During the 431–404 BC Peloponnesian War, the unscrupulous Alcibiades was a victorious general—for all sides.
In one of his lesser-known plays, Timon of Athens, William Shakespeare put a speech in the mouth of a supporting character that remains a classic statement of the sense of betrayal soldiers throughout history have felt at the hands of their political masters. In a moment of extreme frustration, an Athenian captain named Alcibiades blurts out:
I am worse than mad: I have kept back their foes, While they have told their money and let out Their coin upon large interest; I myself Rich only in large hurts. All those for this? Is this the balsam that the usuring senate Pours into captains’ wounds? —Act III, Scene V
Though a fictional character, Shakespeare’s Alcibiades was based on a real general of the same name who in the 5th century BC was among the key Athenian commanders during the 431–404 BC Peloponnesian War. A close friend (and, according to some period sources, lover) of the great philosopher Socrates, the real Alcibiades was not as noble and selfless as Shakespeare’s character claims to be. True, he was charismatic, handsome, reckless and one of the most controversial figures in Greek history. But the real Alcibiades was also arguably one of the most treacherous, double-dealing, self-aggrandizing—and yet most successful —generals in all of military history.
Alcibiades Cleinoiu Scambonides was born in Athens in 450 BC. His mother was a member of an old aristocratic family and a sister of Pericles, the most famous statesman of Athens’ Golden Age. When Alcibiades’ father was killed at the Battle of Coronea in 447 BC, Pericles became the boy’s guardian. In his school years, Alcibiades learned from Athens’ best teachers, including Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy.
In 432 BC, 18-year-old Alcibiades served as a hoplite (a heavily armed infantryman) at the Battle of Potidaea, a precursor to the Peloponnesian War. He shared the same mess tent with his old teacher, Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue The Symposium, Alcibiades credits Socrates with saving his life—and his weapons—after he was wounded. Although the generals awarded Alcibiades a prize for bravery, he insisted with uncharacteristic humility the distinction should have gone to Socrates. Eight years later Alcibiades and Socrates again served together, at the Battle of Delium, in which Boeotia trounced Athens. Alcibiades was by now a cavalryman, while the 45- year-old Socrates remained a hoplite. During the Athenian retreat Socrates calmly led a small party on foot along the line of withdrawal as many of those around him fled in panic. Alcibiades covered Socrates on horseback. This time the military leaders did recognize Socrates’ courage in battle.
Pericles, meanwhile, fell victim to the plague that swept Athens in 429 BC, as the Spartans and their allies besieged the city. After a decade of fighting, the Spartans and Athenians in 421 BC agreed to a truce, brokered by the Athenian general and statesman Nicias. The Peace of Nicias was supposed to last 50 years, but held for barely five. Several Peloponnesian allies—including Corinth, Megara and Boeotia—refused to sign and broke from Sparta. Alcibiades, who had entered politics the year before, was now a member of the Athenian ecclesia, the city-state’s principal assembly. Ambitious and ruthless, Alcibiades considered Nicias one of his main rivals. He used the uneasy and unstable truce to agitate for a more aggressive posture toward Sparta, thus undermining his opponent. When Sparta and its former ally Argos fought a brief war, the Athenians, at Alcibiades’ urging, sent a force of hoplites to support Argos at the 418 BC Battle of Mantinea, which Sparta won.
The Peace of Nicias collapsed in 416 BC, as Alcibiades continued to prod the ecclesia to widen operations against Sparta. The turning point came in 415 BC, when the Sicilian city of Segesta requested Athenian support in its struggle against neighboring Selinus, an ally of Sparta. Alcibiades argued that by conquering all of Sicily, the Athenians would cut off Sparta from the rear while gaining control of the island’s wealth in grain and natural resources. Alcibiades further argued that with Athens primarily a maritime power and Sparta primarily a land power, the Athenians should press their advantage and fight at sea as much as possible.
The ecclesia finally agreed to launch a huge invasion force of 130- plus triremes (fighting galleys) and an equal number of transport ships, 20,000 crewmen, 5,000 hoplites and about 1,300 peltasts (specialist light troops, including archers and slingers). Alcibiades was appointed one of three generals in command of the expedition. Much to his chagrin, his cautious rival, Nicias, was also appointed to command, although Nicias had opposed the intervention. The third commander was the experienced and capable Lamachus.
