ca. 450-404 B.C.
Athenian politician and Military Leader
Alcibiades rose to prominence in Athens during the period of the Peloponnesian War, when the Greek city-states* of Athens and Sparta vied for dominance. But his personal ambition and unreliability led the citizens of Athens to cast him aside on two occasions.
Growing up in Athens, Alcibiades had many advantages. He was raised in the household of the Athenian statesman Pericles, and he was the pupil and close friend of the philosopher Socrates. After Pericles’ death in 429 B.C., Alcibiades became active in Athenian politics.
Eager to expand the power of Athens, Alcibiades succeeded in bringing Athens into an alliance against the city-state of Sparta. In 418 and 416 B.C., he led campaigns against the Spartans. Then, the following year, Alcibiades organized an expedition against Sicily with the intention of extending Athenian power into the western Mediterranean. At about the same time, the city was scandalized by a religious crime—the mutilation of statues of the god Hermes. Opponents of Alcibiades accused him of the crime, and soon after reaching Sicily, he was ordered back to Athens to stand trial. Instead, Alcibiades fled to Sparta, where he became a military adviser to King Agis II, the enemy of Athens. Alcibiades also persuaded Athens’s allies to break their alliances with the city.
The Spartans began to have doubts about the trustworthiness of Alcibiades. Sensing the suspicions regarding his loyalty, Alcibiades traveled to Asia Minor, where he tried to regain his power base in Athens. His opportunity came in the form of an appointment as general of the Athenian fleet at Samos. After winning several victories, Alcibiades returned to Athens in 407 B.C. and was given command of Athenian forces in Ionia in western Asia Minor. However, this time, Alcibiades faced an alliance of the Spartans and the Persians and suffered defeat. In Athens, popular opinion turned against him. Alcibiades retired to Asia Minor, where he was murdered by Spartan agents.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
The Greek historian Thucydides discussed Alcibiades in his account of the Peloponnesian War, and the Greek biographer Plutarch wrote about Alcibiades’ life. Alcibiades also appeared as a character in the Symposium, one of the philosophical dialogues of Plato.