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

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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