Pressfield, Steven, Tides of War: A novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, Bantam Books, 2000

This is a great work. Anyone reading Plutarch’s Lives will certainly love it and benefit from it…but anyone with any love of a damned good story and fine story-telling and writing, as well as all the great questions of love, war, god and life will love this novel as well. In this novel Pressfield attempts to understand the many faceted character of the gifted Alcibiades. He approaches Alcibiades through the eyes of one Polemides (“Pommo”)-an Athenian citizen soldier buffeted by the crazy twists and turns of the Athenian democracy and by the numerous brutal and chaotic battles of the interminable ‘thrice nine year’ (27 year) long Peloponnesian wars. Polemides’ fate is linked to that of Alcibiades and we soon learn is a worthy observer of the gifted general. So who was Alcibiades? He as a major political and military player during the Peloponnesian wars and lived during the golden age of Athens. His dates are c.450–404 B.C. Like so many other great men described by Plutarch, Alcibiades was apparently orphaned, but had the great luck to become a ward of the Athenian statesmen Pericles. As everyone knows Pericles if often thought to be the greatest statesmen who ever lived so his tutelage of Alcibiades must have had some positive impact on the boy! Pericles gave him access to the world of Athenian politics and all the cultural riches of the ‘Periclean age’ of Athens (when Athens was at the height of her glory). But Pericles was not the only formative influence on the boy. He also became a disciple of sorts to Socrates-perhaps the greatest philosopher who ever lived! Pericles and Socrates…That’s not bad for an education!

Not only was Alcibiades lucky in his education, he turned out to be brilliant himself. It seemed his tutors sensed that the boy was worthy of the best they had to offer. Socrates was no slouch when it came to judging character and he counted Alcibiades one of his friends. The gods not content with giving Alcibiades the best in political and philosophical educations also gave Alcibiades physical beauty-a beauty that astonished all and that never left him even in his later years. In short, Alcibiades was rich, brilliant, politically astute and connected and beautiful. He was a fabulously gifted man. As he grew into manhood it soon became clear to all that he was a political genius. He was able to outwit opponents, form coalitions and get things done in a polis that, for all its glory was chaotic and ruthless when it came to politics. When war came he distinguished himself on the battlefield and when he was given military command his true genius revealed itself: he was a master battlefield commander! Did this guy have any faults you ask? During the early part of his life only one fault revealed itself: he liked to womanize. He took numerous lovers and women (and men) through themselves at him.

As he developed a taste for battle he began to develop a vision of the Athenian maritime empire that demanded expansion and further war. So he did not like the so-called the Peace of Nicias (421 B.C.). When Sparta, coming to the aid of an ally attacked (418 B.C.) Argos, Alcibiades led an Athenian force to help the Argives, but Athens and the allies were beaten at Mantinea. Both the battle of Mantinea and Alcibiades’ reactions to the defeat are vividly portrayed in the novel. Whereas most leaders suffering a major defeat would retire to lick his wounds and avoid blame, Alcibiades, with amazing audacity began to advocate for a strategic plan that bypassed Sparta altogether but that would in the process neutralize Sparta in the long run. This plan was the Sicilian campaign—an attack on the great city of Syracuse and then the subjugation of Italy. This would give the Athenians mastery over the Mediterranean basin. Pressfield recreates the debates about he expedition and Alcibiades speech in favor of the expedition beautifully. The Athenian politicians however jealous of Alcibiades popularity among the citizens and soldiers tried to destroy him –regardless of the consequences of this to the expedition. Alcibiades was summoned home to stand trial for trumped up charges of impiety and treason. This was a death sentence. Instead he fled to Sparta, where he gave advice to King Agis. When Agis wife fell in love with Alcibiades, he had to flee once again. He wound up in the court of a Persian satrap of Darius-one Tissaphernes. Meanwhile the Syracusan campaign floundered without Alcibiades ultimately costing the Athenians some 30,000 lives and huge amounts of treasure. It was the death knell of the Athenian republic. Under the twin disasters of plague and the Syracusan defeat an oligarchy of the Four Hundred attempted to rule with massacre in Athens and then fell itself (411). Both the Syracusan campaign and the plague are recounted with chilling detail in Pressfield's novels. Pommo loses all but his brother in the plague and then he loses his brother at the Syracusan disaster. Here one of the novels most memorable naval battle scenes occur when Pommo and a companion find themselves temporarily able to sit and look out over the Bay, Pommo describes as far as the eye could see ships and men hacking one another to pieces with darts, spears and boulders clouding the skies and fires burning everywhere, men’s cries filling the skies all set against the stunning beauty of the Bay and coastal outcroppings etc

In the midst of all these disasters the Athenians finally came to their senses and recalled Alcibiades. When Alcibiades took command Athens immediately began to win battles as he brilliantly led the Athenian fleet to a victory over the Spartan-led fleet off Cyzicus, and later recovered (408) Byzantium. But once again, the Athenians started to clip the wings of Alcibiades and the Athenian fleet suffered a defeat the vigorous Spartan commander Lysander at Notium in c.406 B.C., so Alcibiades was once again exiled. He retreated to the protection of some of his Thracian friends on the western shore of the Hellespont. There in 405 B.C. he attempted to warn the Athenian fleet at Aegospotamos against a surprise attack by Lysanders’ forces, but his advice was rejected contemptuously. Thus the Athenians suffered a devastating defeat and could not recover. The Peloponnesian wars ended. In 404 Alcibiades was staying in Persian territory with yet another woman. At the behest of Lysander, the local Persian satrap had Alcibiades murdered. So much for the bare facts of the life of Alcibiades.

As I said at the start of this review Pressfield is interested in the character of this extraordinary man. Pressfield seems to think that Alcibiades exactly mirrored the character of the Athenian democracy: brilliant, gifted beyond measure but given too much to hubris and reckless boldness. At one point in the novel Lysander gives a speech comparing the Spartan and the Athenian characters. Spartans, says Lysander, value the manly virtue of courage which is rooted in a realistic understanding of the human predicament and which sees the right relation to god as one of humility and obedience…while Athens (and Alcibiades) values the virtue of boldness (even audacity) above all other virtues. It is more important to the Athenians to act boldly, imaginative and even audaciously than to act humbly. Things should be questioned rather than obeyed. God calls us to act not to merely obey. The contrast is fascinating and does seem to capture something fundamental about Athens vs. Sparta (and Jerusalem for that matter).

I must also comment on the haunting portrait we get of Alcibiades in the novel. He is not just glorified like a god. Instead we see him very astutely navigating the treacherous political waters of the Peloponnesian wars. We see him as a man lost without a city after Athens betrayed him and tried to murder him. We see him pathetically in love with Athens…he wants nothing more than to lead her to glory and riches but she will not have him. She is even willing to court disaster than to have him as leader. But nor will any of Athens' enemies have him (for long). Because of his gifts he is hounded from country to country until he is hunted down like a dog. While history has largely blamed Alcibiades himself for this it must be said that none of it would have occurred if Athens hadn’t tried to murder him in the first place. Undoubtedly Alcibiades should not have gone over to the enemy after he as rebuffed by Athens but his temperament was such that he demanded to be in the thick of the action wherever he went.

Like every great novel Pressfield’s leaves us with the question of the puzzling mystery of character. Gifted people are not just like the rest of us except more so…Instead they seem to be invited into a no mans land where they are envied by most and feared by all and thus are never at home among anyone. When they turn to God he does say “Be still and know that I am Lord”…he does not say “Be good little boys and girls” or “Obey” Instead he invites them to be audacious and to create something new. This invitation alone sustains them.