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The Lion's Cub

When in the Frogs of Aristophanes, Bacchus, sorely in need of a dramatic poet who will be able to produce some play of decent merit at his festivals, goes down to the Regions of the Dead, in search of what he wants. Arrived at his destination, he finds himself called upon to choose between Æschylus and Euripides. Among other tests of merit, he proposes to the candidates for his favour, that they should give their countrymen such good advice that there should be once again a prosperous Athens, exhibiting tragedies in the style in which they should be exhibited. Thereupon Æschylus delivers himself of the following:

"Rear not a lion's cub within your walls,

But having reared him, let him work his will."

We may be sure that everyone in the audience knew what was meant—the lion's cub was Alcibiades, son of Cleinias.


At the time when the play above mentioned was exhibited (the early spring of 405 B.C.) Alcibiades was for the second time in exile. His career was, in fact, practically at an end, but it is possible that if the advice which it put into the old poet's mouth had been followed, the fate of Athens might have been averted or, at least, postponed. It is, anyhow, certain that Alcibiades had never failed in anything that he undertook. An utterly selfish politician, he was yet a man of conspicuous ability. The magnitude of the injury which he did to his country when seeking to revenge himself for his first banishment is the measure of his remarkable powers.

He was connected on the mother's side with the noble house of the Alcmæonidæ, the great Pericles being his near kinsman, and, in right of this relationship, one of his guardians during his minority. The great statesman was probably too much occupied to take much thought for his ward, and his fellow-guardian, his brother Ariphon, was a man of little weight. This, doubtless, was one of the many adverse influences which told against the young Alcibiades. From the very beginning of his life he seems to have been spoilt. Left at the age of two without a father's care, rich, noble, singularly beautiful in person, of a haughty and ambitious temper, it would have been almost a miracle if he had grown up to be a self-controlled, law-abiding citizen. Plutarch tells two characteristic stories of his boyhood. Overpowered by the superior strength of his antagonist in a wrestling match, he caught his opponent's hand in his teeth. "What!" cried the lad, "do you bite like a woman, Alcibiades?" "No," he answered, "I bite like a lion." On another occasion he was playing dice in the street. A waggon approached, and its surly driver refused to stop. The boy's playfellows dispersed, but Alcibiades threw himself at full length before the feet of the horses. "Run over me, if you dare," he cried. At eighteen, when he attained his majority, he received from his guardians his property, largely increased, probably, during a minority of sixteen years. This must have been very shortly before the death of Pericles, which, happened in the autumn of 429. Possibly it is to this time that we are to refer an anecdote, which if it is true, indicates pretty clearly the way in which the young aristocrat regarded Athenian politics. Calling at his guardian's house, and being refused admittance because the statesman was busy with the accounts which he had to render to the people, he remarked: "It would be far better for him to busy himself in thinking how he may best avoid rendering them at all." In common with all young Athenians, he served in the army. Here, of course, he found opportunities for the display and ostentation which were part of his character. His shield was inlaid with gold and ivory, and carried the device of Zeus hurling a thunderbolt, borne, it will be remembered, by Hyperbius, one of the Theban Champions in 'Septem contra Thebas' of Æschylus. His first foreign service was in 429 B.C. before Potidæa. Here he was wounded and was for a time in great danger, but was saved by Socrates, whose favourite pupil he had been. The philosopher was strongly attracted by the grace and beauty of the young man, but seems not to have spared him plain-spoken rebukes. A strange affection grew up between them. The influence of the elder man was not, we may believe, wholly useless, though it did not suffice to keep back the younger from a career of extravagance and folly. On the other hand, we have reason for knowing that the philosopher's unpopularity was much increased by the misdoings of some of his pupils. Of these Alcibiades was the most notorious. The special service which Socrates performed at Potidæa was in a way repaid at the disastrous defeat of Delium in 424. B.C. At this battle Alcibiades was serving on horseback, and helped to protect the retreat of his master, who was on foot.

The feelings with which Alcibiades was regarded among his fellow-citizens were, we may be sure, of a mixed kind. Some of his exploits must have extorted a half unwilling admiration. When, probably in the year of the battle of Delium, he ran seven four-horsed chariots at Olympia, and won the first, second, and fourth prizes; when it was seen that the ships of war which he had to man and equip were the best provided in the fleet, that the plays which he had to put upon the stage had more costly scenery and better music than any other, a certain popularity followed.

