Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Alcibiades was noted for his beauty as well as for his charming manners, which attracted everybody who came in contact with him. He talked very rapidly, and with a little lisp that seemed rather to add to the grace of his speech, and to give it a certain power when he was persuading people to do what he desired. He was an Athenian, with a character made up of such opposite traits that while he was praised for his talent as a statesman and his skill and courage as a commander, he was condemned for his lack of principle, his extravagance, and his dissipation.

He was a disciple of Socrates, the celebrated philosopher, for whom he felt great admiration and affection. Socrates did not flatter his pupil, as most people did, but always told him the truth, even though it was not agreeable, and tried to instill in him the best of principles. Alcibiades was often rude to his companions, though many of them were noble and wealthy, but to Socrates, whom he loved and admired, he was ever mild and courteous, and never lost an opportunity to be with him. The philosopher loved his young companion too, and when, at various times, he was led away by the youths of Athens and took part in their vicious pleasures, Socrates would seek him and bring him back to the proper path. He could do this, for he was feared and respected by Alcibiades as no one else was.

This young Athenian chose Pericles for his model in public life, and was ambitious to rise to the position that illustrious statesman had held. Even as a child the thought of ever being defeated or opposed in anything was most painful to him, and he would resort to any trick to prevent it. Once, when engaged in a wrestling-match, finding himself on the point of being thrown, he bit the hand of his opponent with all his might. "You bite like a woman, Alcibiades," cried the boy, angrily, letting go his hold. "Oh, no," returned our hero; "I bite like a lion."

Another time, when he was playing at dice, a loaded cart came along just when it was his turn to throw. He called to the driver to stop, but the latter paid no attention and drove on, the boys making way for him to pass. But Alcibiades would not yield; so he stretched himself across the road and cried out to the carter, "Now drive on if you will!" The man was so startled that he drew back his horses, and the child gained his point.

At school Alcibiades obeyed all his masters pretty well, except the one who tried to teach him the flute. That instrument he declared he would never learn, because it was not becoming in a free citizen so to disfigure himself with the blowing. He was willing to play upon the harp, because he could speak or sing at the same time, and was not obliged to make ugly faces. "Let the Theban youths pipe," he would say, "because they do not know how to talk, but we Athenians, who have Minerva for our patroness and Apollo for our protector, cannot stoop so low." This decision of his had so much weight among his companions that not one of them would play on the flute, and that instrument fell into disuse.

Socrates saved the life of Alcibiades when he was a soldier, in this way. They fought side by side, and the latter was wounded so seriously that he must have received further injury had not the philosopher defended and rescued him from the enemy. Such being the case, Socrates might have claimed the prize for valor, but he was so anxious to encourage in his young friend a thirst for glory that he used his influence to have him rewarded with a crown and a complete suit of armor. Many years later, when the Athenians were defeated at the battle of Delium, and Socrates was retreating on foot, Alcibiades, who was on horseback, placed himself between him and the enemy, and, in his turn, became a shield.

He had a very fine dog, for which he had paid a large sum of money. It was a beautiful animal, remarkable for its handsome tail, which everybody noticed. Alcibiades had this ornament cut off. Thereupon his friends exclaimed at such a piece of inhumanity, and told him that all Athens was talking about it. "That is exactly what I wanted," replied the young man, "for if the Athenians had not this to talk about, they might say something worse of me." Unfortunately, his conduct was often so shameless that he gave ample opportunity for scandal.

Few men have had greater advantages for entering public life than Alcibiades, but he was determined to owe success to nothing but his own eloquence, and he became a most accomplished speaker, always using the right word in the right place and expressing himself in the choicest language.

We have alluded to his extravagance. He spent enormous sums of money for horses, of which he owned the finest breed, and he is the only person who ever sent seven chariots at one time to the Olympic games. He carried away the first, second, and third prizes, and two others were won by his horses. This was considered so remarkable that the representatives of the various Greek cities, who witnessed his success, made him handsome presents, and after the games were over he entertained all the spectators at a magnificent repast.

When Alcibiades entered public life, he had two rivals; one was Nicias, a man advanced in years, and one of the best generals of his day, the other Phæax, a youth just beginning to make his way. Phæax was of high birth, but inferior to Alcibiades as an orator. It was said of him that he could talk, but was no speaker.

Not only was Nicias esteemed by the Athenians, but he was in high favor with the Lacedæmonians on account of the care he had bestowed on their soldiers who were captured at Pylos, and the peace he had afterwards brought about. This aroused the jealousy of Alcibiades, and he was bent upon the downfall of Nicias, so he accused him of having neglected his opportunities when he was commander for the express purpose of currying favor with the Lacedæmonians. His eloquence won the day, as usual, and he was declared general.

His first step was to unite three other Greek nations with his own, and combine an immense force against the Lacedæmonians. At the same time he removed the seat of war so far from the Athenian territory that should the enemy conquer they would gain little, and in case of defeat Sparta would not be safe. This was a fine stroke of policy, and showed great genius on the part of Alcibiades.

