Biography of Alcibiades, Ancient Greek Soldier-Politician

One of Socrates' "Corrupted Youths"

Alcibiades and Socrates
Socrates rebuking Alcibiades in harem, by Giovanni Battista Cigola (1769–1841). De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

Alcibiades (450–404 BCE) was a controversial politician and warrior in ancient Greece, who switched allegiances between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) and was eventually lynched by a mob for it. He was a student and perhaps a lover of Socrates, and he was one of the youths that Socrates' accusers used as an example of his corrupting young men.

Key Takeaways: Alcibiades

  • Known For: Corrupt Greek politician and soldier, student of Socrates
  • Born: Athens, 450 BCE
  • Died: Phrygia, 404 BCE
  • Parents: Cleinias and Deinomache
  • Spouse: Hipparete
  • Children: Alcibiades II
  • Education: Pericles and Socrates
  • Primary Sources: Plato's Alcibiades Major, Plutarch's Alcibiades (in Parallel Lives), Sophocles, and most of Aristophanes comedies.

Early Life

Alcibiades (or Alkibiades) was born in Athens, Greece, about 450 BCE, the son of Cleinias, a member of the well-fortuned Alcmaeonidae family in Athens and his wife Deinomache. When his father died in battle, Alcibiades was brought up by the prominent statesman Pericles (494–429 BCE). He was a beautiful and gifted child but also belligerent and debauched, and he fell under the tutelage of Socrates (~469–399 BCE), who attempted to correct his shortcomings.

Socrates and Alcibiades fought together in the early battles of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, at the battle of Potidaea (432 BCE), where Socrates saved his life, and at Delium (424 BCE), where he saved Socrates.

Political Life

When the Athenian general Cleon died in 422, Alcibiades became a leading politician in Athens and the head of the war party in opposition to Nicias (470–413 BCE). In 421, the Lacedaemonians conducted negotiations to end the war, but they chose Nicias to settle things. Enraged, Alcibiades convinced the Athenians to ally with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis and attack Sparta's allies. 

In 415, Alcibiades first argued for and then began preparing for a military expedition to Sicily, when somebody mutilated many of the Herms in Athens. Herms were stone signposts scattered throughout the city, and vandalism against them was perceived as an attempt to overthrow the Athenian constitution. Alcibiades was accused, and he demanded that the case against him be drawn up before he left for Sicily, but it was not to be. He left but was shortly called back to stand trial.

Defection to Sparta

Instead of returning to Athens, Alcibiades escaped at Thurii and defected to Sparta, where he was welcomed as a hero, except by their king Agis II (ruled 427–401 BCE). Alcibiades was forced to live with Tissaphernes (445–395 BCE), a Persian soldier and statesman—Aristophanes implies Alcibiades was Tissaphernes' slave. In 412, Tissaphernes and Alcibiades deserted the Spartans to assist Athens, and the Athenians eagerly recalled Alcibiades from banishment.

Before returning to Athens, Tissaphernes and Alcibiades remained abroad, gaining victories over Cynossema, Abydos, and Cyzicus and gaining new properties of Chalcedon and Byzantium. Returning to Athens to great acclaim, Alcibiades was named commander in chief for all Athenian land and sea forces. It wasn't to last. 

Alcibiades return to Athens (408 BCE)
Alcibiades’ triumphant return to Athens (408 BCE). 19th century Woodcut engraving after a drawing by Hermann Vogel (German painter, 1854-1921), published in 1882. DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

Set Back and Death

Alcibiades was dealt a setback when his lieutenant Antiochus lost Notium (Ephesus) in 406, and, replaced as commander in chief, he went into voluntary exile at his residence of Bisanthe in the Thracian Chersonesus, where he made war with the Thracians. 

As the Peloponnesian War began to wind down in 405—Sparta was winning—Athens waged a last naval confrontation at Aegospotami: Alcibiades warned them against it, but they went ahead and lost the city. Alcibiades was banished again, and this time he took refuge with the Persian soldier and future satrap of Phrygia, Pharnabazus II (r. 413–374). 

One night, as he was preparing to set off to visit the Persian king Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE), Alcibiades' house was burned down. When he rushed out with his sword he was pierced by arrows shot either by Spartan assassins or by the brothers of an unnamed married lady. 

Death of Alcibiades (404 BC), 19th century wood engraving
At the instigation of the Spartan commander Lysander (?- 395 BCE) and with the approval of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, Alcibiades is murdered in the Phrygian town of Melissa. DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

Writing About Alcibiades 

The life of Alcibiades was discussed by many ancient writers: Plutarch (45–120 CE) addressed his life in "Parallel Lives" in comparison with Coriolanus. Aristophanes (~448–386 BCE) made him a constant figure of ridicule under his own name and in subtle references in almost all of his surviving comedies. 

Probably the best known is that of Plato (428/427 to 347 BCE), who featured Alcibiades in a dialogue with Socrates. When Socrates was accused of corrupting young men, Alcibiades was an example. Although not mentioned by name in "The Apology," Alcibiades does appear in "The Clouds," Aristophanes' satire of Socrates and his school. 

The dialogue has been labeled a fake since the early 19th century when the German philosopher and biblical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) described it as "a few beautiful and genuinely Platonic passages floating sparsely scattered in a mass of inferior material." Later scholars such as British classicist Nicholas Denyer have defended the dialogue's authenticity, but the debate does continue in some circles.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Archie, Andre M. "Insightful Women, Ignorant Alcibiades." History of Political Thought 29.3 (2008): 379–92. Print.
  • ---. "The Philosophical and Political Anatomy of Plato's 'Alcibiades Major.'" History of Political Thought 32.2 (2011): 234–52. Print.
  • Denyer, Nicholas (ed.). "Alcibiades." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Jirsa, Jakub. "Authenticity of the "Alcibiades" I: Some Reflections." Listy filologické / Folia philologica 132.3/4 (2009): 225–44. Print.
  • Johnson, Marguerite and Harold Tarrant (eds). "Alcibiades and the Socratic Lover-Educator." London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904. Print.
  • Vickers, Michael. "Aristophanes and Alcibiades: Echoes of Contemporary History in Athenian Comedy." Walter de Gruyter GmbH: Berlin, 2015. 
  • Wohl, Victoria. "The Eros of Alcibiades." Classical Antiquity 18.2 (1999): 349–85. Print.