Alcibiades had all the gifts, all the means… (JACQUELINE DE ROMILLY) | Part B’

Alcibiades had all the gifts, all the means… (JACQUELINE DE ROMILLY) | Part B’


Actually—and do not think this is unimportant—we are talking about wealth on both sides. On the paternal side, we note that Cleinias provided, at his own expense, a warship for the state. On the Alcmeonids’ side, we know that they were related, after being exiled following a sacrilege, to the priest of Delphi and had contributed heavily to the reconstruction of the sanctuary there. Pericles himself was clearly in possession of significant resources: at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the king of Sparta who led the invasion and sacking of Attica intended to spare Pericles’s property. Because there were social obligations between them, such an exception would have aroused suspicion against Pericles. Pericles deflected this danger by declaring that if that were to happen, he would make a gift to the city of all his property.


Alcibiades was born with every advantage, everything money could buy to advance his career, from an excellent education among the greatest minds to the means of achieving fame throughout the democracy.


What’s more, Alcibiades did not have to settle for his own inheritance. Later, he would marry (in 422). And whom did he marry? A daughter of Hipponicus, who was also from an important family, one especially famous for its wealth. Whenever a member of this family is named, it is with the adjective rich: rich Hipponicus, or wealthy Callias. It was at the home of this wealthy Callias (Alcibiades’s brother-in-law) that Plato’s dialogue Protagoras took place, because Callias was rich enough to invite every sophist around: Protagoras, Hippias, Prodicus, as well as all the fashionable men who came to hear them. Plato names a dozen, and Alcibiades, of course, is among them.


In fact, we never really leave this milieu: Pericles’s wife had been married first to Hipponicus; she was Callias’s mother. With ancient Athens, we soon get the impression that we are in a country where everyone knows everyone else, for it is a small world. And that is also true for the aristocracy in general. And the aristocracy still maintained a very privileged place in the most democratic of cities.


There is another aspect to the wealth of Alcibiades. Because he spent so much, he always needed a lot of money. He had a stable of racehorses, a huge luxury. And he always wanted to show off. He made large public contributions sponsoring triremes (warships) and choruses for dramatic productions. They were still talking about him in the next century, and Plutarch will cite “his voluntary contributions of money, his support of public exhibitions, his unsurpassed munificence towards the city.” In addition to this there were occasional gifts here and there. It is said that Phaedo—the philosopher who gives his name to a dialogue of Plato—was taken captive and sold into slavery. Socrates had Alcibiades buy his freedom, according to some accounts at least.  Our man, as a true nobleman, loved grand deeds as well as opulence.


Some people thought that, in these moments of extravagance, he spent too much; that happens in every age. And it may be that worry about his financial solvency weighed on his conduct. The very sober Thucydides says so: “His tastes exceeded his means, for maintaining his stable as well as other expenses” (6.15.3).


Nevertheless, the difficulties caused by his extravagance have been exaggerated. When he was exiled, there was a public sale of all his confiscated assets. Stone fragments from this auction have been found. At first it was believed that the sale was very small. As a result, some thought that he had been bankrupt, or that he had managed, before the seizure, to conceal and keep some of his wealth (something that still happens today, as we know). However, new fragments have been found and rest assured: there were still beds and bedding, coats and chests, and the like. Furthermore, the city would compensate him for this sale by offering a gold crown and an estate. Though Alcibiades may have lost a fortune, he was never poor.


