Alcibiades (c. 450-404 BCE) was a peculiar figure. In life and in history, he attracted ample attention to himself through his genius as a political maneuverer, as well as his egotistical and selfish personality that led him to jump between Athenian, Spartan and Persian courts, lending his services to any side that coincided with his interests. Due to his mischievousness and eye-catching influence on all parties involved in the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE), trivia about Alcibiades was fairly widespread among ancient Greek sources. As such, details of his early life, his political heyday, and his death in exile were recorded by various writers. The biographer Plutarch (c. 50-120) commented on how much more information could be found about Alcibiades as opposed to other famous Greeks from the Peloponnesian War era:
“Certain it is, that, though we have no account from any writer concerning the mother of Nicias or Demosthenes, of Lamachus or Phormion, of Thrasybulus or Theramenes, notwithstanding these were all illustrious men of the same period, yet we know even the nurse of Alcibiades, that her country was Lacedaemon, and her name was Amycla; and that Zopyrus was his teacher and attendant; the one being recorded by Antisthenes, and the other by Plato” (Parallel Lives, Life of Alcibiades, 1).
With such scrutiny on Alcibiades’ daily activities, stories and anecdotes were recorded about almost every phase of his life, from cradle to grave. Yet, quantity does not always mean quality, and many of the tales about Alcibiades have a heavy dose of folklore and exaggeration. One such bizarre tale concerns how Alcibiades became a married man. Not too surprisingly, the tale involves one of Alcibiades’ most famous personal traits—his fondness for lavish parties.
One day, as the story goes, Alcibiades was out partying hard with his friends and—as often happens—they soon lost all judgment and inhibitions due to drink. In the midst of their happy buzz, the celebrants spontaneously began challenging each other to audacious dares. When it came time for Alcibiades to accept one of these dares, the inebriated carousers chimed that he should find a certain rich and respected man, named Hipponicus, and bop him on the ear. The naturally unscrupulous Alcibiades was even more indifferent to right and wrong during that particular party, so he eagerly prowled Athens for his target. When he found poor Hipponicus, he gave the unsuspecting man a strong smack on the ear and escaped to inform his friends of his success. On this incident Plutarch wrote, “this he did unprovoked by any passion or quarrel between them, but only because, in a frolic, he had agreed with his companions to do it. People were justly offended at this insolence, when it became known through the city” (Parallel Lives, Life of Alcibiades, 8).
Facing the community’s disapproving glare over having thwacked the ear of a respected gentleman, Alcibiades decided the only way to regain his reputation was to humble himself before his victim and plead forgiveness. As the story goes, the young Athenian sought his absolution in a very public way. He traveled to Hipponicus’ home and, once allowed inside, he handed the man some sort of flail or whip and, with great pageantry, disrobed to expose his back to Hipponicus. With all of this done, Alcibiades told the man to take whatever retribution on his flesh he desired. Hipponicus, however, did not inflict any pain or punishment on Alcibiades. Instead, according to Plutarch, “Hipponicus forgot all his resentment, and not only pardoned him, but soon after gave him his daughter Hipparete in marriage” (Parallel Lives, Life of Alcibiades, 8). Such was the way Alcibiades was allegedly introduced to his wife and in-laws. As can be guessed by his eccentric, mischievous and bawdy lifestyle, he later proved to not be a very good husband to his wife from this arranged marriage.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Pleasure, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754–1829), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons.jpg).
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.