Who was Alcibiades? - Classical Athens
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Who was Alcibiades?

Alcibiades
Alcibiades (from a later portrait)

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 he 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 when Alcibiades got in trouble with the Athenians over the question of who smashed the good-luck statues, he ended up running away from Athens 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. They 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 them 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 in the end, they fired him again, and he 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 Peloponnesian War

Bibliography and further reading about Alcibiades:

Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition (Oxford Profiles) by Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (reprinted 1997). Short biographies of many famous Greeks including Alcibiades.

Alcibiades, by Walter M. Ellis (1989). Unfortunately this book is out of print, so you should try a library. But you never know. Maybe Routledge will reprint it.

History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin Classics), by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner. A lot of what we know about Alcibiades comes from the history of the war written by Thucydides.

Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, by Steven Pressfield (2000). Not as good as Pressman's novel about Thermopylae, Gates of Hell, but still an entertaining way to find out more about Alcibiades. For older readers - a lot of violence, and some romance.

More about the Peloponnesian War
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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