On the eve of the expedition, someone mutilated a number of statues of the god Hermes throughout Athens. The resulting religious scandal was a bad omen for the coming campaign, and Alcibiades’ political enemies quickly blamed him and his notoriously hard-drinking friends for the sacrilege. Alcibiades demanded an immediate capital trial to clear his name, but his enemies, fearing the army, stalled the proceedings, bringing formal charges only after the expeditionary force had sailed. Soon after the invasion fleet reached the Sicilian coast, a trireme arrived with orders to return Alcibiades and the other accused to Athens for trial.
Alcibiades agreed to follow the trireme to Athens in his own ship, but he and his crew slipped away en route. It was then the Athenian general shifted loyalties. He contacted the Spartans, offering them his sword if they would grant him sanctuary. He disclosed to his new masters that Athens intended first to subdue Syracuse’s Sicilian allies before attacking the city itself. The information gave Sparta time to send reinforcements and assign one of its own generals to the defense of Syracuse. Back in Athens, meanwhile, Alcibiades was tried in absentia for treason and sentenced to death. All of his property was confiscated.
But the damage was done, and nothing went right for the Athenian forces on Sicily. As Nicias and Lamachus argued about strategy, the Spartan reinforcements arrived. In 414 BC Lamachus was killed in action, leaving the militarily incompetent Nicias sole commander of the expedition. After some indecisive skirmishes that only whittled down the Athenians’ strength, the Spartans turned the tables and besieged the besiegers. The Syracusan navy forced the Athenians to beach their fleet and dig in ashore. Late in 414 BC an Athenian relief force arrived, but it was too late to turn the situation around. By the time the Athenians surrendered, they had lost more than 40,000 men and 175 ships. Syracuse put the captives to work as slave laborers in Sicily’s rock quarries. None would see Athens again.
Back in Greece the Spartans, on Alcibiades’ recommendation, sent a land force into Attica and established a fortified base at Decelea, just 13 miles from Athens. Cut off from the farmland outside the city walls, the Athenians were entirely dependent on the sea for their food and trade. With Athens under massive strategic pressure, its client city-states of the Delian League started to break away. Persia, perennial enemy of the Greek citystates, had long been content to sit back and watch Athens and Sparta fight it out. But after the Athenian failure at Sicily, the Persians began providing financial support to the Spartans, in exchange for recognition of Persian sovereignty over those cities along the coast of Asia Minor that Persia had lost to Athens in the 499–449 BC Greco-Persian Wars.
Noting that Athens had lost most of its fleet at Sicily, Alcibiades encouraged Sparta to build up its navy and challenge Athens directly. He sailed with the Spartan fleet to Ionia in 412 BC and encouraged widespread revolt against Athens. Most of the key city-states in the eastern Aegean abandoned the Delian League; only the island of Samos remained loyal. Athens struggled to rebuild its fleet, with Samos as its major naval base, but found itself fighting two battles simultaneously—one to deflect Sparta and the other to hold together its crumbling alliance.
Despite Alcibiades’ considerable services to Sparta, he managed to wear out his welcome. The retirement of an influential supporter, one of Sparta’s five ephors (imperial overseers), weakened him politically. About the same time, he was rumored to have fathered a son by the wife of King Agis II. Warned of an assassination plot against him, Alcibiades fled Sparta in 412 BC and defected to Persian-controlled Asia Minor, where he wheedled his way into the confidence of Tissaphernes, the regional satrap (provincial governor). He urged Persia to continue playing Sparta and Athens against each other, giving priority first to decisively reducing Athens’ power at sea and then to conquering a weakened Sparta on land.
At the time of the failed Sicilian Expedition, Athens had become deeply divided between two hostile political factions. The group holding power wanted to maintain Athens’ radical (by the standards of the time) democracy, while their opponents sought a return to a more traditional oligarchic state. The Athenian navy was the main force behind the democratic faction, while the oligarchs found support among the older landed families who remained in Athens while the fleet deployed. In the years following Athens’ final defeat by Sparta in 404 BC, the struggle between these two factions erupted into a civil war that set the stage for Socrates’ trial and execution in 399 BC.
