Erotic Tyranny

By Ryan ShinkelDecember 31, 2018

Nemesis by David Stuttard

IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD, moderation meant harmony within personal and political limits. Because jealous gods level excesses in love and victory, wealth and glory, anyone, slave or king, too big for his britches, invites divine retribution. In individuals and states, pride comes before falls. The choice is stark: maintain balance within oneself and within city or mortal hubris gets humbled. This familiar lesson to Greece abounds in her myths of wrathful gods chastening haughty men. Her philosophers also forewarn. Plato likens the soul to a flying chariot with winged-horses. One horse signifies desire, another spiritedness, and the charioteer, reason. Desire dives to earth, spirit soars to heaven, and reason balances midair, reining in appetite and passion. But when reason does not reign, a disjointed soul sires a disjointed polity.

Here the personal is political. A tyrannical city has citizens enslaved to bodily cravings. A warmongering city has citizens consumed by love of honor. When base desire or mighty pride rules, an immoderate citizen mirrors an unbalanced state. “What bitter anguish,” James Madison asks, would “Athens have often escaped if their government” safeguarded “against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped” reproach for “decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.” Many earned hateful adulation, but tyranny of passion at expense of liberty climaxed in Alcibiades. This colorfully outrageous and enigmatic personality stormed fragile wartime Athens in the fifth century BC — with a love of glory ignorant of limits, whether borders, customs, or comeuppance from the gods. His pride was his downfall.

David Stuttard ably situates his biography, Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, with Athens’s naval empire warring with Sparta, civic institutions decaying, and audacious demagogues vying for power. Alcibiades marked her peak and decline. Classical antiquity, especially Athenian democracy, is a dimmed mirror whose parallels are noteworthy, but contrasts more so. One must show how strange prior civilizations are with clear prose and crafty story. Stuttard generally succeeds. Still, one attempt to make Alcibiades accessible overlooks more than it helps. With several footnotes citing ancient parallels to populist 2016, Stuttard sardonically says Alcibiades wanted to “Make Athens Great Again,” and elsewhere writes “The Donald Trump of Ancient Greece” was “a scion of wealth who loved to win” and “manipulate the masses.” This shorthand proves helpful to a point. Shameless Alcibiades, with limitless appetites for sex and fame, corrupted institutions amid wars and factions.

Most modern parallels end there. He was richly audacious to win crowds and kings, for sure, but no traitor to his class. If anything, his would-be tyranny was classier than a presidential pop star resembling Saul Goodman more than a vastly more spirited soldier and philosophical raconteur, as well as cunning leader, eloquent denunciator, if not loftier upstart. In what follows, Alcibiades is possibly the first genuine cosmopolitan, if not vulgarly decriable as more globalist than nationalist. But Stuttard remains mostly modest.

A good introduction to the Peloponnesian War, his book critically uses ancient sources — Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch, among others — and contemporary historiography. He writes conversationally for general audiences with helpful details for scholars. Alcibiades leaves much to speculative reconstruction. A theater director of ancient Greek drama and popular writer on Hellenic myths and persons, Stuttard knows how to narrate his character in context. If Alcibiades lacked character, in Stuttard’s telling he is one.

Born among legendary aristocrats descending from Homeric warriors, orphaned Alcibiades was raised by Pericles, the premier statesmen who housed sophists, philosophers, and poets. This background was tailored for an entitled, ambitious rascal skeptical of gods and democracy. His adolescent anecdotes foreshadow future conduct: “The general picture,” P. J. Rhodes notes in Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General, and Traitor, shows “an arrogant and violent man, who took no notice of the ordinary restraints on selfish conduct and positively enjoyed shocking people.” When Athens gossiped after he removed his dog’s tail, Alcibiades explained his wish to distract them from anything else. Handsomest of Greeks and hypnotic orator, Alcibiades charmed Socrates and bewitched assemblies. Maturing into a courageous fighter and cavalier right as peace broke, he did everything possible to revive war. His machinations reveal a potential friend to Athens, but mostly a foe.

His pride was too visible. Already a decorated soldier married into the richest family, an Olympic charioteer, and as a youth elected general multiple times, his showmanship aided enemies and abetted their accusations of gross sacrilege. Some said Athens could not handle another Alcibiades; even one proved excessive. When recalled for trial while beginning a doomed Sicilian campaign, he sought refuge in foreign kingdoms, advising their rulers and adopting their customs, first to Sparta, then Persia, and, after a homecoming and exile, Thrace. Ostracism could not stop Alcibiades — he imitated too readily whomever he wished to charm.

His ambition was boundless. With patriotic sophistry, he reinterpreted the old military oath to enhance the lands within Athenian domain as witnessed by her crops and fruit trees, to mean instead along the lines that Athens rules wherever vegetation grows. With dominion over the earth, he proclaimed universal empire. Later soliciting Spartan protection for his assistance, he warned Athens sought the entire Mediterranean. Did he mean loyal Athenians, like Nicias, a colleague in Sicily and political enemy? Stuttard cites J. T. Roberts: “An ambitious program of world conquest led by Nicias? Surely not.” Alcibiades esoterically cited himself. Thucydides records him saying, “if I harmed you badly as an enemy, I can do you great good as a friend,” for Alcibiades had appeared friendly to Athens, now a harsh enemy. He explicitly sought to reclaim the Athens taken from him. The civics lesson is clear: be wary of spurned lovers. Having been rejected, he became her foe to win Athens back, treasons and revolutions be damned.

