Persians, Spartans, and Athenians: Platonic author on the superiority of the Persians (fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians, Spartans, and Athenians: Platonic author on the superiority of the Persians (fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024,

Ancient author: Plato or another Platonic writer, First Alkibiades (also transliterated: Alcibiades) 120-124 (link).

Comments: In this imagined dialogue between Socrates and a former lover, the Platonic author (either Plato or someone associated with him, likely in the fourth century BCE) has Socrates argue that the Spartans are superior to the Athenians when it comes to ruling, but that the Persians come out on top with respect to how they raise rulers. Although Athenians perform poorly in the comparison, it is important to notice that Greeks are still nonetheless thought to be superior in “wisdom” (sophia) and “diligence” (epimeleia) which are “the only things of any account among the Greeks.” So this does not really fit with other common notions of the wise barbarians (since the assertion of Greek superiority in wisdom is slipped in), though the Persians are certainly presented as a noble and superior people and in some ways their effective ways of raising their kings have the ring of wisdom as well.


[Set up for the discussion of Persians’ superiority to Spartans and Athenians]


Alkibiades [proud young Athenian wanting to enter civic life]: Who are you speaking about now, Socrates?

Socrates [Alkibiades’ former lover]: Do you not know that our city makes war occasionally on the Lakedaimonians [Spartans] and on the Great king [of Persia]?

Alkibiades: That is true.

Socrates: And if you are wanting to be the head of our city, you would be right in thinking that your contest is with the kings of the Lakedaimonians and of the Persians?

Alkibiades: That sounds right.

Socrates: No, my good friend. You should instead keep your eye on Meidias (120b) the quail-flicker [Aristophanes, Birds 1297] and others of his sort. Such people undertake to manage the city’s affairs, while they still have the slavish hair (as the women would say) showing in their minds through their lack of culture, and have not yet got rid of it. Moreover, such people have come with their outlandish speech to flatter the city, not to rule it. It is to these, I tell you, that you should turn your eyes. Then you can disregard yourself, and need neither learn what is to be learned for the great contest in which you are to be engaged, nor practise (120c) what requires practice, and so ensure that you are perfectly prepared before entering upon a political career.

Alkibiades: Why, Socrates, I believe you are right. However, I think neither the Lakedaimonian generals nor the Persian king are at all different from other people.

Socrates: But, my excellent friend, consider what this notion of yours means.

Alkibiades: In regard to what?

Socrates: First of all, do you think you would take more pains over yourself (120d) if you feared them and thought they were terrible, or if you did not?

Alkibiades: Clearly, if I thought they were terrible.

Socrates: And do you think you will come to any harm by taking pains over yourself?

Alkibiades: By no means. Instead I would get much benefit.

Socrates: And on this single count that notion of yours is much worse.

Alkibiades: True.

Socrates: Then, in the second place, observe the probability that it is false.

Alkibiades: How so?

Socrates: Is it probable that noble peoples (gennaioi) should produce (120e) better natures (physeis), or not?

Alkibiades: Clearly, noble peoples would.

Socrates: And won’t the elites, provided they are brought up properly, probably be perfected in virtue?

Alkibiades: That must be so.

Socrates: Then let us consider, by comparing our lot with theirs, whether the Lakedaimonian and Persian kings appear to be of inferior birth. Do we not know that the former are descendants of Herakles and the latter of Achaimenes, and that the line of Herakles and the line of Achaimenes go back to Perseus, son of Zeus? (121a)

Alkibiades: Yes, and mine, Socrates, to Eurysakes, and that of Eurysakes to Zeus!

[Socrates compares Athenians to Spartans and Persians in more detail]

[Advantage for Persians in kingly lineage]

Socrates: Yes, and mine, noble Alkibiades, to Daedalos, and Daedalos to Hephaistos, son of Zeus! But take the lines of those individuals, going back from them: you have a succession of kings reaching to Zeus. On the one hand, there are the kings of Argos and Lakedaimon; on the other, there are the kings of Persia, which they have always ruled, and frequently Asia also, as at present. Whereas we are private persons ourselves, and so were our fathers. And then, (121b) suppose that you had to make what show you could of your ancestors, and of Salamis [on the island of Cyprus] as the native land of Eurysakes, or of Aigina as the home of the yet earlier Aiakos, to impress Artaxerxes son of Xerxes, how you must expect to be laughed at! Why, I am afraid we are quite outdone by those persons in pride of birth and upbringing altogether.

Or have you not observed how great are the advantages of the Lakedaimonian kings, and how their wives are kept under statutory ward of the civic overseers [in Sparta], in order that every possible precaution may be taken against the king being born (121c) of any but the descendants of Herakles? And the Persian king so far surpasses us that no one has a suspicion that he could have been born of anybody but the king before him. For this reason, the king’s wife has nothing to guard her except fear.

