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in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: February 21, 2022

Podcast #771: The Rise and Fall of Athens

In a period of only about 100 years, Athens went from relative obscurity, to becoming an influential empire, to collapsing into ruin.

My guest today will guide us through the dramatic arc of this city-state and the larger-than-life characters that contributed to it. His name is David Stuttard, and he’s a classicist and the author of Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens, and Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens.

We begin our conversation with the rise of Athens and why its aristocratic families decided to institute a radically democratic form of government. David then walks us through how the Persian invasion catapulted Athens to power in Greece. Along the way, David explains how a father and son named Miltiades and Cimon led Athens to power. We then shift our attention to the fall of Athens and how it was precipitated by the Peloppensian War with their one-time ally, Sparta. David introduces us to the made-for-Hollywood character that would play a pivotal role in Athens’ fall — the handsome and charismatic aristocrat and serial traitor, Alcibiades. We end our conversation with the lessons we moderns can take from the rise and fall of Athens.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In a period of only about 100 years, Athens went from relative obscurity, to becoming an influential empire, to collapsing into ruin. My guest today will guide us through the dramatic arc of the city state and the larger than life characters that contributed to it. His name is David Stuttard, he’s a classicist, and the author of Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens, and Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens. We began our conversation with the rise of Athens and why its aristocratic families decided to institute a radically democratic form of government. David then walks us through how the Persian invasion catapulted Athens to power in Greece. Along the way, David explains how a father and son named Miltiades and Cimon led Athens to power. We then shift our attention to the fall of Athens and how it was precipitated by the Peloponnesian War with their one-time ally, Sparta. David introduces us to the made-for-Hollywood character that would play a pivotal role in Athens’ fall, the handsome and charismatic aristocrat and serial traitor, Alcibiades. We end our conversation with the lessons we moderns can take from the rise and fall of Athens. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright, David Stuttard, welcome to the show.

David Stuttard: Thank you very much, lovely to be here.

Brett McKay: And so you’ve written a pair of books about the period that covers about 500 BC to a little after 400 BC. The first book is called Phoenix, which is about the rise of Athens and sort of its zenith of power where we think of Athens today, we think of temples and philosophy and the Greek tragedies. And then the second book part of this series is called Nemesis, which is about the fall of Athens, and you look at the fall of Athens through a really… You can’t make this guy up, Alcibiades and we’ll talk about him.

David Stuttard: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about what you cover in Phoenix. So like I said earlier, we typically think of Athens at its zenith of power when it’s commanding the seas, it’s making great art, producing philosophy, commerce. But before the Persian War, Athens was really just one of many Greek city states, kind of existing in the shadows of Sparta. Sparta was sort of the big dog, but then it kinda started growing in influence. Can you give us a big picture overview of the state of Athens before the Persian War? Where did the Athenians come from? What was their government like, etcetera?

David Stuttard: Sure. Well, what’s very interesting is in the 100 years before the Persian Wars, really, a huge amount of stuff happens. Up until, let’s say, 20 years before the Persian Wars, Athens is ruled by aristocrats. It’s ruled by one particularly aristocratic powerful family. But because of one thing and partly because those aristocrats had other aristocratic rivals, and we’ll be talking about that, I’m sure, quite a lot in this podcast, one of that family was assassinated, a chap called Hipparchus, which left his brother, Hippias in control of Athens. He became very unpopular indeed and there was a popular uprising. Well, when I say popular uprising, it was an uprising which was really spearheaded by a rival aristocratic family called the Alcmaeonids. And they enlisted the help of the Spartans to drive Hippias out of Athens. But then what the main Alcmaeonid leader really realized was that in order for him and his cohorts to retain power in Athens, they needed to enlist the support of the ordinary people. So this chap called the Cleisthenes, introduced a system of a government called isonomia, which effectively means equality under the law.

But he also sort of reorganized the way in which Athens was administrated. He organized the way in which each individual belonged to sort of a geographical group, so that the power of the ancestral families became gradually diluted and the influence of the state as a whole became greater. And this was the system which eventually… We don’t know how eventually, we don’t know how rapidly this happened, but translated itself into something which the Greeks called people power demokratia and we call democracy, of course. So this democratic situation had really only been in place for around about 15 years before the Persians invaded, first of all. But the democratic constitution, the fact that it is a democracy seems really to have caused the Athenians to coalesce under this new cause. And almost immediately, Attica, which is the region of which Athens is the main sort of conurbation. Attica was attacked by the Spartans and by other neighbors. And within a period of a very short while, Athens has managed to beat off these invaders. So she’s proving herself to be militarily extremely strong, as well as politically innovative.

Brett McKay: Well, I think an interesting point there is that the democratic government that Athens got was started by aristocrats. There was just basically a beef between the aristocrats.

David Stuttard: Exactly, exactly. And it’s a way, [chuckle] in fact, that those aristocrats very cleverly realized that they could, as I say, hold on to power without necessarily all the problems which had been there in the hundred years before. Because previously, there had been a lot of fighting between these aristocratic families, as each of them thought that they should be the ones in control of Athens. Somehow involving the people allowed that to be… The people having the power, those individual strong families become much more sort of subsumed into the government as a whole. They still remain important as we will see.

