Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men

Date: 1859

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Chapter IX Alcibiades the Athenian



Boyhood and Early Youth


Alcibiades, it is supposed, was anciently descended from Eurysaces, the son of Ajax,4 by his father’s side; and by his mother’s side from Alcmæon.1 . . . It is not necessary, perhaps, to say anything of the beauty of Alcibiades, only that it bloomed with him in all the ages of his life, in his infancy, in his youth, and in his manhood; and . . . gave him a peculiar grace and charm. . . .

His conduct displayed many great inconsistencies and variations, not unnaturally, in accordance with the many and wonderful vicissitudes of his fortunes. Among the strong passions of his real character, the one most prevailing was his desire for superiority. This appears in several anecdotes told of his sayings while he was a child. Once being hard pressed in wrestling, and fearing to be thrown, he got the hand of his antagonist in his mouth, and bit it with all his force. The other loosed his hold presently and said, "You bite, Alcibiades, like a woman." "No," replied he, "like a lion." Another time, as he played at dice in the street, being then but a child, a loaded cart came that way, when it was his turn to throw. He called to the driver to stop, because he wished to throw in the way over which the cart was to pass. The man at first gave him no attention and drove on. Alcibiades then flung himself on his face before the cart, and, stretching himself out, bade the carter pass on now if he would. This action so startled the man that he put back his horses. . . .

When Alcibiades began to study, he obeyed all his other masters fairly well, but refused to learn to play on the flute. He said that to play on the lute or the harp does not in any way disfigure a man’s body or face, but one is hardly to be known by one’s most intimate friends, when playing on the flute. Besides, one who plays on the harp may speak or sing at the same time; but the use of the flute stops the mouth, intercepts the voice, and prevents all articulation. "Therefore," said he, "let the Theban youths pipe, who do not know how to speak. But we Athenians, as our ancestors have told us, have Athena for our patroness and Apollo for our protector, one of whom threw away the flute,1 and the other stripped the Fluteplayer2 of his skin." Thus, between raillery and good earnest, Alcibiades kept not only himself but others from learning, as it presently became the talk of the young boys, how Alcibiades despised playing on the flute, and ridiculed those who did. In consequence, flute-playing ceased to be reckoned among the liberal accomplishments, and became generally neglected. . . .

It was manifest that the many well-born persons who were continually seeking his company, and making their court to him, were attracted and captivated by his brilliant and extraordinary beauty only. But the affection entertained by Socrates3 for him is strong evidence of the naturally noble qualities and good disposition of the boy, which Socrates, indeed, detected both in and under his personal beauty. Fearing that his wealth and station, and the great number both of strangers and Athenians who flattered and caressed him, might at last corrupt him, Socrates resolved to interpose and preserve so hopeful a plant from perishing in the flower, before its fruit came to perfection. . . . Such was the happiness of his genius, that he discerned Socrates from the rest, and admitted him, while he drove away the wealthy and the noble who made court to him. . . .

To others who made their addresses to him Alcibiades was reserved and rough, and acted, indeed, with great insolence to some of them. Thus when Anytus, one who was very fond of him, had invited him to an entertainment which he had prepared for some strangers, Alcibiades refused the invitation. Having however, drunk to excess at his own house with some of his companions, Alcibiades went thither with them to play a prank on Anytus. Standing at the door of the room where the guests were enjoying themselves, and seeing the tables covered with gold and silver cups, he commanded his servants to take away half of them, and carry them to his own house. Disdaining so much as to enter the room himself, as soon as he had done this, he went away. The company was indignant, and exclaimed at his rude and insulting conduct. Anytus, however, said that Alcibiades had shown great consideration and tenderness in taking only a part when he might have taken all.

He behaved in the same manner to all others who courted him except to one stranger, who, as the story goes, having but a small estate, sold it all for about a hundred staters,1 and presented them to Alcibiades. Alcibiades, smiling and well pleased by the act, invited him to supper. After a very kind entertainment, Alcibiades gave him his gold again, requiring him, moreover, not to fail to be present the next day, when the public revenue was offered to farm, and to outbid all others. The man would have excused himself, because the contract was so large, and would cost many talents. But Alcibiades, who had at that time a private pique against the existing farmers of the revenue,2 threatened to have him beaten if he refused. The next morning, the stranger, coming to the market place, offered a talent more than the existing rate. Thereupon the tax-farmers . . . called upon him to name his sureties, concluding that he could find none. The poor man, being startled at the proposal, began to retire; but Alcibiades, standing at a distance, cried out to the magistrates, "Set my name down, he is a friend of mine; I will be security for him." When the other bidders heard this, they perceived that all their plans were defeated. Their way was, with the profits of the second year to pay the rent for the year preceding. Not seeing any other way to extricate themselves out of the difficulty, they began to entreat the stranger, and offered him a sum of money. Alcibiades would not allow him to accept less than a talent. When that was paid down, he commanded him to relinquish the bargain, having by this device relieved his needs. . . .

When he was past his childhood, he went once to a grammar-school, and asked the master for one of Homer’s books. The latter answered that he had nothing of Homer’s. Alcibiades then gave him a blow with his fist, and went away. When another schoolmaster told him that he had been correcting Homer, Alcibiades said, "And yet you employ your time in teaching children to read! You, who are able to correct Homer, may well undertake to instruct men." Being once desirous to speak with Pericles, he went to his house, and was told there that he was not at leisure, but busied in considering how to give up his accounts to the Athenians. Alcibiades, as he went away, said, "It would be better for him to consider how he might avoid giving up his accounts at all." . . .

1 . The Dryden translation, revised by A. H. Clough. Boston, 1859. Little, Brown, and Co.

2 Plutarch, Alexander, 1.

3 Plutarch, Alcibiades, 1–2, 4–5, 7.

4 Greek hero at the siege of Troy.

1 A famous Athenian noble. See page 55.

1 Athena is said to have invented the flute which she soon cast aside because its use distorted the features.

2 The satyr Marsyas.

3 The great Athenian philosopher. See chap. XI.

1 The Attic stater, in fine gold, was equivalent to about $5.72.

2 Contractors who bid for the privilege of collecting the taxes.


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Chicago: Dryden, trans., "Boyhood and Early Youth," Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 99–102. Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . "Boyhood and Early Youth." Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men, translted by Dryden, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 99–102. Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: (trans.), 'Boyhood and Early Youth' in Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.99–102. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from