But the favour thus won is of a very uncertain and evanescent kind, while the enmities made by a haughty and insolent demeanour and by acts of wanton violence, are fierce and lasting. His conduct to his wife Hipparete must have alienated from him the powerful family to which she belonged. Enraged at her husband's numerous infidelities, she left his home and took refuge with her brother. Alcibiades affected unconcern, "If my wife wants a divorce," he said, "she must deposit her memorial with the magistrate in person." Hipparete proceeded to comply with the demand, which was probably legal. As she was crossing the market-place Alcibiades seized her and carried her to his home, where she remained till her death. He showed similar audacity in serving a friend, against whom an action had been brought. He went to the Temple of Demeter where the State archives were kept, asked to see the list of causes, and wetting his finger, simply wiped out the charge against his friend. We may compare it to burning a writ.

It is difficult to define the line which Alcibiades took in Athenian politics, for we can see that it was largely influenced by personal feelings. It is probable that he did not become prominent till after the death of Cleon. The most powerful personages in Athens after this event, were Hyperbolus, who claimed to be Cleon's successor, and Nicias, the leader of the peace party. Hyperbolus endeavoured to get rid of one or two of his rivals by ostracism; but they combined together against him, and succeeded in turning his weapon against himself. For a time it seemed that Alcibiades would endeavour to oust Nicias from his position as head of the peace party. Anyhow he did his best to procure the release of the Spartan soldiers taken at Sphacteria, and to make himself generally a persona grata at Sparta. But the Spartans naturally preferred their old friends, and when the Athenians at last abated their excessive pretensions and consented to treat, refused the services of Alcibiades, and made Nicias and Laches their intermediaries. The brief peace that followed was known as the Peace of Nicias.

Alcibiades now threw himself unreservedly into the arms of the war party. He did his best to embroil his country with Sparta, and succeeded in forming' an alliance with the anti-Spartan powers in the Peloponnese, Argos, Mantinea, and Elis. His schemes were brought to nothing by the disastrous defeat which the allies suffered at Mantinea in 418. Alcibiades appears not to have been present at the battle.

The share that he took in promoting the ruinous expedition against Syracuse, and the fate by which he was himself overtaken have been already described. And now the worst nature of the man, the innate ferocity of the "lion's cub" came out. He turned all his knowledge of the Athenian plans and all his consummate abilities against his countrymen. The Spartans, always slow to act, were carried away by his energy. By his advice they actively took up the cause of the Syracusans, sent one of their ablest soldiers to help them, and renewed the occupation of Decelea which had been so damaging to Athens in the earlier part of the war. For a time he enjoyed a great popularity among his hosts.

Throwing off the luxurious habits for which he had been notorious in Athens, he affected a Spartan simplicity, frugality, and hardness of life. But a private quarrel with one of the kings, a quarrel in which the offence was given by Alcibiades, brought his residence at Sparta to an end. He fled into Asia, and took refuge with Tissaphernes, one of the Persian satraps. His personal charm was as effectual with Tissaphernes as it had been in Athens and Sparta. A series of tortuous intrigues followed. A breach between Sparta and the Satrap was effected, but it was not so easy to get any positive help from him for Athens, in the shape either of men or of gold. Still Alcibiades traded on the influence which he was reputed to have over the Persian rulers, endeavouring to obtain the repeal of the decree of banishment passed against him three years before. With characteristic want of principle he tried both parties in turn. First, he offered to bring over Tissaphernes as the price of his own recall but imposed, the condition that the democratic government of Athens must give place to an oligarchy. The condition was accepted; the democracy for a time ceased to exist, its place being taken by the oligarchy of the Four Hundred. But these new rulers did not trust their ally; and no decree of recall was passed. Thereupon Alcibiades reversed his policy. (It must be remembered that the man's contemporaries had nothing like the complete view of his intrigues which history enables us to obtain.) The news of the political revolution at Athens was ill received by the fleet at Samos—the crews—"the sea-faring multitude" as the aristocratic Aristophanes contemptuously calls them—were always strongly democratic. They constituted themselves into an assembly, they chose new generals, and, after some hesitation, recalled Alcibiades. Thrasybulus, who was the leading spirit in the fleet, crossed over from Samos to the mainland and brought him back. An Assembly was held to receive him; he addressed it with such success that he was elected general. There was a strong desire in the fleet to sail to Athens and restore the old state of things by force. Alcibiades successfully combated it. He knew that his promises to bring over Tissaphernes to the side of Athens—for he had repeated to the fleet what he had said to the Four Hundred—were delusive, and that such a movement as was proposed would leave all that Athens possessed in the Ægean at the mercy of her enemy. His action at this crisis probably postponed the fall of the city. Had it not been for this what happened in 404 would have happened in 411.

