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Alcibiades’s Downfall Essay

In Nine Greek Lives: The Rise and Fall of Athens, Plutarch presents the life of Alcibiades as a contrast between inspired military excellence and disappointing moral failure. Although he was a brilliant and accomplished military strategist, Alcibiades’ lack of moral fortitude, and his provocation of the Athenians into reckless action led to his downfall, and that of Athens. Although Alcibiades was a man of prodigious gifts who could have led Athens to military dominance, he gave in to base selfinterest and lack of self-control that caused him to alienate his friends, waste his military genius, and die alone in exile.

Alcibiades was a very gifted human being in several ways: appearance, intelligence, oratorical ability, charisma, and, as Socrates reportedly believed, general “innate virtues” (Plutarch, 8. 4). The most obvious of his gifts was his physical appearance: “Most of them were plainly captivated by the brilliance of his youthful beauty” (Plutarch, 8. 4). He was mocked for his pronounced lisp, as Plutarch quotes Aristophanes -“Then Alcibiades said to me with that lisp of his, Look at Theowus, what a cwaven’s head he has” (Plutarch, 8. ) – but even what could have been considered a problem in others was a benefit to him: “Even his lisp was said to have suited his voice well and to have made his talk persuasive and full of charm” (Plutarch, 8. 1). Although it can be considered an impediment, his lisp did not prevent him from being known as a great orator, or as some said, “The greatest orator Athens ever knew” (Plutarch, 8. 10). His persuasive speech was also part of his charismatic magnetism: “he counted above all else on his charm as a speaker to give him a hold over people” (Plutarch, 8. 10).

Later in his life, he was able to use his gift of charisma to win over even the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, who “in spite of being as bitter an enemy as Greece ever found among the Persians, succumbed so completely to Alcibiades’ flatteries, that he surpassed him” (Plutarch, 8. 24), going so far as naming his finest park after Alcibiades. It seems that Alcibiades’ transgressions were easily erased by the power of his brilliant personality. Despite his many gifts and the innate virtue Socrates saw in him, throughout his life Alcibiades chose a life of malicious pranks, violence, sacrilege, and general immorality.

This poor behavior dates to his youth, when he did many unacceptable things. He bit during wrestling – “he set his teeth in his opponent’s arm” (Plutarch, 8. 2), he caused mayhem-“Alcibiades flung himself down on his face directly in front of the team” (Plutarch, 8. 2) to block an oxcart in the street, and he attacked a teacher for not having a book available-“when the teacher said he had none of Homer’s work, Alcibiades struck him with his fist and went off” (Plutarch, 8. 7). These offences were a prelude to later and larger transgressions.

After rejecting an invitation to a party, he drunkenly went anyway, and seeing many gold and silver cups, “he told his slaves to take half of these and carry them home for him” (Plutarch, 8. 4). He was accused of destruction of religious objects, as “Androcles… produced a number of slaves and resident aliens, who accused Alcibiades and his friends of having disfigured other sacred images” (Plutarch, 8. 19), and even mocking religious ceremonies while drunk, they “parodied the Mysteries of Eleusis in one of their drunken revels” (Plutarch, 8. 19).

He was also accused of murder, although it was a rather vague and possibly bogus claim, “Alcibiades killed one of his attendants by striking him with a club” (Plutarch, 8. 3). He punched someone in the face for no other reason than “he had agreed with some friends to do it as a joke” (Plutarch, 8. 8) He has his dog’s tail cut off, laughing that “It will stop them from saying anything worse about me” (Plutarch, 8. 9). His many transgressions were caused by “that lawless self-indulgence in his daily life” (Plutarch, 8. 6), which he seems to have recognized.

Whenever Socrates found his pupil puffed up with vanity and the life of pleasure, he deflated him and rendered him humble and submissive, and Alcibiades was compelled to learn how many his defects were and how far he fell short of perfection” (Plutarch, 8. 6). While he was apparently aware of his shortcomings, and could recognize the value of Socrates’ wise advice, he was a mercurial chameleon, and would continually reinvent his immoral and downright bad existence Alcibiades could have been the greatest general Athens ever knew, but his quest for personal glory, and his lack of moral fortitude led the Athenian leaders to distrust him.

Alcibiades was a very skilled general -“his conduct of the war was excellent” (Thucydides, 6. 15) – but he felt no loyalty to his soldiers or his country- “Alcibiades, when he laid down his command after his recall and realized he was going to be exiled, had given information about the plot, in which he was concerned himself, to the pro-Syracusans party in Messina” (Thucydides, 6. 74). He betrayed the devoted soldiers, who “had openly declared that it was only on Alcibiades’ account they were going” (Plutarch, 8. 19), because he was mad at Athenian government.

He was intolerant of others’ success in military or political matters: “Alcibiades was vexed beyond measure at his rival’s success and out of sheer jealousy began to plot a way to violate the treaty” (Plutarch, 8. 14). But his biggest failing is that the Athenians could not trust him because “his way of life made him objectionable to everyone as a person, thus they entrusted their affairs to other hands” (Thucydides, 6. 15). The downfall of Athens began at Sicily, when Alcibiades was recalled “by the Athenians to stand his trial” (Plutarch, 8. 0); progressed rapidly when he turned traitor, “He now decided to renounce his country altogether. So he sent word to the Spartans asking for asylum and promising that he would render him services” (Plutarch, 8. 23); and was sealed when the “generals remained deaf to Alcibiades’ advice… and to all his warnings… as there were others in command now” (Plutarch, 8. 37).

Thucydides says that he did not cause Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War, but if his personal failings had not caused him to be untrustworthy, his military greatness might have been enough to save Athens. Because of Alcibiades’ birth, his wealth, and his personal courage in battle every door to a public career stood open to him” (Plutarch, 8. 10). Despite his many personal flaws, Alcibiades maintained a charisma that won him many friends and allies, even among enemies, and a quick intelligence that usually allowed him to live to fight another day. In times of trouble, however, he made reckless choices, as did Athens, proving the statement, ‘They long for him, they hate him, they cannot do without him” (Plutarch, 8. 16).

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