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Alcibiades (ca 450-404/3 B. C. E.)  
 
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Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium and in the Alcibiades

The most famous depiction of Alcibiades is, of course, that in Plato's Symposium (ca 380), where the most beautiful young man in Athens offers himself as the lover of the ugliest, Socrates. Alcibiades tells a "love story," which in the end, as Martha Nussbaum notes, turns out to be "a story of waste and loss, of the failure of practical reason to shape a life."

Alcibiades relates how Socrates's "beauty," which is clearly not the physical beauty of a boy (he is over 50 years old), inspired in him such an intense feeling that he made the first move as an erastes (lover) and tried to seduce Socrates, "as if I [Alcibiades] were his [Socrates's] lover and he my young prey," but to no avail.

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At the same time, Alcibiades is a clear threat to Socrates, who complains: "I can't so much as look at an attractive man but he flies into a fit of jealous rage. He yells; he threatens; he can hardly keep from slapping me around. Please, try to keep him under control." In their banter, Alcibiades and Socrates display strong emotional tension, including jealousy, abuse, frustration, and retaliation.

Alcibiades's entrance to the dinner party is quite a tour de force: he is almost carried in by a woman and wants to be taken to the host of the banquet, Agathon. He appears crowned with green ivy and bright yellow and white violets, the latter the symbol of Aphrodite and the polis of Athens with its patroness Athena, the former the sign of Dionysus, the god of irrationality who undergoes, once a year, a ritual death.

Everything is topsy-turvy. As Gribble notes, Alcibiades is already drunk when he enters. He deposes the democratically elected symposiarch and drains a whole mixing-bowl of wine (an immense undrinkable quantity). The symposium is bound to turn into a revel.

Alcibiades equates Socrates with statues of satyrs, the mythological wild beasts of gross, animalistic sexual appetites (hubristes), monumental erections, and phallic nicknames, "flute players." Alcibiades wants to "open up" Socrates, to see what is "inside" him, but an eromenos (beloved), unlike satyrs, should not allow his body to be penetrated.

For Alcibiades, the presence of Socrates is both unsettling and arousing: "the moment [Socrates] starts to speak, I am beside myself: my heart starts leaping in my chest, the tears come streaming down my face." In the end, Socrates and Alcibiades remain worlds apart and fail to communicate, either erotically or politically.

In the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Alcibiades (ca 350), beautiful and young Alcibiades is dismayed to discover that he has no knowledge of himself, that he lacks the virtues of the soul, justice, and intellectual skills, and is thus fit to be ruled, not to rule: he is in the depths of stupidity (amathia), running into politics entirely ignorant.

Socrates there observes that a lover of Alcibiades's beautiful body is not loving Alcibiades, just something that belongs to Alcibiades. Here we see one reason for Alcibiades's modern appeal. Unlike Socrates, many lovers would not stay when Alcibiades's "body has lost its bloom and everyone else has gone away"--hence Socrates's exclusive interest in Alcibiades's soul in the Symposium.

Another trait that may be particularly interesting to modern students of Greek life is Alcibiades's "versatility": he is an aggressive eromenos, a passive erastes, a Greek man with affinities for the exotic or foreign, a womanizer, a demagogue verging on the lifestyle of a tyrant, a figure of theatricality and hyperbole. In short, throughout his life, Alcibiades transformed himself, in Plutarch's memorable depiction, like a "chameleon."

Alcibiades's Afterlife

Alcibiades enjoys an important Nachleben, or afterlife, in literature and art. He early acquired symbolic status as a historical figure of ambition and sexual profligacy. For example, Persius's Satire 4 (ca 55 C. E.) compares Alcibiades's depilating his genitals to a farmer weeding his field, while Petronius's Satyricon (ca 65) refers to Alcibiades to spoof the ethereality of Platonic love.

In the Middle Ages, Alcibiades appeared as a female character (caused by mistranslations), but he was soon restored to his rightful gender in medieval and Renaissance works such as Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales (ca 1387), Erasmus's adage "The Sileni of Alcibiades" in The Praise of Folly (1515), Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528), Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534), Montaigne's Essays (1588), Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (ca 1607) and Henriad (1597-1599), and Thomas Otway's tragedy Alcibiades (1687).

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