The Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus
Translated by John Dryden
Having described all their actions that seem to deserve commemoration, their military ones, we may say, incline the balance very decidedly upon neither side. They both, in pretty equal measure, displayed on numerous occasions the daring and courage of the soldier, and the skill and foresight of the general; unless, indeed, the fact that Alcibiades was victorious and successful in many contests both by sea and land, ought to gain him the title of a more complete commander. That so long as they remained and held command in their respective countries they eminently sustained, and when they were driven into exile yet more eminently damaged, the fortunes of those countries, is common to both. All the sober citizens felt disgust at the petulance, the low flattery, and base seductions which Alcibiades, in his public life, allowed himself to employ with the view of winning the people's favour; and the ungraciousness, pride, and oligarchical haughtiness which Marcius, on the other hand, displayed in his, were the abhorrence of the Roman populace. Neither of these courses can be called commendable; but a man who ingratiates himself by indulgence and flattery is hardly so censurable as one who, to avoid the appearance of flattering, insults. To seek power by servility to the people is a disgrace, but to maintain it by terror, violence, and oppression is not a disgrace only, but an injustice.
Marcius, according to our common conceptions of his
character, was undoubtedly simple and straightforward; Alcibiades, unscrupulous
as a public man, and false. He is more especially blamed for the dishonourable
and treacherous way in which, as Thucydides relates, he imposed upon the
Lacedaemonian ambassadors, and disturbed the continuance of the peace. Yet this
policy, which engaged the city again in war, nevertheless placed it in a
powerful and formidable position, by the accession, which Alcibiades obtained for
it, of the alliance of Argos and Mantinea. And Coriolanus also, Dionysius
relates, used unfair means to excite war between the Romans and the Volscians,
in the false report which he spread about the visitors at the Games; and the
motive of this action seems to make it the worse of the two; since it was not
done, like the other, out of ordinary political jealousy, strife, and
competition. Simply to gratify anger from which, as Ion says, no one ever yet
got any return, he threw whole districts of
As regards money, Alcibiades, we are told, was often guilty of procuring it by accepting bribes, and spent it ill in luxury and dissipation. Coriolanus declined to receive it, even when pressed upon him by his commanders as an honour; and one great reason for the odium he incurred with the populace in the discussions about their debts was, that he trampled upon the poor, not for money's sake, but out of pride and insolence.
Antipater, in a letter written upon the death of Aristotle the philosopher, observes, "Amongst his other gifts he had that of persuasiveness;" and the absence of this in the character of Marcius made all his great actions and noble qualities unacceptable to those whom they benefited: pride, and self-will, the consort, as Plato calls it, of solitude, made him insufferable. With the skill which Alcibiades, on the contrary, possessed to treat every one in the way most agreeable to him, we cannot wonder that all his successes were attended with the most exuberant favour and honour; his very errors, at times, being accompanied by something of grace and felicity. And so in spite of great and frequent hurt that he had done the city, he was repeatedly appointed to office and command; while Coriolanus stood in vain for a place which his great services had made his due. The one, in spite of the harm he occasioned, could not make himself hated, nor the other, with all the admiration he attracted, succeeded in being beloved by his countrymen.
Coriolanus, moreover, it should be said, did not as a
general obtain any successes for his country, but only for his enemies against
his country. Alcibiades was often of service to
Alcibiades never professed to deny that it was pleasant to him to be honoured, and distasteful to him to be overlooked; and, accordingly, he always tried to place himself upon good terms with all that he met; Coriolanus's pride forbade him to pay attentions to those who could have promoted his advancement, and yet his love of distinction made him feel hurt and angry when he was disregarded. Such are the faulty parts of his character, which in all other respects was a noble one. For his temperance, continence, and probity he claims to be compared with the best and purest of the Greeks; not in any sort or kind with Alcibiades, the least scrupulous and most entirely and most entirely careless of human beings in all these points.