I want to be a star

Peter Green

  • Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens by David Stuttard
    Harvard, 380 pp, £21.95, April 2018, ISBN 978 0 674 66044 1

Of the many enigmas bequeathed by the ancient world to its modern students, few are more tantalising than the seemingly indestructible charisma of Alcibiades (born c.453 bce). After a lifetime of personal scandal, political failure and multiple public betrayals, including that of his country to the Spartans, this enfant terrible still remained, even as a penniless exile, the subject (as Aristophanes makes clear in The Frogs) of intense discussion in Athens. In the last resort, as the Athenians edged nearer to final defeat in their agonisingly prolonged conflict with the Spartans, there were still many who believed – whatever his chequered past – that their only hope of survival lay in the rehabilitation of Alcibiades. The degree of sheer bedazzlement that this reveals – in the face of misadventures that would have sunk most such zealous self-promoters – would alone merit a careful investigation of how Alcibiades worked his magic. The number of those seemingly taken in by him, beginning with Thucydides and including various modern scholars and writers, makes an impressive list.

The best place to start – as David Stuttard does in his new biography – is family background. For all its democratic politics, Athenian society was intensely class-conscious. Although Alcibiades was a product of that complex network of upper-crust intermarried families which produced most of the city’s leaders, and could trace his ancestors on his mother’s side back to the Trojan War, his father’s ancestry, embarrassingly, appears not to have belonged to the exclusive Eupatrid aristocratic caste that dominated Athenian society. (I’ve often thought the events of his life could be explained in part as the efforts of an outsider to behave in true Eupatrid style.) Alcibiades’ father, Cleinias, died in battle when his two sons were not yet adolescent. He had made arrangements for both boys, in the event of his death, to be placed under the guardianship of his close friend Pericles, then still at an early stage of his famous political career. Life in the rigidly ordered house of Pericles, a serious intellectual, whose dignity required him neither to laugh nor smile, was more than enough in itself to provoke the clever flippancy of this not-quite insider. Alcibiades’ cynical notion of politics seems to have crystallised early. There is a crisp anecdote that shows him tripping Pericles up over the difference between law and force in democratic government. In the end all Pericles can say is: ‘Alcibiades, at your age we too were very clever at that kind of argument,’ to which Alcibiades replies: ‘I wish I’d known you at your best!’

A whole new range of influence over the adult world opened up for Alcibiades during those few brief years of adolescence ‘before the beard grew’, as Athenians put it. This was the famous upper-crust practice of what today would be labelled socially sanctioned pederasty. A bright and attractive male teenager would be sought, with gifts and flattery, as the beloved favourite (erômenos) of a grown lover (erastês). Ideally, but seldom in fact, this relationship stopped short of sex. All our sources agree that the young Alcibiades was extremely good-looking, and possessed in addition a uniquely irresistible charm; the anecdotes make it clear that he exploited his attractiveness with ruthless gusto. His cynicism is highlighted by the fact, generally ignored (not least by those who want him as a gay icon), that from the time he himself became a bearded adult virtually all his known liaisons were with women.

It was during this period that he first developed his much debated relationship with Socrates. Did Alcibiades share his mentor’s longing for true enlightenment or was he simply exercising his talent for domination through the giving and withholding of sexual favours? His attempt to seduce Socrates failed (as he ruefully confessed in the Symposium), but one reason he, and other young men, cultivated Socrates was to acquire that sharpness of dialectic essential for public debate. As Xenophon wrote in his Memorabilia, ‘politics had brought them to Socrates, and for politics they left him.’ Nevertheless Alcibiades and Socrates remained friends for at least a decade, as two anecdotes, both military, testify. At the outset of the Peloponnesian War (432 bce) Alcibiades, then almost twenty, was wounded in battle, and it was Socrates who stood over the fallen boy and saved his life. Ten years later Alcibiades, now in the cavalry, protected the ageing Socrates throughout an Athenian retreat.

