JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I hear constant complaints about crooked, two-faced, lying politicians, and it seems to me that the objections and the job description are nearly identical. The obvious rules for the participants of a democracy were first laid down 2,400 years ago, and they have not been improved upon since. Rule number one is that unless employed as a politician, a politician is not a politician. Thus to be a successful politician, a politician must first be elected. Second, the successful politico must be re-elected, as often as possible. You can understand, then, how easy it is for a politician (and the electorate) to confuse the objective with the means to the objective. It happens all the time.

The proof of these rules was firmly established by the golden boy of ancient Greek democracy, the man who turned hypocrisy, sycophancy and prevarication into an art form, the greatest politician of all time bar none, Alcibiades Alcmaeonidae. It wasn’t that  Alcibiades broke the mold, it was that Alcibiades was the mold.

His world was shaped by his uncle and guardian, Pericles, 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.” That was baloney, of course. A great leader first needs to hired as the leader, and then rehired as often as possible. And in order to do that the leader-want-to-be must tell the voters what want to hear, as opposed to the truth. Allow me to explain.

Having decided that Athens and Sparta were destined for war, Pericles devised a most unusual strategy for winning that war; no fighting. Between 430 B.C. and 429 B.C. Spartan armies invaded Athenian territory (called Attica) repeatedly. Their objective was to defeat the Athenian army and then take pocession of their crops and farmers, who would be redefined as slaves. In order to achieve this objective the Spartan armies burned Athenian crops and villages and took hostages. The Athenians farmers would have never agreed to follow ta plan not to oppose the Spartans, so Pericles never suggested it to them. Nor did he explain that he intended Athens to rely on their fleet to bring in grain from Egypt and the Ukraine to replace the lost crops burned by the Spartans.

Pericles' idea was to frustrate the Spartans, whose approach was geared toward a quick victory at any cost. Delaying that victory would feed internal dissent in Sparta over a seemingly endless war and encourage them to make peace on Athenian  terms. It was a brilliant idea. And it might have worked but for one unanticipated event. The plague arrived on the grain ships from Egypt in 428 B.C. and the plauge 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. He was looked the part of a superstar, a cross between John Edwards and JFK. And in politics, image is reality.  First Alcibiades was a real Olympic athlete, considered “the Adonis of Athens…tall, shapely, remarkably handsome, fond of showy attire and luxurious surroundings…” (p 221, Baldwin Project) He was a powerful public speech maker, whose slight lisp made him all the more endearing. And he had that Bill Clinton appeal; he seduced women and men with equal ease and equally often. But Alcibiades really seduced them. No, I mean really. All the way.

The 19 year 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 that Alcibiades learned from Socrates was that in order to become the next Pericles 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 ouside of Greece. Athens was buying their grain from Egypt, and Sparta was buying theirs from Syracuse.

Now, Alcibiades’ priniciple political opponent was Nicias. Obviously Nicias could not afford to let Alcibiades' invasion succeed. So Nicias warned the citizens of Athens that Alcibiades' expedition would end up being twice the size he was claiming, and far more than twice as expensive. The plan would, claimed Nicias, require 140 ships and 6,000 men. And that was about twice the size that Alcibiades was suggesting. And maybe Nicias was right, maybe Alcibiades was hiding the truth. Pericles had. And maybe Alcibiades' was teling the truth. It's been 2,000 years and the arguement seems a little redundant by this time. But what ever the truth, when the arguement was submitted to the city council, both Nicias and Alcibiades were shocked by their decision. The Athenian council bought the whole thing, the 6,000 men and the 140 ships. And then they placed both Alcibiades and Nicias in charge of it. In other words they decided to deliver Alcabiades' dagger strike with Nicias' hammer, with both men guiding the weapon.

It couldn't possibly work. But neither man wanted to surrender the project to the other. So somehow the two foes managed to assemble the huge force. But Alcibiades should have been more worried about Nicias' willingness to cooperate.  On the way to Sicily the huge fleet was intercepted by a fast trireme from Athens. By leaving Athens, it seemed, Alcibiades had sailed into a trap.

The night before the expeditian had set sail, someone had crept through the darkened streets of Athens and attacked the small statues of the God Hermes which stood outside of ever Athenian home, and by attacked I mean they had wacked off the phalles which jutted from each figure. Touching Heme's phallus was supposed to ensure good luck and it was standard practice for the citizens to grasp the phalles firmly everytime they left or returned home. Visitors were expected to "chock the snake" as well, as a sort of extended handshake - of sorts. Bill collectors were not similarly invited.

Now, I am certain this kind of vandalism had happened before. In fact, if Athenian thirteen year old males were anything like American thirteen year old males, I imagine those phalles were getting wacked off as often as mail boxes on country roads. They would be the perfect target for teenagers waiting for Wii to be invented. But, of course, Nicias' allies back in Athens were eager to make the most sinster suggestion possible,  that it had been Alcibiadies who had wacked off the phalles, to mock the God's. Why a politican as skilled as Alcibiades would have done this was never explained, I suspect because the polticians ranting about his disrespect of the Gods were no more religous than Alcibiades.  But, then, how many rational people actually believe in Obama Death Panels, or that Bush and Cheney plotted 911? As stated before, in politics, image is reality.

As soon as Alcibiades had sailed away Nicias' allies on the Athenian council had raised such a stink that the council caved in to them and ordered Alcibiades home to stand trial for heresy and treason. It seemed that Alcibiades had been outflanked. He knew instantly that Nicias was behind this, and Alcibiades had no intention of leaving his fate in the hand of his enemies. But the way Alcibiades avoided Nicias' trap was sheer genius.

On his way back to stand trial in Athens Alcibiades jumped ship at Thurii, and boldly contacted the Spartans. You remember the Spartans; big strong guys, not too bright, sworn enemies of Athens. Well, Alcibiades offered the Spartans information on the Athenian expedition’s plans to capture Syracuse.  Only after that information proved correct did the Spartans warily agreed to allow Alcibiades sanctuary in their city. Alcibiades had just made his first betrayal.

Once in Sparta, Alcibiades became a new man. 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 men 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. Okay, maybe Alcibiades had that other failing of many politicians - he wanted everybody to love him.  He wouldn't be the first politicain to carry that to an extreme, either.

Agis II put out a contract on Alcibiades' life , and our hero immediatly disappeared again. This time he turned 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.

Buy funding the Spartans Tissaphernes had been hoping to weaken the Athenians. But he had lately 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. Things were getting complicated, weren't they.

Ever the plotter, Alcibiades put out peace feelers to his old friends in Athens. 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 Greek cities  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 great betrayal.

Against their better judgement the Athenian generals made Alcibiades 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 in the area 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.

This 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 the city of Phocaea, near the Hellespont, 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 in Athens 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.” His death also proves the final rule in politics. If he had been a total fool, Alcibiades would have never become a politican, and probably lived a long and happy life. If he had been half as smart, Alcibiades would have been killed right away. It takes a real genius politician to be as smart Alcibiades, and live as long as he did.

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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