Alcibiades didn’t remain loyal to the Persians for long: Almost immediately after submitting himself to Tissaphernes’ protection, he began plotting a return to Athens. Assuming he would find more support among the oligarchic faction, Alcibiades suggested that if they took control in Athens and then recalled him, he could guarantee Persian support with a fleet of some 150 triremes. In 411 BC the oligarchic faction finally seized power in Athens through a campaign of murder and intimidation. The city-state came under the control of the revolutionary oligarchic council known as the Four Hundred, but Alcibiades’ scheme collapsed when Tissaphernes refused to deliver the Persian support, preferring to continue playing off both sides against each other.
At Samos, meanwhile, the navy refused to recognize the new government in Athens and set up its own democratic government in exile. The sailors expelled all officers who supported the oligarchs and elected new commanders. One of them, Thrasybulus, persuaded the men to support Alcibiades’ recall, hoping perhaps he could rally Persian support. It wasn’t exactly what Alcibiades’ had planned, but once at Samos he convinced the fleet he could either bring the Persian fleet in on Athens’ side or at least convince Tissaphernes to remain neutral. According to the contemporary Greek historian Thucydides, who was the first to chronicle the Peloponnesian Wars, Alcibiades knew all along that the Persians intended to remain on the sidelines. Regardless, the troops elected Alcibiades along with Thrasybulus.
Back in Athens, more regime change ensued: The Four Hundred collapsed, giving way to a more moderate government, which sought cooperation with the exiled fleet, then rolling back Spartan encroachment in the Aegean. Under Thrasybulus, the Athenians in 411 BC defeated a Spartan fleet off the coast of Cynossema, near the entrance to the Hellespont (Dardanelles), which controlled Athens’ vital trade route to the Black Sea. Although Alcibiades was not present at Cynossema, he played a key roll in the follow-up battle off Abydos, where Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies had a major naval base. During that daylong fight, Thrasybulus’ 74 ships engaged the 97-vessel Peloponnesian fleet, and the battle raged to and fro in an apparent draw. But at day’s end Alcibiades arrived from Samos with 18 triremes, tipping the balance.
The Peloponnesians withdrew to their base at Abydos, having lost 30 ships but avoiding complete destruction when the Persian army provided cover from shore. Shortly after the fighting ended, Tissaphernes arrived from Ionia with a Persian fleet. Alcibiades, seeking to flaunt his influence with the Persian satrap, sailed out to meet him with gifts. Tissaphernes— knowing not to trust the self-interested Athenian and needing to shore up relations with the Spartans—had him imprisoned on the spot. Alcibiades managed to escape within a month and was soon back in command of the Athenian fleet, but from that point on his boasts of influence with the Persians carried no weight.
Over the next several months the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies rebuilt their fleet, while the Athenians besieged several of their former Delian League allies on the Adriatic to pull them back into line and raise money. Still fighting for control of the vital route to the Black Sea, the opposing fleets clashed again in 410 BC, this time off Cyzicus on the Propontis (the present-day Sea of Marmara). Reaching Cyzicus undetected under cover of darkness, Alcibiades’ small squadron of 20 ships advanced toward the 80-ship Peloponnesian fleet, luring it into pursuit. As the Peloponnesians took the bait, Alcibiades turned in seeming retreat back to sea, the Spartans close behind. When they were far enough from shore, the 66-ship main body of the Athenian fleet, split into squadrons commanded by Thrasybulus and Theramenes, slipped behind the Peloponnesians from opposite directions, cutting them off. Alcibiades then swung his squadron around and sailed straight back into battle.
Attacked from three directions, the Spartans were overwhelmed. Fighting both afloat and ashore, the Athenians defeated the combined Spartan-Persian forces and captured Cyzicus. The Persians, keen on seeing the war continue, provided the funds for Sparta to rebuild its fleet. And for the next several years, Athenian naval operations in the Adriatic under Alcibiades centered on plunder to pay for maintaining their army and navy. Such operations included the unsuccessful 409 BC Siege of Chalcedon, followed by a successful attack against Selymbria (on the Propontis) and a successful siege of Byzantium in 408 BC. The latter secured Athens’ control of the vital waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
With a string of military victories behind him, Alcibiades decided the time was ripe for a triumphal return to Athens, which he had not seen since the 415 BC Sicilian Expedition. With traditional democracy restored, Alcibiades entered Athens in triumph in the spring of 407 BC. The ecclesia overturned his conviction and dropped all other criminal charges, restored his property and appointed him strategos autokrator (supreme commander) of all Athenian military forces.
