Alcibiades by August Strindberg

Kartaphalos, the shoemaker, sat in his shop by the Acarnanian Gate, and repaired cothurns for the Dionysian theatre, which was about to make a last attempt to revive the tragic drama, which had been eclipsed by the farces of Aristophanes. The Roman Lucillus lounged at the window-sill, and, since philosophy had been brought into fashion by Socrates and the Sophists, the shoemaker and the exiled Decemvir philosophised as well as they could.

“Roman!” said Kartaphalos, “you are a stranger in the city, as I am: what do think of the state and the Government?”

“They are exactly like the Roman. One may sum up the whole past history of Rome in two words–Patricians and Plebeians.”

“Just as it is here.”

“With the difference that Rome has a future. Hellas only a past.”

“What is known of Rome’s future?”

“The Cumaean Sibyl has prophesied that Rome will possess the earth.”

“What do you say? Rome? No, Israel will possess it; Israel has the promise.”

“I do not venture to deny that, but Rome has also the promise.”

“There is only one promise, and one God.”

“Perhaps it is the same promise, and the same God.”

“Perhaps Israel will conquer through Rome.”

“Israel will conquer through the promised Messiah.”

“When will Messiah come, then?”

“When the time is fulfilled, when Zeus is dead.”

“May we live to see it. I wait, for Zeus has gone to Rome, and is called there Jupiter Capitolinus.”

Aristophanes, who was easily recognised by his crane-like neck and open mouth, looked in through the window.

“Have you a pair of low shoes, Kartaphalos? A pair of ‘socks’? [Footnote: a low-heeled shoe worn by comic actors.] You have plenty of cothurns, I see, but the ‘sock’ has won the day.”

“At your service, sir.”

“We want them for the theatre, you understand…. Ah! there is Lucillus! … and of raw leather, not tanned.”

“What are you going to play in the theatre, then?”

“We are going to bring on Cleon, and make him dance, and fancy! since no one dares to represent the low-born tanner, I must do it. I will play Cleon.”

“Where is the great general, Cleon, now?”

“In a new campaign against Brasidas. When the commander Demosthenes won the battle of Sphacteria, Cleon claimed the honour of the victory and received a triumph. Then, since he regarded himself as a great warrior, he marched against Brasidas. The pitcher goes so often to the well….”

“Till it is broken,” interrupted a new arrival. It was Alcibiades. “Papaia!” he exclaimed, “Cleon is beaten! Cleon has fled! Now it is my turn! Come to the Pnyx.” And he went on.

“Very well–to the Pnyx,” said Aristophanes, “and I will obtain matter for a new comedy, to be called Alcibiades.”

“You are right, perhaps,” answered Lucillus. “The whole matter is not worth weeping for. Therefore let us laugh!”

* * * * *

Alcibiades stood again on the orator’s platform in the Pnyx. He felt at home there, and he always had the ear of the people, for he was not tedious. They all spoilt him, and his grotesque impudence had an enlivening effect upon them.

Before the orator’s platform, among others, was to be seen the wise, rich, and aristocratic Nicias, who had always sought to mediate between Sparta and Athens, but through his over-deliberation had done more harm than good.

Alcibiades, who knew Nicias and his political views, and feared his opposition, resolved on a master-stroke. He would not speak of Sparta and Athens as Nicias expected, but determined to make a diversion, and speak of something quite different. The people loved novelties, and to-day they should have something quite new.

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“Athenians!” he began, “Cleon is defeated and dead, and I place my undoubted talents at the service of the State. You know my small failings, but now you will know my great merits. Listen, Athenians. There was a time when Hellas possessed Asia Minor and extended its wings eastward. The Persian King took these settlements from us one after the other, and he is now in Thrace. Since we cannot go farther eastward, we must go westward, towards the sunset. You have heard more or less vaguely of the Roman Republic, which is growing and growing. Our countrymen have long ago taken possession of that part of the Italian peninsula which is called Tarentum, and we have thereby become close neighbours of Rome. And the finest of the islands, opulent Sicily, became ours. But the Romans have gradually surrounded our colonies, and threaten their independence. The Romans are pressing on us, but they are also pushing northward towards Gaul and Germany, and southward towards Africa. The Persian King, who was formerly our enemy, has now nearly become our friend, and our danger is not now Persia, but Rome. Therefore, with the future in view, I say to you Athenians, ‘Let us go to Italy and Sicily. With Sicily as our base, we can dispute with the Romans the possession of Spain and the Pillars of Hercules. In Sicily we have the Key to Egypt; by means of Sicily we protect the threatened Tarentum, and can, in case of need, save sinking Hellas. The world is wide; why should we sit here and moulder in the wilderness? Hellas is an exhausted country; let us break up new ground. Hellas is an outworn ship; let us build a new one, and undertake a new Argonautic enterprise to a new Colchis to win another Golden Fleece, following the path of the sun westward. Athenians! let us go to Sicily!’”

