicus. Their marriage took place in 424 BC or earlier. The dowry from the marriage considerably expanded his already large family fortune. Hipparete loved her husband but once sought to divorce him for his liaisons with courtesans. They resided together until her death and had a son, Alcibiades the Younger, and a daughter.

Early Military Career

In 432 BC, Alcibiades participated in the Battle of Potidaea, where Socrates rescued him from certain death. In 424 BC, he returned the favour by guarding the other man at the Battle of Delium. He garnered Socrates’ attention with his beauty and intellectual promise, and in turn, was impressed by the exalted philosopher’s moral strength and brilliance. In the end, Alcibiades turned his back on any intellectual integrity he had to pursue his unscrupulous political ambitions, becoming everything that Socrates despised.

He was known for his accomplishments in the battlefield and personal extravagance, as well as for his exceptional oratory skills, making a name for himself as a speaker in the Ecclesia (assembly).

As Athens and Sparta progressed towards peace after years of bloodshed, he wanted to utilize his family’s ties in Sparta to gain recognition for bringing peace to Greece. However, Sparta decided to go through established channels. This, according to historian Thucydides, who was Alcibiades’ contemporary and knew him personally, trigged his subsequent actions.

Alcibiades received his first commission as a general in 420 BC. He vehemently demanded aggressive Athenian measures after the Peace of Nicias was signed. Going against the actions of Nicias, who had brokered the peace, he led Athens towards an anti-Spartan alliance with three city-states of the Peloponnese: Argos, Elis, and Mantineia. In 418 BC, this alliance suffered a drastic defeat against Sparta in the Battle of Mantineia.

He managed to avoid being ostracised by allying himself with his old rival, Nicias, against Hyperbolos, the successor of the provocative politician and military leader Cleon. They were able to convince the common people that they were their champions and got Hyperbolos ostracised instead.

Invasion of Sicily

In 416 BC, he regained his reputation by enlisting seven chariots in the chariot race of the Olympic Games. His chariots claimed the first, second, and fourth places. This helped him convince the Athenians a year later to organise a major military invasion of Sicily to fight the city of Syracuse.

He was supposed to be one of the commanders of the expedition. However, right before they were to leave Athens, the hermae (busts of Hermes) were discovered vandalized all over the city. This caused massive outrage and panic. Alcibiades was blamed for this sacrilege, as well as accused of committing profanity against the Eleusinian Mysteries.

His request for an immediate trial was denied, and Androcles, the leader of his opponents and successor of Hyperbolos, made sure that Alcibiades left Athens as a man still accused of the crime.

Allegiance to Sparta

Not long after he got to Sicily, he was called back. While returning home, he decided to escape. After he came to know that he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, he fled to Sparta.

In Sparta, he was appointed a military adviser. He told the Spartans to deploy a general to aid the Syracusans and secure Decelea in Attica by constructing a permanent fort there. Both proved to be serious setbacks for Athens.

He got into trouble again after seducing Timaea, the wife of Agis II, King of Sparta. Some sources even claim that he fathered Timaea’s son Leotychides, who was born not long after.

Allegiance to the Achaemenid Empire

In 412 BC, he was the mastermind behind the revolt among the Athenian allies in Ionia. After he realised that he had made too many enemies in Sparta, he decided to take refuge in Sardis from its Persian Satrap.

When several Athenian officers in the fleet started orchestrating an oligarchic coup, he thought if democracy was replaced, he could garner financial backing from Persia. He was unsuccessful in doing so, and the oligarchs, who had taken control of the city-state, did not need him any longer.

Return to Athens

The Athenian fleet, the loyalty of which was still with the democrats, required his talents. Between 411 and 408 BC, he played a vital role in securing victories against the Spartan fleet in the Hellespont at Abydos (411 BC) and Cyzicus (410 BC). This gave Athens the opportunity to make an excellent recovery and wrest back control over the important grain route from the Black Sea.

These favourable outcomes made him confident enough to return to Athens in 407 BC. He received a hero’s welcome and was put in charge of the war effort.

In 406 BC, Athenian forces, under the command of Alcibiades’ helmsman Antiochus, were defeated by the Spartans, led by the famous Lysander, at the Battle of Notium.

Despite not being present during the battle, Alcibiades was found responsible for the defeat, and his political enemies convinced the people to remove him. He subsequently embarked on the second self-imposed exile of his life and spent some time at a castle in Thrace.

Later Years & Death

Despite his exile, Alcibiades continued to be a disturbing influence on Athenian politics, and any possibility of a political consensus became impossible. He advised caution to the increasingly reckless Athenians in the days leading up to the Battle of Aegospotami. However, they did not listen and suffered a complete defeat at Aegospotami in 405 BC. This eventually led to the Athenian surrender in 404 BC.

After the Battle of Aegospotami, Alcibiades realised that he was in mortal danger. He left his Thracian castle and was granted asylum in Phrygia in north western Asia Minor, where he lived with his mistress Timandra.

In 404 BC, he was assassinated by Persians soldiers, who were probably acting on the orders of Satrap Pharnabazus II, who, in turn, was likely instigated by the Spartans.

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