I hear the complaints piling up again about crooked, two-faced, lying politicians and it seems to me that the objections and the job description are nearly identical. The rules of politics were first laid down 2,400 years ago, and they have not been improved upon since. To be successful a politician must first be elected, and second he or she must be re-elected. And the proof of these rules was firmly established by the golden boy of ancient Greek democracy, the man who turned hypocrisy, sycophancy, performance and prevarication into an art form, the greatest politician of all time bar none, Alcibiades Alcmaeonidae. It wasn’t that after Alcibiades they broke the mold, it was that Alcibiades was the mold.His world was shaped by his uncle and guardian, Pericles (above), who defined a great leader as someone who “…knows what must be done and is able to explain it; loves one’s country and is incorruptible.” Having decided that Athens and Sparta were destined for war, Pericles devised a most unusual strategy. In 430 and 429 B.C. Spartan armies invaded Athenian territory (called Attica), burned crops and villages and took hostages. But the Athenian army refused to give battle, relying on their fleet to bring in grain from Egypt and the Ukraine to keep them fed. Pericles’ plan was to frustrate the Spartans until internal political dissent encouraged them to surrender. And it might have worked but for one unanticipated event. The plague arrived on the grain ships from Egypt in 428 B.C. and killed perhaps a third of the population of Athens, including Pericles.The abrupt vacuum at the top of Athenian politics was an opportunity for the young Alcibiades (above). He was a superstar right from the start. First he was a real Olympic athlete and “the Adonis of Athens…tall, shapely, remarkably handsome, fond of showy attire and luxurious surroundings…” (p 221, Baldwin Project) He was a powerful speaker whose slight lisp made him all the more endearing. He seduced women and men with equal ease and equally often.
And at 19 years old Alcibiades even beguiled the old pedophile Socrates. Reading Plato’s version of their dialogs is like watching a snake charmer with arthritis toying with a hungry python. Socrates began by berating Alcibiades’ youthful arrogance. “You say you do not need any person for anything …For you think you are the most beautiful and greatest” – and then later he fell under Alcibiades' spell, calling him “…the greatest of the Greeks.” Still, Socrates shared Alcibiades bed only once; if Athens had only been that wise.It seems that all Alcibiades learned from Socrates was that he needed a project worthy of his ambition. And in 415 B.C. Alcibiades suggested a cloak and dagger strike on the island of Sicily, a commando operation - perhaps even capturing by subterfuge the port city of Syracuse, Sparta’s strongest ally. But Alcibiades’ opponent, Nicias, not wanting his enemy given the chance to succeed, warned that such an expedition would have to be hugely expensive, requiring as many as 140 ships and 6,000 men. He meant to mock the idea but to the shock of both Nicias and Alcibiades, the Athenian council voted to fund the massive mission and then placed both Alcibiades and Nicias in charge of it.
Somehow the two foes managed to assemble the huge force. But Alcibiades should have been more worried about Nicias' cooperation, for when they landed outside of Syracuse they found a trireme from Athens had arrived there ahead of them. As soon as Alcibiades had sailed away the Athenian council had ordered Alcibiades home to stand trial for heresy and treason. It was obvious that Nicias was behind this, and Alcibiades had no intention of putting his fate in the hands of Nicias’ allies.
On his way back to Athens Alcibiades jumped ship at Thurii, and boldly contacted the Spartans. He offered them information on the Athenian expedition’s plans to capture Messina, and when that information proved correct the Spartans warily agreed to allow Alcibiades sanctuary in their city.Alcibiades had made his first betrayal. Once in Sparta, he converted from a luxury loving Athenian into a prime example of Spartan brutality and sadomasochism.
Like any good Spartan politician he began wearing simple clothes and eating cold gruel and exercising in public with the other sadomasochistic Spartans. He advised the Spartans on a strategy that led to the complete defeat of Nicias and the slaughter and capture of his entire Athenian force. In fact Alcibiades had become one of the most respected and trusted Spartans in Sparta - until one morning in 412 B.C. when the Spartan king Agis II came home unexpectedly to speak to his queen and Alcibiades was seen jumping out of her bedroom window. Agis II put out a contract on Alcibiades, and he disappeared, next turning up in Persia, as an advisor at the court of the satrapy Tissaphernes, who had been funding the Spartan war effort. Alcibiades had just made his second betrayal.Tissaphernes had been hoping to weaken the Athenians. But now he had begun to worry that the Spartans were getting too strong, which is exactly what he was told by his new political advisor, Alcibiades. On his advice the Persians cut back their cash support for Sparta, and Alcibiades put out peace feelers to his fellow Athenians. He convinced them that he could bring the Persians into the war on Athens’ side. Of course Tissaphernes had no intention of committing his forces until both sides were exhausted, but by the time the Athenians realized this, according to the poet Aristophanes, they yearned for Alcibiades even while they hated him. This was to be Alcibiades’ third betrayal.The Athenian generals made him an Admiral, and he engineered an Athenian naval victory at Abydos, near the Hellespont, and burned the little village of Byzantium. After another Alcibiades victory the Spartans sent home a desperate note. “Our ships are lost. Mindarus (the commander) is dead. The men are starving. We do not know what to do.”
In 407 B.C. Alcibiades made his triumphal return to Athens itself, to cheering throngs and the return of his property, which had been seized when he had joined Sparta. All charges against him were dropped; but not forgotten. His last betrayal had convinced the Persians to again fully fund the Spartan war effort. And in 406 B.C. Alcibiades sailed with 100 ships on a mission to assist Phocaea, which was under siege from Spartan forces. While making a scout Alcibiades left 80 ships at anchor at Notium under his second in command. But while he was away the fool brought on an engagement with the Spartan fleet, and was soundly defeated. His enemies blamed Alcibiades for the disaster, and he was forced into exile once again, and this time it looked final.In 404 B.C. Alcibiades was living in retirement with a mistress in Phyrgia, in what is today central Turkey, in a mountain cabin. In the dark of night assassins set the house on fire and murdered Alcibiades as he rushed out side. Says the Baldwin Project, “Thus perished, at less than fifty years of age, one of the most brilliant and able of all the Athenians.”
Some say it was the Spartans who killed him, and some that it was his Athenian enemies, and some say it was the brothers of a Persian woman he had seduced. If Alcibiades did not fit his uncle’s definition of a great leader, still he had been a successful politician for each of the three great powers of his time – Athens, Sparta and Persia. How could you not consider him the greatest politician of any age?
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