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
Consulting the oracle at Delphi Creative commons image Icon Dan Diffendale via Flickr under Creative-Commons license activity icon

History & The Arts 

Consulting the oracle at Delphi

Explore the ‘riddles’ of the oracle through the words of Herodotus, and consider the power of the Pythian priestess. The utterances of the oracle at Delphi had significant influence over Croesus, King of Lydia and the Athenian politician, Themistocles as they were both consulting the oracle under different circumstances.

Activity
Seize the day and savour it: Horace's carpe diem Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Seize the day and savour it: Horace's carpe diem

Paula James explores the layers of meaning in Horace's tales of two mice.

Article
Roman footwear Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Roman footwear

Romans might be known for their sandals - but there's much more in their shoeboxes.

Article
Myth making at the movies - Musings on Mad Max: Fury Road Creative commons image Icon Clawsoncat via Deviantart under CC-BY-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Myth making at the movies - Musings on Mad Max: Fury Road

The film Mad Max: Fury Road is set in the dystopian future, but is the narrative a recycled story from Roman and Greek times? N.B. contains spoilers for the movie. 

Article
A closer look at Roman pottery Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Paul Hatherley article icon

History & The Arts 

A closer look at Roman pottery

Paul Hatherley starts to evaluate the Daresbury data.

Article
Crowdsourced annotation: what do you think? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum activity icon

History & The Arts 

Crowdsourced annotation: what do you think?

Take a look at 'crowdsourced' resources to help understand ‘The Histories’ alongside the Hestia project. We direct you to other resources so that you may extend your enquiry by comparing accounts, cross-referencing evidence, or verifying sources.

Activity
Hestia Project map and partners’ resources Creative commons image Icon Hestia Project under Creative-Commons license activity icon

History & The Arts 

Hestia Project map and partners’ resources

Follow the guidance on how to make the most of the Hestia Project map and explore the links to find out more about Hestia Project partners, to take your research further.

Activity