Brett McKay: And before the Persian War, there’s a lot of contention between the Greek city states themselves. There’s a lot of just infighting amongst Greeks and the big one, like Sparta seemed to be like they were invading everyone all the time. They invaded Athens around 506. What was the nature of the contention? And I think this is important to talk about, because this contention, it’s still there under the radar, even during the Persian War when Spartan-Athens were allies.

David Stuttard: You’re absolutely right. I mean, they were very… I think they were very anxious about what was happening politically in Athens. They saw this isonomia, this proto-democracy, as a little bit of a threat. And also a few of those Ionian aristocrats, including Hippias, the guy who’d been expelled by the Spartans, were asking the Spartans to help them. So, you have people from Athens, who aren’t happy with this new political regime, who are trying to have it sort of overturned almost immediately. And they call on the Spartans for help; Spartans being the most powerful, militarily, at that period.

Brett McKay: Were the Spartans threatened by democracy, because their whole government or their whole way of life depended on keeping the helots…

David Stuttard: Yes.

Brett McKay: In check? So they thought it would spread like, “Well, man, if these Athenians think their rabble can control things, maybe the helots will start thinking that, too.”

David Stuttard: I think what we’ve got to remember is that when the Spartans did invade Attica, democracy was very much in its infancy. It had only been around for about 18 months, I suppose. So, I don’t suppose the Spartans or anybody had any idea what it would become. So, perhaps what they’re more interested in is really putting a puppet into Athens that they themselves can control. But I’m absolutely certain that they are also looking at, as you say, at this idea of people power very suspiciously. The Spartans are your ultimate oligarchs, your ultimate aristocrats, I guess. In that, in order to be a Spartan, you have to own a certain amount of land, you have to have X amount of money as well. And simply to allow anyone to take part in political debates and political decisions, I’m sure that even at that early stage, they could see that this posed a threat.

Brett McKay: So, you had one group of Athenians, one group of aristocrats, who went to Sparta for help, but then you also had another group that they went to Persia looking for help for their side, on their side.

David Stuttard: Well, these are… And we don’t actually know who these people were, but we do know that the Athenians as a whole, the people of Athens, sent an embassy off to Persia. I think because they were so aware that the Spartans were there, they could invade at any time, they had other hostile states all around them, and because the Persians were beginning to be the most powerful horse in the East, yeah, you had an embassy, which went off to the Persians to ask them if they would help them militarily; if they could have an alliance with them. And the Persians said, “Yes, of course you can, as long as you give us amphoras with attic earth and attic water.” The embassy, the ambassadors, evidently… And I can’t believe this is true, but they agreed, without necessarily realizing that to agree to offer earth and water, was to agree to be part of the Persian Empire. And so according to Herodotus, the historian who records all these things, those ambassadors somehow agreed that Athens should become part of the Persian Empire. Of course, when they returned to Athens, the people of Athens were horrified. They’d only just created this new political regime of people power, democracy, and now they were agreeing to be part of the Persian Empire. So, very rapidly, this was kind of ignored. It was just swept under the carpet as if it had never happened.

Brett McKay: And did this deal that these emissaries did, did that, in any way, contribute to the Persians eventually invading Greece?

David Stuttard: Well, I think it made the people of Athens very aware that they didn’t… That they valued their freedom and their independence. And so when a string of Greek cities in the western coastline of Asia Minor, these Ionian cities, the people of Athens are Ionians as well, it’s a kind of an ethnic division of the Greeks. And when these Ionian cities in Asia Minor, that had been taken over by the Persians, had become part of the Persians’ Empire rebelled, they asked Athens if they would help, and Athens did indeed help. And it was really because of that. In the end, the rebellion was unsuccessful, but it was because the Athenians had helped that Ionian revolt, the Persians were reminded of their existence and were determined to bring Athens to heel.

Brett McKay: And who was the Persian king at this time? I can’t remember. Was it Darius or Cyrus?

David Stuttard: It is. Yes, it’s Darius the first. And according to Herodotus, when he heard about the involvement of Athens in this rebellion, he had a slave say to him every day, in the morning and at night, “Remember the Athenians,” and he vowed his revenge.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, I thought that was interesting. You talked about the Persians, their form of religion, Zoroastrianism, is that right? Is that what it is?

David Stuttard: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the world was black and white. And one of the things the Persians thought was the most evil thing you could do was lie or backtrack. And you had Darius thinking, “Yeah, these… You gotta remember these Athenians, they’re evil. They’re one of the bad guys, ’cause they went… They went back on their word.”

David Stuttard: Against their oath.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

David Stuttard: Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the Persians invade Greece, that kick-starts the Persian War. Early on, and this is where your book, Phoenix, really starts picking up, you’re talking about some of the men who played a pivotal role in the Persian War on the Athenian side. There was a guy name Miltiades. This guy became, rose to prominence in the Persian War. Tell us about him. What role did he play in the rise of Athenian power during the Persian War?

