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Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades

Story, Text and Moralism

Simon Verdegem

Publication Year: 2010

At the beginning of the second century AD, Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote a series of pairs of biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen. Their purpose is moral: the reader is invited to reflect on important ethical issues and to use the example of these great men from the past to improve his or her own conduct. This book offers the first full-scale commentary on the Life of Alcibiades. It examines how Plutarch’s biography of one of classical Athens’ most controversial politicians functions within the moral programme of the Parallel Lives. Built upon the narratological distinction between story and text, Verdegem’s analysis, which involves detailed comparisons with other Plutarchan works (esp. the Lives of Nicias and Lysander) and several key texts in the Alcibiades tradition (e.g., Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon), demonstrates how Plutarch carefully constructed his story and used a wide range of narrative techniques to create a complex Life that raises interesting questions about the relation between private morality and the common good.

Published by: Leuven University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. 7-10

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pp. 11-12

This book offers a running commentary on Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades. The three words in the subtitle sum up the two premises upon which my analysis is based. The first is the distinction – fundamental to structuralist narratology – between a narrative text and the underlying story. ...


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pp. 13-18

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pp. 19-96

During the final years of the first and the early decades of the second century A.D., Plutarch of Chaeronea (ca A.D. 45-120) published a series of at least twenty-three pairs of biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen1. In the proem to Aemilius-Timoleon, Plutarch explains why he wrote these so-called Parallel Lives (Aem. 1.1-6):

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1. The Proem (Alc. 1)

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pp. 97-118

As is natural for the second Life of a Plutarchan pair, the Life of Alcibiades does not have a formal proem. Alc. 1, however, is an example of what Philip Stadter has called “informal proems”: Plutarch has adapted the biographical categories of ancestry (1.1), upbringing and education (1.2-3)1, ...

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2. A Difficult Character (Alc. 2-9)

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pp. 119-166

In the proem, we learnt that Alcibiades remained beautiful throughout his life “because of the natural goodness and excellence of his body”1. But what about his soul? Was he born with a good nature (φύσις) and did he develop a virtuous character (ἦθος)2? ...

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3. The Ascent to Power (Alc. 10-15)

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pp. 167-214

Alc. 10-15 deals with the first stage of Alcibiades’ political career. It begins with his first appearance before the Assembly (10.1-2) and ends with his foreign policy of the years 420-416 B.C. (14-15). In between, Plutarch discusses Alcibiades’ rhetoric (10.3-4), ...

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4. A Thought-Provoking Transition (Alc. 16)

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pp. 215-224

In many Lives, Plutarch suspends chronological narration at the height of his protagonist’s career (ἀκμή) to discuss the man’s character1. Although the events in Alc. 10-15 are not narrated in the historically correct order and Alcibiades’ first achievements as a general may not have constituted the absolute high point of his life, ...

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5. The Great Reversal (Alc. 17.1-23.3)

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pp. 225-268

In Alc. 17.1-23.3, Plutarch tells us about the first major reversal in Alcibiades’ life. This important section is demarcated by the discussion of Alcibiades’ character and the Athenians’ reactions to his conduct in Alc. 16 on the one hand and Alc. 23.4-5, which deals with his exceptional adaptability, on the other1. ...

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6. The Art of Adaptation (Alc. 23.4-5)

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pp. 269-278

In Alc. 23.3, we read that Alcibiades brought the Spartans under his spell by adopting local customs. In Alc. 23.4-5, Plutarch expands on his protagonist’s talent to assimilate and adapt himself to the habits and lifestyles of the people around him. First, he claims that Alcibiades could change more abruptly than a chameleon (23.4) ...

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7. From Sparta to Samos (Alc. 23.6-26.9)

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pp. 279-308

In Alc. 23.6-26.9, Plutarch relates how Alcibiades fell out of favour with the Lacedaemonians and returned to the Athenian side. We can distinguish four phases: in the first, Alcibiades is still in Sparta (23.6); next, he embarks on a Spartan expedition to Ionia (24.2); from there, he flees to the court of Tissaphernes in Sardis (24.4); ...

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8. Fighting His Way Back (Alc. 27-31)

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pp. 309-330

Alc. 27-31 deals with the actions Alcibiades undertook in the Hellespont and the Propontis between the fall of the Four Hundred and his return to Athens. Most of the events reported in this section are posterior to the point where Thucydides’ History, the main source for the previous parts of our Life, breaks off. ...

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9. At the Height of his Glory (Alc. 32-34)

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pp. 331-350

Alc. 32.1-34.2 deals with Alcibiades’ return to Athens. This section of the Life can be compared with the accounts of Xenophon, Diodorus and Cornelius Nepos, who names Theopompus as one of his sources for his biography of Alcibiades (Alc. 11.1-2) and no doubt drew upon Ephorus too1. ...

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10. A Tragic Downfall (Alc. 35-39)

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pp. 351-398

In the last five chapters of his Life of Alcibiades, Plutarch describes Alcibiades’ final downfall. Three stages can be discerned. First, Alcibiades gradually falls into disfavour with the Athenians, so that he is eventually compelled to move to Thrace (35.1-36.5). ...

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pp. 399-424

Although we cannot identify the source(s) behind each part of the Life of Alcibiades with certainty, it is clear that Plutarch drew upon a great number of works belonging to various genres. His most important source was Thucydides’ Histories. ...


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pp. 425-468

Index of Plutarch Passages

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pp. 469-486

Index of Passages in Other Authors

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pp. 487-499

E-ISBN-13: 9789461660091
Print-ISBN-13: 9789058677600

Page Count: 499
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Plutarch. Alcibiades.
  • Plutarch -- Criticism and interpretation.
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