These new prospects which the speaker opened to them pleased the people, who were tired of the everlasting Sparta and the Persian King; and stimulated by fear of Rome, the growing wolf’s-cub, they received the ill-considered proposal with applause, and raised their hands in token of assent.

Nicias sought an opportunity to speak, and warned them, but no one listened to him. The Scythian police who kept order in the Pnyx could procure him no audience. And when Nicias saw that he could not prevent the enterprise, he placed his services at Alcibiades’ disposal, and began to equip the fleet.

* * * * *

Aspasia was now the widow of Pericles, and had mourned him for a long time. The “Hemicyklion” was no more, but her few remaining friends visited her from time to time. Socrates was the most faithful among them. One evening he sat with her in the little brick-roofed villa on the bank of the Cephisos.

“No, Aspasia,” he said, “I advised against the Sicilian expedition, so did Nicias, so did the astronomer Meton, but it was to be. Alcibiades had managed to procure a favourable response from the oracle in the Temple of Ammon.”

“Do you believe in oracles, Socrates?”

“Yes–and no! I have my own ‘demon,’ as you know, who warns but never urges–who advises, but never commands. This inner Voice has said to me, ‘Hellas will not conquer the world.’”

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“Will Rome do it?”

“Yes, but for another!”

“You know that Pericles’ great thought was a single Hellas–a union of all the Grecian States.”

“That was Pericles’ wish, but the will of the gods was otherwise. Alcibiades’ dream of Hellas governing the world is also great, but the dreams of the gods are greater.”

“What gain do you think comes to Athens from Cleon’s death?”

“None! After Cleon comes Anytos. Cleon is everlasting, for Cleon is the name of an idea.”

Protagoras, grown old and somewhat dull, appeared in the inner courtyard.

“There is Protagoras!”

“The Sophist! I do not like him,” said Aspasia. “He is a file who frets all will away; his endless hair-splitting robs one of all resolution.”

“You speak truly and rationally, Aspasia, and in an earlier age you would have sat upon the Pythoness’s tripod and prophesied. Like the priestess, you know not perhaps what you say, but a god speaks through you.”

“No, Socrates; I only utter your thoughts; that is all!”

Protagoras came forward. “Mourning in Athens! Mourning in Hellas! Alas!” was his greeting.

“What is the matter, Protagoras?”

“Phidias of immortal memory lies dead in prison.”

“Alas! then they have killed him.”

“So it is rumoured in the city.”

“Phidias is dead!”

“Probably poisoned, they say; but that need not be true.”

“All die here in Athens before their proper time. When will our turn come?”

“When it does.”

“Are we falling by the arrows of the Python-slayer? We are shot like birds.”

“We are the children of Apollo. Would our father kill us?”

“Saturn has returned to devour his children.”

Socrates sank in meditation, and remained standing.

“We have angered the gods.”

Lucillus the Roman entered. “See the Roman!” said Socrates, “the lord of the future and of the world. What has he to tell us?”

“I come to warn Protagoras. He is to be banished.”


“You are banished.”

“On what grounds?”

“As a blasphemer. You have repudiated the gods of the State.”

“Who is the informer?”

“The sycophant, the invisible, who is present everywhere.”

“All is probable; nothing is certain,” exclaimed Protagoras.

“Yes, this is certain.”

“Well, my fabric of thought is shattered against this certainty as everything else is shattered.”

“[Greek: Panta rei]. Everything flows away; nothing endures; all comes to birth, grows, and dies.”

“Farewell, then, Aspasia, Socrates, friends, fatherland!


Protagoras departed with his mantle drawn over his head.

“Will Athens miss Protagoras?” asked Aspasia.

“He has taught the Athenians to think and to doubt; and doubt is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Aristophanes has murdered Protagoras, and he will murder you some day, Socrates.”

“He has done that already; my wife rejoices at it, but still I live.”

“Here comes young Plato with an ominous look. More bad news I expect.”

“Expect? I am certain! Sing your dirge, Plato.”

“Dirges, you mean. Alcibiades has been accused and recalled.”

“What has he done?”

“Before his departure he has mutilated all the images of Hermes in the city.”

“That is too much for one man; he could not do that.”