David Stuttard: Well, he’s a very interesting person, really, because he had been appointed by the old regime by Hippias, the guy who’s kicked out of Athens. But he’d been appointed by Hippias to look after Athenian interests in the Eastern Aegean. And while he’s there, the area that he is in charge of comes under the power of the Persian Empire. Miltiades initially seems to have sort of been quite happy to help the Persians, and we hear about him on a military expedition as part of the Persian army. But then relationships with Persia become sort of hostile, and so he has to return to Athens. When he is in Athens, of course, he has enemies there. All these other aristocrats are not very happy to see Miltiades returning home, this very powerful man with a power base in Athens as well. But they do realize that he’s actually quite an important person, because he’s the only real power figure in Athens who has any real experience of the Persians and the Persian Army. So, he becomes one of the military commanders who lead the army out when the Persian Army arrives in Attica.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and so he played a pivotal role in the Battle of Marathon, which we typically think of the Battle of Marathon, “Oh that’s the guy… It’s where the marathon was invented, right?”

The guy who runs, and then keels over and dies.

David Stuttard: That’s it.

Brett McKay: So what was his role at Marathon? What did he do there?

David Stuttard: Well, as I say, he was one of the Athenian military commanders, that they had this very strange arrangement whereby because they didn’t want to put the power into the hands of one person, the military command actually rotated, every day, a new commander took over. But a few of his fellow commanders realized that he was the one who knew all about the Persians and Persian way of battle and so on. And so evidently, they allowed him to take command on the days on which they were supposed to take command. And then, for days, the Persians and the Athenians are just holding off, neither of them is prepared to commit their army onto the field. And they’re just eyeballing each other over about a mile of empty, empty space. Now, we don’t know exactly what happened, ’cause even Herodotus, the historian who records it, and who evidently spoke to eyewitnesses of the battle, is quite vague. But it appears that early one day, early one morning when the Athenians woke up, they realized that the Persians were embarking their army onto their ships, probably with the intention of voyaging round the coast of Attica and attacking Athens, obviously because the army isn’t in Athens, the army is in the east of Attica.

And so, the Persian horses, we believe, have already been embarked. Now this is crucial, because the Persian infantry is therefore on its own. And when the Greeks, when Miltiades and the Athenians realized that the army was embarking, that the horses were on board, the horses were out of play, he seems to have ordered the attack. And according to Herodotus, they attacked at a run across this long empty mile of No Man’s Land. During that period, of course, the Persian archers are able to get into play, arrows are coming, raining down on the Athenians as they make contact with the Persian Army. The Athenians are outnumbered, massively outnumbered. But because of the element of surprise, I suppose to an extent, although, [chuckle] the Persians as they say, had quite a while when the Athenians advanced to realize what was happening. But the Athenians had their homeland, I suppose, on their side. They were really fighting for Athens and for their families back in Athens itself.

And very, very quickly, the Persian resistance collapsed and the Athenians, as you say, won a phenomenal and quite unexpected victory at Marathon. Around 5000 at least Persians are slaughtered, 192 Athenians fell at the Battle of Marathon. We know that it was a 192, because they became heroized, they became this great elite in memory of Athens. Their bodies were buried all together under a funeral mound at Marathon and honors were paid to them every year. They became heroized. Because this is a very important event. The Persian fleet returns to Asia Minor and for 10 years, the threat of invasion is hanging over them, but it hasn’t materialized again for another, as I say, for another 10 years.

Brett McKay: Alright, so yeah, The Battle of Marathon held off the Persians. Miltiades, he’s the hero of the Battle of Marathon, but then he eventually is put on trial for treason by the Athenians.

David Stuttard: Yes.

Brett McKay: What happened?

David Stuttard: He… About a year after Marathon, he says that he can… He’d like to take out the army of Athens on a military campaign, but he refuses to say where and why. He does take them on a campaign, the campaign is not successful. And when he returns home, his enemies, of whom he has quite a few, as I said earlier, put him on trial, because they say that he squandered the resources of Athens. They fined him a massive amount of money. In fact, he has been injured on campaign, he’s put in jail, he’s incredibly ill, he doesn’t survive, and the money which is owed… This great sort of fine, which is owed, is inherited by his family, who have to pay it off. And I think really part of what Miltiades’s enemies are trying to do is to actually cripple his family politically. They have to pay off this huge amount of money so because of that, they’re not… They’re not able to engage so easily in the political life of Athens.

Brett McKay: So again, you see this theme… Just aristocrats fighting aristocrats going on in Athens. We’ll talk about Miltiades’ son here in a bit, but at this point in the Peloponnesian War, is this when Athens started really developing their sea power like the trireme? Was that… Was this when this started happening?

