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Mary Macgregor

Alcibiades Escapes to Sparta

A great crowd gathered at the Piræus to see the fleet set sail for Sicily. Groups clustered together, talking eagerly of the new empire that was to be won in the West, and the glory that Athens would gain from her conquests. It was a noisy, happy crowd.

Suddenly the heralds called for silence, and a hush fell upon the light-hearted folk as the priests prayed to the gods for the success of the expedition. Sacrifices, too, were offered by officers and sailors alike. Then to the strain of a hymn, in which the crowd of onlookers joined, the anchors were raised and the fleet sailed slowly away.

When the ships reached Sicily each commander had a different plan to propose.

Nicias, having learned how the ambassadors had been deceived, wished to sail homewards, without helping the Segestans. Lamachus, a brave, blunt soldier, wished to sail at once to Syracuse, and take the city by a sudden attack. Alcibiades proposed that they should do nothing until they had made allies of those cities that were not friendly to Syracuse, and to this plan the other commanders at length agreed.

Meanwhile two ships from Athens had followed Alcibiades to Sicily, for the assembly had determined to arrest him, and bring him home to be tried for the destruction of the images of Hermes.

Alcibiades went quietly on board one of the ships, but he knew that if he went back to Athens he would be condemned to death. So daring a deed as the spoiling of their god was more than the Athenians could forgive even to their favourite. And there were many who believed he was guilty.

So when the ship reached a seaport town in Italy, Alcibiades slipped on shore and escaped from his enemies. In his absence the Athenians condemned him to death and confiscated his property, while the curses of the gods were called down upon his head.

Alcibiades was very angry when he heard what his countrymen had done, and in his wrath he cried, "I will make them feel that I am alive." And he fulfilled his threat. For he went at once to the Spartans, the enemies of his own country, and told them the plans of the Athenian generals. He bade them send a clever general, named Gylippus, with an army to Syracuse, to help the city to withstand the attacks of the Athenians. He also advised them to build a fort at Decelea, a town in Attica, and to send troops there to harass the Athenians as much as possible.

To betray his country in this way would have been an unworthy deed for any Athenian; it was the more unworthy in Alcibiades, because he had learned from Socrates the true meaning of honour and righteousness.

The Spartans were eager to profit by the advice of the traitor, and they saw for themselves the wisdom of his words. But in their hearts they did not trust the man who had betrayed his country.

Alcibiades stayed in Sparta for some time, and while he was there he tried to win the confidence of the people by doing as they did.

"People who saw him wearing his hair cut close, bathing in cold water, eating coarse meal and dining on black broth, doubted or rather could not believe that he had ever had a cook in his house, or had even seen a perfumer or had worn a mantle of purple."

It was said that Alcibiades was like a chameleon; because just as it can change its colour as it chooses, so could the Athenian change his dress and his customs as he willed.