“The accusation is definite; injury to the gods of the State.”

“And now the gods avenge themselves.”

“The gods of Greece have gone to Rome.”

“There you have spoken truth.”

“Now comes number two: The Athenians have been defeated in Sicily. And number three: Nicias is beheaded.”

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“Then we can buy sepulchres for ourselves in the Ceramicus.”

* * * * *

Near the Temple of Nemesis in the Agora stood the tanner Anytos chatting with Thrasybulos, a hitherto obscure but rising patriot.

Anytos rattled away: “Alcibiades is in Sparta; Sparta seeks the help of the Persian King; only one thing remains for us–to do the same.”

“To go over to the enemy? That is treachery.”

“There is nothing else to be done.”

“There were once Thermopylae and Salamis.”

“But now there is Sparta, and the Spartans are in Deceleia. Our envoys have already sailed to the Persian King.”

“Then we may as well remove Athene’s image from the Parthenon! Anytos! look at my back; for I shall be ashamed to show my face now when I walk.”

Anytos remained alone, and walked for some time up and down in front of the temple portico. Then he stopped and entered the vestibule.

The priestess Theano seemed to have been waiting for him. Anytos began: “Have you obeyed the order of the Council?”

“What order?”

“To pronounce a curse on Alcibiades, the enemy of his country.”

“No, I am only ordered to bless.”

“Have the avenging goddesses, then, ceased to execute justice?”

“They have never lent themselves to carry out human vengeance.”

“Has Alcibiades not betrayed his country?” “Alcibiades’ country is Hellas, not Athens; Sparta is in Hellas.”

“Have the gods also become Sophists?”

“The gods have become dumb.”

“Then you can shut the temple–the sooner, the better.”

* * * * *

The incorrigible Alcibiades had really fled from Sicily to the enemy at Sparta, and now sat at table with King Aegis; for Sparta had retained the monarchy, while Athens at an early date had abjured it.

“My friend,” said the King, “I do not like your dining at the common public table, after being accustomed to Aspasia’s brilliant feasts in Athens.”

“I! Oh no! My rule was always the simplest food: I went to sleep with the sun, and rose with the sun. You do not know what a severe ascetic I have been.”

“If you say so, I must believe it. Rumour, then, has slandered you?”

“Slandered? Yes, certainly. You remember the scandal about the statues of Hermes. I did not mutilate them, but they have become my destruction.”

“Is that also a lie?”

“It is a lie.”

“But tell me something else. Do you think that it is now the will of the gods that Sparta should conquer Athens?”

“Certainly, as certainly as virtue will conquer vice. Sparta is the home of all the virtues, and Athens of all the vices.”

“Now I understand that you are not the man I took you for, and I will give you the command of the army. Shall we now march against Athens?”

“I am ready!”

“Have you no scruple in marching against your own city?”

“I am a Hellene, not an Athenian, Sparta is the chief city of Hellas.”

“Alcibiades is great! Now I go to the general, and this evening we march.”

“Go, King! Alcibiades follows.”

The King went, but Alcibiades did not follow, for behind the curtains of the women’s apartment stood the Queen, and waited. When the King had gone, she rushed in.

“Hail! Alcibiades, my king!”

“Queen, why do you call your servant ‘king’?”

“Because Sparta has done homage to you, because I love you, and because you are a descendant of heroes.”

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“King Aegis the Second lives.”

“Not too long! Win your first battle, and Aegis is dead.”

“Now life begins to smile on the hardly-tried exile. If you knew my childhood with its sorrows, my youth with its privations! The vine had not grown for me, woman had not been made for me; Bacchus knew me not; Aphrodite was not my goddess. The chaste Artemis and the wise Pallas guided me past the devious ways of youth to the goal of knowledge, wisdom, and glory. But when I first saw you, Timia, my queen….”


“Then I thought that beauty was more than wisdom.”

“Hush! some one is listening.”


“I, Lysander, the General,” answered a sharp voice, and the speaker stood in the middle of the room.

“Now I know you, Alcibiades, and I have your head under my arm, but I have the honour of Sparta under the other. Fly before I strangle you!”

“Your ears have deceived you, Lysander!”

“Fly! do us the kindness to fly! Fifty hoplites stand without, waiting for your head.”

“How many do you say? Fifty? Then I will fly, for I cannot overcome more than thirty. My queen! farewell! I have thought better of Sparta. This would never have happened in Athens. Now I go to the Persian King; there they understand better what is fitting, and there I shall not be obliged to eat black broth!”