David Stuttard: This is happening right now, you’re quite right. There’s a populist politician, a man called Themistocles, and for a long time, he’s been really saying that Athens needs to take control of the ocean, of the sea. The way to do this is to build these new ships, this new design of ships, the trireme. And the trireme is basically a boat with a very strong reinforced ram. The idea is that the oarsmen all row as fast as they can against the enemy ship. They hole it if they can, they hole its hull so that the water pours into the enemy ship. Then of course, they themselves have to disengage, as quickly as they are able to, so that they’re not sort of involved with his enemy ship anymore, they’re not actually pulled down along with it. And that is what the trireme is all about. It’s almost like a spear on the sea, a spear which is being manipulated by all these oarsmen.

So, it just rushes head, smashes into the enemy ship, pulls back. And the people of Athens were very, very lucky indeed, because in around 483, a massive… They had these silver mines in Attica, and around about 483, as I say, a massive bedrock of silver was discovered in Attica. And the politician Themistocles, said, “Well, look, either we can allow every man in Athens to have a part of the revenue of this, or we can all club together and with it build as many triremes as possible.” And this was a remarkable idea, and it was an idea, which he was able to persuade the Athenians to accept. And so, just in two or three years, the people of Athens were able to build a couple of hundred of these new triremes, and they would prove very, very important in the years to come.

Brett McKay: And what’s interesting you make this point, trireme warfare was very suited to the democratic government of Athens, ’cause basically when you’re in the trireme, like every… The oarsmen, right? They’re sort of these anonymous… It’s like the people who are making this happen. And so for some reason, I guess they took a lot of pride in trireme warfare, because it kind of… It was like a corollary to their democratic or everyone’s equal government.

David Stuttard: You’re absolutely right, because up until then, hot plate warfare had been the great thing. And hot plates are these… When you think of an ancient Athenian army it’s the hot plates, you think of with their helmets and their big shields and the… And it’s only those people with a certain income who are able to afford all this. But anyone without any income at all is able to be an oarsman. This is the ultimate in sort of the equality. You didn’t have to be a wealthy Athenian to be able to fight and or protect Athens.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so we got trireme warfare going on, they’re having a lot of success with that. Miltiades, he fends off the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, but his political enemies within Athens, another aristocratic family, basically fined him for, I don’t, it kinda sounded like almost trumped-up charges almost… And the debt passed on to his family. Then you had Miltiades son… Cimon, he picks up where Miltiades left off. Like what happened? What did he do after his father died?

David Stuttard: Well, he is a very… He’s an extraordinary man, because really because of his energy and charisma. He’s able to attract allies from other aristocratic families in Athens. He really seems to be a man who is able make important friends. And one of the things he does, he makes a friend who really helps him to pay off his, everything he owes. And he also realizes that when the Persians invade again in 480 BC, with the Persian army coming, marching overland, the Persian fleet hugging the coast down toward Athens, the aristocrats are very keen to take the hot plates out, and meet them in battle in a hot plate battle, ’cause they say that this is how it’s always been and how it ought to be again. But Themistocles, he says, No, no, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to put everybody into the triremes and we’ve got… And the fleet… We’ve got to evacuate Athens and, if necessary, allow the Persians to overrun Athens as long as we can defeat them with our triremes, we will be alright. Because, of course, the Persians relied on the triremes to bring in supplies, bring in, control the Aegean so that they could eat while they’re on campaign.

And Cimon is able to really see that this is a very good idea. And so there’s a pivotal moment, which we hear about, there are some historians who say the actual event never happened, but I don’t really see any reason why it shouldn’t have happened. In which Cimon and his aristocratic friends make a procession through Athens and up onto the Acropolis and into the Shrine of Athena, where Cimon presents to the great statue of Athena, his horse’s bridle.

And the point which he’s making here is that he, this elite cavalryman, is handing over that element of himself, of his aristocracy, of his eliteness, of his horsemanship to Athena, because what he then does, he comes out to the temple and with his friends, walks down to the harbor and onto the ships. And he’s making this point, I may be an aristocrat, but I know that our future lies in the ships at sea. And because of that, the tide turned among the aristocrats, everybody decided “Yes, we must evacuate Athens,” and that is indeed what they did. A few sort of very old schooled people remained on the Acropolis and when the Persians did indeed overrun Athens, they were all slaughtered, but the rest, as they say, went down to the sea. A few days after Athens had been overrun, the Greek Navy hit the Persian Navy and defeated them, and the Persian threat again, although the Persian land army remained for another year, it also was beaten, and the Persian threat again is removed from the mainland of Greece. And the Persians thereafter, they don’t ever come back again.

Brett McKay: Alright, so Cimon was there and he decided, I’m gonna go all in on this democratic, trireme warfare, and that…

David Stuttard: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Turned the tide. But okay, so people looked to him as a leader, but then eventually he’s ostracized. So, what happened? How did he go from “I’m gonna do whatever this guy does” to persona non-grata?

