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Alcibiades (ca 450-404/3 B. C. E.)  
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Strikingly handsome but extravagantly self-centered, widely admired and bitterly hated, Alcibiades (alternatively transliterated as Alkibiades) was a brilliant but unscrupulous Athenian politician and military commander. In glbtq history, he is especially noted for his (failed) "seduction" of Socrates in Plato's Symposium, his transgression of gender roles, his sexual "versatility," his violent and unpatriotic eros, and his appropriation as a gay icon in later literature.


Born in Athens around 450 B. C. E. to an aristocratic family and raised by the statesman Pericles, Alcibiades soon came into contact with the keen mind and powerful philosophy of Socrates, who--in turn--was strongly attracted by Alcibiades's intellectual promise and outstanding beauty. In the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B. C. E.), they served together at the battles of Potidaea (432) and Delium (424), where they saved each other's lives.

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Soon, though, Alcibiades strayed from the Socratic path of reason and moderation. Consequently, Alcibiades's restless ambition greatly contributed to the charge brought against Socrates in 399 of corrupting the youth of Athens, of which he was found guilty and for which he was subsequently executed.

After the Peace of Nicias (421), Alcibiades turned to politics. As general, he formed the Argive Alliance of Athens with Argos, Mantinea, and Elis against Sparta in 420, but the city states were defeated at the Battle of Mantinea (418). In 415, one year after entering seven chariots at Olympia and taking first, second, and fourth places and thus rehabilitating himself, Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to go to war against the city of Syracuse in Sicily.

However, on the eve of this megalomaniac expedition, Alcibiades was accused of mutilating sacred statues of Hermes and profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries. He was consequently stripped of his command. He escaped his prosecutors but was condemned to death in absentia, and went into Spartan exile, where he advised the king and seduced his wife.

After Alcibiades grew unpopular in Sparta, he negotiated with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes in 412. Following a change of regime in Athens (the fall of the oligarchy and reestablishment of the democracy) in 411, his native city recalled him. Alcibiades helped defeat the Spartan fleet at Cyzicus in 410 and recovered Byzantium. In 407, he triumphantly returned to his city of birth and was given supreme control.

Once again, Alcibiades fell out of favor (especially when Lysander, a new Spartan commander, defeated the Athenian fleet at Notium in 406). He retired to a castle in Thrace, and eventually took refuge in Phrygia (now in Turkey), where he was murdered in 404 or 403, probably at the behest of the Persian satrap Pharnabazus and his Spartan allies.

Contemporary Reputation

In his biography of Alcibiades, Walter Ellis describes him as a dubious character: "[Alcibiades] was very handsome, and he was known to have had many affairs with people of both sexes. He drank heavily and caroused through the streets of Athens at night associating with actors, musicians, and prostitutes. He was wild, reckless and extravagant, and . . . indulged his desires beyond his means."

John Finlay contends that "the one motive which united [Alcibiades] through [his] shifting and elusive world was self-interest, for him a solipsistic pride and safety of the self in imposing his irrational will upon others. Ironically and tragically that self-interest caused the destruction of the self."

Among his contemporaries, Alcibiades proved a complex figure. "The city loves him and hates him, yet it longs to have him back," Aristophanes proclaimed in his comedy Frogs (405 B. C. E.).

According to the verdict by the Greek historian Thucydides, a contemporary who knew Alcibiades well, Alcibiades was a creature of paranomia (non-conformity). Centuries later, the Roman biographer Plutarch accused Alcibiades of hubris (outrage).

David Gribble argues that "the key to understanding the presentation of Alcibiades lies in civic discourses about the relationship between individual and city, discourses which portrayed him as the sort of figure who could not be incorporated into the city, as 'outside' the city."

The common denominator in ancient literature about Alcibiades is his refusal to value the good of the polis, his lack of patriotism, and his overbearing philotimia (love of honor).

These aspects can be discerned in the charge against Alcibiades that he mutilated the sacred statues of Hermes. As Victoria Wohl shows, the Herms represented the Athenian male subject: "their rigid stances and lack of differentiation symbolized the notional equality and individual freedom of all citizens in the democracy; their erect phalloi represented the sexual dominance that was one marker of citizenship in Athens." Vandalizing the Herms, therefore, is a tyrannical and castrating deed, challenging Athens' and assaulting democracy.

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A classical bust of Alcibiades.
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