The Life of Alcibiades
Dangerous Ambition and the Betrayal of Athens
Jacqueline de Romilly, translated by Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2019, 228 pages
Book Review published on: December 6, 2019
The Life of Alcibiades: Dangerous Ambition and the Betrayal of Athens by Jacqueline de Romilly was originally published in French by Éditions de Fallois in 1995. It was later translated to English by Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings and republished in 2019. The book describes one of history’s most flamboyant, ambitious, and controversial personalities, Alcibiades of Athens. Alcibiades—a rich, witty, Athenian politician and general—was a prominent figure during the volatile times surrounding the Peloponnesian War. A student and protégé of the famous Greek philosopher Socrates, Alcibiades demonstrated unparalleled genius and a gift for oration that made him one of the most celebrated people of his time. However, despite all his talents, Alcibiades suffered from many personality flaws that includes narcissism, youthful ignorance, and immoral personal behavior. Needless to say, he made a lot of enemies. According to Athenian philosopher Plato, “Alcibiades never truly applied Socrates teachings but rather his arrogance made it impossible for him to separate morality and politics.”
Romilly pieces together Alcibiades life, ambition, and deeds through the accounts of Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian who wrote an account of the war between Athens and Sparta in fifth century BC. The author also uses accounts written by Xenophon, another Greek historian and soldier, who attempted to complete Thucydides work on the Peloponnesian War.
In this book, the reader learns of Alcibiades’s brilliance as a representative in the Athenian democratic assembly and of his ability to persuade and manipulate his peers and the governing body, ultimately leading them into a disastrous military campaign in Sicily and a costly war with Sparta. The author describes Alciiades’s treachery, as he conspired with Sparta’s King Agis II and Persian governor Tissaphernes to overthrow his beloved Athens and replace its representative government with oligarchical rule. The act of betrayal was unscrupulous enough, but Alcibiades arrogantly justified his treason.
Despite his duplicity, Alcibiades returned to Athens triumphantly. All charges of treason against him were dropped and he was subsequently made strategos (general) of all Athenian forces. He went on to secure a treaty with Persia, and he won many battles. In the end, however, he was blamed for a key naval battle loss to the Spartans, and he was again exiled from Athens. He was later assassinated while taking refuge with his Persian allies.
Overall I enjoyed reading the book. I found Alcibiades to be a fascinating historical figure who had a unique ability to walk the tightrope between politics and war. The author does a great job bringing her character alive and summarizing Alcibiades’s accomplishments and achievements as well as his demise. I found the translation from French to English a bit complicated and difficult to follow; sometimes, details are hard to translate. I recommend this book to anyone that has foundational knowledge of the Peloponnesian War and the geo-political events surrounding it, who has studied Alcibiades, or has already read Thucydides’s and Xenophon’s historical accounts. For first-time readers, this book may be a bit advanced and difficult to follow.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Andrew H Lanier IV, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas