- Alcibiades by P. J. Rhodes
The Athenian general Alcibiades was one of the most charismatic figures of classical Athens. He was brilliant, a flamboyant character, handsome, and a politician, general, and bisexual playboy who was exiled for profaning the Mysteries of the goddess Demeter. In exile, he joined the Spartan enemy, supposedly seduced the wife of the king of Sparta, and ended his life murdered by the Persians. He was mocked by the fifth-century comedian Aristophanes, who makes fun of his lisp. He is the subject of two probably spurious dialogues of Plato. His charisma captured the Athenian people, the philosopher Socrates, and the contemporary historians Thucydides and Xenophon.
We can perhaps understand Xenophon’s like of Alcibiades, since both men were part of the circle of Socrates. But even Thucydides, who prides himself on objectivity, shows an admiration for him. Subsequent generations of historians from antiquity to the present day seemed equally captivated. In the first/second century a.d., Plutarch wrote a Life of Alcibiades, filled with both admiration and censure, and examined his private morality and public life. Modern biographies have been a mixture of admiration and criticism, the same sort of polarized judgments that Alcibiades generated during his lifetime and in the ancient world. The most comprehensive work is that of Jean Hatzfeld, Alcibiade (Paris 1951), which saw Alcibiades as a military genius. In his Alcibiades (New York 1989), Walter M. Ellis saw Alcibiades as one of Athens’ greatest strategists. On the negative side Edmund F. Bloedow, Alcibiades Reexamined (Wiesbaden 1973), saw him as a disastrous commander, full of egotism and self-interest, a view echoed by Peter Green in many of his writings.
Peter Rhodes presents a picture that leans more toward the view of Bloedow. He sees the Sicilian Expedition as ill conceived and a campaign where the risks outweighed the benefit. He considers Alcibiades primarily interested in his own aggrandizement and loyal to Athens only when that loyalty benefited himself. Rhodes is a major historian of ancient Greece and has produced many important books on classical Athens. The words on the dust jacket, “Athenian Playboy,” suggest a popular biography of Alcibiades, but it is not. The work is very competent, and not for the general reader, but rather for specialists and students of fifth-century Athens or Thucydides. The popular title and art work may be the publisher’s effort at promotion. The dust jacket shows a bearded Alcibiades, a statue once identified as Alcibiades, a view no longer held, especially since Alcibiades supposedly was beardless. A better popular alternative might have been the equally dubious beardless Alcibiades bust from the Capitoline Museum, or perhaps the probably more genuine Roman-period portrait mosaic from Sparta.
For a reader not already familiar with the history of the Peloponnesian War, the book is hard to comprehend, since it assumes a great deal of knowledge on the reader’s part. Rhodes begins with a chapter on sources, ancient and modern, a chapter on fifth-century Greece, and then five chapters chronologically about Alcibiades’ life. The book could have used a final chapter on the evaluation of Alcibiades as a general and as a politician as a conclusion to what is basically a chronological narrative of his career and events in fifth-century Athens. Rhodes generally does not relate many of the anecdotes found in later sources, nor does he analyze whether there is any validity to these stories.
The book also has a feel of being out of date in many ways. Rhodes gave his inaugural lecture as Professor of Ancient History at Durham on Alcibiades [End Page 295] in 1984. Some of the research on Athens seems to be from that period without being updated. For example, Rhodes relates (28) that one-third of the population died of the plague of Athens, rather than the generally accepted rate of 25 percent (see David Morens and Robert Littman, “Epidemiology of the Plague of Athens, TAPA 122  271–304). He fails to mention the recent discovery of...