The Dog of Alcibiades

Updated Thursday 1st August 2013

Getting people to gossip about your dog can be a useful way of distracting them from talking about you! 

The Dog of Alcibiades Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum The Dog of Alcibiades

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. 

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Was Alcibiades the Athenian Donald Trump? Creative commons image Icon Sailko under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Was Alcibiades the Athenian Donald Trump?

A roistering, rabble-rousing politician from the birth of democracy bears comparison with the former host of The Celebrity Apprentice, suggests Robert Garland

Article
The Death of Socrates article icon

History & The Arts 

The Death of Socrates

Why was Socrates killed? Learn the reasons for his death.

Article
Introducing the Classical world Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

History & The Arts 

Introducing the Classical world

How do we learn about the world of the ancient Romans and Greeks? This free course, Introducing the Classical world, will provide you with an insight into the Classical world by introducing you to the various sources of information used by scholars to draw together an image of this fascinating period of history.

Free course
20 hrs
Batman v Superman: Are superheroes always good? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: iStock article icon

History & The Arts 

Batman v Superman: Are superheroes always good?

The latest hit movie Batman v Superman deals with the dangers of too much power - a theme that was all to common to the Ancient Greeks whose heroes, such as Ajax and Achilles, could be egotistical and cruel. 

Article
Hadrian: The Roamin' Emperor Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license activity icon

History & The Arts 

Hadrian: The Roamin' Emperor

Can you piece together strands of evidence to work out what motivated Hadrian to travel so extensively?

Activity
Battle of Thermopylae activity icon

History & The Arts 

Battle of Thermopylae

Explore the site of a battle at Thermopylae, described by Herodotus, and the subject of two 21st century movies. The extent of the Greeks’ geographical knowledge of the world can be reconstructed from considering regions and places mentioned by contemporary authors. Understand how the geography of the area has changed, and consider how the re-telling of stories leads to the writing of history.

Activity
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Daresbury Creative commons image Icon ofey under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Daresbury

Paul Hatherly explains how the synchrotron radiation source is able to unravel tales from the pigments of historic artefacts.

Article
‘Lydios logos’: the story of Croesus activity icon

History & The Arts 

‘Lydios logos’: the story of Croesus

Herodotus tells the story of Croesus in the first tale, or ‘logos’, of his great work ‘The Histories’. Explore the contradictions in his narrative with other contemporary and archaeological evidence. Think about the extent to which Herodotus deserves his title ‘father of history’.

Activity
Roman outfits Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Roman outfits

Was Rome really all about togas? Open Minds set out to discover the truth.

Article