Alcibiades’ resurgence didn’t last long. In 407 BC the new Persian satrap in Asia Minor, Cyrus the Younger, son of King Darius II, abandoned all pretenses of neutrality and provided the funds, materials and training to build a new Peloponnesian fleet at Notium (also known as Ephesus), just north of the main Athenian base at Samos; the next year the Spartans appointed the capable Lysander as navarch, commander of the new fleet. In response to this threat, Alcibiades set sail from Athens in 406 BC with a fleet of some 100 triremes, intending to destroy the new Peloponnesian fleet. But when he reached the waters off Notium, nothing he did could lure Lysander out to fight. Tired of waiting, Alcibiades took 20 ships farther up the coast to support Thrasybulus, who was besieging rebellious Phocaea. Alcibiades left the 80-ship main body under the command of his helmsman, Antiochus, with strict orders not to engage the Peloponnesians.
But Antiochus did just that. Apparently seeking to repeat Alcibiades’ successful tactics at Cyzicus, Antiochus tried to lure Lysander from harbor with a small decoy force. But Lysander struck first and fast, and in the ensuing fight the Athenians lost 22 ships, without a single loss for the Peloponnesians. Although it was a relatively minor loss for the Athenians, Lysander scored an important psychological victory by proving the Athenians could be beaten at sea. Alcibiades’ many enemies in Athens pounced on the defeat, removing him and his key subordinates, including Thrasybulus and Theramenes. Their political gambit effectively decapitated the fleet, setting the stage for Athens’ final defeat two years later.
Alcibiades entered self-imposed exile, leaving Athens, never to return. He first sailed north to the fortifications in Thracian Chersonese he had captured three years earlier. His new home was near the Hellespont, close to Aegospotami, where the final battle of the Peloponnesian Wars played out in 405 BC. Just before that battle, Alcibiades tried to convince Athenian commanders their fleet was vulnerable and recommended shifting it to a more secure anchorage close to Sestos. They rejected his advice out of hand. Just days later Lysander attacked from the opposite shore of the Hellespont, capturing almost all 200 of the Athenian ships and their crews unprepared on the beach.
After the farce at Aegospotami, Alcibiades crossed into Asia Minor and traveled to Phrygia (at the center of present-day Turkey), apparently seeking refuge at the main Persian court. Period accounts of his death differ, but according to the Roman biographer Plutarch, assassins sent by Lysander tracked down Alcibiades in 404 BC and set fire to his house while he was in bed with a courtesan named Timandra. Alcibiades grabbed his sword and, using his cloak as a makeshift shield, made a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” charge into the firelit night.
Historians have long had trouble with Alcibiades. Many agree he had an outsized ego and trouble controlling his passions. According to Plutarch, he carried a golden shield adorned with an Eros armed with a thunderbolt. His readiness to shift political allegiances also calls his ethics into question. The verdict is far less than clear on his abilities as a military commander. His decision to leave Antiochus in command at Notium was a serious blunder. Thucydides strongly suggests that the course of the Sicilian Expedition would have gone better had Alcibiades retained command. But Thucydides also criticized Alcibiades for being motivated more by personal ambition than the good of the state when in 420 BC he pushed for a more aggressive posture against Sparta and in 415 BC when he instigated the Sicilian Expedition. Then, of course, the Peloponnesian War might have ended quite differently had Athenian commanders heeded Alcibiades’ advice at Aegospotami.
Alcibiades was perhaps the principal author of his own undoing. In Lives, his series of biographies of Greek and Roman notables, Plutarch wrote of him: “It would seem that if ever a man was ruined by his exalted reputation, that man was Alcibiades. His continuous successes gave him such a repute for unbound daring and sagacity that when he failed in anything, men suspected his inclination; they would not believe his inability.”
For further reading, David T. Zabecki recommends: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Plutarch’s Lives and The Fall of the Athenian Empire, by Donald Kagan.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.