These two episodes remind us of a central and crucial factor in Alcibiades’ career. From the moment he came of age until several years after his death, the Athenians were embroiled, except for brief intervals, in the grinding and ultimately catastrophic war with Sparta that saw the destruction of their extraordinary empire – itself a product, ironically, of their earlier victory over Xerxes’ invasion. As Herodotus foresaw, the Athenians soon acquired those habits of imperial domination that they had won praise for putting down in the Achaemenid Persians. It was in this context, after a decade that had seen Spartan invasions of Attica and a plague that killed perhaps a third of Athens’ population, that Alcibiades, now thirty – the minimum age for senior military or civic office – began his ambiguous pursuit of fame and fortune. In 421 an unsatisfactory peace treaty between Athens and Sparta had been cobbled together, but Alcibiades, like other ambitious young men, wanted war. His relentless self-promotion got him elected as one of the ten annual generals (strategoi) for two successive years. He talked the talk but in action was less impressive. He achieved a shaky, and brief, anti-Spartan alliance with Argos. He took a small force into the Peloponnese, but did little with it. Unsurprisingly, he was not re-elected a strategos. When, in the summer of 418, an internally divided Argos was decisively beaten by Sparta, he was simply there as a (probably self-appointed) envoy.

Undaunted, he now devoted himself to a grandiose project calculated to secure maximum public fame, especially from the horse-loving Eupatrids: to win the four-horse chariot race at the next Olympic Games in 416 (during the games all warfare was automatically suspended). The great advantage here was that he didn’t actually have to do the job himself. What he did have to supply, however, was an enormous amount of money – not least since he planned to enter no less than seven teams – in order to get the very best horses and charioteers, as well as cover their training and his own publicity at Olympia. Most of our sources assert that he was very rich. But his spendthrift lifestyle meant that the cash went out faster than it came in. He could, however, count on the huge dowry his profitable and classy marriage to Hipparete, daughter of an Athenian nobleman, had brought him. Alcibiades must have invested a great deal of this windfall in the seven teams he raised for the games, not to mention the vast and luxurious spectator pavilion in which he held court. But the investment paid off triumphantly: his teams came in first, second and fourth. (Euripides tidied up his verse tribute to make that first, second and third: no Athenian except Thucydides felt inclined to correct him.)

Alcibiades was also involved in ambitious plans, the work of businessmen like Hyperbolus, for an expedition to Sicily. This, it was hoped, would be a richly profitable venture and furnish Athens with urgently needed imports. The surprising attractiveness of Sicily as a target was due to precisely those factors that made the project so dangerous. The Athenians had suffered huge losses of skilled naval manpower; their imperial subject-allies, the Aegean cities and islands that had joined their anti-Persian defence league, were restive and rebellious; the treasury was dangerously low (thousands of slaves had deserted to Sparta from the Laurium silver mines), and grain and shipbuilding timber, both normally key imports, were in increasingly short supply. This was not exactly the ideal moment for such a venture. But Sicily gleamed temptingly from over the western horizon as a magical panacea to all the city’s troubles: we can sense in our sources the hysterical unreality (Stuttard brings this out well) of Athenian mass enthusiasm. In truth, as experienced realists like Nicias knew all too well, the idea of subjugating so large and powerful an island as Sicily, let alone holding it for any length of time, was moonshine, an open invitation to disaster. Yet this was the project to which (not least in the hope of bolstering his own depleted finances) Alcibiades, so often touted as a great general, now totally committed himself.

Still glowing with the prestige of his Olympic victories, he was elected joint commander of the expedition, enthusiastically approved by public vote. Even so, he faced ruthless opposition from his enemies. A rumour was spread that he had been responsible for an overnight mutilation of all the public images of Hermes in the city: because Hermes was the god of travellers this was thought ominous for the expedition (though since no one wanted the expedition more than Alcibiades did, the accusation was almost certainly false). He was also accused of privately parodying the Eleusinian Mysteries and this may well have been true: naughty theatricality was central to his character. The two incidents, however, were cleverly mingled and made the subject of a criminal charge. Despite Alcibiades’ requests for a quick hearing, when the fleet set out with magnificent pomp, its joint commander still had an uncertain day in court pending.

Worse still, on the fleet’s arrival off Sicily it was discovered that the promise of financial aid from Segesta (one of the two cities whose request for help had provided the justification for Athenian interference in the first place) had been fraudulent. Other cities shut their gates against what they rightly saw as the threat of Athenian aggression. In the middle of this crisis the official state galley arrived from Athens, requesting Alcibiades’ immediate return home to stand trial. In order to avoid trouble from troops loyal to him, the galley’s commander unwisely allowed Alcibiades to make the voyage in his own flagship. When they put in at Thurii in southern Italy Alcibiades and several close friends vanished overnight. The state galley had to return without him. A death sentence was passed in absentia, his property became forfeit and the priesthood formally cursed him.

