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Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

by David Stuttard

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692378,769 (4.15)None
Alcibiades was one of the most dazzling figures of the Golden Age of Athens. A ward of Pericles and a friend of Socrates, he was spectacularly rich, bewitchingly handsome and charismatic, a skilled general, and a ruthless politician. He was also a serial traitor, infamous for his dizzying changes of loyalty in the Peloponnesian War. Nemesis tells the story of this extraordinary life and the turbulent world that Alcibiades set out to conquer. David Stuttard recreates ancient Athens at the height of its glory as he follows Alcibiades from childhood to political power. Outraged by Alcibiades's celebrity lifestyle, his enemies sought every chance to undermine him. Eventually, facing a capital charge of impiety, Alcibiades escaped to the enemy, Sparta. There he traded military intelligence for safety until, suspected of seducing a Spartan queen, he was forced to flee again--this time to Greece's long-term foes, the Persians. Miraculously, though, he engineered a recall to Athens as Supreme Commander, but--suffering a reversal--he took flight to Thrace, where he lived as a warlord. At last in Anatolia, tracked by his enemies, he died naked and alone in a hail of arrows. As he follows Alcibiades's journeys crisscrossing the Mediterranean from mainland Greece to Syracuse, Sardis, and Byzantium, Stuttard weaves together the threads of Alcibiades's adventures against a backdrop of cultural splendor and international chaos. Navigating often contradictory evidence, Nemesis provides a coherent and spellbinding account of a life that has gripped historians, storytellers, and artists for more than 2,000 years.--… (more)
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4.5 stars

Stuttard does an excellent job of describing the Peloponnesian War, Athens, the wider Mediterranean world, and Persia along with the role Alcibiades plays in the war itself. Starting with the Alcmaeonids (Alcibiades' ancestors) and tracing how Athens flourished as an empire builder to the birth of Alcibiades himself, Stuttard does an excellent job of world building that allows the reader to grasp what Athens was really like, its politics, religion, and how the Peloponnesian War came to be. Alcibiades story is woven throughout so that this is both history and biography.

Alcibiades was quite the character. Starting at a young age he started to make a name for himself. He could also act quite scandalous which would come back to haunt him later. He was a student of Socrates which would affect both Alcibiades and Socrates (think hemlock). Alcibiades became a great orator, politician, and general. And very, very rich. He also manages to make and alienate friends, allies and former allies, and a good portion of Athens population. He is accused of sacrilege but manages to escape arrest (Alcibiades was quite the charmer and could talk himself out of quite a bit of trouble) and switches sides to the Spartans, Athens' mortal enemy. Remember how Alcibiades was a charmer? Well, he charmed the Spartan queen that he ended up her lover and fathered her son. Of course, the Spartan king doesn't take to kindly to Alcibiades fathering a son on his wife (the adultery wasn't so much an issue but the issue of lineage and heredity were). So Alcibiades scarpers off to Persia, another mortal enemy of Athens. Till he wears out his welcome there and doesn't follow through on his promise to convince the Persians to support Athens instead of Sparta. He ends up back in Athens after several major military victories. But then Sparta kicks Athens butt and Alcibiades takes off for Thrace. But that doesn't go so well so he again runs off to the Persians again where he eventually ends up dead.

Stuttard does an excellent job of weaving history, world building, religion, politics, Persian court politics and world, Sparta and its world, and the story of Alcibiades all into an excellent story. The reader gets enough details, dates and other relevant information without being overwhelmed. It doesn't read like a dry history book but a well developed story.

My only quibble and the reason this isn't 5 stars was an editing issue. There were times when a name was spelled one way in one sentence and then spelled another way in the next sentence and spelled three or four different ways on one page. Somebody should have caught these especially since it was not a common name. The other was the slight overuse of exclamation marks at the ends of sentences. You can emphasize a point without an exclamation mark. Like I said, that was an editing issue and didn't really detract. ( )
  pacbox | Jul 9, 2022 |
Stuttard sets Alcibiades’ life firmly within the context of fifth-century Athens and the decades-long tension between the Athenians and Spartans that culminated in the second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). The narrative thus moves in chronological order, with chapter breaks at major junctures in Alcibiades’ life. After an introduction (“Pinning Down Proteus”) that discusses the sources and methods for writing a biography on Alcibiades and a prologue (“A Family Divided”) on the history of the Alcmaeonid family, the first chapter (“Rearing the Lion Cub”) focuses on Alcibiades’ childhood and early youth. Chapter 2 (“Coming of Age”) examines Alcibiades’ early adulthood, particularly his early military service at Potidaea and his entry into Athenian public life. Since the details of Alcibiades’ life before his first appearance in Thucydides’ history, after the Peace of Nicias (421 BCE), are somewhat muddled, either by their literary quality (e.g. the account from Plato and Xenophon’s philosophic works) or by the biases against Alcibiades that developed over long passage of time (e.g. Plutarch’s life), Stuttard uses these chapters as an opportunity to provide an overview of society and education in classical Athens and the early years of the war, including its breakout, the plague, and the rise of Cleon.
 
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Alcibiades was one of the most dazzling figures of the Golden Age of Athens. A ward of Pericles and a friend of Socrates, he was spectacularly rich, bewitchingly handsome and charismatic, a skilled general, and a ruthless politician. He was also a serial traitor, infamous for his dizzying changes of loyalty in the Peloponnesian War. Nemesis tells the story of this extraordinary life and the turbulent world that Alcibiades set out to conquer. David Stuttard recreates ancient Athens at the height of its glory as he follows Alcibiades from childhood to political power. Outraged by Alcibiades's celebrity lifestyle, his enemies sought every chance to undermine him. Eventually, facing a capital charge of impiety, Alcibiades escaped to the enemy, Sparta. There he traded military intelligence for safety until, suspected of seducing a Spartan queen, he was forced to flee again--this time to Greece's long-term foes, the Persians. Miraculously, though, he engineered a recall to Athens as Supreme Commander, but--suffering a reversal--he took flight to Thrace, where he lived as a warlord. At last in Anatolia, tracked by his enemies, he died naked and alone in a hail of arrows. As he follows Alcibiades's journeys crisscrossing the Mediterranean from mainland Greece to Syracuse, Sardis, and Byzantium, Stuttard weaves together the threads of Alcibiades's adventures against a backdrop of cultural splendor and international chaos. Navigating often contradictory evidence, Nemesis provides a coherent and spellbinding account of a life that has gripped historians, storytellers, and artists for more than 2,000 years.--

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