NEMESIS: ALCIBIADES AND THE FALL OF ATHENS

David Stuttard

Harvard (2018) h/b 380pp £21.95 (ISBN 9780674660441)

S. is a classical scholar who describes himself as a dramaturge and has spent much of his career studying, translating and staging the great Greek dramatists of the 5th C BC—even completing their fragmentary plays for production. Since 2010 he has also delivered a steady stream of more historical works, mainly on Greek themes and frequently, as in Ancient Greeks in 50 Lives, using biographies to generate the background as well as the foreground of his subject matter.

Nemesis is perhaps his first attempt at an expanded biography—bravely taking on Alcibiades, the ultimate in enigmatic challenges. After a brief prologue sketching in the Alcmaeonid family history, we are introduced to Alcibiades at his Apaturia in 452 BC and then follow his career from becoming an ephebe in 434 through military service to his first serious job in 425. He becomes eligible to hold public office in 422, at which point he has only 21 years to live. During that time he will be elected a general by the Athenians on several occasions, win a resounding horse race at Olympia, be exiled from Athens for 7 years, defect to Sparta, where he seduces the wife of the Spartan king, and then leaves for Persia. There he plays two local satraps off against each other, cosies up to the rulers of Thrace and rescues the Athenians from disaster only to plunge them back into it again, before he is finally assassinated in a remote mountain town well to the east of Sardis. 

There can be no doubt about the depth of the scholarship—witness over 50 pages of notes, the longest of which concerns the reliability of the speeches which Thucydides attributes to Alcibiades. The maps are excellent—one can readily find almost every place referred to in the text. The monochrome photographs are perhaps a bit dull. 

The style of writing may not suit everyone. S. prefers a lively presentation which, while no doubt consistent with the sources, must occasionally trespass beyond them. The opening of the Introduction is fairly typical. ‘Just days before, he dreamt he had been lying paralysed and frozen, wrapped in the clothes of his mistress … Hurriedly Alcibiades returned to where Timandra was still lying naked in a muss of tousled sheets and urgently awoke her.’ He also likes a trope where the tension is built up in short sentences (p.61) ‘Alcibiades is furious. He strides over to Taureas and the judges, and begins to remonstrate with them. When they refuse to back down, he reaches out. He seizes Taureas. And punches him. Hard.’ There must be a risk in this type of writing that undue credulity is given to the later, more florid, sources, especially when the earlier sources are treated with some scepticism.

More serious perhaps is the sense that we learn a great deal about what Alcibiades did but rather less about why he did it. Take for example his relationship with Socrates. We learn of their physical and intellectual closeness and that Alcibiades probably regarded Socrates as a mentor. But S. offers no suggestions as to a ‘mentor for what purpose’ in relation to either man—other than Socrates trying to act as an occasional (and ineffective) brake. The episode of the Herms is left similarly hanging; a raft of competing conspiracy theories are canvassed and the weight of the circumstantial evidence against Alcibiades’ hetairea is acknowledged. But, apart from urging that for reasons of realpolitik it cannot have been true, S. does not put forward a more credible alternative, concentrating instead on why Alcibiades found it wise to proceed with the fleet to Syracuse rather than to stay at home and tough it out. Similarly with the subsequent swift changes of allegiance, each elegantly described but with the implication (not the assertion) that naked self-interest, rather than any grand design, lay behind them. It would have been good to have learned more about the substance of Alcibiades’ roots in Attica—particularly the sources of his wealth, what happened to it and his clan while he was in exile and whether loyalty to this clan meant more to him than any political loyalty. S. notes that in the Cerameicus cemetery is located the grave of Alcibiades’ granddaughter (with an Alcmaeonid name), together with two of her sons and a grandson. The clan lived on.

In summary, if you like this style of biography, you will thoroughly enjoy this book. Even if you do not, you will end up brilliantly informed both about what the man did and also the context in which he did it. Whether you will understand how the man ticked is more doubtful, but perhaps he is one of history’s ‘known unknowns’.

Roger Barnes

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room