Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

Harvard University Press

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 vivid story of this extraordinary life and the turbulent world that Alcibiades set out to conquer.

David Stuttard recreates ancient Athens at the height of its glory as he follows Alcibiades from childhood to political power. Outraged by his celebrity lifestyle, his enemies sought every chance to undermine him. Eventually, facing a capital charge of impiety, Alcibiades escaped to the enemy, Sparta. There he traded military intelligence for safety until, suspected of seducing a Spartan queen, he was forced to flee again—this time to Greece’s long-term foes, the Persians. Miraculously, though, he engineered a recall to Athens as Supreme Commander, but, suffering a reversal, he  took flight to Thrace where he lived as a warlord. At last in Anatolia, tracked by his enemies, he died naked and alone in a hail of arrows.

As he follows Alcibiades’ journeys crisscrossing the Mediterranean from mainland Greece to Syracuse, Sardis and Byzantium, Stuttard weaves together the threads of his adventures against a backdrop of cultural splendor and international chaos. Navigating often contradictory evidence, he provides a coherent and spellbinding account of a life that has gripped historians, storytellers, and artists for more than 2000 years.

Reviews and Comments include

No one before has come anything like as near as David Stuttard to penetrating the inner recesses of the mainsprings of Alcibiades's often outrageous, sometimes statesmanlike, always commanding public performances. Stuttard's mastery of the ancient sources and his narrative exposition are dazzling throughout, bringing to singing life the mercurial, magnetic, passionate and persuasive personality of this still hugely controversial Athenian aristocrat of the fifth century BC.

Paul Cartledge, author of The Spartans and Democracy, A Life

David Stuttard is a recognized expert at making the ancient Greek world come alive for modern audiences. In Nemesis, he conveys the horror and the glory of the years of Athens' greatness and decline. Central to these processes was the flamboyant Alcibiades, and Stuttard, wearing his learning lightly, gives us a hugely entertaining biography that is simultaneously an exciting adventure story and a short history of the period.

Robin Waterfield, author of Why Socrates Died

Stuttard has offered us a colourful, lively and engaging analysis of one of ancient Greece’s most fascinating and slippery characters: Alcibiades. With deft skill Stuttard navigates the ancient sources to offer the portrait not simply of a hero, or a villain, but of a man with equal talents and failings who managed to captivate the attention of the ancient world.

Michael Scott, author of Ancient Worlds: an Epic History

Nemesis is a rich and rewarding biography, as thorough as it is bracing and as measured as it is entertaining. Stuttard is to be praised for capturing the complexity of both the man and the world he lived in with such sensitivity and clarity. If in life Alcibiades’ “magic evaporated with him” whenever he went away, then in death the force of his charisma has been restored.

Daisy Dunn, author of Catullus’ Bedspread, New Criterion

So intriguing an investigation... There is a great deal in Stuttard’s book that is most welcome: the painstaking thoroughness of the testimonia that he deploys; the short shrift he on occasion gives to a revered author like Thucydides, who was no less susceptible than the next man to Alcibiades’ handsome blandishments; his readiness to parse anecdotes as guides to character rather than as historical fact. He has a sharp nose for the chicanery inherent in Athens’ hard-scrabble politics; he has read, and profited by, a remarkable amount of modern scholarship, by no means all in English. Best of all, he never lets us forget those complex and class-ridden family relationships that were, paradoxically, the main driving force behind Athens’ democratic institutions.

Peter Green, London Review of Books

Stuttard is skilled at drawing together background information that adds context to his characters’ actions, seamlessly smuggling exposition of Greek and Persian society and customs into his narrative. Nemesis demonstrates how readable and entertaining popular narrative ancient history can be, and adds a focus on social history to the military and political story.

Carol Atack, Times Literary Supplement

A theater director of ancient Greek drama and popular writer on Hellenic myths and persons, Stuttard knows how to narrate his character in context. If Alcibiades lacked character, in Stuttard’s telling he is one.

Ryan Shinkel, Los Angeles Review of Books

Very fine! It’s gripping, and written with intensity, and there’s so much to learn outside the life of Alcibiades. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hoplite battle more vividly described, including by Herodotus!

Robert Garland, Classics Professor, Colgate University

David Stuttard is a fine classical scholar, and also, through his extensive work with Greek drama, a master of character assessment and human motive. So this book has both a solid foundation in scholarship and numerous illuminating insights into the mercurial nature of Alcibiades and what drove him to commit so many outrageous deeds. To date, no work on Alcibiades has so tellingly come to grips with a man whose ego was so large that he literally knew no shame. Stuttard explains the context of the story so that those with little prior knowledge are able to understand the politics, society and culture of Athens and the wider ancient world that provides the backdrop for Alcibiades’ widespread antics.