David Stuttard: Well, again, we’re having to race now through quite a lot of history, because just to condense all this, after the Persians have been removed from Greece, Cimon really leads an alliance based in Athens, Athens under allies, and that is really constituted in order to remove the Persian threat all together. So they get the Persians out of any Aegean island, any other Greek owned, if you like, areas of the world there, and they begin to take the battle to the Persians as well. This alliance, by the way, very, very quickly turns… Everyone in the alliance is supposed to be equal, but Athens is more equal than the rest, and what begins as an Athenian alliance turns into an Athenian empire, pretty, pretty quickly.

Cimon is phenomenally successful. He wages many campaigns, he defeats the Persians, and of course, because of this, a lot of Persian money and booty comes into Athens, but there’s one thing that the Athenians wouldn’t forgive Cimon for, and that is that he rather admires the Spartans. Cimon is an old aristocrat at heart, and he does rather like the way in which the Spartans do things, and so when in… There was an earthquake in Sparta, and the Spartans asked everyone they knew for help because they were very afraid that the helots slaves would rebel, which indeed they did, Cimon leads an army from Athens to Sparta to help them against the helots, but something goes wrong. Again, we don’t really know what, it may be that members of Cimon’s army behave in a way that the Spartans don’t approve of, it could be anything, we just don’t know, but the Athenians are asked to leave and go back to Athens, and this is really seen as a great disgrace in Athens and Cimon is blamed for this, and because of that, again, his enemies are able to rise up against him in Athens and they resort to this mechanism called ostracism, whereby the people can vote on whether they’d like to expel someone from Athens for a set length of time to remove his political power from Athens, and this is what they do, and Cimon is ostracized.

And in his absence, Pericles begins to rise to power, and he really taps into the mood of Athens, which is very anti-Spartan, very bellicose as well, and he sort of proposes and leads a large number of campaigns, Athens and Sparta face off one another militarily, the Athens is badly defeated by the Spartans and things don’t go terribly well, it’s not until Cimon returns from ostracism, that peace is made with Sparta. Cimon himself then goes off on campaign again against the Persians and wins victories again then, but he passes away while on campaign, but just about a year after that, another Athenian embassy goes to Persia. It’s very different from the embassy which had gone earlier that we spoke about, because on this occasion, the Athenians seem to make peace with the Persians and the Persians agreed that they won’t be involved in any more hostilities against the Greeks, and it’s this peace which allows Pericles in the middle of the fifth century BC to begin his great building project in Athens. It’s now that the Parthenon is built and all this other… And Athens really does become this great hub that we were speaking about earlier.

Brett McKay: Yes, this is like, where it was about 460-450 BC?

David Stuttard: Yeah, 450ish lets really say.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so Pericles begins this big public works project, builds all these temples, basically, this is when Athens becomes the Athens that we know…

David Stuttard: Exactly.

Brett McKay: That we think of. But… So they are the zenith of their success, the zenith of their power, but what’s going on? Is there still all that just aristocratic contention within Athens that’s gonna eventually sow the seeds of its downfall?

David Stuttard: There is, I think there is always that. The Greeks as a whole, and aristocrats in particular, lived by the idea, which is really raised in Homer’s Iliad, he has a line in Tiernan… [0:32:06.8] ____ Always to be the best and to surpass all others. Now, the Greeks as a whole, believe that that was what they should do, and individually they believe that as well, that’s why they have all of this competitiveness and things like the Olympic games, they have competitiveness in the arts, they are battling against one another all the time to be supreme, and it isn’t a way to create harmony really, and in fact, just at that very period that we’re talking about just as peace is being made with the Persians, and to think that everything could really turn out quite harmoniously in the end, a child is born in Athens who I think we’ll be speaking about possibly for the rest of this interview, Alcibiades, and he really encapsulates that idea, that Homeric idea, always to be the best because that’s what he wants to be, and he will do everything to achieve it.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about Alcibiades. He’s… I don’t think you make this guy up, you read a story is like… This is like some sort of HBO Game of Thrones succession drama going on. So he’s born around 452 BC, sort of the zenith of Athenian cultural power and influence and economic might. What’s his story? Like who were Alcibiades’ parents? Was he from an aristocratic family, what was he like as a kid?

David Stuttard: Yes, he is. He is from the Alcmaeonid family, the family we heard about, the family who introduced Isonomia or democracy into Athens; he’s from this very powerful family. He’s incredibly well off. He’s orphaned as a child and his father had already made this arrangement that if he should be killed, Alcibiades should be looked after by Pericles, the most important man, the leading man in Athens. So, Alcibiades, his childhood is spent in the household of Pericles, so he can really get an idea of what power is all about. Pericles’ household we hear from ancient sources, it’s quite austere though… Pericles likes to think of himself as aloof from human emotions and human failings and so on, he is… It’s a household where there’s a lot of philosophy, arts, and so on there. But young Alcibiades proves himself to be a bit of a rebel, even at an early age, there are lots of anecdotes about how he behaved when he was young. There’s an anecdote about how he and his friends were playing a game in the streets, which involved throwing the bones of animals on the ground to see how they land and just exactly how they land, you get points, depending on how the bones land.

