Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Enter Alcibiades

When we last left Athens, they had reached a peace with Sparta after ten years' war, under conditions that required a substantial exchange of territory.  This agreement soon went the way of all agreements between great powers that require small countries to comply.  The Athenians first and foremost wanted the return of Amphipolis, an important colony that had revolted.  The people of Amphipolis, however, were not agreeable and refused to be returned. The Athenians had to settle for a withdrawal of Spartan forces.  The Thebans were supposed to return an important fort to the Athenians and did -- but only after destroying it.  The Spartans first and foremost want the return of prisoners taken by Athens and of Pylos, an outpost of their territory which the Athenians were using to stir up trouble by the helots.  The Athenians returned the prisoners and removed the helots from Pylos so they would not longer be a security threat, but refused to return Pylos until their conditions were met.

 Meanwhile, the Peloponnesian League, which has maintained a united front as long as they were all fighting Athens, began to scheme to throw off Spartan hegemony.  Corinth was the chief schemer, but the critical city was Argos.  Argos was a traditional enemy of Sparta, the only major city in the Peloponnese not to join the Peloponnesian League, and one of the few democracies on the Peloponnese.  Up until then, Argos has remained neutral during the war and has prospered as a result.  But an extended truce with Sparta was set to expire and it was generally taken for granted in those days that in the absence of a formal truce, war would soon follow.  A complex and convoluted series of diplomatic maneuvers followed, the details of which need not concern us, except the practical upshot, which was that Argos ended up forming a league of democracies with Mantinea  and  Athens, with Elis thrown in for good measures.  As the above map makes clear, such an alliance was a grave threat to Sparta, not just to Spartan hegemony on the Peloponnese, but a threat to cut Sparta off from the mainland altogether.

It is at this point that Alcibiades comes into the story.  I have  described Cleon as the man who gave demagogues a bad name.  Thucydides and Aristophanes (our main contemporary sources) were both strongly hostile.  It is hard to tell how much of their hostility springs from resentment of Cleon's un-aristocratic background and manners and lack of military experience, and how much from substantive disputes.  They accuse Cleon of "rabble rousing, corruption, malicious prosecution, smearing his opponents, presuming to think he knew more about military matters than seasoned generals, war mongering, prolonging the war for political gain, and crimes against humanity."  But one thing they never accuse him of is aspiring to be a dictator.

Alcibiades, now, is a different matter.  Alcibiades never became a dictator, but one cannot confidently say that he did not aspire to be one.  Certainly Thucydides says that the Athenians suspected  Alcibiades of aspiring to be a dictator, and that they were scandalized by the "lawlessness" of his private life and habits.  (Thucydides, a bit of a prude, mentions only his extravagant spending on race horses.  Plutarch gives a lot more examples).  Yet Alcibiades was a brilliant military commander and had an impeccable aristocratic pedigree.  This may be why Thucydides goes surprisingly easy on him, saying that Athens was ruined by the people's refusal to trust him.*   Aristophanes seems to share that opinion.  In Athens' most desperate hour, his advice was to take Alcibiades back, "You should not rear a lion cub in the city,/ But if one is brought up, accommodate its ways."  Then as now, the lion was a royal symbol.  His advice seems to be that Athens should give Alcibiades command even if he does aspire to be a dictator.  Just as I am unclear whether it was Cleon's lack of pedigree or lack of military experiene that made Thucydides and Aristophanes so despise him, I am also not clear whether their forbearance toward Alcibiades was because of his pedigree or his military skills.

Be that as it may, Alcibiades shows himself as a power-hungry warmonger and manipulator from the start.  Thucydides believes that Alcibiades wanted to encourage war with Sparta partly because he genuinely thought it was in Athens' best interest and partly because he resented Nicias getting all the credit for the peace.  (Alcibiades at the time was considered too young for such an important role).

The Spartan ambassadors arrived, settlement.  They presented their case quite convincingly to the Council and gave all promise of being equally convincing when they spoke to the Assembly.  He therefore convinced them to say that they did not have full power to negotiate and to allow him to be their spokesman instead.  Since Alcibiades' family had a longstanding history of being representatives of Spartan interests,** they were convinced.  The next day in the Assembly, Alcibiades asked the ambassadors if they had full independent power to negotiate.  When they said that they did not, Alcibiades feigned indignation and persuaded the people to reject the peace overture.  It was a dirty underhanded trick and Alcibiades is quite justly blames for it, but it is not quite as bad as it sounds on the surface.  The decision, after all, was not truly one between war and peace, but between alliance with one belligerent (Argos) or the other (Sparta).  By this trick Alcibiades was able to secure an alliance with Argos and lead Athens into yet another war.

*Thucydides did not live to complete his work, but he did live to see the end of the war.  At one point he describes how it concluded and specifically says that the war lasted 27 years, and that this was the only example he knew of oracles being right.  This remark seems a bit cynical to us; to the Greeks it must have seemed blasphemous.
**To openly declare oneself the champion of a foreign city's interests in one's own city was considered perfectly honorable and patriotic, a sort of consulate. 

No comments:

Post a Comment