Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens
by David Stuttard, Harvard, 276pp, £23.95
Alcibiades had it all: the heartthrob looks, the agile mind and the loftiest of family ties. Everyone knew that, with Socrates for a tutor and Pericles for an uncle, Alcibiades was going to make a splash in 5th-century BC Athens.
At first, he was the hawkish advocate of rekindling the war against Sparta and, having dodged a sentence of ostracism for stirring up factional unrest, he eagerly supported a military expedition against Sicily. Dubious charges of religious impropriety (damaging statues, mocking the sacred Eleusinian mysteries) were then levelled against him. But legal proceedings were put on hold so that Alcibiades could participate in the Sicily campaign. When this went awry, and knowing what was waiting for him back in Athens, Alcibiades headed into exile.
He had the audacity to flee to Sparta. There, quite remarkably, he won over the powers that were and started doling out military advice to his former enemies.
Soon enough, Alcibiades fell from favour, hot-footed it to Persia, and decided to rehabilitate his reputation back home. He spun tales of how the Persians might be cajoled into an alliance and, while these proved to be groundless, he performed well on the military front and, in 407 BC, was welcomed back to Athens by crowds of 5,000 people “as if the past eight years had never happened”.
Unfortunately, subsequent military adventures were disastrous, so it was off into exile once more and, before too long, he was tracked down and despatched by Spartan-sponsored assassins in 404 BC.
It’s quite the tale, told with rare gusto and precision by David Stuttard – an astute inquisitor of the conflicting sources with an eye for the telling anecdote.
In the end, when considering the duplicitous, prideful Alcibiades, it’s hard not to side with Plutarch. Just as the fertile soil of Egypt could produce either nourishing crops or poisonous plants, so Alcibiades, a man of enviable talents, had “huge potential for both good and evil”. Sadly, he turned out to be “the least scrupulous and most careless of human beings”.
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