Alcibiades did not return to Athens: he felt himself to be more usefully employed, and it may be added, in greater safety, with the fleet. The men followed him with enthusiasm, for he showed consummate ability. His greatest achievement was the victory of Cyzicus, at which the entire Lacedæmonian fleet was taken, except the contingent from Syracuse, which was burnt by its own crews.

In the following year (409) he captured Chalcedon, and in the next year again Byzantium. His operations, in fact, were attended by an almost uniform success, and he received an unanimous welcome when in May 407, after an absence of eight years, he returned to Athens. His popularity rose to its height when, about four months afterwards, he escorted the sacred procession that annually made its way from Athens to Eleusis, there to celebrate the Mysteries of the "Mother of the Gods." For seven years the solemnity had been intermitted. The Lacedæmonian garrison at Decelea, established, it will be remembered at the suggestion of Alcibiades, constituted a danger too formidable to be encountered, and the celebrants had been transported by sea, with no small loss to the dignity of the festival. Alcibiades now raised the whole available force of the city, and took and brought back the procession in safety. The Spartan general did not choose to hazard an attack, and Alcibiades enjoyed all the honours of a triumph.

A few days afterwards he left the city, never to return.

We may be sure that below the apparent unanimity with which his return had been welcomed, there was some concealed dissatisfaction. Alcibiades had made too many enemies for this not to be the case. Probably he added to their number during his brief stay at Athens, for he had the temper in which success and popularity infallibly result in insolence. The hostile party soon found occasion for censure. He had a magnificent armament under his command, and he had accomplished nothing; he had even suffered defeat. True, this defeat happened in his absence, and was brought about by direct disobedience to his orders, Antiochus, the second in command, having risked the engagement which he had been expressly directed to avoid. But Alcibiades cannot be wholly acquitted of blame, for Antiochus owed his appointment to him, and had been put by him over the heads of abler men. The change of feeling at home was rapid. Alcibiades was deprived of his command, and thought it more prudent not to return to the city. He left the fleet, and retired to a strongly-fortified castle which he possessed—Bisanthe, on the coast of Thrace.

Little more remains to be told. He made an effort to save the fleet, Athens' last hope, which the reckless folly of the admirals was exposing to the attack of the Spartans at Ægospotami. He had seen the danger from his Thracian retreat, and warned the officer in command. They bade him depart. "They, not he," they said, "were responsible." A few days afterwards his warnings were justified. Athens, her last force destroyed, was at the mercy of her enemies. The capture of the city in 404 was followed by the establishment of an oligarchy, subservient to Spartan influences. One of the first acts of the new government was to pass a decree for the banishment of Alcibiades (his exile had up to this time been voluntary). No greater proof could have been given that, in spite of his lack of principle, he was a citizen who could have promoted the interests of Athens. The Thirty Tyrants—such was the name given to the leaders of the new Government—were entirely under Spartan control, and to be condemned by them was in its way a proof of patriotism. Bisanthe, now that the Athenian power had disappeared, was no longer a safe residence. With characteristic courage and self-reliance, Alcibiades determined to try his fortune with the Great King himself. Another Athenian, not unlike to himself in character, had tried that course with remarkable success, and what had been achieved by Themistocles might be done again. Accordingly he left Thrace, and made his way to Pharnabazus, who would, he hoped, give him a safe conduct for his journey to the Persian capital. Pharnabazus received him with every appearance of friendship; but his enemies were at work. The oligarchical party at Athens represented to Lysander that banishment was not enough, the new order of things would never be safe as long as Alcibiades lived. Lysander, accordingly, sent a messenger to Pharnabazus with instructions that his guest must be disposed of, and the Satrap, who no longer had two rival Greek powers to play off against each other, had no alternative but to comply. The house in which Alcibiades was sleeping was surrounded at night by a body of Persian troops and set on fire. He caught up in his left hand a cloak which he wrapped round his head, and a dagger in his right. The sight of him was sufficient to send his assailants flying. Not a man ventured to come to close quarters with him. Retreating to a distance, they showered javelins and arrows on him. He was about forty-five at the time of his death. According to another account his life was sacrificed, not to political jealousy but to private revenge. Neither account is improbable. He had done enough to make himself hated and feared by the enemies of Athens, and his private life was such as to rouse against him the most furious resentments.

A review of his career makes us feel that the epigrammatic summary put into the mouth of Æschylus was eminently true. It would have been better for the city if the "lion's cub" had never been reared in it; and yet his personal leadership was almost invariably successful. His countrymen had many reasons not to like him, and yet they did not prosper without him.