What Is a Traitor?: The Glorious (and Ruinous) Life of Alcibiades

The life of Alcibiades (452-404 BC) understandably fascinated his contemporaries. He appears, for example, in Plato’s dialogues Gorgias, Protagoras, and Symposium (there are also two other dialogues, First and Second Alcibiades, but Plato’s authorship is doubted); Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; Xenophon’s Hellenica and Memorabilia; and Aristophanes’ The Acharnians, The Birds, The Frogs, and The Banqueters. It continued to do so throughout antiquity, for example, in the work of Alcibiades’ younger contemporaries, Isocrates’ “On the Team of Horses” and Lysias’ Speeches (two of which are against Alcibiades), and subsequently in Diodorus’ Bibliotheca Historica and, of course, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or Parallel Lives, where the biography of Alcibiades is compared to that of Coriolanus.

We today can’t help also being fascinated either, as evidenced by Ariel Helfer’s 2017 book Alcibiades and Socrates (reviewed at Law & Liberty by Avi Mintz), and now comes David Stuttard with Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens.

The Chameleon

Alcibiades’ life “reads like the stuff of fiction,” says Stuttard, a dramaturg and fellow at Goodenough College, London. But even that characterization fails to capture the high drama of Alcibiades’ life, or at least the many accounts of his life. It is difficult to imagine any fiction-writer’s having the audacity to concoct an individual whose existence exhibited such a wide-ranging variation, as was recognized by the Greek rhetorician Libanius, who described Alcibiades as “changing his personality more readily than Proteus.” Plutarch, too, commented that Alcibiades could change his way of life “faster than the chameleon.”

He lived the life of a sexual libertine, yet also that of an austere Spartan. He was an Athenian aristocrat, scornful of the Athenian people, but also a champion of Athenian democracy. Whether delivering speeches in Athens, commanding an army on land or a navy at sea, riding horses in Thrace, navigating the intrigues of the Persian court, or (evidently) seducing the wife of one of the Spartan kings, he seems to have excelled at all, only to be assassinated in a village in central Phrygia. Speculation as to who wanted him dead confirms his chameleon-like existence, for Athenians, Spartans, and Persians had their reasons. He was both praised for being a heroic general and defender of Athens, and vilified for being a traitor, betraying Athens to both Sparta and Persia. It was a life stranger than fiction.

The author, a classicist who has translated many Greek plays, is by profession a theater director specializing in the staging of Greek drama, thereby dedicating himself to reviving popular interest in these works. The book, as he acknowledges, was “written not for the specialist but for the general reader” in the hope that we will be captivated by the mercurial Athenian,  Alcibiades—a figure who, rather than following the Delphic norm of “nothing in excess,” provoked the nemesis, the punishment of the gods, by seemingly doing everything in excess.

Stuttard has succeeded admirably in producing a book that more than holds the reader’s attention. The often conflicting accounts of Alcibiades’ life must be used by a biographer with considerable caution. Careful weighing of the difficulties in using these sources is necessary, and is to be found in Stuttard’s bibliography, gratifyingly relegated to the book’s endnotes, thus preventing the narrative flow of the biography from becoming overly scholarly or too tedious to enjoy.

Even the less salacious, apparent facts of Alcibiades’ life indicate why one would be drawn to his story. At the age of five, with his father, Cleinias, killed in battle, Alcibiades became a ward of Pericles. As he matured into young adulthood, the reportedly quite handsome Alcibiades became part of the circle around Socrates. Here alone are reasons to be intrigued: a youth spent in the house of Pericles and in the company of Socrates.

But many more reasons soon appear. At the age of 20, Alcibiades received the award for bravery for his actions at the battle of Potidaea. At 31, having become one of Athens’ leading orators, he opposed the Peace of Nicias (421 BC) with Sparta. Two years later, as the leading representative of anti-Spartan sentiment, he was elected as one of Athens’ generals.

Then, at the age of 36, his ambition aroused opposition among Athenians (likely encouraged by Nicias) as he faced expulsion from Athens, the so-called 10-year period of ostracism. Having barely escaped the vote of ostracism but with his ambition further enflamed, Alcibiades turned his attention to the 91st Olympic Games (416 BC), where his chariots placed first, second, and third, but not without controversy.

And yet one year later, having successfully argued for an Athenian campaign against Syracuse in Sicily—but also having been accused of sacrilege for allegedly profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries—the anti-Spartan Alcibiades became a refugee in, of all places, Sparta. Now serving Sparta, he became the architect of Spartan victories both on the mainland and in Ionia, only to be soon condemned to death by the Spartans for treason (as he had already been by the Athenians) for suspected or actual, as the case may be, loyalty to the Persians.

“But on Balance, Athens Must Have Him!”