* * * * *

Alcibiades sat with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, and Alcibiades the eloquent spoke. “Yes, my teacher Protagoras taught me once, that everything is born from its opposite; therefore you see my heart can embrace all opposites. Sparta and Athens are both dear to me; that is to say, both hateful–the state–gods of the one, and the virtues of the other.”

“You have a great heart, stranger! Is there room in it for Persia?”

“For the whole world.”

“What do you think of our chief city?”

“I love all large cities!”

“But at the present moment, you ought to love ours the most.”

“Yes, I do.” “You must also love our allies.”

“Pardon me, who is your present ally?”

“At present, it is Sparta.”

“Very well, then, I love Sparta.”

“And suppose it is Athens to-morrow?”

“Then I will love Athens to-morrow.”

“Thank you. Now I understand that it is all over with Hellas. Old Greece is so corrupt, that it is hardly worth conquering.”

“Protagoras taught that man is the measure of all things; therefore I measure the value of all things by myself; what has value for me, that I prize.”

“Is that the teaching of your prophets? Then we have better ones; do you know Zarathrustra?”

“If it would do you a pleasure, I wish I had known him from childhood.”

“Then you might have been able to distinguish good and evil, light and darkness, Ormuzd and Ahriman. And you would have lived in the hope that light will eventually conquer; and that all discordances will be reconciled through suffering.”

“I can at any rate try. Is it a large book?”

“What are the names of your sacred books?”

“Sacred! What is that?”

“From whence do you get your religion, the knowledge of your gods?”

“From Homer, I believe.”

“You do not believe that Zeus is the supreme ruler of the world?”

“Yes, I do certainly.”

“But he was a false swearer and a lecher.”

“Yes! But how can that be helped?”

Tissaphernes rose. “Listen, my guest; we cannot share any common undertaking, for we do not serve the same gods. You call us barbarians. I, on my part, know no term of reproach strong enough for people who honour such gods. But the Athenians are as rotten as you, for they have pardoned you. Outside there stands an envoy from Athens come to beg you to return. Go to Athens; that is your place.”

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“To Athens? Never! I do not trust them.”

“Nor they, you! That is appropriate. Go to Athens, and tell your countrymen–the Persian does not want them. The vine tendrils seek the sound elm, but turn away from the rotten cabbage-top.”

Alcibiades had begun to walk up and down the room. That meant that he was irresolute.

“Is the Athenian really outside?” he asked.

“He kneels outside in order to beg the traitor Alcibiades to be their lord. But listen, you are a democrat, are you not?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then you must change your point of view, for now an oligarchy governs Athens.”

“Yes, ah! yes, yes–but I am an aristocrat, the most aristocratic in the State.”

“Spinning-top! Seek for a whip!”

Alcibiades stood still. “I think, I must speak with the Athenian after all.”

“Do that! Speak the Athenian language to him! He does not understand Persian.”

* * * * *

Alcibiades returned to Athens; the death-sentence against him was annulled; and as a commander who had won a battle, he was able to have a triumphal procession from Piraeus to the city. But popular favour was fickle, and, becoming suspected of aspiring to be king, he fled again, this time to the Persian satrap Pharnabazes. Since he could not live without intrigues, he was soon entangled in one, unmasked, and condemned, without his knowing it, to death.

One day he was sitting with his paramour, and chatting quietly at his ease: “You think, then, Timandra, that Cyrus marches against his brother Artaxerxes, in order to seize the throne of Persia.”

“I am sure of it, and equally sure that he has ten thousand Athenians under Xenophon with him.”

“Do you know whether Artaxerxes has been warned?”

“Yes, I know it.”

“Who could have warned him?”

“You did.”

“Does Cyrus know that?”

“Yes, he does.”

“Who has betrayed me?”

“I did.”

“Then I am lost.”

“Yes, you are.”

“To think that I must fall through a woman!”

“Did you expect anything else, Alcibiades?”

“No, not really! Can I not fly?”

“You cannot, but I can.”

“I see smoke! Is the house on fire?”

“Yes, it is. And there are archers posted outside!”

“The comedy is over! We return to tragedy….”

“And the satyr-play begins.”

“My feet are hot; generally cold is a precursor of death.”

“Everything is born from its opposite, Alcibiades.”

“Give me a kiss.”

She kissed him, the handsomest man of Athens.

“Thank you!”

“Go to the window; there you will see!”

Alcibiades stepped to the window. “Now I see.”

At that moment he was struck by an arrow. “But now I see nothing! It grows dark, and I thought it would grow light.”

Timandra fled, as the corpse began to burn.

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