Last May Cheri, a charming blogger from California, went to Greece for a seminar on Alcibiades. I hence posted on her blog a few hasty notes on this key figure of Greek history, in case they were of any help.
Here is the text (edited a bit.)
Tragedy of Unreason
“Alcibiades is to me the golden dude of classical Greece, loved (and hated) by the Athenians immensely, a figure that shows both the splendour and the weaknesses of Athens in her golden time, the 5th century BCE. The Athenians, who were teaching the world to use reason efficiently, also knew they were capable of the utmost unreason, and were laughing at that while watching the comedies of Aristophanes.
This whole thing, the fall of Athens, smells in fact of tragedy, of irrationality. The facts are known if you have read Thucydides. It pains me that one of the most brilliant pupils of Socrates, like the most perfumed flower in the most beautiful garden, proved poisonous. Alcibiades’ mentor had always tried to bring to measure and to purity of reason a totally unprincipled, self-centred and often ‘going off the rails’ pupil.
In this the Greeks remind me of the Germans a bit. Both incredibly deep and terribly rational and irrational at the same time. And in fact Nietzsche figured Greek irrationality out not by chance, and, again not by chance in the years of the fall of Athens the Bacchae by Euripides were on stage.
Alcibiades was beautiful and gifted in everything – even as an athlete in Olympia – but, when he once met a teacher on the street and asked him if he had any works by Homer, and having the teacher said “No, I haven’t”, he punched him on the nose and knocked him down. This was Alcibiades. Charming and crazy.
There are many characters in this tragedy, the annihilation of classical Greece, where the extreme quarrelsomeness and disunity of the Greeks stands out, within and without their cities, even in moments of extreme danger. Among such characters are Sparta, Athens, Socrates, Nicias, Syracuse, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Euripides etc.
According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades had conceived an unimaginable plan for defeating Sparta. By conquering Syracuse first, in Sicily, and Carthage, Libya and Greek South Italy afterwards, he intended to get back to Greece with the immense resources thus accumulated and crush the Spartans.
Syracuse was as powerful as Athens and possibly bigger, the biggest Greek city of the Mediterranean.
Ancient Greeks’ New World
It is to be noted that Greek South Italy – I’m certainly not saying this because I am Italian – was considered by mainland Greece as America has always been considered by Europeans: a myth, a land of promise, of unlimited resources. Greece was smaller and much less fertile. Therefore many Athenians, young and old, were day dreaming together with their golden boy, they were day dreaming about a marvellous and more prosperous future. A bit like Alexander who, one century later, will dream (and will set out) eastwards, instead of westwards, in order to conquer new lands.
Before the departure for Sicily, The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BCE. In this work the prophetess Cassandra (see Karen Tiegren above as Cassandra) condemns the Greeks for going to war against Troy. We perceive Euripides’ disgust vis-à-vis the Athenian hubris of the moment. Also Thucydides considers the Sicilian expedition as an act of arrogance and as an example of a folk, the Athenians, misguided by their emotions.
We have to consider that the sublime Parthenon that you people are now admiring was considered by many Athenians as an act of arrogance or hubris. Many much preferred the old temple of Athena at the Acropolis – see below –, a simpler and more sober shrine. Of course the Parthenon is fantastic but the mixed emotions of the Athenians during their greatest century are interesting.
We know of the plague that hit Athens during the war. Thucydides considered it as a metaphor of the ruin that will destroy the wonderful culture created by Pericles and those around him.
This terrible Peloponnesian war and the changes it provoked are well expressed by the Oedipus the King by Sophocles, first performed in 429. A great king, optimist, intoxicated by his success and capable of solving riddles ends up a blind, desperate wretch who has too late understood the nature of the horrible forces he cannot control.
Nicias, one of Alcibiades’s rivals, was a general and owner of a big portion of the silver mines around Attica’s Mt. Laurium, a sort of lager and one of the chief sources of revenue for Athens.
Sparta Won but Left Nothing
Sparta disliked all that Athens represented. Sparta was the winner and Athens the loser. The Spartans were very admired in antiquity but have not left anything of value in my view (but we must recognize that they voted against the total erasure of Athens). Athens left us a wonderful culture and a model for future democracies; Sparta was instead a model for all future regimes based on racism and eugenics (such as the Nazi).
The Spartans were a minority of war lords brutally ruling a totally enslaved majority of Helots.
But they were rational and prudent. And had charm too. It is known they combed their long hair for quite a time before engaging in battle. When their enemies saw the Spartans combing, it was time for quaking.”