Shortly after the first battle the officers of the Argive army desired to have an independent government, and the Lacedæmonians offered to assist them in accomplishing this. But their object was soon found to be a desire to form an aristocracy like that of Sparta, and so get a foothold among the nobility themselves. This made the people of Argos so angry that they took up arms against the Lacedæmonians, and with the aid of Alcibiades gained a great victory over them. He then persuaded the people of Argos to build their wall down to the sea, so that they might always be in condition to receive aid from the Athenians, and sent carpenters and masons from Athens to do the work. He advised the people of Patræ to build a similar wall, whereupon somebody suggested that the Athenians would one day swallow them up. "That may be so," answered Alcibiades, "but they will begin at the feet and do it by little and little, whereas the Lacedæmonians will begin at the head and gobble you up all at once."

Alcibiades made his countrymen love and hate him at the same time. They felt that they could not do without him, and were fascinated by his speech as well as by some of his worthy deeds, but they hated his luxurious habits, and were disgusted with the contempt he showed for the law. They made apologies for him on the score of youth and good nature, and were won, in spite of themselves, by his liberality, his courage, and his attractive manners. Once when a whole assembly went to congratulate him upon an unusually brilliant oration he had made, Timon, an Athenian philosopher, who was given to making disagreeable remarks, took him by the hand and said, "Go on, my brave boy, and increase your popularity as much as you can, for you will one day bring calamities enough upon these people."

Alcibiades next turned the attention of his countrymen to the conquest of Sicily, a place they had long coveted as being the surest stepping-stone to Carthage. Nicias did not approve of the expedition, and pointed out the innumerable difficulties that would attend it, but Alcibiades worked with so much success upon the minds of the young men of Athens that they were all eagerness to depart, and preparations were begun. Much against his will, Nicias was appointed to command with Alcibiades, because it was expected that his experience and judgment would act as a check on the younger and rasher general.

When everything was ready, a damper was put upon the expedition by many unlucky omens. Among others, all the images of Mercury in Athens were disfigured during one night, and this excited great terror in the minds of the populace. Several reports were circulated to account for this strange occurrence, and at last Alcibiades and his friends were accused of having mutilated the images when in a state of intoxication. It was further stated that, disguised as a high-priest, he had on the same night acted the sacred mysteries, his companions playing their parts in the profane farce also.

The people were very angry with Alcibiades, and would have brought him to trial at once, but the young men who were ready for war declared that they would be led by no one else, so it was decided that he should set sail at once and be tried on his return. No sooner was the fascination of his presence removed than the enemies of Alcibiades circulated false reports concerning him. These, added to the suspicion (for it could not be proved) that he had mutilated the statues of Mercury, increased the popular feeling against him to a perfect fury, and the belief gradually gained ground that he was engaged in a conspiracy to betray Athens to the Lacedæmonians. It is hard to understand what connection there could be between this charge and the others; but such was the feeling against Alcibiades that the people were ready to believe whatever they heard, no matter how improbable it might appear.

Every relation and friend of the unfortunate general was put into prison unheard, and such great regret was felt that Alcibiades himself had not been tried and punished, that a vessel was sent to fetch him back. The soldiers objected to his leaving them, for they thought that the war would never end under the management of Nicias, but they were not heeded, and their general was forced to go. However, he took the precaution to embark on a vessel of his own, and not the one that was sent for him. On landing at Thurii, in Italy, he made his escape and hid himself. Some one, who happened to recognize him in his hiding-place, asked him if he was afraid to trust his country. "As to anything else I will trust her," he replied, "but with my life I would not trust even my own mother, lest by mistake she should throw in a black bean for a white one."

We know that one black bean was sufficient to banish a man by ostracism; but a severer punishment was ordered for Alcibiades, for the republic condemned him to die. When he heard of this, he said, "But I will make them feel that I am alive." As he failed to appear, his property was confiscated, and all the priests and priestesses were ordered to curse him. Theano was the only priestess who refused, saying, "It is my duty to pray for sinners, not to curse them."

Meanwhile, fearing that he was not safe at Thurii, Alcibiades had made his way to Argos. Thence he sent a message to Sparta, asking permission to live there, and adding a promise that he would serve the state faithfully. An escort was provided to take him to Sparta, where he immediately began to work in opposition to his country, never ceasing until it was almost crushed.

Of course such a service made Alcibiades exceedingly popular in Sparta, traitor though he was, and he gained many friends in private life by the way he adapted himself to their customs. This man, who had been so luxurious in his habits as to have his meals prepared by a professional cook, to employ a perfumer, and to clothe himself in flowing robes of regal purple, now wore his hair closely cropped, bathed in cold water, ate coarse meal, and dined on black broth. He was not changed really, but he had the gift of entering into the habits and ways of the people he was with, and of appearing to be one of them. Therefore when, at a later period, his life was in danger because of the jealousy of some ambitious Spartans, he placed himself under the protection of Tissaphernes, satrap to the king of Persia, and immediately became of great importance in the new field. Although Tissaphernes hated the Greeks, he was an admirer of Alcibiades, whose underhanded ways were rather to his taste than otherwise; so he received him with many marks of hospitality, and honored him by giving his name to one of the most beautiful of his parks.

