Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades

Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades: Story, Text and Moralism

Volume: 3
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Leuven University Press
Pages: 499
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    Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades
    Book Description:

    At the beginning of the second century AD, Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote a series of pairs of biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen. Their purpose is moral: the reader is invited to reflect on important ethical issues and to use the example of these great men from the past to improve his or her own conduct. This book offers the first full-scale commentary on the Life of Alcibiades. It examines how Plutarch’s biography of one of classical Athens’ most controversial politicians functions within the moral programme of the Parallel Lives. Built upon the narratological distinction between story and text, Verdegem’s analysis, which involves detailed comparisons with other Plutarchan works (esp. the Lives of Nicias and Lysander) and several key texts in the Alcibiades tradition (e.g., Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon), demonstrates how Plutarch carefully constructed his story and used a wide range of narrative techniques to create a complex Life that raises interesting questions about the relation between private morality and the common good.

    eISBN: 978-94-6166-009-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-10)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 11-12)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. 13-18)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 19-96)

    During the final years of the first and the early decades of the second century A.D., Plutarch of Chaeronea (ca A.D. 45-120) published a series of at least twenty-three pairs of biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen¹. In the proem toAemilius-Timoleon, Plutarch explains why he wrote these so-calledParallel Lives(Aem.1.1-6):

    I began the writing of myLivesfor the sake of others, but I find that I am continuing it and enjoying it now for my own sake too, trying in some way or other, using history as a mirror, to adorn my life and to make...

  6. 1 The Proem (Alc. 1)
    (pp. 97-118)

    As is natural for the secondLifeof a Plutarchan pair, theLifeof Alcibiades does not have a formal proem.Alc.1, however, is an example of what Philip Stadter has called “informal proems”: Plutarch has adapted the biographical categories of ancestry (1.1), upbringing and education (1.2-3)¹, physical appearance (1.4-5) and speech (1.6-8) to ful fill two classical proemial functions². The first is to arouse the interest of his reader (attentum parare). Plutarch does so in various ways. For one thing, he draws attention to the exceptional richness of his source material by pointing out that thanks to Antisthenes and...

  7. 2 A Difficult Character (Alc. 2-9)
    (pp. 119-166)

    In the proem, we learnt that Alcibiades remained beautiful throughout his life “because of the natural goodness and excellence of his body”¹. But what about his soul? Was he born with a good nature (φύσις) and did he develop a virtuous character (ἦθος)²? Plutarch brings up the subject immediately after the proem (2.1)3:

    τὸ δ’ ἦθος αὐτοῦ πολλ ὰς μὲν ὕστερον, ὡς εἰκὸς ἐν πράγμασι μεγάλοις καὶ

    τύχαις πολυτρόποις, ἀνομοιότητας καὶ4 πρὸς αὑτὸ μεταβολὰς ἐπεδείξατο. φύσει

    δὲ πολλ ῶν ὄντων καὶ μεγάλων παθῶν ἐν αὐτῷ τὸ φιλόνικον ἰσχυρότατον ἦν

    καὶ τὸ φιλόπρωτον.

    In later life, his character displayed many inconsistencies...

  8. 3 The Ascent to Power (Alc. 10-15)
    (pp. 167-214)

    Alc.10-15 deals with the first stage of Alcibiades’ political career. It begins with his first appearance before the Assembly (10.1-2) and ends with his foreign policy of the years 420-416 B.C. (14-15). In between, Plutarch discusses Alcibiades’ rhetoric (10.3-4), his triumph in the Olympic chariot race (11-12) and his struggle for power in Athens (13).

    Alc.10-15 starts with an anecdote that can be paraphrased as follows: one day, Alcibiades is walking through the city when he suddenly hears loud coming from the Assembly; having discovered that there is a public subscription going on, he walks in and makes...

  9. 4 A Thought-Provoking Transition (Alc. 16)
    (pp. 215-224)

    In manyLives, Plutarch suspends chronological narration at the height of his protagonist’s career (ἀκμή) to discuss the man’s character¹. Although the events inAlc.10-15 are not narrated in the historically correct order and Alcibiades’ first achievements as a general may not have constituted the absolute high point of his life,Alc.16 may be regarded as an example of this kind of intermezzo: it separates Plutarch’s climactic account of the first stage of Alcibiades political career (Alc.10-15 ) from his description of the first major reversal he suffered (Alc.17.1-23.3)². On the content-level,Alc.16 differs from the...

