Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 9a Alcibiades

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805), Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress (c 1781), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The next character covered in Plutarch’s Lives is one of the most colourful statesmen in classical history: Alcibiades, whose love life was so reckless that it couldn’t be depicted until the nineteenth century, and whose changing allegiances become thoroughly confusing.

Alcibiades’ father, Cleinias, was killed fighting for Athens at Coroneia, so as a child he was made a ward of Pericles and his brother. He had two salient advantages in his youth: that the great teacher and philosopher Socrates was a close friend (and lover), and his great beauty. That beauty brought him the attention of many noblemen, but it was Socrates to whom he was most devoted.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), Socrates and Alcibiades (date not known), oil on canvas, 32.7 x 24.1 cm, Thorvaldsens Museum, København, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

The father of Danish painting, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, makes explicit their relationship in his undated Socrates and Alcibiades.

Jean-Charles Nicaise Perrin (1754–1831) (attr) or Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809) (school of), The Wounded Alcibiades (1743-1800), oil on canvas, 53.5 × 90.5 cm, Wellcome Library (Bequeathed by Henry Solomon Wellcome 1936), London. By courtesy of the Wellcome Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch describes an occasion during the Potidaea campaign, when both the young Alcibiades and the much older Socrates were serving as soldiers, and shared a tent. Alcibiades was wounded, and Socrates stood over and defended him. This was the basis of The Wounded Alcibiades, painted between 1743-1800 either by Jean-Charles Nicaise Perrin or one of Joseph-Marie Vien’s school.

Regnault (1754–1829), Socrates Tears Alcibiades
Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829), Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure (1791), oil on canvas, 46 x 68 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch doesn’t, though, tell the story which became most popular with painters, in which Socrates came and tore Alcibiades away from the clutch of courtesans, which is the theme of a succession of paintings, starting with Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure in 1791.

As a young man, Alcibiades led a wanton life, both with other men and with courtesans. When he had married Hipparete, and they had a daughter, his wife was repeatedly distressed by his consorting with courtesans, so left him and went to live with her brother. Alcibiades didn’t change his ways, so his wife started to divorce him. When she went to the magistrate to enter her plea in person, Alcibiades turned up and carried her home with him, so ending the proceedings.

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805), Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress (c 1781), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée’s Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress (c 1781) shows him with two women, neither of whom is impressed by his behaviour.

His wealth, birth, and personal bravery in battle ensured that he entered public life, where he prospered thanks to the power of his oratory. Alcibiades first came to prominence during the Peloponnesian Wars, when an uneasy peace had been made with Sparta. Public opinion was that it was Pericles who had plunged Athens into the wars, and Nicias who had delivered them from it, so the truce was known as the Peace of Nicias. Alcibiades wanted to break that peace.

He first turned opinion in the assembly against Nicias, but a delegation arrived from Sparta which threatened to undo that. Alcibiades drew the Spartans away from Nicias, and trapped them with a personal oath. When the Spartans revealed to the assembly that they had no independent powers, Alcibiades ensured that the Athenians were enraged, and Nicias filled with shame. Alcibiades was consequently made general.

He then forged alliances, and restarted the wars, keeping the fighting well away from the city of Athens, at Mantineia in Arcadia. He also persuaded the city of Patrae to fortify, which bonded them more strongly with Athens.

Alcibiades continued to live a life of luxury through all this, with drunkenness, wanton behaviour, and great public expenditure. This was generally well-tolerated, although a few grew indignant at his behaviour.

The Athenians had long wanted the island of Sicily, and Alcibiades built those dreams into great desire despite the opposition of Nicias and others. Indeed, Alcibiades’ interests went further, to encompass the city of Carthage and Libya as well. The three generals elected to undertake this campaign were therefore Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus, who was also fond of taking risks in battle.

When the Athenian fleet was ready to sail for the campaign to take Sicily, and maybe more, the signs and portents were discouraging. The fleet still set sail, though. When they reached Italy, they took Rhegium, secured the allegiance of Catana, but achieved no more. They were summoned to return to Athens, where Alcibiades was to face trial.

While he had been away, Alcibiades’ enemies had been building a case for his trial. This resulted in him being impeached in his absence, his property confiscated, and his name publicly cursed. But Alcibiades escaped and went first to Argos, then to Sparta, where he collaborated with the Spartans to enable them to crush the Athenian force at Syracuse, and to fight further against Athens.

Although Alcibiades had lived in luxury and wantonness all his life, he apparently adapted well to the stringencies of the Spartan way of life. When Agis II king of the Spartans went away to war, Alcibiades had an affair with his wife Timaea, who bore a child as a result.

For this reason, and growing jealousy among other Spartans, an order was issued for Alcibiades to be put to death. He therefore allied himself with the Persians, through their king’s satrap, Tissaphernes. At the time, Athenian forces were fully occupied at Samos, which they were using as a naval base. Alcibiades was involved in various intrigues and plots between the Persians, Athenians, and Spartans, which ended with his sailing with a small fleet of warships.

He then heard that the Athenian fleet was pursuing the Spartans near the Hellespont. When he reached them off Abydos, they were engaged in battle. He hoisted the Athenian colours, and helped the Athenians to victory.

Alcibiades went to visit Tissaphernes, expecting to be welcomed and congratulated at his achievement. He was most surprised when the Persian arrested him, in the hope that action would bring him favour with the Spartan king. After a month, Alcibiades escaped; to have his revenge on Tissaphernes, he spread the rumour that the Persian had helped him escape.

Alcibiades rejoined the Athenian forces, who were stuck in a stalemate against the Peloponnesians. He took the Athenians back to sea, where he deceived their enemy and so destroyed the Peloponnesian fleet and took control of the Hellespont. There followed a series of resounding successes for the Athenians which took them up to Byzantium itself.

Returning at long last to Athens, Alcibiades was concerned at how he was going to be received back. Fortunately, he was welcomed by the people, and decked with wreaths. His misadventure in Sicily had seemingly been forgiven, and his more recent contribution to the city-state’s military success was all that they thought of. When he addressed the assembly, his property was restored, curses revoked, and he was made general again.

There were now great expectations of Alcibiades, which he couldn’t always deliver. When he attacked Andros, although he was victorious, he failed to capture the city itself. His fleet was also not well funded, and the Spartans seized the opportunity when Alcibiades was away raising funds to inflict a defeat on the remainder of the Athenian fleet. The Spartans then started to get the better of the Athenians at sea, and inflicted another defeat, even capturing Athens itself. Alcibiades’ days were numbered.

The Spartans then sent a party to the village in Phrygia where Alcibiades was living with a courtesan, Timandra, to kill him. The group surrounded his house and set it on fire. Alcibiades made a dash for it through the flames, scattering his assassins. But they held off and shot him with their javelins and arrows, and he fell dead.

Jacques Réattu (1760–1833) The Death of Alcibiades (date not known), oil, dimensions not known, Musée Réattu, Arles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacques Réattu’s unfinished painting of The Death of Alcibiades shows Alcibiades slumped behind a low wall, his attackers massed on the other side. Timandra is remonstrating with the group, which suggests that Réattu thought that they were her relatives (an alternative explanation), rather than a Spartan hit-squad.

Michele De Napoli (1808-1892), The Death of Alcibiades (1839), oil, dimensions not known, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples. Wikimedia Commons.

Michele De Napoli’s The Death of Alcibiades (1839) shows Timandra trying to fend off a close assault, but it is already too late, as an arrow has run deep into his upper abdomen, and his legs are giving way. Smoke shrouds the other attackers in the room behind.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.