Alcibiades now turned against the Lacedæmonians, and advised Tissaphernes not to assist them in ruining the Athenians, but to let the two nations fight on and gradually consume each other. His influence was so great that he was obeyed, and in consequence of his power he rose high in the esteem of his own countrymen, who now began to regret the sentence they had passed on him, particularly as they had suffered on account of his absence.

At this time the whole strength of the Athenian army was stationed at Samos. They were in great dread of Tissaphernes and the Phœnician fleet; so when Alcibiades sent them word that he would make the Persian their friend, it was an immense relief. But he did not propose to do this, he said, unless a change in the government of Athens could be brought about. He wanted the power vested in the hands of a few aristocrats, doubtless thinking it probable that he would then be recalled to Athens; but he did not let this selfish aim appear.

The change really did take place, and the government was assumed by a body of four hundred chosen citizens, called the Five Thousand to give it an appearance of strength; but nobody ever knew of more than the four hundred, who established themselves by force and dismissed the ancient senate. This was an end of the Athenian democracy, which had lasted nearly a century.

Any man who dared to oppose the four hundred was put to death, and when the Athenians at Samos heard of this deposition they became so indignant that they sent for Alcibiades, declared him general, and urged him to lead them on to put down the tyrants. But he refused, for he saw clearly that such a step could only lead to harm and involve Athens in a civil war. He performed a still greater service by using his influence with Tissaphernes to prevent the Phœnician fleet from joining the Lacedæmonians.

Soon after this the four hundred usurpers were driven out of Athens, and then Alcibiades was commanded to return. But he would not do so until he had distinguished himself in some service. He, therefore, sailed from Samos with a few ships and proceeded to the Hellespont, where there was to be a battle between the Spartans and Athenians assembled there. He gained a great victory, of which he felt so proud that he was anxious to show himself to Tissaphernes, and he went to visit him with some handsome gifts. Much to the astonishment of Alcibiades, the Persian, who had displeased the court by showing him favors, had reason on that account to fear the displeasure of his king, and so had the Athenian arrested and sent to Sardis a prisoner.

But Alcibiades had his revenge, for he made his escape before the month was out, and publicly announced that the Persian satrap had helped him to do so. Then he hastened to join the Athenian fleet, and was greeted by loud cheers when he made his appearance. He went to the Hellespont again, fought a desperate battle, and completely overthrew the Lacedæmonians. Elated with this great victory, the Athenian soldiers began to believe that no power could resist them, led by Alcibiades, so they attacked many important places along the coast of Asia Minor, and took possession of them all.

Then, crowned with glory, Alcibiades turned towards Athens, longing once more to appear before his countrymen. So he set sail with a fleet of two hundred vessels laden with spoils. It was not without misgivings that he entered the harbor, but he was reassured by his relations and friends, who flocked to the shore and invited him to land. As soon as he did so the multitude crowded around him, some crowning him with laurel-wreaths, while others, who could not get near, shouted with delight, and followed in his train, satisfied with an occasional glimpse of the great hero.

Afterwards, in a public assembly, gold crowns were placed upon the head of Alcibiades, he was created general both of the land and sea forces, his estates were restored to him, and the priests were ordered to absolve him from the curses they had pronounced against him.

It was believed by the majority that Alcibiades could fail in nothing that he attempted; and this belief caused his ruin. For after a while, when he fought a battle with the Lacedæmonians and was defeated, it was said that he had commanded carelessly, and had spent his time in dissipation and pleasures while in sight of the enemy, leaving the management of the fleet to incompetent people. There were other charges brought against him besides, and ten generals were appointed in his place to lead the Athenian army and navy.

It was Lysander who commanded the Lacedæmonians when they gained this victory, and he then took formal possession of Athens, burnt her ships, and demolished the long walls. Alcibiades, fearing the new masters, retired to Asia Minor, carrying a large amount of treasure with him. But he was robbed, and then determined to seek refuge at the court of Artaxerxes, the Persian king.

Meanwhile, a reign of terror was established in Athens by the thirty despotic rulers whom Lysander had set over the people. Then there was talk of recalling Alcibiades. No one could tell precisely how one man could counteract the outrages of the thirty despots, but it was the general belief that Alcibiades, were he on the spot, could effect some change.

Lysander thought so too, and therefore sent people to assassinate him. They went to the village in Phrygia, where he was then living, and set his house on fire in the middle of the night. Alcibiades was on the alert because of a remarkable vision he had had; so when he discovered the flames he looked out and beheld the men who surrounded his house. Wrapping his cloak tightly about him, he rushed through fire and smoke, drawn sword in hand, and would have made his escape, for the assassins were afraid to approach him, had he not been hit by their darts, which, like cowards, they fired from a safe distance.

He fell covered with wounds. Thus, in the fortieth year of his age, perished one of the most remarkable, though by no means one of the greatest or best, men of Greece. His qualities were such as ought to have made him a benefactor to Athens; but his judgment was at fault, and no man ever inflicted greater misery on his native land.