War and love fulfilled similar desires and passions in him. An exotically dressed man of action, glory, and sex, his profligacy won renown. As someone quipped at the time, youthful Alcibiades enticed husbands from wives, mature Alcibiades enticed wives from husbands. Pericles’s wife, Aspasia, even wrote Socrates a poem advising how to seduce Alcibiades, which Socrates refused, wanting instead to convert him. But Alcibiades’s desire and pride were elsewhere. His shield insignia — a figure, flying Eros, who holds a victor’s olive wreath with outstretched hand — illustrates where. The god of love holding the victory crown encapsulates his profligacy, bravery, and lover’s quarrel. Fittingly, Plutarch paired his Life of Alcibiades with the Life of Coriolanus, the prideful patrician general who, exiled by Rome, sought vengeance by leading her enemies, in pursuit of his convoluted love for the public adulation he supposedly despised.

Plato deemed Alcibiades a failed experiment. Refusing moderation by philosophy, he heeded not his wiser mentor. In Protagoras, as Socrates debates what is virtue with sophists, Alcibiades intervenes, prompting a sneer: “Whatever Alcibiades decides to get involved with, he always has to win.” Ambition in argument betrays ambitions elsewhere. Another dialogue, the Symposium, betrays his untamed appetites. As poets and philosophers finish discussing Eros — which physically is sexual attraction, but spiritually is reason stirring souls to strive for goodness — a drunk Alcibiades crashes the party. His speech reveals he understands Socrates but remains unyielding. Stuck in sexual love, he refuses chastening by a higher kind. Stuttard ponders: “Yearning for philosophy, he lives a life of dissolution. Drunk, his speech in praise of Socrates is clear-eyed and articulate. Uninvited, he has come from nowhere, and when the symposium is over he has disappeared.” The party is just before the disaster in Sicily. Portrayed is a tyranny of a passion unchastened by philosophy.

However, Stuttard thinks these portrayals are retrospective defenses of Socrates. Decline in Athens, Plato alleges, was due to Alcibiades, not Socrates. If only the student had listened to his teacher! Still, this analysis by Stuttard may underestimate how Plato tries to insightfully show Alcibiades in dramatic form. Perhaps Stuttard’s best insight is showing Alcibiades’s impact on Greek theater. As he was depicted in Plato, so also in Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles. Stuttard notes Euripides’s Dionysus is a possible parable: a cruel, charismatic god, who, upon returning to Greece from Asia, first infatuates and then destroys the unyielding ruling class. Helping Sparta, and, after impregnating their queen, helping the Persian satrap, Alcibiades prolonged war with Athens. He even affected revolution at home with promises of Persian money, but refused to join the oligarchic coup, then championed the dissident democratic navy and army abroad, and upon return home was named chief general. But some providential defeats angered Athens. Thence, he fled to Thrace as a mercenary warlord. He watched Sparta defeat Athens, and eventually both cities sought his death. In Persia, an army attacked his Melissa compound while assassins burned his home. Befitting the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he charged only with a dagger into the night as arrows showered down upon him. His mistress Timandra performed last rites, while his enemies claimed his head.

Stuttard details what Alcibiades did, but not always why he acted thusly, sometimes inferring his likely thoughts or feelings without sufficiently probing his motives. We never get inside Alcibiades’s head. Admittedly, his loyalties are often indiscernible. This “aristocrat with Homeric heroic intentions living in an age of People Power,” Stuttard lectures, was “for some a roguish hero, for others an unscrupulous traitor.” In a final battle near the Hellespont, Alcibiades offered Athenian generals his assistance and his allies. When his offer of wealth and arms was for once honest, he was dismissed. After their insults, he refused to prevent their defeat. Stuttard cites Libanius — according to whom Alcibiades’s androgyny, seductive at night, dangerous in daylight, meant “changing his personality more readily than Proteus” — and Plutarch — who thought Alcibiades assumed any persona to please his company. With knack for adopting habits, customs, and “transforming more completely than a chameleon,” Plutarch writes, he blended with good and bad, ably impersonating and learning anything. Stuttard ends noting that this protean chameleon foreshadows Alexander, who geographically and culturally united Macedonia, Greece, Persia, and beyond. Perchance this apt comparison provides a hermeneutical key.

Their love of honor adapted to whatever one culture happened to honor. How they adapted is distinct. Alexander acculturated as a lawgiver, leading subjects to reflect his ability to transcend cultures in, one scholar suggests, the “first globalization.” Whereas Alexander is institutional, Alcibiades is personal in adaptability. He does not alter Athens except insofar as to lead her, for his protean talents remain tied to patriotic affection. Alexander transcended Macedon, while Alcibiades loved Athens, however limitless his horizons and desires. But perhaps consider what Stuttard underestimates: philosophy. “Alexander succeeded where Alcibiades failed,” Alexandre Kojève posits, “But both wanted the same thing, and both tried to go beyond the rigid and narrow confines of the ancient City” — a project which “can be traced back to the philosophical teaching of Socrates.” Both philosophy and tyranny transcend local horizons and city limits. Rather than listening too little to Socrates, Alcibiades imbibed enough philosophy to imagine new political ambitions. His assimilative capacities, erotic longings, and imperial pride translated the universalism of Socratic philosophy into political action. Rather than having ignored Socrates, Alcibiades understood him only too well. They both fell prey to the protean democratic passions issuing hemlocks one day and statues the next.

But nobody fully understands Alcibiades, which is why he continually fascinates. Notably, when distinguishing poetry from history, Aristotle says poetry concerns motives, what someone with certain character inevitably says or does, while history concerns facts: “[A] specific fact is what Alcibiades did or what was done to him.” His example is telling. Alcibiades defines and defies history because nobody could predict what he would do. As likely to earn first a hemlock, then a statue, divine blessings, then curses, Alcibiades was never one for moderation.


Ryan Shinkel is a historical researcher and a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Shinkel is a historical researcher and a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.


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