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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Life of Alcibiades" by E F Benson

Alcibiades was such a flamboyant and important part of the history of Athens when it was experiencing its golden age that I was surprised to find this rather old biography the only one available (although a new one is being published on 4th August this year). It is by E F Benson who also wrote the Mapp and Lucia books. It is 'of its time' so that the homosexuality prevalent in Athens is a love whose name Benson scarcely dares mention: it is the "abnormality which was the normal condition in nearly all Greek states of this century."

Alcibiades was a rich nobleman in democratic Athens. Orphaned at three he was fostered by the great Pericles, prime minister of Athens for 30 years. Alcibiades was the most spoiled playboy, drinking and whoring with the best of them. He was beautiful. He sponsored seven chariot teams in the Olympics and came 1st, 2nd and 4th. He became a soldier and was rescued in battle from likely death by his best mate Socrates who really really fancied him. As a politician he did his best to persuade Athens to send an expedition to Sicily and, when they did, became one of the generals leading it. But when he was gone he was accused of profaning the Eleusinian mysteries and a ship was sent to arrest him. He escaped, sailing to Sparta, the enemy of Athens. Here he became traitor, telling Sparta exactly how they could defeat Athens. When the King went off to follow the battle plans Alcibiades had drawn up, A repaid the Spartans' hospitality by cuckolding the King. He had therefore to leave Sparta. He became involved in the endless naval battles in the Med, the Aegean and the Black Sea and in the three way diplomacy between Athens, Sparta, and Persia. He was reconciled with Athens and led them to victory after victory on the seas. But he failed to prevent Sparta allying itself with Persia; he became imprisoned by a Persian satrap and had to escape. Finally, after a naval defeat suffered by an inexperienced Admiral appointed by Alcibiades, Athens told him to sling his hook and he went off to Thrace to found an independent kingdom there. It was in the bay beneath his castle that Athens suffered her final calamitous naval defeat which led to the Spartan victory in the war, Alcibiades slipped off yet again to a Persian hideaway but he was discovered and assassinated by Persians at the instigation of the King of Sparta who was still sore about the bastard child he had to look after.

What a life!

Some bits:

  • When Pericles was followed home by a man shouting insults, having arrived at home and realising it was already dark he sent a slave out with a torch to light the man all the way home. (p 27)
  • Benson quotes Nepos saying "In him nature seems to have tried what she could do." (p 28)
  • "Vicious, insolent, adorable, detestable, brilliant and fickle, with the face and body of a god" (pp 28 - 29)
  • Benson also quotes Hesiod saying "Sweat is the threshold of many virtues" (p 31)
  • Perciles passed a law decreeing that no free-born Athenian could marry anyone but another free-corn Athenian ... and then fell for foreigner Aspasia who could only become his mistress and mother of his bastard son. (p 35)
  • "It must have been most trying to the temper to be the wife of Socrates." (p 47)
  • "The flesh ... warred against the spirit; the two were like a pair of ill-matched horses harnessed to a chariot ... and the wicked black horse of the flesh had to be tamed, and its wanton desires beaten out of it" (p 49)
  • "men blindfolded and groping in a delirious darkness" (p 91) 
  • "to drain the pond ... and leave Sparta gasping like a stranded fish." (p 96)
  • "no more a debate than is the squeak of a rabbit in the teeth of a weasel" (p 107)
  • "his object being ... first to produce chaos out of existing order, and then a new order, with himself at the head, out of chaos." (p 138)
  • "No man has ever lived who is consistent with himself; he is a polity of conflicting and contradictory motives which somehow he grafts on to the stock of his individual entity." (p 154)


One wonderful spell-check typo: the "status quo ante helium" instead of the "status quo ante bellum".

Overall this is a book 'of its time'. It is more a historical novel than a history: Benson works with a few sources and manages to divine the character and motivations of his hero. There is quite a lot of apology: the whole gay thing is mutated from what Benson regards as bestial passion into a chaste and platonic adoration of beauty; here Benson has no evidence other than his own prejudices. Were we to do the same we might assume that Benson, who never married, was himself gay but repressed what he saw as wicked and wanton desires. That would be sad if that were the case.

It is well written and enjoyable. July 2017; 277 pages

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