BMCR 1999.11.12

Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation. Oxford Classical Monographs

, Alcibiades and Athens : a study in literary presentation. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. ix, 304 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780198152675 $75.00.

This is an important and welcome book. Alcibiades has, naturally enough, attracted considerable scholarly interest, including the recent biographies by de Romilly and Ellis, though neither can replace (nor aims to replace) Hatzfeld’s 1951 study.1 Gribble has written a different sort of book, one which considers not Alcibiades’ biography but his bios, his way of life as it was viewed by his contemporaries. In so doing he discusses nearly the full range of rhetorical, historical, and philosophical sources.2 He also considers the role of the individual in Athenian ideology, literature, and history. G.’s book will therefore interest both those eager for a detailed discussion of the texts, as he is interested in how Alcibiades is viewed in the texts rather than using isolated passages as a springboard for biography, and those interested in more general questions about Athenian ideology and the development of the idea of the individual in Greek literature.

G.’s substantial introduction identifies the type of individuality that we should expect to see in Alcibiades. Alcibiades’ career, as that of many other historical individuals (Themistocles being the closest match), has important parallels with the heroes of myth, whose great sense of self-worth so often produced conflict with their communities. Making good use of the recent work by Gill3 and others on Greek individuality, G. begins by carefully defining his terms. By “individual” he will mean “the empowered, confident, assertive individual, possessing the power to make moral choice, and endowed with status: the citizen” (7). The contrast is with those who lack citizen status, “subjects.” This type 1 individual is to be kept distinct from individuals as unique persons contrasted with the generic mass (type 2), or psychological individuals with a consciousness of a personal inner life (type 3). Great individuals of the first type, then, are not unique but superlative. They challenge society not because they have different values but because of their high status. This status is in one sense merely an extreme case of the “aggressive concept of freedom” (11) shared by all free citizens, who are subject to nothing other than the laws. But the competitive philotimia of elites is a zero-sum game, with even the community itself in danger in the case of the greatest individuals, whose status transcends the very communities in which they first acquired that status. G.’s first chapter introduces us to the relationship between Alcibiades and the city. G. begins by dividing the tradition about Alcibiades into three phases. In the first, extending through the 390s, Alcibiades is a polarizing figure, as even after his death a speaker’s attitudes toward him can be used to map his attitude toward the city. In the second phase, the later fourth century, Alcibiades is no longer so controversial, and his vices and virtues can appear side by side in accounts of the glory days of Athens. In the subsequent ancient tradition Alcibiades is more important as a moral figure than as a political one, and the anecdotes about him come to center on issues of private morality. G. sensibly argues that analysis of these anecdotes is better focused on their changing uses than on their historicity. “The ‘truth’ of an Alcibiades anecdote does not consist in the historical-factual material it contains, but rather in the behaviour-patterns it is designed to illustrate and the attitudes to which it is designed to appeal” (43).

G. introduces Alcibiades’ reception among his fellow citizens in light of three areas in which individual elites both gain power and status and make themselves suspect in terms of democratic ideology: conspicuous spending, contacts with elites in other cities, and private lifestyle. Alcibiades wins admiration but also suspicion because he appears to aim to replace the city rather than to serve it. Thucydides (6.16) has Alcibiades claim that his Olympic victories in 416 were meant to demonstrate the power of the city. But Alcibiades’ grand display also makes him seem more powerful than the entire city. Alcibiades’ luxurious and dissolute way of life back home is politically charged because it shows his contempt for democratic ideals. As sexual desire is the strongest and most dangerous desire, Alcibiades’ famous excess here is most troubling. If he cannot control his other passions he will not be able to control his ambition. And it is this ambition, rather than any suspicion of disloyalty, which worries the Athenians: Alcibiades is out not to destroy Athens but to dominate it, to be tyrant in fact if not in title. In his second chapter G. turns to the rhetorical works which focus on Alcibiades. Alcibiades’ continuing importance, G. argues, reflects the Athenian interest in debating responsibility for the lost war and analyzing the proper role for superlative individuals in the restored democracy. Often defenders and attackers paint a similar picture of Alcibiades, but give it a different spin. In Lysias 14 and 15 and [Andocides] 4, Alcibiades’ aristocratic excess and ambitious scheming are threats to democracy; but in Isocrates 16, Alcibiades’ great deeds, while separating him from the demos, are admirable on a personal level and were done ultimately for the sake of the demos. G. discusses whether the speeches about Alcibiades contributed to the development of biography, and concludes that on the whole they did not: Alcibiades is more an illustration of the type of the superlative individual (i.e., a type 1 individual in the scheme above) than an example of a unique individual (type 2) whose unparalleled life would demand special biographical treatment. In his third chapter G. turns to Thucydides. Here G. is on ground that has been covered before in the abundant scholarship on Thucydides,4 but he advances the argument through his more nuanced consideration of the nature of Alcibiades’ importance as an individual. G. wisely rejects approaching Thucydides through source criticism or by uncovering layers of composition, as these approaches more often beg questions than answer them. He argues that Thucydides’ authorial interventions at 2.65 and 6.15 are integral parts of the text and provide a complex double-edged judgment about Alcibiades. Alcibiades’ personal motivations and misleading rhetoric led to the imprudent Sicilian expedition, but the expedition need not have ended as it did had he been left in charge. So too Alcibiades’ irresponsible private life led to his downfall in 406, but the Athenians would have been better off had they not deposed him. G. must be right to embrace these typically Thucydidean antitheses instead of explaining them away through source criticism or compositional hypotheses. “The exaggerated loyalty and disloyalty of the Lysias and Isocrates speeches is replaced in Thucydides by a realistic appraisal of Alcibiades’ egoism” (191). Best not to raise a lion in the city, but if one does …

