Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

A Wasted Life

One of the handsomest, bravest, richest, and most talented young men of Athens was Alcibiades. When he was five years old his father was killed in battle. The men who brought up the boy allowed him to have his own way in everything, so that he grew to be very stubborn and selfish.

One day he was playing in the street when a chariot came driving up.

"Stop!" said Alcibiades to the driver. "You shall not pass this way. Stop, I tell you!"

"Who are you?" replied the driver. "By what right do you stop me? I shall certainly pass this way."

The boy threw himself in front of the wheel of the chariot. "Now drive on if you dare!" he cried. "Drive over my body and see what will happen to you!"

Of course the driver had to stop but Alcibiades was much to blame for such behavior.

He was wrestling with a playmate and was likely to be thrown. He bit the boy, who said, "O Alcibiades, that is not fair! You bite like a woman."

"No," he answered, "I bite like a lion!"

When he was eighteen years old his fortune was given into his own hands. He spent much money on dress, and even his iron shield was inlaid with gold and ivory. The young men of Athens tried to be like him. He spoke with a lisp; so did they. They combed their hair as he combed his, and wore clothes like those he wore. They drank and gambled with him and were proud when people said, "There go the friends of Alcibiades."

But with all his faults he was not idle. He studied oratory and philosophy that he might be able to speak well and reason rightly. One of his teachers was the wise Socrates, who tried to help him to be good. He liked the philosopher and while under his care behaved very well. They went to war side by side and in one of the battles Alcibiades was wounded. Then Socrates stood over him and kept away his enemies until help came and carried the wounded youth to a place of safety.

At another time Socrates with his troop was running from the enemy and was in great danger. But Alcibiades, who was on horseback, rode down those foes and saved his friend.

In the company of the wise and good this young man seemed to be like them, but with companions of his own age he was the leader in everything wrong and wicked.

He delighted in sports. Once he took seven chariots to the Olympic games and put them all into the races. With them he won the first, second, and fourth prizes.

Because he spent his money freely and provided amusement for the people he was very popular. He spoke in the public meetings, fought in the army, and was a leading citizen before he was thirty years old.

He was greatly in favor of a war against Sicily, by which he thought the glory and power of Athens would be much increased. A fleet was made ready and was about to sail with him as leader when a strange thing happened.

In Athens, at the crossings larger streets, busts of the god Hermes had been set up. One morning it was found that nearly every one of these was injured. From some the heads had been broken off, from others the noses or the ears had been knocked away. The people were frightened and angry. The god and the city had been insulted. The cry was raised that this was the work of Alcibiades and his drunken young companions. Yet in the midst of this outcry the fleet sailed with him as one of its commanders.

His enemies at home said he must be called back to answer for his crime. He escaped from the fleet, went to Sparta, told the plans of the Athenians, and did all he could to help the enemies of his native city.

Although absent from Athens he was tried there, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The state took all his property and the priests solemnly cursed him in their temples.

He lived at Sparta for several years and seemed like one of the people of that land. He dressed plainly, ate coarse food, exercised every day in the gymnasium, and gave the rulers good and helpful advice. But some persons did not trust him and he heard that the king of Sparta had ordered him to be put to death. He fled to the camp of Tissaphernes, a Persian general. There he made himself so agreeable that the Persian was never happy without him.

After a while the Athenian army passed a vote that Alcibiades should be pardoned and recalled and made one of their generals. He was invited to return, was made a leader, and by his help several victories were gained.

The records of his banishment were then sunk in the sea, his property was given back to him, he was blessed in those temples where he had been cursed; and all the forces, by land and sea, were placed under his command.

In the very next battle he was defeated. He was disgraced and could no longer be leader. He fled to his castle in Thrace, hired soldiers, made war on the Thracians, and helped the Greek cities.

Persia, Sparta, and Athens agreed together that he must die. He had gone to the house of a friend, a woman named Timandra. Soldiers who had been sent against him surrounded the house and set it on fire. He rushed out with his sword in his hand but he was shot with many arrows, and fell to rise no more.

Timandra gave him honorable burial but at the funeral she was the only mourner. He had been false to himself and to everybody else, and nobody was sorry when he died, not yet forty years old.