Alcibiades (c. 450 - 404 BC) takes the prize as the most traitorous weasel of all time. His charm attracted people even as his ego and self-dealing meant no one trusted him. His machinations may have single-handedly prolonged the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta.
Sparta wanted to maintain its dominant position against the rising power of Athens. Both city-states prepared for war, seeking allies while also negotiating with each other. Into this diplomatic dance stepped 19-year-old Alcibiades.
Alcibiades came from a prominent Athenian family. He wanted to use his family’s standing and connections to take credit for any peace deal between Athens and Sparta, but the Spartans ignored him.
So Alcibiades whipped up anti-Spartan feeling in Athens while simultaneously secretly promising the Spartans that he would help convince the Athenians of their good intentions. He then betrayed each side, stirring up so much mutual distrust that Athens and Sparta went to war for almost 30 years.
Silver-tongued Alcibiades became an Athenian ambassador traveling from city to city whipping up support for Athens. He developed a network of friends in all the cities he visited as ambassador, including Sparta.
But he also lived the ancient world’s version of “Lives of the Rich and Famous” spending money extravagantly. His arrogance and egotism created enemies among all those he betrayed. Eventually, his Athenian enemies decided to get rid of him by accusing him of blasphemy. He was ordered to return to Athens where his enemies intended to give him a fair trial before executing him.
Alcibiades wasn’t stupid; he went into exile. To buy time, he ratted out his co-conspirators in a separate plot, betraying them to the city-state that they were conspiring against. Alcibiades moved to Sparta where he convinced them that he had inside military information about Athens, and so they let him live.
Alcibiades was a serial conspirator. He even conspired with the Persians, ignoring the fact that the Persian Empire was the biggest external threat to the Greek city-states. His ultimate goal remained the same: to be a hero in Athens.
He got his chance during the Oligarchic Coup of 411 BC when the democratic government in Athens was overthrown. Playing everyone against each other, Alcibiades eventually negotiated his return to Athens as the hero who saved them from the oligarchs.
His death is shrouded in mystery. Some sources say he was murdered by a Spartan hit squad. Coincidentally, his death occurred about the same time the war ended.
The adventures of Alcibiades are detailed in History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. The Penguin Classics translation includes maps and notes providing context for the events.
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