Some have argued that Alcibiades played a crucial role in the development of historiography. Westlake, followed by Hornblower,5 argues that Thucydides made Alcibiades increasingly prominent in his narrative as he came to understand the role of individuals in history at the expense of more general causal factors. This G. disputes. He first argues that the change was not in Thucydides but in the Athenians, who came to put personal motivations before public good after Pericles left the scene. Second, G. argues that for Thucydides — unlike the speech-writers, though G. does not quite make this clear — Alcibiades was not a “great individual,” a Pericles or Churchill who directed events through his own superlative abilities, but merely a man whose contingent qualities happened to well position him to affect events in a time when individualism and selfish motivations were coming to the fore in Athenian politics. Thucydides’ characterization of Alcibiades thus does not undermine attempts to find more general causal patterns, as a first reading of Aristotle’s comment ( Poetics 9.151a36-1451b11) about what Alcibiades did and what happened to him might suggest, but illustrates such a pattern: Alcibiades shows the dangers of individualism. “We are left not with Alcibiades the extraordinary individual, unlike any other in the History, but rather with an outstanding example of a wider pattern of Athenian political decay” (212).

G. here appears to conflate two set of distinctions which might better be kept separate. Previously, G. had distinguished great, i.e., superlative individuals (what he calls type 1), from unique ones (type 2). In this analysis Alcibiades had appeared to be superlative, i.e., great rather than unique. But when it comes to the analysis of Thucydides the question turns out to be whether the individual is historically important (i.e., great) because he consciously affected events through his own action (type 1), or is merely contingently important because a person with his traits was necessary to move events in a certain direction (type 2). Now Alcibiades is not great, but his personality and personal life matter. Perhaps we are to sort things out like this: Alcibiades’ personality and personal life matter only because they exemplify historical trends. His type, rather than his unique individuality, is at issue. He is, then, merely a particularly extreme and therefore particularly illustrative example of the type of the personally ambitious Athenian politician.

G.’s distinctions are also interesting for what they say, or rather don’t say, about the sort of great man that Alcibiades isn’t. From what G. says and implies it would appear that all great men are ultimately blank slates: for if it were their character that mattered, their importance would be merely that of the contingent sort. This flies in the face of our more romantic idea of individual greatness, but is perhaps true to Thucydides’ thinking: it is precisely because Pericles acted out of impersonal motives and managed to keep his personal life in the background that he succeeded. But must individuals be successful to be great? And might not other situations demand the sort of individualism that turned out to be so pernicious at Athens? That G.’s distinctions about individuality do not resolve all these problems is hardly surprising given the complexity of these matters. They certainly do help us to ask the right questions about the presentation of Alcibiades and other individuals in Thucydides and elsewhere.

In his fourth chapter, on the Socratic writers, G. returns to the notion of Alcibiades as a great (i.e., type 1) individual. Alcibiades’ great ambition had the potential to be turned toward philosophy rather than to politics, to inner rather than outer ends. G. finds two strands in the Socratic response to Alcibiades. The first, exemplified by the Alcibiades I attributed (wrongly in G.’s view) to Plato and the Alcibiades of Aeschines of Sphettus, consists of relatively straightforward protreptic in which Socrates shows the superiority of philosophy to politics by humiliating the gifted and ambitious young Alcibiades and converting him to philosophy. In the other strand a more complex picture emerges, in which the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades is viewed in light of the trial of Socrates and as a means of exploring the relationship between philosophy and the city. G. argues that political issues were indeed a factor at the trial of Socrates, although it may have been Polycrates’ Accusation of Socrates that first made Socrates’ relationship with Alcibiades such an important part of the ongoing debate about him. Xenophon responds directly to such attacks early in the Memorabilia (although “the accuser” of Memorabilia 1.1-2 may not have been Polycrates himself), but thereafter, seemingly embarrassed by Socrates’ more controversial associates, rarely mentions them — and G. therefore says rather little about Xenophon.6 Plato’s response is less straightforwardly apologetic.

