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The Story of Greece by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

ALCIBIADES THE FAVOURITE OF ATHENS

[232] THE Peace of Nicias, which was made for fifty years, did not last more then six. Thucydides tells us that it did not really last even so long. For although for six years neither Spartans nor Athenians invaded each other's land, yet they did as much harm as they could to one another.

"So that," says the wise historian, "if any one objects to consider it a time of war, he will not be estimating it rightly."

Almost as soon as peace was signed, Sparta and the State of Argos quarreled. Each wished to get help from Athens, so each sent ambassadors to her. The Argives boldly begged Athens to join them against Sparta; the Spartans were content to remind her that she had signed the Peace of Nicias.

In Athens at this time there was a rich young noble named Alcibiades, who wished the Athenians to make an alliance with the Argives.

But the Spartan ambassadors had already been welcomed by the Athenians, because they had come with full power to arrange fair terms. Alcibiades was as determined as he was angry. To gain what he wished he resolved to play a trick on the Spartan ambassadors. So he went to them in secret, and told them how foolish they had been to tell the Athenians what great powers they had, for the assembly would certainly wrest from them more than they wished to give.

"When the assembly meets, tell the people," said Alcibiades, "that you have no power, but that you will send their demands to the Spartan council. I will support you [233] and all will be well, for you will have time to think over their wishes."

The ambassadors thought that the young noble knew better than they how his countrymen should be treated, and they promised to follow his advice.

So when the assembly met the next day, the Spartans declared that they had come only to report what the Athenians should say, that they had no power to arrange terms until they had heard from their own council.

No sooner had they spoken than Alcibiades jumped to his feet, and to the dismay of the ambassadors he pointed to them with scorn, saying, "These men say one thing one day, and another thing the next day; they are not to be trusted. Let us refuse to have anything more to do with them."

The Athenians at once agreed with Alcibiades that it was useless to treat with such unreliable ambassadors, and they then made an alliance with the Argives.

When the Spartans reached their own country they told how they had been deceived by Alcibiades, and how rudely they had been treated by the assembly. And this, as well as the alliance which the Athenians had made with the Argives, was the cause of the second part of the Peloponnesian War.

The Spartans were thirsting to avenge the battle of Sphacteria, and to wipe out the memory of their surrender. When they met the Athenians in 418 B.C. at Mantinea they fought with the courage and the fierceness that had made them invincible until the fatal day of Sphacteria.

Alcibiades, whose trick had been the cause of so mush mischief, was the son of an Athenian, named Clinias.

While Alcibiades was still young his father died, and Pericles became one of his guardians. He was a beautiful baby, a handsome boy, and when he grew to be a man he was so brave and so winning in his ways that he made friends very easily.

[234] But he made enemies as well as friends, for he was wild and wayward, while his pride often made him behave with scant courtesy even to those whom he should have treated with reverence and respect.

Staid, sensible folk were shocked at his careless, extravagant ways. Nicias distrusted him. But the citizens loved him and forgave him much, for he spent his wealth freely among them, and often entertained them with public shows.

"They love and hate and cannot do without him," wrote Aristophanes, as he watched the Athenians now cherishing, now chiding, their favourite.

One day, he was a mere lad at the time, he was wrestling with a playmate, when, thinking he was going to be thrown, he suddenly bit his companion's hand with all his strength. His friend quickly let go his hold, crying, "You bite, Alcibiades, like a woman."

"No," answered the boy, "like a lion."

Another day he was throwing dice in the street with his playmates, when a wagon pulled by two horses approached. It was the turn of Alcibiades to throw, and he shouted to the driver to stop, but the man paid no heed to the boy and drove on. The other children scampered out of the way, but the wilful little noble flung himself down in front of the horses and cried to the driver to go on now if he pleased.

Afraid lest he should hurt the boy the man at once pulled up his horses, while those who had been looking on in terror rushed forward and dragged the foolish little fellow out of danger. But Alcibiades had made the driver pull up and he was content.

His want of self-control became greater as he grew older. When he was at a grammar school he one day asked the schoolmaster to lend him one of Homer's books. The master said that he did not possess it, whereupon the rude boy struck him and then turned and walked away. Some years [235] later he struck a citizen whose talent in the theatre had outshone his own.

When he was a young man he walked into the assembly with a pet quail hidden under his cloak. This would have raised a storm of indignation had it been done by anyone else.

In the law court one of Alcibiades' friends was accused, when the favourite at once seized the writ and tore it in pieces before the face of the judge.

The young nobleman was rich, and much of his wealth he spent on horses. He sent seven chariots to the Olympic games, and once, to the great delight of the Athenians, their favourite won the first, second, and third prizes.

Euripides, the poet, sang of the triumph of Alcibiades in these lines:

"But my song to you,

Son of Clinias, is due.

Victory is noble; how much more

To do as never Greek before;

To obtain in the great chariot race

The first, the second, and third place;

With easy step advanced to fame,

To bid the herald three times claim

The olive for one victor's name."

At one time Alcibiades owned a very large, handsome dog, for which he had paid an enormous price. He ordered his tail, which Plutarch tells us was "his principal ornament," to be cut off.

His friends said that it was a stupid deed, and told him that every one in Athens was angry that he had spoiled the noble appearance of his dog. But Alcibiades only laughed, saying, "Just what I wanted has happened then. I wished the Athenians to talk about this, that they might not say something worse of me."

It was natural that so reckless and generous a youth should be surrounded by a crowd of flatterers, ready to applaud his foolish and sometimes insolent acts.

[236] But Alcibiades had no love for these careless admirers, although he would spend hours with them at feasts and revels. His affection he gave to one whom you would scarcely have expected the gay young nobleman to notice—to Socrates, the great philosopher and teacher of Athens.


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