As they’re playing this, Alcibiades has just thrown his hand and an ox cart comes trundling down the street that the driver of the ox cart says “out of my way, out of my way,” but Alcibiades refuses cause he wants to see how these bones that he’s been playing with landed in the street, and so he lies down in front of the ox cart and says, “Drive on if you like, but you’ll have to drive over me,” and of course, the driver reins in the oxen and Alcibiades proves his power. But he’s also his love of competitiveness at that early age, at some stage in his adolescence, he comes under the auspices of one of the most influential people in Athens, the Great Philosopher Socrates, and this was a relationship which puzzled a lot of people. ‘Cause here was Alcibiades… Very handsome. This also has to be said, he’s supposed to be the handsomest man in Athens, and the philosopher Socrates who was notoriously ugly, also though notoriously into leading a life of virtue contemplation, if you like, as well, and Alcibiades is completely the opposite. And how are these two sort of attracted one another was really something which interested the ancients, very, very much.

We know that Socrates and Alcibiades were on campaign with one another, as soon as Alcibiades became an adult, Athens and Sparta come really into a major conflict with one another, this is when the Peloponnesian War breaks out; just before the Peloponnesian War, there’s a little sort of overture, hostilities up in a place called [0:36:43.1] ____ Tide, up in the Chalkidiki right up in the highest part up there in the Aegean, and Alcibiades and Socrates are on campaign with one another. We hear that Socrates was able to save Alcibiades in when he was being attacked by the enemy, rescued from the battlefield and looked after him, supposedly Alcibiades a few years later, returned the favor when they were on another campaign, and Socrates was being harassed by the enemy, Alcibiades on his horse rides down and protects his old friend Socrates as they are being removed from the battle field, and they head off to the Athenian camp, so that there is a real relationship between those two.

Brett McKay: So yeah, and it seems like the way you describe it, Socrates, likely saw the potential for Alcibiades, potential to be either a really great, great man, but it had to be tempered with philosophy, tempered with virtue, or he could just end up being just a terrible, like you said, nemesis, just bring the downfall of Athens.

David Stuttard: Yes. Yes.

Brett McKay: So Alcibiades, he’s this good-looking, cocky, confident man of great will in Athens, he eventually steps into public life, this is it right before kind of in the lead up to the Peloponnesian War. Did he play any role in the lead up to the Peloponnesian war between Sparta?

David Stuttard: Well, this is now when he becomes old enough to take public office, we’re actually right in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, that episode, which I was talking about, in fact both of those episodes which involved Alcibiades and Socrates happened in the earlier stages of the Peloponnesian War. But when Alcibiades was reaching, as I say, an age to be appointed a military commander, at the age of 30, peace all of a sudden breaks between Athens and Sparta, which, for Alcibiades, is not a good thing at all, because he wants to make his mark as a general. And so, he frets during this peace period, and he does his best to involve Sparta’s enemies in a proxy war with Sparta…

Places like Argos, which is in the Peloponnese and has been an old enemy of Sparta. So, Alcibiades gets the people of Argos to get their army together and go out and fight the Spartans, and he’s doing everything he can to poke away at the Spartans and to try to foment hostilities again. He eventually does, but in another theater of war entirely. Again, envoys arrive from Italy, who are being attacked or being treated badly, they say, by the citizens of Syracuse. And they asked the people of Athens if they could possibly send small army and a small fleet to help them to counter the threat of the Syracusans. Alcibiades is all for this, and when he addresses the popular assembly at Athens, they’re all for it as well, ’cause they think it’s gonna be a great adventure.

Again, however, personal animosities come in the way, because there’s an older politician an older general at Athens who hates Alcibiades, and he says, Gosh, this is a totally stupid idea, we couldn’t possibly do it. In order to be able to conduct such a military campaign, we’d need twice as big an army as Alcibiades is proposing. And the people of Athens, in an assembly, is so excited about the idea and say, Yes alright, well we’ll send twice the size. And because of this, because this great armada then is designated to go off in its campaign against Syracusans, the whole flavor of the military engagement changes. And what could have been quite a successful enterprise, eventually turned out… Because Athens’ allies in the field there, when they saw the size of the army that Athens was actually sending, believed that what they were aiming to do was actually annex the whole of the island of Sicily, and the whole of the south of Italy as well, and so they became very anxious about it and they refused to help. And so it was a disaster.

But before it was a disaster, Alcibiades himself had ended up in pretty hot water too, because before the expedition was allowed to set sail, something happened in Athens, which would really impinge on his career from then on in. Because outside every house, the major buildings in Athens, there were things called Hermes. And these are statues of the god Hermes, which were supposed to, well believed to, protect the houses and protect the whole of the city of Athens. And one morning before the fleet actually set sail, it was discovered that the majority of these Hermes had been smashed. Now nobody knew who was responsible… To this day, we have no way of telling who was responsible for smashing the Hermes. But Alcibiades’ enemies claimed that he was behind it. And they claimed he’d also done something else, which was very impious, and that was to page a pastiche of The Eleusinian Mysteries, which were the most, or one of the most, sacred initiation rites in Athens. And because Alcibiades is implicated in this, his enemies organized that once the fleet had sailed, and of course, the army, which was Alcibiades’ main support base was out of Athens, Alcibiades should be recalled to Athens and put on trial. And he knew that if he was to return to Athens, he would be in grave trouble indeed. So, instead of accompanying the people who have been sent to arrest him back to Athens, Alcibiades gave them the slip.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and he goes to the enemy. He goes to Sparta and convinces the Spartans to take him in. He was fomenting war against the Spartans. Like he wanted to fight these guys. So, how did he convince… How did he convince the Spartans, “Yeah. Take me in, I wanna be on your guys’ side now”?

