Nemesis – Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

Hard to imagine that a scholarly book about a 5th century BC Athenian could be unputdownable, but it is.

Ancient Greece has always attracted me; attracted me, that is, in a romantic, nostalgic sort of way rather than as a prompt to getting down to some hard graft and really understanding what was going on. I did attempt Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War when I was a youth but, if I got any distance with it (which I probably didn’t), nothing remains. Now David Stuttard has produced a book that is scholarship without the tough chewy bits, serious history that slips down like honey.

Here’s the background … The first half of the 5th century BC saw the Athenians triumphant; the Persians routed at Marathon (490BC), the Athenian empire extending to Asia Minor (now Turkey), democracy established under Pericles, the building of the Parthenon, arts and literature promoted and Athens the undisputed cultural centre of the Ancient Greek world. The fifth century ended with the sacking of Athens by the Spartans, dictatorship imposed and the Ionian Greek cities ceded to Persia; a fall from grace for which one of Athens best generals, most charismatic of speakers and most adventurous in love and war bore much of the responsibility: Alcibiades.

The problem with Alcibiades was that he was, in modern parlance, a bit up himself. When you come first, second and third in the most prestigious event at the Olympics, the chariot race, a bit of modesty is called for; not celebrations that would make an oriental pasha seem parsimonious. When you go to Sparta as an honoured guest, it’s not a good idea to sire the heir to the Spartan throne when the King is away on campaigns. These, and many more arrogant indiscretions besides, were the sort of things that made enemies. It doesn’t matter how good a general you may be – and Alcibiades was one of the best – your little peccadilloes will come back to haunt you.

Enemies, lesser men, the dull, the boring; that’s who Alcibiades blamed for his career in treachery. It was his enemies who would have put him on trial for gross impiety if he hadn’t jumped ship before they could catch him. Instead, like Coriolanus (a sort of poor man’s Alcibiades), he preferred to go over to the arch-enemy, Sparta. There, he traded his inside track on Athenian thinking for the post of General in the Spartan army. He did well – he won battles for the Spartans – but, also, couldn’t resist the temptation to seduce the Spartan queen; not a good career move. Accordingly, he was forced to pack his suitcase once more and hotfoot it out, this time to Persia. From there, back to Athens as Commander in Chief – the Athenians must have been (and were) desperate – until savouring for too long the fruits of an unexpected victory over Sparta, he was unprepared for the Spartan resurgence. The Athenian fleet was lost and his enemies weren’t happy; ‘I told you so,’ ‘we shouldn’t have trusted him in the first place’ etc. Alcibiades was obliged to make a quick exit once more, this time to Thrace where he lived as a warlord. From Thrace, his much-travelled suitcase found its way back to Persia, but, alas, no happy landings for it there. Alcibiades was cut down in a hail of arrows while sleeping with his two favourite concubines. What other ending would have sufficed?

David Stuttard has called his book Nemesis. Nemesis is what the gods dish out to mortals who get too big for their boots. Before nemesis, comes hubris or the kind of overweening arrogance which cries out for punishment. Alcibiades’ life is a study in hubris and David Stuttard gives us chapter and verse.

But the book gives us much else besides; the details of the fighting between the Greek City States for one thing. I hadn’t realized the Greeks were such a warlike lot; for a small country, whose cities are no more than a stone’s throw apart, they were forever at each other’s throats. The bonus of war was either tribute – neither Athens nor Sparta could run their empires on indigenous wealth – or retribution, or helots (slaves). So they went after whatever targets were to hand even if that particular target was just down the road. But the downside of so much blood, was that the real Spartan or the real Athenian became an endangered species whose number had to be augmented by promoted slaves.

The book also reminds us that the Greeks believed in their gods. Somehow this seems surprising; that one of the most intellectual, questioning societies there has ever been could imagine that divine power resided on Mt Olympus. Yet they did. They erected monuments and temples to their gods, they listened to their advice and they didn’t fight battles, or do almost anything, unless the auspices were good. Perhaps, though, not so odd; not very different to what most other societies have done in the millennia that followed.

And the book provides the answer to an age-old question; who was Lysander? When I was at school, we had to sing a song called the British Grenadiers: “Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules / of Hector and Lysander and such great names as these / but of all the world’s brave heroes there’s none that can compare / with a tow row row row row row for the British Grenadiers.”  Well, I knew who Alexander was and Hercules and Hector, but this Lysander? Never heard of him. Now, thanks to David Stuttard, I have; he was the Spartan general who defeated the Athenians and brought the Peloponnesian war to an end. Who knew?

And afterwards, after the defeat of Athens? Well, the wheel turned. The dictators whom the Spartans had imposed on Athens were driven out and democracy restored. After years of supporting Sparta, the Persians decided to bankroll Athens. Other states – Corinth, Argos and Boetia – upset at Spartan brutality rallied round the Athenian cause. The Spartans were defeated, their hegemony at an end. The good times were back. It was the era of Plato and Aristotle and of the cultural supremacy of Athens once again. All were able to raise a glass to the restoration of the old verities, even poor old Socrates, the one time friend and defender of Alcibiades, who was deemed guilty by association and forced to fill his glass with hemlock. For a small country, the Greeks were always free and easy with the lives of their great men.