Just when one thinks that Alcibiades’ loyalties could not have been more fleeting or complicated, he emerges in 411 BC as a champion of Athenian democracy to the Athenian navy at Samos, is awarded amnesty from the accusations laid against him, and is again elected as an Athenian general. Perhaps Aristophanes, in the above-mentioned play The Frogs, captured well enough the relation between Alcibiades and Athens:  “What is each man’s opinion of Alcibiades? . . . It [Athens] longs for him, but at the same time hates him, too. But on balance, it must have him!”

During the ensuing several years, having brilliantly commanded the Athenian navy and army to victories over Sparta and Persia, Alcibiades was in 407 BC reelected general. Eight years after being vilified for sacrilege and having fled Athens to Sparta, the aristocratic Alcibiades, now the opponent of the previous oligarchies of the Four Hundred and the Five Thousand, returned triumphant to Athens only soon to embark, as commander of the Athenian navy, to safeguard Athens’ supply of food.

The reader, astonished by these many turns of events, must quickly catch his or her breath, for meanwhile the Spartan general Lysander (who later the Persians would make satrap of Lydia, Phrygia, and Ionia) had formed an alliance with Persia—an alliance that would eventually result in Athenian defeat. With the Athenian navy having (in Alcibiades’ absence but still under his leadership) suffered defeat at the hands of the Spartans, Alcibiades was stripped of his command and recalled to Athens to face trial for treason.

He fled once again, but now to perhaps the only place left for him: Thrace, which ultimately proved not to have been a safe haven. With the Spartans and Athenians wanting him dead, Alcibiades, like Themistocles before him, again sought the favor of the Persians, turning to his putative friend, the satrap Farnavaz. However, it seems likely that the Persians also wanted him dead, although Farnavaz denied responsibility for his assassination, claiming (or fabricating?) what many of Alcibiades’ contemporaries might readily have believed about him, namely, that a local Phrygian family had sought revenge for Alcibiades’ seduction of the family’s daughter.

Plutarch was not wide of the mark when he observed that, “If ever a man was ruined by his own glory, it was Alcibiades.”

Beyond these captivating twists and turns of the man’s life, some other points of interest deserve further attention. The first has already been alluded to: the historiographical problem of dealing with sources that at times conflict with one another and, in any event, necessarily require our interpretation. Ernst Cassirer, writing in An Essay on Man (1944) about the methodological problems posed by history, observed that “we have a mystic Plato, the Plato of neo-Platonism; a Christian Plato, the Plato of Augustine and Marsilio Ficino; a rationalist Plato, the Plato of Moses Mendelssohn; and a few decades ago, we were offered a Kantian Plato . . . [each] contributes to an understanding and to a systematic valuation of Plato’s work.”

The problem of interpretation in historical consciousness—getting at the past when that understanding is formed in the present—is all the more acute with the accounts of a figure like Alcibiades, whose life was intertwined with the conflicts in Athens between democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. For depending upon the circumstances, he could be said to be a proponent of each form of regime. Those shifting allegiances became even more complicated with Persia, as all of the parties within both Athens and Greece sought Persian support.

A second problem has to do with our understanding of the different forms of government as laid out by Aristotle in the Politics. Reading Stuttard’s biography of Alcibiades arouses the likelihood that, in order to understand properly those different forms of government, one should be informed by the historical accounts of the 5th century BC. To entertain this likelihood is not to gainsay the philosophical merit of Aristotle’s distinctions—a merit that transcends any particular historical circumstance. Nonetheless, even the merit of that abstract differentiation can’t avoid the difficulties posed by the influence of our own interpretation of it. For example, the Athenian practice of ostracism is so distant from our own expectation of the retirement of public figures into private life that it is difficult to enter into the spirit of that age in order to understand better its analytical categories.

What Constitutes Treason?

This second problem raises a final point of interest, especially for the audience of Law & Liberty, a legal problem that directly involves our interpretation of Alcibiades. That he was a military hero and brilliant general is clear. But was he also a traitor? That he was an advisor to both Sparta and Persia against Athens also seems clear. But what did it mean to be a traitor, given the Athenian practice of ostracism? What constituted treason?

This has been a vexing question throughout the history of law. It received extensive examination, for example, by Edward Coke in Volume II of the Institutes (see the edition published by Liberty Fund), where Coke interpreted the intention of the Statute of 1352 (25 Edward III) as specifying clearly the limits of treason. Coke’s purpose was to prevent the possibility of arbitrary extension of the crime by loose interpretation—just as seems to have often taken place in Athens.

We are understandably fascinated by a life that pushes the limits of our understanding of what is believable, and Nemesis does justice to that life, in a most readable and enjoyable way. Stuttard’s  book can be read just for pleasure, but even better is the reward when readers are led to re-examine the problems of historiography and historical consciousness, our understanding of the classification of different regimes, and how we should determine what legally constitutes treason.