It was more than eight years before Alcibiades saw Athens again, and for all that time he was officially a fugitive traitor, dependent on the good will, and money, of anyone he could convince of his usefulness. He began, dramatically enough, with the Spartans, where he had some social connections. His chief advice to them – effective but neither new nor original – was to establish a military outpost at Decelea in northern Attica from which they could disrupt Athenian imports and encourage further slave desertions. Alcibiades could not resist boasting (truthfully or not) that during the absence of King Agis, who had gone to oversee the new outpost, he had seduced the queen. Any royal child she bore, Alcibiades claimed, would perpetuate his bloodline in Sparta. As a result – something he could ill afford – he not only made a deadly enemy of the king but seriously compromised his uneasy position as a turncoat guest.

In 413, after an ineffectual siege of Syracuse, the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily was almost totally wiped out, fleet and all. Many people in Athens believed that things would have turned out differently if only Alcibiades had been left in charge of the campaign. One result of this debacle was that Darius II, the Great King of Achaemenid Persia, saw an opportunity to avenge the Athenian victory at Salamis half a century earlier and threw his massive support behind the Spartans. Alcibiades, already persona non grata in Sparta, sought refuge with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. His new assumed role was that of Tissaphernes’ intimate friend and adviser: his influence here was as dubious as it had been in Sparta: he now carefully publicised his politically ambiguous recommendation that Tissaphernes encourage both sides without committing himself to either. The degree to which Alcibiades’ international political value had by now diminished is well demonstrated by the fact that when Tissaphernes found him a nuisance he had no hesitation about throwing him in jail (after a month or so Alcibiades escaped and claimed it had all been arranged between them).

In Athens, largely as a result of the Sicilian catastrophe, a conservative coup had thrown out the democratic government and installed an oligarchy. For a while Alcibiades, now glimpsing a possible return to Athens, negotiated both with the oligarchy and with its democratic opponents, the commanders and crews of the fleet, then based on Samos. Would not the oligarchy be readier to take him back than the democratic regime that had condemned him? Would not Tissaphernes be more amenable to such a government? Envoys went to and fro. In the end, the democratic Athenians and their hosts the Samians voted to bring Alcibiades across from Tissaphernes’ court to Samos. This was one of the luckiest accidents of his hit-and-miss career. Alcibiades accepted their offer, asserting, however improbably, that Tissaphernes would support them. The fleet’s commander, Thrasybulos, was an experienced sailor with a flair for naval combat and a reliable second-in-command, Thrasyllos. They sized up Alcibiades’ value very shrewdly. Taking him on as a kind of junior joint commander, they gave him any job that needed a flashy intervention without any real strategic expertise. They cruised eastern waters, scoring notable naval victories in order to maintain Athens’ vital control of the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles), and keep the sea lanes open to the grain-ships on which the city’s survival depended. All the time Alcibiades sent reports to his friends in Athens in which these victories were achieved under his leadership. Xenophon admiringly believed him. Some knew better. As Cornelius Nepos scathingly observed, Thrasybulos ‘often won victories without the aid of Alcibiades, the latter never without his help; but Alcibiades by some innate gift gained the credit for everything.’

Bit by bit, never appearing in Athens in person, Alcibiades nurtured the image of himself as a charismatic and victorious saviour. He succeeded in having his inglorious past literally erased from the city records. In 407 the death sentence and curses against him were formally cancelled. His estates and property were restored. As he himself had done so often, the new democratic regime blamed Alcibiades’ personal enemies for his mishaps. He, and the fleet whose victories he had claimed, were welcomed home by a wildly cheering crowd. He was appointed the supreme commander (stratêgos autokratôr) he had so often imagined himself to be, and sent back out, short of supplies and cash, to win the war that had dragged on for almost thirty years. The result was all that his enemies could have wished. Instead of sending a deputy to round up pay for his mercenaries, he insisted on going himself. Instead of leaving a reliable senior officer in charge while he was gone, he managed to infuriate his immediate subordinates by handing the job to Antiochos, his old steersman and drinking buddy, who predictably – though under strict orders to sit tight and do nothing – sallied out, got himself killed and brought about a crushing naval defeat. Alcibiades’ role as commander-in-chief was in ruins almost before it had begun.

