BMCR 2018.09.15

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

, Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2018. 368. ISBN 9780674660441. $29.95 (pb).


The last decade or so has seen a great deal of scholarly work concerning the controversial Alcibiades (454-404 BCE) and his role in Greek history, literature, and thought, most notably the biography by P.J. Rhodes in 2011.1 It is no surprise, then, that a general-audience biography about the controversial Athenian statesman has now hit bookshelves, which may bring Alcibiades into the mainstream.

Stuttard sets Alcibiades’ life firmly within the context of fifth-century Athens and the decades-long tension between the Athenians and Spartans that culminated in the second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). The narrative thus moves in chronological order, with chapter breaks at major junctures in Alcibiades’ life. After an introduction (“Pinning Down Proteus”) that discusses the sources and methods for writing a biography on Alcibiades and a prologue (“A Family Divided”) on the history of the Alcmaeonid family, the first chapter (“Rearing the Lion Cub”) focuses on Alcibiades’ childhood and early youth. Chapter 2 (“Coming of Age”) examines Alcibiades’ early adulthood, particularly his early military service at Potidaea and his entry into Athenian public life. Since the details of Alcibiades’ life before his first appearance in Thucydides’ history, after the Peace of Nicias (421 BCE), are somewhat muddled, either by their literary quality (e.g. the account from Plato and Xenophon’s philosophic works) or by the biases against Alcibiades that developed over long passage of time (e.g. Plutarch’s life), Stuttard uses these chapters as an opportunity to provide an overview of society and education in classical Athens and the early years of the war, including its breakout, the plague, and the rise of Cleon.

The next four chapters follow Alcibiades’ rise to prominence from the Peace of Nicias to the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BCE). Chapter 3 (“Unbowed in Battle”) follows Alcibiades’ adult life from his military service at Delium and chaotic marriage with Hipparete to his exclusion from the negotiations resulting in the Peace. Chapter 4 (“Stirring the Hornet’s Nest”) details his brokering of an alliance with Argos and his growing rivalry with Nicias. Chapter 5 (“Courting the Hydra”) examines the events of 416, including the ostracism of Hyperbolus, the Melian Revolt, and Alcibiades’ participation in the Olympics. Chapter 6 (“Between Scylla and Charybdis”) covers the debates over invading Sicily, the controversy surrounding the mutilation of the Herms, Alcibiades’ alleged profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the voyage to Sicily.

Chapters 7-11 trace Alcibiades’ constant side-switching. Chapters 7 (“Sleeping with the Enemy”) and 8 (“In a Paradise Garden”) document Alcibiades’ stay with the Spartans and his alliance with Tissaphernes in Asia Minor respectively.2 Chapter 9 (“Trading Places”) turns to the chaotic events of 411, including Alcibiades’ ultimately successful attempt to reunite with the Athenian navy at Samos and the regime changes in Athens. Chapter 10 (“Ruling the Waves”) runs through Alcibiades’ multiple naval victories in 410, and Chapter 11 (“Dog Days”) examines his storied homecoming in 407 amidst the rise of Cyrus in Persia and Lysander in Sparta.

Finally, the book reaches its climax in Chapter 12 (“Nemesis”) with Alcibiades’ flight to Thrace, and service to Seuthes, and ultimate assassination, amidst Athens’ string of defeats and misfortunes, starting with the Battle of Notium (406 BCE), through Arginusae and its aftermath (406), Aegospotami (405), and the reign of the Thirty (404-403). The Epilogue (“The Shadow of the Dead”) traces Alcibiades’ enduring legacy, both immediately after his death—the overthrow of the Thirty and restoration of democracy in Athens, the Corinthian War, his son’s legal troubles in the wake of his death—to his enduring reception in Roman times and beyond.

Stuttard’s work is laudable especially in its depth and its use of available sources. The main body of the text, at 306 pages, leaves few if any details of Alcibiades’ life untouched. In terms of primary sources, he displays a firm grasp of the near-contemporary accounts, drawing on the historical, literary, and oratorical works of the classical period, as well as relevant archaeological and epigraphical evidence. He also cites heavily from much later sources, including first and foremost Plutarch, but also Diodorus Siculus, Justin, and others. Stuttard also draws from a variety of secondary sources intended for both scholarly and general audiences, making his endnotes useful for both types of readers to pursue further inquiry on specific topics.