Sam Moorhead, The British Museum Magazine

A general-audience biography about the controversial Athenian statesman has now hit the bookshelves, which may bring Alcibiades into the mainstream... Stuttard’s work is laudable especially in its depth and its use of available sources. The main body of the text, at 30-6 pages, leaves few if any details of Alcibiades’ life untouched. In terms of primary sources, he displays a firm grasp of the near-contemporary accounts, drawing on the historical, literary, and oratorical works of the classical period, as well as relevant archaeological and epigraphical evidence. He also cites heavily from much later sources, including first and foremost Plutarch, but also Diodorus Siculus, Justin, and others. Stuttard also draws from a variety of secondary sources intended for both scholarly and general audiences, making his endnotes useful for both types of readers to pursue further inquiry on specific topics.

Samuel Ortencio Flores, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

David Stuttard’s new life of Alcibiades is a lively, fast-paced and eminently readable attempt to bring the insolent young monster back to life. Over the past twenty-five years, no-one has done more than Stuttard to keep classical Greek drama alive on the English stage. The Actors of Dionysus, founded by him in 1993, are still turning out thrilling modern adaptations of Greek tragedies and comedies, and Stuttard’s translations of Medea, The Bacchae and Lysistrata are among the best contemporary performance texts of Greek plays. It is easy enough to see why Alcibiades’s life, with its tragic ironies and dramatic reversals of fortune, might appeal to him.

Peter Thonemann, Literary Review

It’s quite the tale, told with rare gusto and precision by David Stuttard – an astute inquisitor of the conflicting sources with an eye for the telling anecdote.

Jonathan Wright, Catholic Herald

Robust new biography... To anyone looking for a readable introduction to the Peloponnesian War, I would recommend Stuttard’s book.

Thomas Hodgkinson, The Spectator

As an entertaining biography of a scoundrel, Nemesis is superb... Stuttard eloquently tells the reader of the rise and fall of a man and his city, who both angered the gods through their acts presents an exciting tale of the late and attitudes.


Writing with humor and gusto, Stuttard presents an exciting tale of the late fifth century BCE... I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Aaron Beck, H-War

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 was in his won time. A prior knowledge of the 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.

Dwight Green,

If you like this style of biography, you will thoroughly enjoy this book. Even if you do not, you will end up brilliantly informed both about what the man did and also the context in which he did it.

Roger Barnes, Classics for All

A hundred triremes, their newly-gilded figure-heads glinting radiant in the rising sun, lay lazy in the flat calm waters of the harbour. For now, their masts and sails were stowed away, and with their streamlined forms, hulls caulked just recently with tarry pitch and crimson-stained with ruddle, huge staring eyes fresh-painted on their bows, they looked like beautiful sea creatures, hybrid dolphins with long oar-feathered wings. Each of their owners had expended huge amounts of money in their unacknowledged competition to create not just the fastest and most deadly but the loveliest, most graceful ship, each crewed by the finest oarsmen they could find. Already the supplies for the first leg of the voyage were on board, and it was time for the hoplites, too, to be embarked. Long lingering hugs with loved ones by the harbour wall, last pieces of advice, eyes glittering with tears – and then the young men were aboard, and lining the narrow decks as they looked back to shore.

And then the braying of a trumpet call, and a hush descended on the many thousands gathered there. It was time for the prayers that would precede departure. Normally each ship would make its own prayers separately. But not today. In a tightly stage-managed ceremony, a herald led the huge assembly, as together in unison they repeated the sacred words. Then on the triremes wine was ladled into gold and silver cups (no doubt the same state vessels, that Alcibiades had used for his Olympic banquet less than a year earlier), and, as the singing of the customary hymn resounded round the mighty harbour, libations were poured into the clear sea, dark streams of wine in offering to Poseidon for a safe voyage.

And with that, the rowers bent over their oars, the helmsmen swung the ships’ prows round towards the open sea, and the long column of triremes nosed out into the open waters. As they left the harbour, they may have passed to starboard the tomb of Themistocles, the father of Athens’ navy, who had led the Greeks to victory at Salamis, but whom the People had condemned; who had fled for his life to Persia, but on whose death the People had repented and requested that his body be returned for burial; whom Alcibiades cannot but have had in mind, when he spoke a few weeks earlier of men, whose brilliance the People recognized only when they were dead. Then, when all were out at sea, they drew up abreast in a long line, and, as the trumpet sounded once again, the triremes raced each other out as far as the island of Aegina.

For Alcibiades, the voyage south and round the pale blue mountains of the Peloponnese must have felt liberating. On his flagship trireme, a ship he had provided at his own expense, he had caused a section of the deck to be removed so that a hammock might be strung, in which he could relax and watch the world float by – and feel the freedom of the warm sea breeze, as it seared his face and burnt away the stifling hothouse memories of the Assembly. Yet, even as he sailed to new adventures, the memory of Themistocles’ fate cannot but have given him pause. Like Themistocles before him, he was leaving Athens to his enemies. Who knew what mischief they might stir up in his absence? It would not have been surprising if Alcibiades was even now weighing up his options


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