Alcibiades was the son of Clinias, an Athenian of high rank. Endowed with uncommon beauty of person, and talents of the very highest order, he was unfortunately deficient in that unbending integrity which is an essential element of every character truly great, and his violent passions sometimes impelled him to act in a manner which has brought disgrace on his memory. While still very young, Alcibiades served in the Athenian army, and became the companion and pupil of Socrates, one of the wisest and most virtuous of the Grecian sages. Having rendered some service to his country in a protracted and useless war with Lacedaemon, and being possessed of a talent for addressing the passions of the multitude, Alcibiades, as others had done before him, became the undisputed head of public affairs in Athens. But this preeminence was not of long continuance. An opinion arose among the people that he designed to subvert the constitution, and his fall was as quick as his promotion. Many of his friends were put to death, and he, while absent on an expedition, deprived of his authority. Being thus left without a public director of affairs, Athens, as usual, was torn by internal discords: the aristocratic faction succeeded in overthowing the democratic government (411 B.C.), and establishing a council of 400 individuals to administer the affairs of state, with the power of convoking an assembly of 5000 of the principal citizens for advice and assistance in any emergency. These 400 tyrants, as they were popularly called, were no sooner invested with authority, than they annihilated every remaining portion of the free institutions of Athens. They behaved with the greatest insolence and severity towards the people, and endeavored to confirm and perpetuate their usurped power, by raising a body of mercenary troops in the islands of the Aegean, for the purpose of overawing and enslaving their fellow citizens. The Athenian army was at this period in the island of Samos, whither it had retired after an expedition against the revolted cities of Asia Minor. When intelligence arrived of the revolution in Athens, and the tyrannical proceedings of the oligarchical faction, the soldiers indignantly refused to obey the new government, and sent an invitation to Alcibiades to return among them, and assist in reestablishing the democratic constitution. He obeyed the call; and as soon as he arrived in Samos, the troops elected him their general. He then sent a message to Athens, commanding the 400 tyrants to divest themselves immediately of their unconstitutional authority, if they wished to avoid deposition and death at his hands.

This message reached Athens at a time of the greatest confusion and alarm. The 400 tyrants had quarreled among themselves, and were about to appeal to the sword: the island of Euboea, from which Athens had for some time been principally supplied with provisions, had revolted, and the fleet which had been sent to reduce it had been destroyed by the Lacedaemonians, so that the coasts of Attica, and the port of Athens itself, were now without defense. In these distressing circumstances, the people, roused to desperation, rose upon their oppressors, overturned the government of the 400, after an existence of only a few months, and reestablished their ancient institutions. Alcibiades was now recalled; but before revisiting Athens, he was desirous of performing some brilliant military exploit, which might obliterate the recollection of his late connection with the Spartans, and give his return an air of triumph. He accordingly joined the Athenian fleet, then stationed at the entrance of the Hellespont, and soon obtained several important victories over the Lacedaemonians, both by sea and land. He then returned to Athens, where he was received with transports of joy. Chaplets of flowers were showered upon his head, and amidst the most enthusiastic acclamations he proceeded to the place of assembly, where he addressed the people in a speech of such eloquence and power, that at its conclusion a crown of gold was placed upon his brow, and he was invested with the supreme command of the Athenian forces , both naval and military. His forfeited property was restored, and the priests were directed to revoke the curses which had formerly been pronounced upon him.

This popularity of Alcibiades was not of long continuance. Many of the dependencies of Athens being in a state of insurrection, he assumed the command of an armament intended for their reduction. But circumstances arose which obliged him to leave the fleet for a short time in charge of one of his officers, named Antiochus, who, in despite of express orders to the contrary, gave battle to the Lacedaemonians during the absence of the commander-in-chief, and was defeated. When intelligence of this action reached Athens, a violent clamor was raised against Alcibiades: he was accused of having neglected his duty, and received a second dismissal from all his offices. On hearing of this, he quitted the fleet, and retiring to a fortress he had built in the Chersonesus of Thrace, he collected around him a band of military adventurers, with whose assistance he carried on a predatory warfare against the neighboring Thracian tribes.