Writing a biography of such a controversial figure demands a certain degree of interpretive decision-making on the author’s part. The introduction lays out many of the difficulties Stuttard faced in assessing the biases and contradictions of various sources and acknowledges the decisions he had to make in creating a coherent and engaging narrative. Therefore, the endnotes are useful for a reader who wants to know the validity or doubt surrounding any specific event. For example, Stuttard recounts a tale of Alcibiades’ youth in which he bit his wrestling opponent’s arm rather than risk losing the bout, and then exclaimed, “I fight like a lion,” (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades 2.2)—but observes in the endnotes that “the anecdote is unlikely to be true, ” citing the story’s appearance under another guise elsewhere in Plutarch’s corpus (315 n. 22).

Nonetheless, Stuttard has made some interpretive decisions which may overly romanticize the drama of Alcibiades’ life. In his introduction, Stuttard describes the possibility that “Thucydides…may have based certain episodes of his History on interviews with Alcibiades himself” as “widely accepted” (3), suggesting an almost autobiographical perspective to some episodes. Following suit, he returns to this notion at several times throughout the book, at one point even painting an imaginative and picturesque scene in which Alcibiades and Thucydides share wine while watching the sun set over a beach in Thrace as the former weaves convincing tales for the latter (105-106). The meeting of the two while both were in exile in Thrace, first suggested by Brunt in 1952, is certainly well within the realm of possibility, but Thucydides’ account of his sources and methodology (1.20-22) prevents us from such definite claims about his source for any given event or circumstance in his narrative.3 Furthermore, while being critical of Michael Vickers’ tendency to overread Alcibiades into literary works of the late fifth century BCE, Stuttard himself may fall into this habit as well, seeing Alcibiades not just behind the Pheidippides of Aristophanes’ Clouds, but stretching even further to include the Sausage-Seller in the Knights, Pisthetaerus in the Birds, the eponymous protagonist of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, and Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae.4

The writing is for the most part clear and readable, but there are editing errors and stylistic features that can be vexing to a reader. 5 There is an excessive use of fragmentary sentences throughout the book, especially the use of relative connectors such as “who” and “which” as subjects of independent sentences. For example, “Sparta’s failure to restore Amphipolis prompted the Athenians in turn to refuse to give back Pylos. Which [sic] caused the Spartans…to try to persuade the Boeotians to return the Athenian frontier fort of Panactum” (103). The naming system is somewhat inconsistent: while many figures of different generations with repeating names are identified by the standard numeration method found in Davies6 and Nails,7 others are identified by patronymic in a way that may be confusing to a general reader and therefore may need further explication. Callias the son of Calliades, for example, referred to as “Callias Calliadou” in the text, is at one point referred to simply as “Calliadou” (49), as if the patronymic were a surname.

The book has helpful maps and a family tree at the beginning, and a timeline at the end. Several archaeological and art historical images appear throughout the text to complement the narrative. The table of contents has a placeholder for an index, which does not appear in the uncorrected page proofs that I received as a review copy, but does indeed appear in the online preview and presumably the finalized print version.


1. P.J. Rhodes, Alcibiades: Athenian Playboy, General and Traitor. Barnsely, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Military Books, 2011 (BMCR: 2012.08.42). Other prominent recent work on Alcibiades includes Robert Faulkner, The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2007 (BMCR 2008.06.09; Michael Vickers, Sophocles and Alcibiades: Athenian Politics in Ancient Greek Literature, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008; and Aristophanes and Alcibiades: Echoes of Contemporary History in Athenian Comedy. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. (BMCR 2016.11.36); Marguerite Johnson, Harold Tarrant (ed.), Alcibiades and the Socratic Lover-Educator. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011 (BMCR 2012.07.14).

2. Stuttard uses Old Persian transliterations for names (Chithrafarna, Farnavaz, Darayavahus, Korush, etc.) rather than the Hellenized versions (Tissaphernes, Pharnabazus, Darius, Cyrus, etc.). I use the Hellenized names in this review simply out of ease and convenience.

3. Brunt, P.A., “Thucydides and Alcibiades,” Revue des Études Greques 65.304 (1952): 59-96. Cf. Rhodes (2011) 2 (cited above, note 1).

4. Vickers (2008) and (2015) (cited above, note 1).

5. I received the uncorrected page proofs as a review copy, so I focus only on more general editing errors I have noticed (and which appear in the online preview), since many particular errors may have been corrected in the final print version.

6. J.K. Davies, Athenian Propertied Families, 600-300 BC. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

7. Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002 (BMCR 2003.10.09).