Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The History of Civilization

Chapter Seventeen: Alcibiades

Decades of plague and endemic war left the Greeks longing for peace as Nicias, elder statesman of Athens, negotiated a precarious fifty year truce with Sparta in 421 BC. Leading the negotiation committee was the thirty-three year old general Alcibiades, who was turned away by the Spartan delegation, which prefered to deal with the more experienced Nicias. Alcibiades took this insult very personally, and immediately began encouraging the Athenians to return to war with Sparta.

Nicias, preaching peace, was associated with the Athenian aristocracy. Alcibiades promoted war, and allied himself with the mob. The two rival factions threatened to tear Athens apart and destabalize the delicate balance of power in Greece.

The strategic genius of Alcibiades would become one of Greece's greatest assets, while his complete lack of loyalty or moral scruples was its greatest liability. He was the son of two ancient, aristocratic families; and when his father died while he was young, he was raised in the household of Pericles, then at the height of his influence.
By the time he came of age, Alcibiades was handsome and wealthy. His intelligence was widely admired, and his association with Socrates contributed to that reputation. Even his flaws seem to have helped him: he had a speech defect, but people found it charming and the young men of Athens began to imitate his lisp.

At Alcibiades' urging, Athens resumed the war with Sparta only seven years into the fifty years' truce. Command of this expedition was shared between Alcibiades and his peace-loving rival, Nicias.

The evening before the fleet departed, someone mutilated the sacred statues of Hermes throughout the city, removing the noses, ears, and penises from the images of the god. His enemies in the Senate placed blame on Alcibiades (probably incorrectly), and demanded that he return to Athens to face trial. Although he insisted on his innocence, he fled. The Athenians pronounced him guilty and declared him exiled, confiscating his property. The war was now entirely in the hands of Nicias, who had been opposed to resuming hostilities to begin with.
Bitter that his dreams of glory had been frustrated by a sentence that he considered unjust, Alcibiades sought refuge in the Peloponnesus and proposed to help Sparta defeat Athens. Sparta accepted his offer of help, but again Alcibiades' lack of scruples got him into trouble. He had an affair and imprgnated the Queen of Sparta, and was forced to flee for his life a second time, this time to Persia.

The Athenian fleet suffered a disastrous defeat off the coast of Syracuse (Sicily) in 414. The calamity broke the spirit of Athens, nearly half of her citizens were now enslaved or dead. Sparta, claiming that the treaty of Nicias had been repeatedly violated by Athens, renewed the war in earnest. Desperate Athens now recalled Alcibiades, who led an Athenian-Persian alliance to defeat the Spartans. Unfortunately Athens, while celebrating his victory, neglected to send money to pay his soldiers.

Once again, Alcibiades lack of scruples ruined him. He left his fleet to seize gold from the surrounding towns. While his fleet was unsupervised, the Spartans sank or captured most of the Athenian ships.

Acting with characteristic haste, the Athenians condemned Alcibiades yet again. He took refuge with the Persians in Phrygia. At the request of the Athenian government, and with the approval of Sparta, Alcibiades' house was set on fire during the night. He came out, naked and desperate, when he was shot down with a volley of arrows. He died at forty-six, the greatest genius and most tragic failure in the military history of Greece.

Peace and democracy were briefly restored, but Athens and Sparta were both at the brink of military and financial ruin at the end of the Peloponnessian War. Out of the ashes of this tragedy would rise a magnificent new empire to the north, approaching the climax of the ancient world.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on the History of Civilization, click here.

There's a terrific book on the Peloponnessian War by the esteemed historian Donald Kagan. Also enjoyable is the greek classic history by Thucydides, available on downloadable audiobook.

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