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Wednesday, 21 September 2011

ALCIBIADES (CA. 450-404 BX.), Athenian general and statesman.

b. c 450 BCE
d. c 404 BCE

Reared in the household of his guardian and uncle Pericles, he became the erom­enos and later intimate friend of Socrates, who saved his life in battle. His, brilliance enabled him in 420 to become leader of the extreme democratic faction, and his impe­rialistic designs led Athens into an alli­ance with Argos and other foes of Sparta, a policy largely discredited by the Spartan victory at Mantinea. He sponsored the plan for a Sicilian expedition to outflank Sparta, which ended after his recall in the capture of thousands of Athenians, most of whom died in the salt mines where they were confined, but soon after the fleet reached Sicily his enemies recalled him on the pretext of his complicity in the muti­lation of the Hermae, the phallic pillars marking boundaries between lots of land. He escaped, however, to Sparta and be­came the adviser of the Spartan high command. Losing the confidence of the Spartans and accused of impregnating the wife of one of Sparta's two kings, he fled to Persia, then tried to win reinstatement at Athens by winning Persian support for the city and promoting an oligarchic revolu­tion, but without success. Then being appointed commander by the Athenian fleet at Samos, he displayed his military skills for several years and won a brilliant victory at Cyzicus in 410, but reverses in battle and political intrigue at home led to bis downfall, and he was finally murdered in Phrygia in 404.

Though an outstanding politician and military leader, Alcibiades compro­mised himself by the excesses of his sexual life, which was not confined to his own sex, but was uninhibitedly bisexual, as was typical of a member of the Athenian aristocracy. The Attic comedians scolded him for his adventures; Aristophanes wrote a play (now lost) entitled Triphales (the man with three phalli), in which Alcibia­des' erotic exploits were satirized. In his youth, admired by the whole of Athens for his beauty, he bore on his coat of arms an Eros hurling a lightning bolt. Diogenes Laertius said of him that "when a young man, he separated men from their wives, and later, wives from their husbands," while the comedian Pherecrates declared that "Alcibiades, who once was no man, is now the man of all women." He gained a bad reputation for introducing luxurious practices into Athenian life, and even his dress was reproached for extravagance. He combined the ambitious political career­ist and the bisexual dandy, a synthesis possible only in a society that tolerated homosexual expression and even a certain amount of heterosexual licence in its public figures. His physical beauty alone im­pressed his contemporaries enough to remain an inseparable part of his historical image.


Walter Ellis, Alcibia­des, New York: Routledge, 1989; Jean Hatzfeld, Alcibiade: Etude sur l'histoire d'Athènes à la fin du Ve siècle, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951.
Warren Johansson
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