Callicles, G. argues, cannot be identical to Alcibiades but is certainly meant to remind us of him, sharing many of his strengths, particularly his intellectual honesty, but also his vices. The Gorgias shows that while the philosopher’s arguments cannot be refuted, neither can they convince someone who has fallen under the spell of eros for the demos. It is the same eros which pulls the Symposium’s Alcibiades from Socrates’ side. Society corrupts the youth, not Socrates, and it is the corruption of existing regimes which will prevent promising natures like Alcibiades from becoming philosophers, much less philosopher-kings. Thus Plato rejects not only the charge that Socrates corrupted the youth but the implicit promise of the protreptic dialogues that through philosophy he could save them from the corrupt charms of public life. In the final part of his philosophical chapter, G. compares the Alcibiades of the Symposium with Thucydides’ character. Each is ambitious, vain, and gifted at presenting a positive image of himself through the revelation of seemingly damning behavior. The Alcibiades of the Symposium has seemed attractive to some, but G. argues that we are meant to see through this superficial attractiveness. Socrates and Alcibiades are both strongly individuated characters, but their individualism is of different sorts. Socrates’ is that of the philosopher trying to make his way in the cave of the city; his character is ultimately unified and based on reason, not personal quirks. Alcibiades’ charm is that of the democratic man who cannot make up his mind; Socrates has given him a glimpse of the world outside the cave, but he is unable to tear himself away from the city. Alcibiades’ belief that Socrates is unique shows that he has missed the essential point, that Socrates argues for the philosophical way of life that is the best way of life for all. Thus the sort of unique individuality Alcibiades represents is ultimately a dangerous illusion: “the deeper one goes, the less individuated one becomes” (257).7 What Pericles was to Thucydides Socrates is to Plato: an individual greatness consists, in large part, in his ability to transcend his individuality.

G concludes by tracing the development of his themes in Plutarch’s life of Alcibiades. Plutarch plays up the inconsistency of Alcibiades. Does he bite like a woman or a lion? The effect is often to minimize the impact of Alcibiades’ hybris, which loses much of its political punch; often the anecdotes have a little coda in which a charming Alcibiades puts all to right. Closely related to his inconsistency is his chameleon-like versatility, which Plutarch, following Plato, tends to view in an unfavorable light. Again following Plato, Plutarch makes Alcibiades’ ambition the cause both of his initial attraction to philosophy and of his undoing. But in Plutarch there is no stark choice between philosophy and politics, and Socrates continues to be an influence on Alcibiades throughout his life. When it comes to comparison with Thucydides, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Some are due to differences in genre, but G. argues that Plutarch has a fundamentally different view of Alcibiades’ relationship with the city. Alcibiades falls not because of the inevitable conflict between the great individual and the city, but because of his demagoguery, together with the inconsistency of the demos. In Plutarch Alcibiades seems to take a turn for the better after his return to Athens — a trend we may have seen in Thucydides as well, had he lived to complete his work. But Plutarch closes the life with a return to the inconsistency and uncertainty that surrounds Alcibiades. Was he murdered to prevent him from leading Athens back to glory or because he had debauched a local girl?

G.’s book is impressive both in its wide coverage of primary and secondary sources and in the depth of its insights into the issues raised by Alcibiades. It is also timely, at least if there is anything to be gained by comparing the scandals around Alcibiades with the political scandals of our day. Such comparisons are an important theme in de Romilly’s recent biography. G., alas, resisted the temptation to draw such parallels, but his work will certainly help any readers unable to resist that temptation. And all of us who have been charmed and outraged by Alcibiades should be thankful for G.’s scholarly, insightful, and comprehensive book.


1. Jean Hatzfeld, Alcibiade: Étude sur l’histoire de Athènes à la fin du V e siècle (Paris, 1951); Jacqueline de Romilly, Alcibiade, ou Les dangers de l’ambition (Paris, 1993); Walter Ellis, Alcibiades (London, 1989).

2. G. does, however, say rather little about Xenophon (see note 6 below). His decision not to discuss Vickers’ theory that Alcibiades lies behind numerous characters in drama ( Pericles on Stage, Austin, 1997) is prudent given the controversial nature of Vickers’ claim.

3. Christopher Gill, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue (Oxford, 1996).

4. For literary analysis, see Steven Forde, The Ambition to Rule: Alcibiades and the Politics of Imperialism in Thucydides (Ithaca, 1989).

5. H. D. Westlake, Individuals in Thucydides (Cambridge, 1968); S. Hornblower, Thucydides (London, 1987).

6. One would have hoped for more on Xenophon. While G.’s quick summary of Xenophon’s take on Alcibiades in the Memorabilia is perhaps adequate, he says very little about Xenophon’s portrayal of Alcibiades in the Hellenica. (For some literary analysis of Alcibiades in the Hellenica, see Gerald Proietti, Xenophon’s Sparta: An Introduction, Leiden 1987.) It would be interesting to see if differences in genre affect Xenophon’s depictions of Alcibiades.

7. This point is made most clearly at Alcibiades I 133c, as G. (257n139) notes. In his appendix on the authenticity of that work G., like many scholars, takes the odd position that the Alcibiades I is too Platonic to be by Plato.