Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general, and was the most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler, and raised without firm guidance, Alcibiades grew into a self-indulgent man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery.
Early in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alcibiades won a reputation for courage and military talent. By 420 BC he had become one of Athens’ generals, and in 415 BC, he persuaded Athens to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. Soon before departure, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated, and suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose immoral clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. The expedition sailed to Sicily, with a cloud hanging over its leader, and when Alcibiades was eventually summoned to face trial before the Athenian Assembly, he fled and defected to Sparta.
He advised the Spartans to adopt a strategy that annihilated the Sicilian expedition – the force he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he once led. That was the most catastrophic defeat suffered by Athens during the war, and of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful survived: the remainder were either killed outright, or enslaved and worked to death.
Alcibiades also persuaded the Spartans to alter their strategy of marching into Athens’ Attica region each year, burning in looting, then withdrawing and repeating the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent base in Attica, from which they could pressure Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred Athens’ allies and client states into revolting.
Alcibiades wore out his welcome in Sparta, however, after he was caught in bed with Spartan king Agis II’s wife. Fleeing again, this time to the Persians, Alcibiades persuaded them to opportunistically intervene in the war in order to prolong it, and keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests.
Athens fell into chaos that culminated in an oligarchic coup. However, Athens’ fleet, composed predominately of the lower classes, remained pro democracy, and in the turmoil, Alcibiades managed to persuade the fleet to take him back. Between 411 – 408 BC, he led the Athenian navy to a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse.
Alcibiades returned to a hero’s welcome in Athens, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat during his absence from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, took refuge in Phrygia. There, a Spartan delegation persuaded Phrygia’s Persian governor to murder Alcibiades in 404 BC.