Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.42
P. J. Rhodes, Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor. Barnsely, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Military Books, 2011. Pp. xv, 143. ISBN 9781848840690. £19.99.
Reviewed by William S. Morison, Grand Valley State University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This book, as its rather sexy title suggests, is for a general, rather than an academic, audience. As such, the narrative is rapid and the notes short and relegated to the back. However, this treatment of Alcibiades by P. J. Rhodes, one of the most outstanding Greek historians of our time, is successful in bringing one of the most interesting and controversial characters to a wider audience in an intelligent manner that should also prove valuable as a classroom text.
The book begins with a useful, if too brief, synopsis of the main ancient sources and their issues of the ancient evidence for Alcibiades’ life. The discussion of the modern scholarship that follows is very short—two paragraphs— and a longer essay by a scholar of Rhodes’ stature would have been more helpful, but there is enough here to direct the interested student and general reader to the relevant major monographs of the seventy years or so.
The next chapter first provides a rapid historical sketch of Athens and its wars with Sparta that covers primarily the fifth-century BC but also continues into the extended conflict’s final denouement in the early fourth century. Also included is an overview of the development and functioning of the Athenian democracy as well as a somewhat fleshed out genealogy for Alcibiades. Having provided the requisite backstory for a reader with no previous Greek history, Rhodes deftly weaves together the largely anecdotal evidence for Alcibiades’ life often noting the difficulties presented by agendas of authors such as the comic poets and Xenophon, who certainly had their axes to grind. In a number of cases, moreover, such as the problematic nature of the story of the Spartan embassy to Athens in 420 BC, Rhodes illustrates well how one delves into the historiographical issues that arise from even so august a source as Thucydides without polemic. In the chapters that follow, Rhodes creates a clear narrative of Alcibiades’ career from his part in the disastrous expedition to Sicily down to murder in Phrygia in 404/3 BC. As with his treatment of the earlier period, Rhodes exhibits healthy skepticism of his sources and constantly seeks to place the wily rogue commander in the larger context of Athenian/Persian/Spartan politics and intrigue. Missing here is much about Alcibiades appearance as a character in the Platonic dialogues nor does Rhodes concern himself with the use of Alcibiades by later authors—probably wise choices given his intended audience.
Unlike some earlier treatments, Rhodes neither extravagantly praises his subject1 nor attempts to tear down completely the Athenian general/politician’s significance.2 Rather, with a masterful control of literary and epigraphic sources, he places Alcibiades in his proper context as an ultimately disastrous figure who was, however, profoundly successful in convincing his contemporaries—and posterity as a result—of his importance. This book is particularly useful not only to the general reader, but as a classroom text for upper-level courses. I should add that it also provides an outstanding summary of fifth-century political and military history; the necessarily close coverage of the period from 412-406 BC, which is fraught with controversy, is especially good.
The book is illustrated with three well-drawn maps and 8 pages of black and white photographs, which are referenced at appropriate points in the text. In addition to the notes and bibliography, there is a handy index of names and places at the end.
1. As, for example, W. Ellis, Alcibiades (London and New York: Routledge 1989).
2. As E. F. Bloedow, Alcibiades Reexamined (Wiesbaden: Steiner Verlag 1973).