Clearly, this man was a prince. Now we can see exactly what that meant. Athenian politics had long been in the hands of this cultured and aristocratic group. But that tradition was changing because many Athenians resented it. The rights of citizenship had expanded, as had elementary education: the new social classes were gaining importance. As long as Pericles lived, things were fine; but after his death, power passed to Cleon, a rich tanner, and all our sources commented on his vulgarity, brutishness, and lack of culture. Apparently, ordinary people in every democracy are vulnerable to a vulgarity that feels familiar and optimistic. Aristophanes wrote a comedy, five years after Pericles’s death, denouncing this rule by merchants. In the play, the followers of Demos, the People, cite an invented oracle according to which there would come a ruler of the city who was a seller of hemp, until another came who was a sheep dealer, and finally another individual, the worst of all, a sausage seller (Knights 126–45). Naturally, he would not have any education: “I know my letters, and then actually, very little, and very badly.” “Your only fault is knowing anything, even ‘a little, even badly.’ Leading the people is not the work of an educated man of good character, but demands an ignoramus, a jerk” (188–94). We won’t go further into this social development that always runs the risk of leading, as it did in Athens, to the emergence of a terrible demagogue. This degeneracy was denounced by everyone, from the comedians and tragedians to Thucydides and Aristotle. Such a judgment demonstrates the superior wealth, class, and appeal that the young descendant of two famous families had in contrast to these new demagogues. Alcibiades was supposed to be the next Pericles for Athens. And now let’s acknowledge that Alcibiades’s advantages were not limited to the material and the practical.


Intellectual Superiority

Just imagine the early education of young Alcibiades, the ward of Pericles. From childhood, he had heard political discussion among well-informed men. According to them, his mind was sharp. In Pericles’s home he met, first as a child and then in adolescence, the most distinguished thinkers of his time. He had undoubtedly learned rhetoric, for his mentor was a friend of the greatest sophists. And we know the affection that Socrates always showed him. How could such teachers and role models not have kindled the dazzling intelligence that had so often been a mark of that family? Moreover, no one ever questioned his keen eye for politics, the rapidity and breadth of his grasp. Thucydides, whose praise of Alcibiades is always reserved, says that the city lost a great deal in sending him away because “publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be expected.” And in every case, when faced with a problem, Alcibiades found a solution, the right combination of the necessary steps to take. He was also able to persuade others. Ah! How well he did this. He could convince crowds with his eloquence; and he could do the same one on one, arguing with a combination of promises and charm. Even the authorities on such matters, Demosthenes and Theophrastus, said that he spoke admirably. Theophrastus stated, according to Plutarch (10.4), that of all men Alcibiades was “most capable of finding or inventing whatever the circumstances demanded.” He sometimes paused in his effort to find just the right words (a slight mispronunciation lending charm to his words . . .). In short, he approached politics with a social superiority that matched his undeniable intellectual superiority, each facilitating the other.


Even apart from these qualities, it was apparent that everything was leading him into politics. He had the means and the talent. He also had the desire. Accustomed from an early age to being first in everything, he strongly desired a political role. This is how he is portrayed in the dialogues of Plato where he appears, particularly in the dialogue called Alcibiades (sometimes called First Alcibiades to distinguish it from another dialogue of the same name). We will return to this Alcibiades . For now we must bear in mind the ambition propelling this young man to political triumphs that Socrates boldly explains: “What is the hope that fills you? I will tell you. You think that if one day you address the people—and you intend to do so very soon—Athenians will immediately be persuaded that you merit even more respect than Pericles or anyone before him, and you will say to yourself that henceforth you will be the most powerful man in this city. And if you are the most powerful man among us, you will be the same among all Greeks; no, not just among Greeks, but also among the barbarians who inhabit this continent” (105a–c).


Naturally, this ambition doesn’t stop with a continent: true ambition knows no limits. And this text says exactly what is driving him. And before long that ambition will move him to act. We see him first in war—he was very brave—and soon he will make his appearance in politics. He will assume the highest offices that his age will allow. Socrates’s name has already been mentioned on two occasions. In this picture of all the gifts accorded the young Alcibiades, it would be an odd omission to leave out one very unusual advantage, unlike all the others and not derived from his family: it was his access to the philosophical ideal and influence of Socrates.



Part A’: https://www.lecturesbureau.gr/1/alcibiades-had-all-the-gifts-all-the-mean-part-a-1981a/?lang=en




The Life of Alcibiades

Jacqueline de Romilly



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