Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Ancient Athens by David Stuttard

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Ancient Athens by David Stuttard
Harvard University Press: April 2018
Hardcover, 400 pages
From the inside book flap:
Alcibiades was one of the most dazzling figures of the Golden Age of Athens. A ward of Pericles and a friend of Socrates, he was spectacularly rich, bewitchingly handsome and charismatic, a skilled general, and a ruthless politician. He was also a serial traitor, infamous for his dizzying changes of loyalty in the Peloponnesian War. Nemesis tells the story of this extraordinary life and the turbulent world that Alcibiades set out to conquer.
Introduction (page 7):
[T]his book is written not for the specialist but for general readership with an interest in the many areas of human experience with which Alcibiades’ biography intersects: politics and society, religion and philosophy, ambition and betrayal, and the drama of a life lived to the fullest by a subject who often seems to have been making up the rules as he went along. There can be no denying the drama of Alcibiades’ life, either in general or in specifically Greek terms. Its arc is that of the quintessential tragic hero who, from a position of great power, engineers his own destruction thanks to bad choices or flawed character.
[Note: it's possible that the antepenultimate word should be "and."]
Definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary phone app:
Nemesis: the Greek goddess of retributive justice. Usually follows hubris, or exaggerated pride or self-confidence.
When I first read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War I have to admit that I found the last third of the book a challenge to follow. One thing clear in this section was the character Alcibiades (~452 – 404 BC), a charismatic chameleon constantly changing allegiances, especially when it was necessary to save his neck. He went from being an Athenian general to a Spartan policy-maker hanging out with Persian rulers, then welcomed back in Athenian leadership roles. He was from the infamous Alcmaeonid family on his mother’s side, notorious for polluting sacred grounds in killing suppliants and saddled with rumors of collusion with the Persians during their invasion of Greece. In youth, Alcibiades was renown for looks and athletic skill. He mingled with the finest minds of his day, such as Protagoras, Anaxagoras, Damon, Pheidias, and was a student/follower of Socrates. His father died when he was young and he became the ward of Pericles, Athens' most important political figure of that time. Anecdotes present Alcibiades as headstrong, outrageous, and privileged. He was also a master at public relations and “spin,” presenting himself in a way to keep people talking about him and staying in the public eye.

The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC just as Alcibiades was coming of age. He fought at several levels, starting as a helot and working his way up to a cavalry post. Along the way he possibly saved Socrates' life and Socrates returned the favor in a separate battle. It was just before the Peace of Nicias, a break in the war about a decade after it had started, when Alcibiades took center stage in Athenian political life. There were problems with the treaty, terms were not always followed, and Alcibiades led political and military actions that helped stir up a hornet's nest of tensions and resentments in the area. A few years later, the Athenian assembly voted for what would be the disastrous Sicilian campaign, an action Alcibiades championed. It was before the Athenian ships sailed to Sicily that the mutilation of the Herms occurred, damage of religious significance that took on political importance when the vandals were not found. Alcibiades' opponents took advantage of the political turmoil and charged him with profaning the Mysteries of Eleusis, recalling him from the Sicilian expedition just as it was beginning. Not placed under arrest, Alcibiades slipped away and escaped to Sparta, where he masterfully spoke to the city's Ecclesia and laid out a blueprint for Sparta to win the war with Athens. Please indulge an extended quote here since it shows that Alcibiades wasn't an empty blowhard but a talented strategist that would strike not just at Athens but personally impact his political enemies there, too:
It was to prove one of the most brilliant moves of the entire war. Everything that Alcibiades predicted came to pass. With a year-round Spartan presence just a few menacing hours from their city walls, the Athenians found their freedoms severely restricted. No one knew where the next Spartan raid might hit. Nor was it like the annual incursions into Attica, which the Peloponnesians had made at the start of the first phase of the war back in the late 430s and early 420s. Then the countryfolk knew that, when the raids were over (and none lasted more than forty days), they could return to their homes and farmsteads, even if these might have sustained damage. Now they must either abandon their rural livelihoods completely, crowd into Athens, and endure the cramped conditions, which in the past had proved such fertile breeding-ground for plague, or brave it out at home, never knowing from one day to the next, when their houses might be torched or when they themselves might face the sharp edge of a Spartan sword.(176-7)