David Stuttard: I don’t think he had [0:43:28.3] ____ in Sparta. There were people there he knew and that he had an old ancestral relationship with. But we also know that one of the things which he said to the Spartans was, If you take me in, I will help you to defeat the Athenians. Again, I think this is really something which he has learned from the Iliad. Because when Achilles is slighted by Agamemnon, he goes off and refuses to take part in the Trojan war anymore, Homer says that Achilles was hoping that the Greeks would do so badly that they would ask Achilles back again to their army. And I think this is partly what Alcibiades is hoping, that if the Spartans appear to be doing really well, the Athenians will ask him back again, and all of these things about the Hermes and The Eleusinian Mysteries… We can forget all that, we want you back. And I think that’s what he’s sort of campaigning for for quite a long time now. So, he offers to help the Spartans. He gives them advice, which they’d already been thinking of anyway.

Here’s another thing, we hear all about what Alcibiades offers the Spartans and later offers the Persians when he goes over to them, but how do we know about this? Who is it that we hear it from? Well, we hear it from the historian Thucydides, who’s the great historian of the Peloponnesian War. But who does Thucydides get this information from? I think he probably got the information from Alcibiades himself, because we know that Thucydides interviewed all the key players in the Peloponnesian War. And there are quite a few times when we get slants on, we get little insights on the story, which presented as if Alcibiades is able to trick people, is able to… Is a lot smarter than anybody else.

And I wouldn’t be at all surprised, as I say, if the person that originated this version of the story was indeed Alcibiades. So we hear that he arrives in Sparta, though for a little while he does quite well and he manages to persuade the Spartans who were thinking as I say about it anyway of sending a fleet of their own to the eastern Aegean to open up a new front in what has now re-emerged as the new phase of the Peloponnesian War to try to attack Athens allies in Ionia in the eastern Aegean. Alcibiades is able to take control of this expedition, he actually leads the Spartans out to the eastern Aegean and it’s just as well he’s left Sparta at the time he does ’cause one of the Queens of Sparta, there are two royal families in Sparta, and one of the Queens has had a child whom her household slaves overhear her calling Alcibiades.

Brett McKay: Oh, oh.

David Stuttard: And when the Queen’s husband, a chap called Aegeus begins to do his arithmetic, he realizes that he’s not actually slept with his wife for quite a long time, certainly longer than would appear that it was his own child, so he thinks that the child is Alcibiades’ child and so he becomes very angry with him, he manages to persuade the Spartans to put a sentence of execution on Alcibiades. And so here Alcibiades is out in the eastern Aegean with the Spartan army, the people of Athens are his enemies, the Spartans are now his enemies, so what can he do? Who can he go to? Well, there’s only one powerhouse that he can now go to and that is the Persians, they’re the old enemies of Greece, and Alcibiades does precisely that. He goes over to the Persians he does the same thing there, he offers to help them to defeat not only Athens but Sparta as well, to play one side off against the other, to exhaust Greece and eventually he says, with Greece exhausted the Persians can come in and take over the mainland of Greece which is what they tried to do all those years before.

There’s a lot of political toing and froing going on. In Athens, the people, the aristocrats, particularly, are so disillusioned by the way that the war is going that for a little while they take over the running of Athens so that the constitution, the democratic constitution, is actually suspended for a little while. But the fleet, the Athenian fleet, remember the fleet is powered by the common people, the fleet, which is out in the eastern Aegean is looking for really someone to inspire them and to take over and to lead them, to help them, not only against Spartans, but against these oligarchs at home in Athens, and so, who do they turn to? They turn to the man who is just a few miles away in Asia Minor, Alcibiades. And so we get this bizzare situation whereby the fleet asks Alcibiades to return as their commander, and Alcibiades of course is delighted, this is what he’s been trying for for quite a long time.

He returns to the fleet, he leads the fleet to a string of amazing victories over the Persians, and eventually, once the oligarchs in Athens have been overthrown, democracy is returned to Athens, Alcibiades returns in triumph to Athens and is welcomed as a great hero. This is his highest point and after a month or so in Athens, again he decides to take the army, the fleet back to the Eastern Mediterranean to do battle with the Spartans, and then it all goes horribly wrong again ’cause he leaves the fleet in charge of a friend of his who engages with the enemy when Alcibiades has told him not to. It’s a disaster, the Athenian fleet is defeated, Alcibiades realizes that if he hangs around any longer, he’ll be in great trouble, so he takes himself off. He’s already built himself some stronghold right up in the northern Aegean and that kind of area there, and he lives for the rest of the Peloponnesian War as a kind of a bandit king, a bandit warlord, offering his advice when he thinks it’s going to be useful, but his advice is ignored and within a very short while without him there, Athens’ fleet is completely destroyed.

