"Alcibiades" submitted by RomeTour Editorial Team and last updated on Tuesday 26th April 2011


Alcibiades (Athens 450 b.C.- Phrygia, in modern Turkey, 404 b.C.), Athenian statesman, brilliant and courageous general. He provoked the sharp political antagonisms at Athens that was the main cause of Athens' defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 431- 404 b.C..

He was born in a noble wealthy family, but at the age of 5 remained orphan, as his father, commander of the Athenian army, was killed at Coronea, Boeotia. Alcibiades was brought up in the family of his relative, statesman Pericles. As he grew up, Alcibiades was strikingly handsome and keen witted, rich, as well as extravagant, irresponsible, and self-centred.

Quite soon he became a friend and follower of Socrates, who, in turn, was strongly attracted by Alcibiades' beauty and intellectual promise. They served together at Potidaea (432) and Delium (424).

Alcibiades was best known for his personal extravagance and his courage in battle; but he had also become a recognized speaker in the Ecclesia (assembly). In the age of 30 he entered politics with his own political program. General for the first time in 420, he opposed the aristocratic leader Nicias, who had negotiated peace, and involved Athens into an anti-Spartan alliance with Argos, Elis, and Mantineia, three city-states of the Peloponnese. This alliance was defeated by Sparta at the Battle of Mantineia in 418 b.C..

In 416 Alcibiades restored his reputation by entering seven chariots at Olympia and taking first, second, and fourth places. This made it easier for him, in 415, to persuade the Athenians to send a major military expedition to Sicily against the city of Syracuse. He was appointed to share the command, but, shortly before the expedition was due to sail, the hermae (busts of Hermes, messenger of Zeus and patron of all who use the roads, set up in public places throughout the city) were found to have been mutilated. Alcibiades was accused of being the originator of this sacrilege. He demanded an immediate inquiry, but his enemies, led by Androcles, ensured that he sailed with the charge still hanging over him. Shortly after reaching Sicily, he was recalled; but on the journey home he escaped and, learning that he had been condemned in absentia to death, went to Sparta. There he advised the Spartans to send a general to help the Syracusans and also to fortify Decelea in Attica.

In 412 Alcibiades helped stir up revolt among Athenian allies in Ionia, on the west coast of Asia Minor, and started promotion of alliance between Sparta and Persia. In this he failed and was recalled by the Athenian fleet, which remained loyal to the democracy and needed his abilities.

From 411 to 408 he helped Athens to a spectacular recovery, defeating the Spartan fleet in the Hellespont at Abydos (411) and Cyzicus (410) and regaining control over the vital grain route from the Black Sea. These successes encouraged him to return in 407 to Athens, where he was welcomed with enthusiasm and given supreme control of the conduct of the war. But, in the same year, after a minor naval defeat in his absence, his political enemies persuaded the people to reject him, and he retired to a castle in Thrace.

When the Athenians at Aegospotami (405) facing the Spartans in the Hellespont grew increasingly careless, he warned them of their danger. But he was ignored, and, when the Athenians lost their whole fleet in a surprise attack by the Spartan admiral Lysander, Alcibiades was no longer safe in his Thracian castle. He took refuge in Phrygia in northwestern Asia Minor with the Persian governor, who was induced by the Spartans to have him murdered.

Perhaps the most gifted Athenian of his generation, Alcibiades possessed great charm and brilliant political and military abilities but was absolutely unscrupulous. His advice, whether to Athens or Sparta, oligarchs or democrats, was dictated by selfish motives, and the Athenians could never trust him enough to take advantage of his talents.

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