One of the things I love the most about the ancient world is that it has some of the most insane stories that no one has ever heard. Alcibiades lived a life equivalent to a blockbuster movie, and so few people even know about this charming megalomaniac. His entire life is rich with stories, and we’re going to take a little journey into some of the choicest moments. This post will explore his childhood and early adulthood, and its sequel will focus on the Peloponnesian War and his exploits during that time.
Plutarch puts his life between 450 and 404 BCE, for context.
Alcibiades is described as having been one of the most beautiful humans to ever exist. His luscious golden hair, chiseled jawline, and physique were renowned across the ancient world. Plutarch even says “Of Alcibiades’ beauty I probably do not need to speak, except to say that it bloomed out in childhood, youth, and manhood, at every age and season of his life, making him lovable and charming.” This worked well for him, because not unlike our present society, the Greeks viewed handsome people as being of good and virtuous character. Go figure.
He was descended from an old and illustrious lineage, the ancient world equivalent of “old money,” and was the ward of Athens’ most revered and arguably most brilliant statesman Pericles. Pericles. Growing up, many admirers were clamouring for a moment or two alone with this beautiful and charming young man.
The most prominent relationship he had in his youth was with the philosopher Socrates, treasured mentor and rumoured cock-blocker. During the Battle of Potidaea they fought alongside one another, with Socrates saving his life. They also reportedly shared a tent, so interpret that as you will.
Eventually he married a young woman named Hipparete, who is described as being “a decorous and affectionate wife,” but who was upset because her husband was always cavorting about town with the courtesans. There was this law in Ancient Greece that stated if a woman wanted to divorce her husband, she was totally allowed to, but she had to appear in court herself. This basically means that if the husband is able to capture her and take her back home, she can’t get divorced. So, Alcibiades manages to catch up with Hipparete as she’s on her way to the magistrate’s and hoists her over his shoulder before marching straight back home. One might think that this is a romantic gesture meant to save a relationship, but as the story goes, he basically just spent her entire dowry and couldn’t afford to pay it back to her family.
Some of his favourite things to do were: draw attention to himself, spend obscene amounts of money, and win at everything. In the 416 BCE Olympic Games, he entered seven chariots and ate off of the city’s ceremonial gold plates and utensils as if they were his own within his magnificent tent.
He slept in lavish hammocks on his triremes instead of on the hard decks, and he would trail long purple robes through the marketplace. Once he imprisoned a painter in his house until he had adorned it with beautiful paintings. He had a golden shield made for himself that didn’t serve any ancestral purpose but instead featured Eros, the god of erotic love, wielding a thunderbolt. Apparently he also had a lisp that made him pronounce his ‘r’s as ‘l’s and the good people of Athens found it endlessly endearing.
He was a constantly controversial character, as most people equally loved and hated him. Aristophanes’ puts it best in his play The Frogs. He was kind of like the first problematic celebrity.
“It years for him, and hates him too, but wants him back.”
– Frogs, 1425 1431‑1432.
The real scandals of his life would begin after 420 BCE, when the Peloponnesian War had been going on for some thirteen years. Part two of this majestic character’s life will be on the horizon imminently.