Without the fleet, Athens can’t survive, Athens is besieged, its people have nothing to eat, they hold out for about a year and a bit and eventually because they’re so hungry and starved, they offer to sue for terms, and Spartans defeat the Athenians. Alcibiades is ill, alive however but not for long, because the Spartans are just as keen to really see the end of him as anyone else is and some kind of a hit squad, I think, is really sent out against Alcibiades. He tries to curry favor again with his old friends in Persia, he offers to go and help the Persian king, if only he can go all the way inland to see the Persian king, he says he’s got very important information for him but the permissions that he’s looking for, which will allow him to travel through Persia don’t come in and he discovers himself one night in a cottage house of some sort in the hills in the west of the Persian empire and he hears people all around the house.

He realized the house has been completely surrounded, burning arrows are fired into the walls and the roof of the house which begins to catch alight. He and his comrades try to put out the fire, but they realize that there’s nothing really they can do, so Alcibiades we hear, wraps a cloak around his left arm, holds a sword in his right, opens the door of the house and rushes out into the blackness, and it’s like the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It all ends there in a hail of arrows, and this is a very romantic and sort of Hollywood ending for a very romantic and Hollywood individual.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I read the story of Alcibiades, he just seemed like, yeah, he was a guy who had that Homeric ideal of “Be the best of the best”, but he was in a democratic society, so he would use democracy to serve that purpose. I don’t think… He might have not really cared much about democracy, but as long as it’ll help me be the best of the best, then I’ll go along with it, sure.

David Stuttard: I think he would use anybody to serve his purpose.

Anybody and anything.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

David Stuttard: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So, after your readers read these books, Phoenix and Nemesis, are there any big lessons about life, or politics, or warfare that you hope people walk away with after reading them?

David Stuttard: Well, I think, one of the things, obviously, is that things and people have not changed in two and a half thousand years, and we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that Athens… One of the reasons that it ended up by being defeated in the Peloponnesian War, was that it began to believe its own propaganda, Athens became complacent. Every year in Athens, they had this big military event where the bodies or the remains of those who’d fallen in battle the year before, were buried in a public burial place, and the most powerful politician of the year or the leading general made a speech. And that speech appears have been pretty much the same every year in that it remembered Athens’ history and it stretched its history back into mythological period, and everything that the people of Athens were reminded about was, Athenian military success, how the Athenians were the best of all the people in Greece, how they were really the ones who were chosen to lead Greece, to spread freedom, democracy, all these great ideas.

And the more the Athenians heard this, the more that they believed it, I think, the more they believed that they were invincible. And this is really a very salutary story for us all, that we can’t rely on our past glories, our past successes, we can’t rely just because we tell ourselves that everything’s great, we’re wonderful [chuckle], we can’t really believe everybody else to believe that too. This idea of hubris, that, as I say, you believe your own propaganda, and it generally ends in tears, I’m afraid.

Brett McKay: Another way I’ve heard, don’t believe your own propaganda is, don’t like the smell of your own farts.

You gotta be careful of that. And the other take away too, as I was reading this is a reminder of how quickly things can change. Like this conversation we’ve had just covered about 100 years, and all this stuff happened, and I think for us in the modern world, we’re so accustomed to things being relatively stable for us, history kind of has been… Everything’s kind of been the same since World War II, and we think, well, this is normal. If you look at most of human history, the norm is constant change and constant turmoil.

David Stuttard: This is absolutely right. And we only need to see how unprepared we’ve been for the pandemic as well. As if that was the thing which could not possibly impact on us because we were so scientifically advanced, and this is again, it’s like the Athenian thing. And of course, what we didn’t speak about was that right at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, there was… A plague hit Athens and a third of the population of Athens was annihilated by this plague. Again, the Athenians believe that if they behave in a pious way, they would be above such things, because they thought that things like the plagues was sent by Apollo to punish people for behaving in an impious way, so they thought, I suppose, that their sort of exemplary way of life would protect them from plague and disease. Just as we, I think, were slightly alled into believing that our medical advances, so on, would be so strong that anything like a pandemic would not affect us in the way it has, and the economic impact of these things too. If history teaches us anything, it really teaches us how vulnerable we are.

Brett McKay: No, for sure. Well, David, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about your work?

David Stuttard: Well, they can go on to my website, which is They can read any of my books as well, I have an email, if anybody would like to get in touch also, and that’s on my website.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, David Stuttard, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

David Stuttard: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Brett McKay: My guest today was David Stuttard, we talked about two of his books today, Phoenix and Nemesis, they’re both available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website,, also check in our show notes at where you find links to resources we delve deeper into this topic.

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