The Tale Of Alcibiades Stealing Olympic Champion Horses

Alcibiades (c. 450-404/403 BCE) was a brilliant military strategist, but he was also an unscrupulous and flamboyant individual who often instigated chaos wherever he was present. In 415 BCE, he convinced Athens to start a new phase of the ongoing Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE) by launching an attack in Sicily against Sparta’s ally, Syracuse. Alcibiades set sail with the expedition to Sicily as one of its leaders, but he was soon implicated in a case of sacrilegious vandalism, and the threat of a trial prompted Alcibiades to defect to Sparta. There, the refugee general advised Sparta on how to combat Athens and its allies at Sicily and around the Aegean. He also personally helped ignite rebellions against Athens in the disgruntled cities of Ionia. Between 412 and 411 BCE, however, Sparta and its allies decided to dislodge themselves from Alcibiades, causing the wandering general to flee once more—this time to the Persians. Events in Athens, however, would soon cause Alcibiades to leaves the Persians, too. In 411 BCE, a group of oligarchs overthrew the democracy in Athens. The Athenian military, however, did not recognize the oligarchs, and they invited Alcibiades to rejoin the troops in their efforts to restore democracy in Athens. The long-absent general jumped at the offer and led the Athenian military in an impressive comeback between 411 and 408 BCE. Due to his accomplishments, Alcibiades was able to finally return to Athens and he was momentarily named commander-in-chief of the Athenian forces.

Alcibiades, however, was not one to change his ways, and during the years 407 and 406 BCE, the people of Athens began to quickly lose patience with the general. A Spartan victory against an Athenian fleet at Notium in 406 BCE, as well as a failed and unpopular raid by Alcibiades against Cymê around that same time, caused Athens’ faith in Alcibiades’ military talent to wane, which consequently led to the general being stripped of his command. With his popularity weakened and his role in the military reduced, Alcibiades now became vulnerable to lawsuits in Athens, of which there were reportedly several cases pending. The most prominent of these potential lawsuits derived from a feud between Alcibiades and two men named Diomedes and Teisias, who were involved in the horse racing business. They claimed that Alcibiades had taken from them a team of chariot-pulling racehorses. As these stolen horses had gone on to become Olympic champions, Diomedes and Teisias were mulling over the idea of pressing charges against Alcibiades.  This case was mentioned by the Greek historians, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) and Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), and a lawyerly speech written by Isocrates (c. 436-338 BCE) exists which purports to represent Alcibiades’ side in the multi-generational legal feud. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus narrated the events leading up to the case in the following way:

“Diomedes, it appears, one of his friends, had sent in his care a four-horse team to Olympia; and Alcibiades, when entering it in the usual way, listed the horses as his own; and when he was the victor in the four-horse race, Alcibiades took for himself the glory of the victory and did not return the horses to the man who had entrusted them to his care” (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 13.74).

Alcibiades, after relinquishing his command, never returned to Athens. Instead he went into exile and was eventually assassinated abroad in 404 or 403 BCE, after the end of the Peloponnesian War. Due to Alcibiades’ tumultuous waves of power and exile in Athens, the charges over the horse race were never brought against him. The feud, however, did not subside with Alcibiades’ death. In the aforementioned defense speech written by Isocrates, the defendant was Alcibiades’ son, fending off litigation by Teisias. The outcome of the case, unfortunately, remains vague.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Terracotta calyx-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), dated to the early 4th century B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art).



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