Who was Alcibiades? - Classical Athens
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Who was Alcibiades?

Alcibiades
Alcibiades (from a later portrait)

April 2017 - Alcibiades was born in Athens around 450 BC. His mother was an Alcmaeonid. He was from one of the richest families in Athens, and he grew up with the best of everything. After his father was killed in battle, Pericles, another Alcmaeonid, was Alcibiades' guardian. When Alcibiades was a teenager, during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates was Alcibiades' teacher.

By the time Alcibiades grew up, Athens was beginning to lose the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades became a very good general. The Sicilian Expedition was his idea.

But just before the army was about to leave for the Sicilian Expedition, somebody smashed a lot of good-luck statues in Athens, and people said it was Alcibiades and his friends. When the Athenians tried to arrest him, Alcibiades ended up running away to Sparta in the middle of the night.

When Alcibiades got to Sparta, he made a deal with the Spartans. If they would let him stay in Sparta, he would help them win the Peloponnesian War by giving them good advice. The Spartans agreed, and the first thing Alcibiades told the Spartans was that they should build a navy and use it to destroy the Sicilian Expedition.

When this plan worked, the Spartans thought Alcibiades was really smart. Alcibiades also advised the Spartans to lay a permanent siege to Athens, instead of only in the summertime. That worked too. But after a while, Alcibiades got into trouble in Sparta, too. People said he had been kissing the wife of one of the Spartan kings. He had to leave Sparta quickly.

This time Alcibiades fled to Persia. The Persian satrap (ruler) of Anatolia (modern Turkey) let him stay there, and now Alcibiades gave the Persians good advice about how to manage the Peloponnesian War.

Near the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians were so desperate that they let Alcibiades come back as their general. But soon they fired him again, and Alcibiades went back to Persia, where he was killed in 404 BC, just as the war was ending.

Learn by doing: write a page from Alcibiades' diary
More about the Sicilian Expedition
More about the Peloponnesian War

Bibliography and further reading about Alcibiades:

More about the Peloponnesian War
More about ancient Sparta
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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