Though his faithful friends still claimed he was indispensable, he knew better than to return to Athens. He retreated to his Thracian stronghold and for several years lived as a kind of freebooter. After the Spartan Lysander’s final naval victory over Athens’ fleet at Aegospotami in 405, Alcibiades lost this retreat and his possessions. Desperate but determined, he offered his services to the new Persian king, Artaxerxês II, this time through Pharnabazos, the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia. Pharnabazos treated him circumspectly. He gave Alcibiades a small Phrygian estate and promised to arrange an audience with the Great King. But when in 404 envoys arrived from both Sparta and Athens’ new tyrannical regime demanding Alcibiades’ surrender, if not his head, Pharnabazos listened. One night a group of assassins surrounded Alcibiades’ house with brushwood and set it on fire. Alcibiades, naked and unarmed, rushed out (with his latest mistress) and was shot dead. It is uncertain who ordered the attack. Pharnabazos spread the story that Alcibiades had seduced a respectable local Phrygian girl, whose brothers had then avenged her: this was a private affair of honour, not a political killing (as Stuttard points out, it left Sparta, Athens and Pharnabazos himself in the clear).

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Alcibiades’ ambiguous end gave his by now somewhat flyblown charm a new, and, as it turned out, seemingly endless posthumous lease of life. Yet there have been comparatively few attempts at a biography, and – understandably given the dubious nature of the subject and of much of the testimony regarding him – even fewer that can be regarded as any kind of genuine success (the best to date is the short monograph Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor by P.J. Rhodes, published in 2011). The hazards should be obvious. There is the temptation, as real today as in antiquity, to exaggerate his actual military or political ability (as he constantly did himself); to see this theatrical egotist as a powerful figure in the historical context of Athens’ brief but culturally dazzling fifth-century empire. Like all ambitious actors, Alcibiades was determined to be a star; and stardom was more important to him than the qualities needed to make a triumphant reality of the roles he enacted. Everyone was impressed by his chameleon-like ability to suit style to audience: when in Sparta he dressed simply, drank black broth, was physically active and laconic in speech; among Persians he matched his host’s luxurious tastes and love of gardens; in Athens he delivered rousing political speeches among his officially democratic peers, while trying to demonstrate Eupatrid status.

The central risk of any biography of Alcibiades is that of overstatement, of characterising him as either saviour or destroyer. Stuttard’s title, Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, suggests that he too has succumbed to this fallacy. But his persuasive text is often at odds with his title. Closely involved in Athens’ downfall though Alcibiades was, he was in no position to determine it. The course of fifth-century Athenian history would not have been substantially different had he never existed – as should be plain, though perhaps not by intention, to any reader who perseveres to the last page of Stuttard’s dense narrative. Imperial ambition, as Herodotus knew, is its own nemesis.

There is a great deal in Stuttard’s book that is most welcome: the painstaking thoroughness of the testimonia that he deploys; the short shrift he on occasion gives to a revered author like Thucydides, who was no less susceptible than the next man to Alcibiades’ handsome blandishments; his readiness to parse anecdotes as guides to character rather than as historical fact. He has a sharp nose for the chicanery inherent in Athens’ hard-scrabble politics; he has read, and profited by, a remarkable amount of modern scholarship, by no means all of it in English. Best of all, he never lets us forget those complex and class-ridden family relationships that were, paradoxically, the main driving force behind Athens’ democratic institutions.

Unfortunately, these virtues have a good deal to struggle against. Stuttard’s all-inclusiveness knows no limits: there is no minor incident, not the smallest detail, that his narrative omits. This exhaustiveness often leads to exhaustion, a tendency heightened throughout by an overload of descriptive epithets, coupled with the habit of winding up a paragraph with short and often verbless sentences for dramatic emphasis. (For example, describing Alcibiades’ death: ‘And then the arrows came. From all directions. Thudding into walls and roof and earth. Anonymous and deadly.’) In an apparent bid for linguistic correctness, he introduces a range of characters with tongue-twisting names like Chithrafarna and Khashayarsha (these being transliterations of the Old Persian for ‘Tissaphernes’ and ‘Xerxes’), but spoils the effect by leaving Greek names in their Latinised versions. His scholarly notes sometimes query the validity of anecdotal evidence which his dramatic narrative smoothly accepts; they are also complicated by the unexpected absence of a bibliography. Most of these obvious faults could have been eliminated by the attention of any moderately competent academic copy-editor. That Nemesis remains, despite such drawbacks, so intriguing an investigation owes much to Stuttard’s creditable labours as well as to the perennial lustre of his subject’s charisma.