  10. 5 The Great Reversal (Alc. 17.1-23.3)
    (pp. 225-268)

    InAlc.17.1-23.3, Plutarch tells us about the first major reversal in Alcibiades’ life. This important section is demarcated by the discussion of Alcibiades’ character and the Athenians’ reactions to his conduct inAlc.16 on the one hand andAlc.23.4-5, which deals with his exceptional adaptability, on the other¹. Internally,Alc.17.1-23.3 can be divided into three parts:Alc.17.1-18.5 shows how the Athenians thought about the conquest of Sicily at various moments before the departure of the great expedition of 415-413 B.C.; inAlc.18.6-22.5, we are told about the mutilation of the Hermae and all the...

  11. 6 The Art of Adaptation (Alc. 23.4-5)
    (pp. 269-278)

    InAlc.23.3, we read that Alcibiades brought the Spartans under his spell by adopting local customs. InAlc.23.4-5, Plutarch expands on his protagonist’s talent to assimilate and adapt himself to the habits and lifestyles of the people around him. First, he claims that Alcibiades could change more abruptly than a chameleon (23.4) and was able to imitate good and bad alike (23.5). Next, he describes how Alcibiades behaved at various places he lived at (ibid.): in Sparta, he was all for physical exercises (γυμναστικός), simplicity of life (εὐτελής) and austerity of countenance (σκυθρωπός); in Ionia, he was luxurious...

  12. 7 From Sparta to Samos (Alc. 23.6-26.9)
    (pp. 279-308)

    InAlc.23.6-26.9, Plutarch relates how Alcibiades fell out of favour with the Lacedaemonians and returned to the Athenian side. We can distinguish four phases: in the first, Alcibiades is still in Sparta (23.6); next, he embarks on a Spartan expedition to Ionia (24.2); from there, he flees to the court of Tissaphernes in Sardis (24.4); finally, he crosses over to the Athenian camp at Samos (26.3). The movement described neatly mirrors that ofAlc.17.1-23.3: in those chapters, Alcibiades first set sail from Athens to Sicily (20.1), then fled to Argos (23.1), and in the end defected to Sparta...

  13. 8 Fighting His Way Back (Alc. 27-31)
    (pp. 309-330)

    Alc.27-31 deals with the actions Alcibiades undertook in the Hellespont and the Propontis between the fall of the Four Hundred and his return to Athens. Most of the events reported in this section are posterior to the point where Thucydides’History, the main source for the previous parts of ourLife, breaks off. FromAlc.27 onwards, Plutarch probably drew upon Theopompus’Hellenics, Ephorus’ Histories and Xenophon’sGreek History, the three authorities he refers to atAlc.32.2 to refute some details in Duris’ description of Alcibiades’ return to Athens¹. The loss of the first two works makes it...

  14. 9 At the Height of his Glory (Alc. 32-34)
    (pp. 331-350)

    Alc.32.1-34.2 deals with Alcibiades’ return to Athens. This section of theLifecan be compared with the accounts of Xenophon, Diodorus and Cornelius Nepos, who names Theopompus as one of his sources for his biography of Alcibiades (Alc.11.1-2) and no doubt drew upon Ephorus too¹. First of all, however, one should note Plutarch’s silence on the period between the capture of Byzantium and Alcibiades’ arrival in Piraeus. It does not come as a surprise that he makes no mention of the movements of the other Athenian generals (cf. X.,HGI 4.9-10; D.S. XIII 68.1), but he also...

  15. 10 A Tragic Downfall (Alc. 35-39)
    (pp. 351-398)

    In the last five chapters of hisLife of Alcibiades, Plutarch describes Alcibiades’ final downfall. Three stages can be discerned. First, Alcibiades gradually falls into disfavour with the Athenians, so that he is eventually compelled to move to Thrace (35.1-36.5). Next, the Athenian fleet suffers a crushing defeat at Aegospotami. Alcibiades at first retires to Bithynia but then decides to go and summon the aid of Artaxerxes (36.6-37.8). Finally, he is murdered in Phrygia during the reign of the Thirty (38-39). Several of the events reported inAlc.35-39 also figure in Plutarch’sLife of Lysander,which was most likely...

  16. Conclusions
    (pp. 399-424)

    Although we cannot identify the source(s) behind each part of theLife of Alcibiadeswith certainty, it is clear that Plutarch drew upon a great number of works belonging to various genres. His most important source was Thucydides’Histories. It is cited four times (6.3; 11.2; 13.4; 20.6) and constituted Plutarch’s main source for the sections dealing with Alcibiades’ breaking of the Peace of Nicias (14-15), the first major reversal in his life (17.1-23.3), and his political activities in the period between his flight to Tissaphernes and the fall of the Four Hundred (25-26). In addition, it may (partly) underlie...

  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 425-468)
  18. Index of Plutarch Passages
    (pp. 469-486)
  19. Index of Passages in Other Authors
    (pp. 487-499)