The Alcibiades Myth

The Alcibiades ‘myth’, was the man truly as charismatically sexy as many writers of history have made him out to be? Plutarch the biographer early on establishes his Socratic link, as beloved of the great man, and how important that was to his enduring reputation. One can imagine this very good-looking example of Greek manhood with a lisp, which would aurally accentuate his sensuality. Alcibiades is like a character in a great adventure novel, if he wasn’t real you would have to invent him. Victoria Wohl, correctly, I think, captures the importance of sex to the examination of Athenian politics at this junction in time. Thousands of years having lapsed since these events occurred, it is, often, difficult to arouse one’s antennae for such earthy pleasures as sex in the pages of ancient history.

Wohl, as a woman, perhaps, understands more intimately the, sometimes, tyrannical nature of sexual attractions and relationships. Her grafting of the ‘power of sex’ onto the story of Athenian democracy, could be an extremely incisive analysis or, mere, projection of what might be going on in her own life at the time. Seeking out the homosexual unrequited love/revenge murder at the heart of the end of tyranny and subsequent birth of Athenian democracy is clever, if not entirely rational or reasonable.  She does point out that Thucydides has placed these episodes side by side and this does put passion into the political mix. Sex and politics remain until this day a potent and popular cocktail played out on big stages. The contrast between the aged and sanctimonious Nicias and the strutting, sluttish, sexy Alcibiades must have been truly magnificent to behold.

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Alcibiades, from the extant evidence, desired power from the earliest times and was in a great hurry to achieve it. He was an anomaly in that he seems to have been loved by the ordinary citizens of Athens, but was by nature a tyrannical force to be reckoned with. Charismatic, beautiful, potent, athletic and so sexual that he would fuck both genders, especially if the act would get him something he wanted. Women only had political power in the ancient Hellenic world if they were royalty or married to someone with power. Alcibiades dabbling here was with Spartan queens and the like. There must have been more mileage and influence garnered from flirtations and affairs with men, especially in his youth.

The attraction of Alcibiades for the demos and for various Athenians of rank and stature would be understandable in terms like our own for celebrity sportsmen and movie stars. His vigour would be tantalising to both men and women, and in a homosexually inclined masculine culture Alcibiades would be erotically inspirational and aspirational. I agree with Wohl, in that democratic Athens could well have slipped into a sexually driven trance like subjective state under the tyrannical spell of Alcibiades. Celebrity worship along the lines of things like Beatlemania are not rational or reasonable, they evoke a state beyond mere intellect. Plutarch lists the tyrannical excesses of Alcibiades in all their indulgent glories.

Alcibiades the multiple Olympian chariot victor, is akin to the grand prix motor racing team leader in today’s terms. He combined the cleverness engendered by of growing up under the roof of Pericles, with a possibly psychopathic inclination to manipulate and self-promote. The fact that he would escape to Sparta when he was arrested on the accusation of impiety. The breaking off of the erect phalluses of the Herms, has wonderful iconic and symbolic power. Whether Alcibiades was actually guilty of organising this mass desecration is a moot point. It makes great visual imaginative fodder for Wohl’s argument. Castration, even, symbolic castration, would have impacted powerfully upon such a masculine society as that of the Hellenes.

Alcibiades’ bid for personal glory would ultimately lead the Athenian empire into complete defeat and destruction. His tyrannical approach, fuelled by his erotic power and charismatic personality, would overcome the Peace of Nicias and sink the empire in a Sicilian folly. Not heeding the wise words of Pericles, via Thucydides to us, he would encourage the Athenian demos and citizenry to believe they were destined to conquer the world. This could be compared to the seduced husband or wife who wakes up the next morning, heavy with the regret of their adulterous actions the night before. Knowing that their actions will cause the destruction of their marriage and family. Alcibiades and the bitter aftertaste of sex and power.

©Robert Hamilton