In Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet, there is a reference to ‘the idea that had once cost Alcibiades’ dog its tail’. What was that idea?
In fifth-century BCE Athens, one of the most controversial generals and politicians was an aristocrat called Alcibiades, who had a pet dog. This was not unusual in the ancient world; dogs used for hunting would often be raised by their owner from puppyhood, although they could be given as valuable gifts in later life. In the third century CE a Roman writer, Nemesianus, tells us how to pick the best puppy in the litter. You separate the puppies from their mother, surround them with a ring of fire, and see which puppy the mother saves first; this will be the strongest. Previous writers on picking a puppy had simply suggested going for the heaviest one. Alexander the Great even named a city after one of his favourite dogs, Peritas, who according to one story saved his master’s life by attacking a war-elephant.
Our source for Alcibiades’ dog is chapter 9 of Plutarch’s ‘biography’ of this great and controversial 5th c BCE general. Plutarch’s purpose is to capture the character of his subjects, rather than to give us datable historical information. He tells us that Alcibiades had a dog ‘of wonderful size and shape’ which had cost him 70 minas (7000 drachmas). He had its tail docked. His friends thought he was mad, and said everyone was saying how stupid this was, and what a bad owner Alcibiades must be. But Alcibiades just laughed. He said ‘That’s just what I want. I want the Athenians to talk about this, so they won’t say something worse about me’.
There was certainly a lot else they could have said about Alcibiades. Socrates is said to have been besotted with him – and tried to save him from himself. A bold and energetic military leader, he was very beautiful, clever, aristocratic, and filthy rich. He entered seven chariots in the 416 Olympics chariot race and came 1st, 2nd and 4th (obviously he owned, rather than operated, these!). He was accused of leading Athens into the doomed military campaign against Sicily in 414 BCE because he was out to make money for himself. Other allegations that history has passed on include the one that he ‘profaned the Eleusinian Mysteries’, a cult which guaranteed its initiates eternal life, and that he had smashed statues of the gods. When the whispering against him in Athens became too threatening, he went over to Athens’ enemy, Sparta, and when that didn’t go entirely to plan – allegedly because he made the wife of one of the Spartan kings pregnant! – he went over to Persia, the enemy of all the Greeks.
So the dog could have been a useful, if only a short-term, distraction from the gossip. It is so famous that a 2nd century CE sculpture of a dog with a docked tail – twice life-size – was dubbed ‘the dog of Alcibiades’ when Henry Jennings picked it up for £80 when he was visiting Rome in the middle of the 18th century. He sold it on to pay off some gambling debts – perhaps he was another man who preferred people to talk about his dog – and the British Museum bought it in 2001, this time for £662,000.