The Athenian general Alcibiades (ca. 450-404 B.C.) served Athens and its enemies alike and caused damage to every state that employed him.

Alcibiades was the son of Cleinias, a brilliant but unstable Athenian politician. Wealthy, handsome, and aristocratic, Alcibiades was brought up in the house of his guardian, Pericles, and groomed for a political career. He had every possible advantage and in addition possessed exceptional charm and ability as a conversationalist, thinker, and diplomat. Entering politics in the wartime atmosphere of the Peloponnesian War, he represented youth and became an intimate of the teacher of young men, Socrates. (They were portrayed together by Plato in his dialogues Alcibiades and Symposium.)

Alcibiades chose extreme democracy and an aggressive, imperialistic policy. In 420 B.C., during an uneasy peace with Sparta, by clever tactics he drove Athens into an alliance with Argos and other Greek states against Sparta. This policy, which never gained the full support of the majority in Athens, failed completely in 418, when Sparta defeated the coalition's forces at Mantinea. The debacle caused Athens to conduct an ostracism in order to decide between the conservative Nicias, the advocate of peace with Sparta, and the aggressive Alcibiades. With characteristic ingenuity Alcibiades arrived at a compromise with Nicias, a third party was ostracized, and the fundamental difference of policy was not resolved.

Even in the permissive society of his day, Alcibiades became proverbial for his extravagant and reckless behavior, and the distrust he aroused wrecked his career. In 415 he was the prime mover of the proposal to attack Syracuse and, together with Nicias and Lamachus, commanded the naval expedition to Sicily. Alcibiades was soon recalled on charges of having profaned the Mysteries and of having mutilated religious statues (hermae) in a drunken spree on the eve of the fleet's departure.

On the way home Alcibiades escaped, reached Sparta, and became a military adviser to the Spartans. He gained for Sparta the alliance of Persia, instigated revolt by some colonies of Athens, and encouraged Sparta to base troops inside Attica against Athens. But he fell into disfavor with the Spartan king Agis, whose wife he seduced. Alcibiades subsequently transferred his services to Persia and then to Athenian antidemocratic extremists, with whom he planned a coup d'etat in Athens. When he failed to obtain Persia's aid, they discontinued to support him and seized power in Athens without him.

Alcibiades's political career now swung full circle. With the help of the Athenian extreme democrats, who still controlled the fleet, he was installed as commander of the navy. Winning brilliant victories against Sparta, which resulted in the restoration of democracy in Athens, he came home in 407 as the favorite of the democrats. But when the Athenian navy under a subordinate officer was defeated at Notium by the Spartan naval commander Lysander, Alcibiades anticipated trouble and withdrew into retirement near the Dardanelles. After the Peloponnesian War, Sparta demanded his head, and he was assassinated while a fugitive in Phrygia.

Further Reading on Alcibiades

Ancient sources on Alcibiades include Thucydides's The History of the Peloponnesian War, Books V-VIII; Xenophon's Hellenica I; Plato's Symposium and Alcibiades I; and the "Life of Alcibiades" in Plutarch's Lives. For modern accounts see the chapter by W.S. Ferguson in J.B. Bury and others, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5 (1927), and H. D. Westlake, Individuals in Thucydides (1968). Background information is in J.B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (1900; 3d rev. ed. 1951), and N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (1959; 2d ed. 1967).