And the slaves at Laurium [silver mines] did indeed desert in droves. From the time that Agis first put out the word that they would receive asylum until the ending of the war, more than twenty thousand managed to escape their labour camps and steal through the mountain glens to safety. For the Athenian economy, it was a massive blow. For slave owners such as Callias, it was catastrophic. Already a spendthrift, with ever slave who made it out to Decclea, he saw his once-enviable wealth dwindle and disappear. And it drained Nicias’ coffers, too.
It was while he was helping Sparta that he also helped himself to the wife of one of the Spartan kings, probably fathering a son by her. I won't rehash all that follows in his work with Sparta, dealings with the Persians, successful return to Athens, warlord status in Thrace, and his escape to Anatolia before assassins caught up with him other than to say it is a fascinating and engaging ride. Everything Alcibiades did was calculated and oversized...and usually successful. One of the strengths of the book is the attempt to analyze possible agendas of the major players in order to see where interests line up and where they diverge. Again, it's guesswork (and presented as such), but helpful in scrutinizing not just what happened but also possibly why it happened. Permit me one last excerpt, an insightful comment on why Alcibiades' personality, so strong and persuasive in person, might have been a hinderance once he wasn't present:
As at Athens, so, too, in Sparta: when Alcibiades was on hand to charm, dazzle, seduce with the sheer force of his magnetic personality, he could convince even many of his harshest critics of his indispensability. Once he was gone, however, his magic evaporated with him. It was like remembering excesses from a riotous symposium in the stark light of the next day’s dawn. Not just sober reconsiderations and hardheaded reappraisals. But a desire to distance oneself as far as possible from the withering evidence of decadence and dissolution. (193-4)

It is that personality of Alcibiades that shines through in Stuttard's writing, an oversized ego feeding a strong drive to achieve and win. His monumental audacity is something to behold, especially when it usually paid off handsomely for him. In reconstructing Alcibiades’ life a modern reader faces problems with the ancient sources. Thucydides probably interviewed Alcibiades as one of his sources for his history, but Alcibiades would have been self-aggrandizing as well as selective in what he relayed, while Thucydides would have been discriminating in what he included in order to fit his agenda. As Stuttard mentions, many details of Alcibiades’ life were later fabrications, spun to reinforce the viewpoint of that author. Despite the challenges, David Stuttard’s lively biography and history covers not just Alcibiades’ life but the events of the Peloponnesian War (especially the second half) so the reader can understand the context of his many dubious actions.

Stuttard’s background in theater and his style seem to be tailor-made for such a dazzling subject and theatrical story. Flourishes abound, metaphors laden, and images drawn out. Stuttard adroitly weaves the many facets of Alcibiades’ life, public and personal, into the seemingly unending Greek conflict of his lifetime. Ancient sources are examined against each other and circumstantial reports so readers can follow up and make up their own mind as to what to believe. It's a lively read, covering one of the major characters during this chaotic span of ancient Greece's history. What emerges is a portrait of a complex figure, as enigmatic today as he probably during his own time. A prior knowledge of this period is helpful, but not required given Stuttard's excellent overview. The provided maps, time line, and family tree are extremely helpful. Very highly recommended.

Update: Mr. Stuttard was nice enough to reply to my tweet and add, "Next up for @Harvard_Press will be Phoenix: Cimon and the Rise of Athens, a very different character, but what an exciting story!" I'm definitely looking forward to it.

David Stuuttard's Website, with more links, including one to this book and also to his old blog.

Alcibiades in the Shadow of Achilles, a condensed version of his recent British Museum presentation on this book at the Harvard University Press blog. Also highly recommended. His talk closes with, " I’ve spent several years of my own life tracking his, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I hope that, if you read the book, you will enjoy it equally." Indeed I did.

My posts to date that mention Alcibiades:

My notes on the book, with additional sources to check out.

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