During the "Age of Pericles" a young man named Alcibiades attracted a great deal of attention in Athens. He was a kinsman of Pericles and was rich and handsome. But besides his money and his good looks there was another thing that made the people of Athens think a great deal of him. He had won the crown three times in the chariot races at the Olympic games.
OLYMPUC FOOT RACES
These games are said to have been established by Hercules. They consisted of boxing, wrestling, running, throwing the javelin, and racing with horses, and were held once in every four years in the valley of Olympia, in the little Greek state called Elis, which lay northwest of Sparta. They were so important that the Greeks reckoned time from the first Olympic games of which they had a written account as we reckon time from the birth of Christ. These games first took place in 776 b.c. The four years from one celebration to another were called an "Olympiad."
None but Greeks might take part in the Olympic games, and while the contests were going on tens of thousands of Greeks from every part of Hellas watched and applauded. To win the prize in any of the contests was the greatest honor for which a Greek could hope. The victor's name and the name of his birthplace were called aloud by a herald, and before the vast assemblage he was crowned with a wreath of wild olive cut with a golden knife from a sacred grove said to have been planted by Hercules.
His victories in the Olympic games made Alcibiades the idol of the Athenians. The young men of Athens admired him so much that some of them dressed as he did and even imitated the lisp with which he talked. He was, in fact, the leader of Athenian fops.
Unfortunately, he had very bad faults. He was frivolous and thoughtless and, worst of all, he was not sincere.
AN EVENING REUNION IN ANCIENT GREECE
While talking with Socrates, the great philosopher, who was very fond of him, he could talk as if he were good or at least wished to be; but the next day he might be leading his companions into all kinds of mischief. Yet with all his faults he was a brilliant genius; even serious people admired him and often took his advice.
During the Peloponnesian War he persuaded the Athenians to undertake an expedition against the island of Sicily. He reminded them that Syracuse, the most important city of the island, was an ally of Sparta and an enemy to Athens. This was one reason he gave why the expedition should be undertaken. Another reason was the advantage that would come to Athens if she should add this fertile island to her possessions.
An old Athenian general named Nicias opposed the expedition, but Alcibiades had his way. Ships and men were made ready and were put under three commanders—Nicias, Alcibiades, and a man named Lamachus.
One morning, shortly before the fleet was to set sail, it was discovered that a shocking insult had been offered to one of the gods. Along the streets of Athens, along the country roads, and in front of the houses were busts of Mercury, who was the protector of travelers. Ears and noses had been chipped from these busts in the night. The Athenians were a very religious people, and this insult to the god filled them with terror. All feared that Mercury would punish them by not protecting people walking on the streets and highways.
Many thought that Alcibiades had chipped the busts for a frolic. Soon after the fleet reached Sicily orders were received that he should return to Athens at once to answer the charge. Of course he had to give up his command.
After he did so one disaster after another befell the expedition. The fleet entered the harbor of Syracuse. The Syracusans then blocked the entrance so that the Athenian ships could not get out. In the battle that followed half of Nicias' ships were destroyed. Nicias ran the rest ashore and tried to escape by land, but all were forced to surrender. The old commander was killed, and those of his men who did not die in battle or of starvation were sold into slavery. Not one of the ships of the fleet ever got back to Athens.
Alcibiades was either afraid that he could not clear himself, or that he could not get justice in the courts of Athens. He therefore pretended that he was going to obey the order for his return, but instead of doing so he went for refuge to Sparta. When the Athenians heard of this they passed a sentence of death upon him.
In Sparta he was warmly welcomed and by his pleasing ways became a general favorite. The Spartans, however, soon grew suspicious of him and ordered him to be put to death as a traitor to them. He managed to escape and went to Persia. Here again, as at Athens and at Sparta, he made the people fond of him. But after a while the Persian governor, who had been his best friend, saw that he was treacherous and put him in prison. He escaped and went to a place on the Hellespont where he joined the Athenian fleet. There he gave the commanders such advice that they gained a victory over the fleet of the Spartans and the land forces of the Persians. The Spartan admiral was killed. His successor wrote to Sparta, "Our glory is gone. The men are without food. We know not what to do."
Alcibiades now thought that he might venture to go back to Athens. As he had given to the commanders of the Athenian navy the advice which won for them the victory over the Spartan fleet the Athenians repented of having condemned him to death. So when he arrived in the Piræus, with a small fleet of twenty vessels, he was allowed to land and go to Athens. In a very short time he persuaded the Athenians to give him command of their fleet. Then he sailed across the Ægean to fight against the Persians and Spartans.
Unfortunately, he had to leave the fleet for a short time. During his absence his lieutenant foolishly brought on a battle. The Athenians were defeated, and many of their ships were captured by the Spartans.
With what was left of his fleet Alcibiades then did the strangest thing possible; he attacked a city that was friendly to the Athenians and tried to make slaves of some of the inhabitants. Complaint was made of this to Athens, and the Athenians at once dismissed Alcibiades from the command of their fleet.
After this he lived for some years in Asia Minor, where he owned a castle. One night his castle was surrounded by armed men who set it on fire. He ran through the flames and tried to escape, but his enemies killed him (b.c. 404.)