At 19 years of age, Alcibiades even beguiled that 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 his bed with Alcibiades only once; if Athens herself had only been that wise and restrained.
It seems that all that 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 against the island of Sicily, a commando operation to capture Messina and threaten the port city of Syracuse, Sparta’s strongest ally. But Alcibiades’ political opponent in Athens, Nicias, did not want Alcibiades given the chance to succeed. He warned the city council 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. It seems somebody had gone about Athens and wacked off all the phalluses on all the statues. As soon as Alcibiades had sailed away Nicias' allieas had accused Alcibiades, and 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 his enemies.
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 Syracuse. When that information proved correct the Spartans warily agreed to allow Alcibiades sanctuary in their city - what a foolish thing to do.
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 secretly 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. At the same time 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 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 betrayal.
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 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 changed sides and joined Sparta. All the charges still outstanding against him were dropped; but they were 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 in Athens blamed Alcibiades for the disaster, and he was forced into exile once again, and this time it looked final.
By 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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