In 415BC a strange event happened, one which would be copied by modern man a thousand times over in the future. It might have been the first party fueled by illicit drugs in history. Although this drug was only illegal in the pretext of its usage that night.
An Athenian politician hosting the party, dressed in a priestly robe, handed the attendants glasses. Out of an ornately decorated decanter he poured each a dark black liquid. Over the next few hours these guests and their host had visions — experiencing the divine. According to Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal’s book “Stealing Fire”, the substance was called “kykeon”.
The liquid was a special mixture used in an important religious ceremony called the Eleusinian Mysteries. This 9-day ritual’s initiates included the likes of Plato and Pythagoras. In fact, Kotler and Wheal claim it helped kick off both of their greatest ideas: the world of forms and music of the spheres. Plato mentioned, “Our Mysteries had a very real meaning…he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods.”
However, this deep inspirational religious ritual turned into a party trick that particular night. The politician, Alcibiades, had committed a capital offense by “disclosing the Mystery”. Although this wouldn’t be his first or last offense. What’s more, he turned bad behavior into an art form.
I’m sure you have your own corrupt bureaucrat in your country or region. Their actions fill the void of local gossip and never fail to stun the community. But they don’t hold a candle to Alcibiades; he sets a special standard. Our kykeon-stealing friend might be the greatest bad politician of all time.
Born To Be A Leader
Alcibiades might have had one of the best political pedigrees of all time. According to Mark Cartwright at the Ancient History Encyclopedia Alcibiades’ father was a noted politician, and his mother came from an ancient family of aristocrats. Furthermore, the boy was a pupil and friend of Socrates and a nephew of the famous Pericles.
According to Josho Brouwers at Ancient World Magazine, Alcibiades and Socrates served together at the Battle of Potidaea. The philosopher saved the young man’s life in the battle and the two continued their friendship after the conflict developed into the early Peloponnesian War.
Long after his military service, Socrates was linked to his young pupil as a cudgel to beat him with. In fact, their association was used as tool in his prosecution.
In addition to his links to powerful people in Athens, Alcibiades was physically blessed. Born with good looks, a silver tongue, and flamboyant personality, he stood out and got attention. However, not always in a positive way.
First Taste Of Power
“Hipparete was a decorous and affectionate wife, but being distressed because her husband would consort with courtesans, native and foreign, she left his house and went to live with her brother. Alcibiades did not mind this, but continued his wanton ways, and so she had to put in her plea for divorce to the magistrate, and that not by proxy, but in her own person. On her appearing publicly to do this, as the law required, Alcibiades came up and seized her and carried her off home with him through the market place, no man daring to oppose him or take her from him.”
— Plutarch, “Alcibiades”
While Alcibiades’ personal exploits were usually on public display, his political antics dwarfed them in audacity. According to Cartwright, he became a general at the minimum age of 30, taking part in Athens war council. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Athens and Sparta’s conflict wore out the resources of both city states and peace was on the horizon.
The young general had hoped some Spartan ties would allow him to become the chief negotiator. The Spartans picked an older experienced Athenian named Nicias instead. Alcibiades soon formed an alliance between Athens, Argos, Elis, and Mantineia in an anti-Spartan league. This alliance drew Athens into another conflict with Sparta, which they lost.
Alcibiades rehabbed his damaged reputation by entering the Olympics. While not physically competing, he hired seven chariot teams and managed to sweep the event. Afterwards, he employed a famous poet to write about his exploits. With some status regained, he entered his next set of infamous political exploits.
Everyone’s Most And Least Favorite General
According to Brouwers, in 415BC a city-state in Sicily contacted Athens and asked for their help in defense against a local rival, Syracuse. While Alcibiades argued for it, saying it would be a good chance to expand Athens’ influence, Nicias spoke against it. The older general warned the younger statesman was good with horses, not military conflicts and spending a nation’s treasury.
However, Alcibiades won the day. He and Nicias we’re appointed to lead the Athenian force. Unfortunately, before they left several sacred relics were vandalized and Alcibiades was blamed for it when word came out drunken youths were responsible. His personal exploits made him an easy target. This was also around the time of his historic-first rave party with the kykeon, which he also was in trouble for.
Alcibiades asked for a trial instantly, certain he could prove his innocence. However, his enemies delayed and sent him off to Sicily. As soon as he arrived, they recalled him, leaving Nicias in charge of the force. The young general left on his own ship but never arrived in Athens; he ordered the ship to head for Sparta. He figured he’d get no fair trial at this point, so it was better to be a fugitive.
The former Athenian convinced the Spartans to aid Syracuse and attack Athenian allies — pushing Athens into a two-front war. Alcibiades himself then went to Asia Minor and convinced cities loyal to Athens to revolt. He also convinced the Spartans to forge an alliance with Persia.
Now, the Spartans grew tired of Alcibiades and King Agis of Sparta ordered his death. Why? Brouwers notes the historian Xenophon claimed Alcibiades fathered a child with Agis’ wife. Switching sides for a third time, the young general contacted the Persians and offered them his services.
The new Persian ally convinced them to aid both Athens and Sparta to wear the two out. According to Cartwright, Alcibiades also reached out to Athens claiming he could broker an alliance between them and Persia. However, it could only be done if the Athenians scrapped democracy.
Listening to his messenger, aristocrats in Athens started an insurrection and captured the government. Alcibiades was given command of a fleet, which defeated the Spartans on various fronts and the Persians. In 407BC he was invited back to Athens again officially and elected chief general. He’d lose the position after a naval defeat by a subordinate was blamed on his negligence.
No Where To Hide
Afterwards, Alcibiades once again fled to Persia. He didn’t feel safe anywhere in Greece due to all the enemies he made on the Athenian and Spartan sides. While staying with a courtesan — as his usual custom — her house caught on fire. As he peeked outside a number of men waited for him.
Alcibiades charged outside with his sword in hand to face them and was cut down by archers. Brouwers notes there are disputing claims on who really sent the men. Some claim the Athenians or Persians, while others claim the Spartans. However, Plutarch mentions the assassins might have been brothers of the woman Alcibiades stayed with — attempting to slay the man dishonoring their sister.
Either way, Alcibiades had burned so many bridges, it was only a matter of time before his number was called. While he had brilliant moments on the battlefield and his strategic advice could often be beneficial, he cheated on nation-states as much as he cheated on his wife. With all this in mind, I’d easily say Alcibiades was and is the greatest bad politician of all time.
Let’s review his exploits:
- He might have been the first ever conviction for using an illicit mind-altering substance.
- He’s responsible for rigging an Olympics.
- His friendship was used as a tool to prosecute Socrates for his personal exploits and betrayal of Athens. Just being Alcibiades’ friend or mentor could be dangerous.
- He officially switched sides 5 times between major players in the Peloponnesian War. At points it became hard to tell who he was serving, other than his own personal ambition.
- He was famously known for his appetite for prostitutes and drinking. Although his political exploits were so outrageous they tend to dwarf this habit. He might have been the only man in Classical Antiquity the Athenians, Spartans, and Persians all wanted dead.