[Superiority of Persian royal customs on raising a king]

When the oldest son, the heir to the throne, is born, first of all the king’s subjects who are in his palace have a feast. Then, forever on that date, the whole of Asia celebrates the king’s birthday with sacrifice and feasting. But, Alkibiades, when we are born, as the comic poet says, (121d) “even the neighbours barely notice it” (Plato the comic poet)? After that comes the nurture of the child, not at the hands of a nurse of little worth, but of the most highly approved eunuchs in the king’s service, who are in charge of the whole direction of the new-born child. They are especially in charge of making him as handsome as possible by moulding his limbs into a correct shape. While doing this they are in high honour. (121e) When the boys are seven years old they are given horses and have riding lessons, and they begin to follow the chase.

And when the boy reaches fourteen years he is taken over by the royal tutors, as they call them there. These are four men chosen as the most highly esteemed among the Persians of mature age, namely, the most wise one, the most just one, the most self-controlled one, (122a) and the most brave one. The first of these tutors teaches him Magian knowledge (mageia) of Zoroaster son of Oromazes [i.e. Ahura Mazda], and that is the worship of the gods. He teaches him also what pertains to a king. The most just tutor teaches him to be truthful throughout his life. The most self-controlled tutor, not to be mastered by even a single pleasure, in order that he may be accustomed to be a free man and a veritable king, who is the master first of all that is in him, not the slave. While the most brave tutor trains him to be fearless and without anxiety, telling him that to be anxious is to be enslaved.

[Inferiority of Athenian method of raising children]

(122b) But you, Alkibiades, had a tutor set over you by Perikles from among his servants, who was so old that he was the most useless of them: namely, Zopyros the Thracian. I might describe to you at length the nurture and education of your competitors, were it not too much of a task. Besides, what I have said suffices to show the rest that follows from this. But about your birth, nurture or education, Alkibiades, or about those of any other Athenian, one may say that nobody cares, unless it be some lover whom you chance to have. And again, if you chose to glance at the wealth, the luxury, (122c) the robes with sweeping trains, the anointings with myrrh, the attendant troops of attendants, and all the other refinements of the Persians, you would be ashamed at your own case, on realizing its inferiority to theirs.

[Inferiority of the Athenians to the Spartans]

Should you choose, again, to look at the self-control and orderliness, the fortitude and contentedness, the greatness of mind and discipline, the courage and endurance, and the toil-loving, success-loving, honour-loving spirit of the Lakedaimonians, you would count yourself but a child (122d) in all these things. If again you regard wealth, and think yourself something in that way, I must not keep silence on this point either, if you are to realize where you stand. For in this respect you only have to look at the wealth of the Lakedaimonians, and you will perceive that our riches here are far inferior to theirs. Think of all the land that they have both in their own and in the Messenian country. Not one of our [Athenian] estates could compete with theirs in extent and excellence, nor again in ownership of slaves, and especially of those of the helot class, nor yet of horses, (122e) nor of all the flocks and herds that graze in Messene. However, I pass over all these things: but there is more gold and silver privately held in Lakedaimon than in the whole of Greece, because during many generations treasure has been passing in to them from every part of Greece, and often from the barbarians also, but not passing out to anyone else. Just as in the fable of Aesop, (123a) where the fox remarked to the lion on the direction of the footprints, the traces of the money going into Lakedaimon are clear enough, but nowhere are any to be seen of it coming out. The result is that one can be pretty sure that those people are the richest of the Greeks in gold and silver, and that among themselves the richest is the king, because the largest and most numerous receipts of this kind are those received by the kings. (123b) Besides that there is the levy of the royal tribute in no slight amount, which the Lakedaimonians pay to their kings.

[Superiority of Persians over Lakedaimonians – but Greeks have diligence and wisdom]

Now, the Lakedaimonian fortunes, though great compared with the wealth of other Greeks, are nothing beside that of the Persians and their king. For I myself was once told by a trustworthy person, who had been up to their court, that he traversed a very large tract of excellent land, nearly a day’s journey, which the inhabitants called “the girdle of the king’s wife,” and another which was similarly called her “veil.” (123c) There were many other fine and fertile regions reserved for the adornment of the king’s wife and each of them was named after some part of her apparel. So I imagine, if someone should say to the king’s mother Amestris, who was wife of Xerxes, “The son of Deinomache [i.e. Alkibiades] intends to challenge your son; the mother’s dresses are worth perhaps fifty minai at the outside, while the son has under three hundred acres at Erchiai,” she would wonder what on earth this (123d) Alkibiades could be relying on in order to propose to contend against Artaxerxes. I expect she would remark: “The only possible things that the man can be relying on for his enterprise are wisdom and diligence because these are the only things of any account among the Greeks.” Whereas if she were informed that this Alkibiades who is actually making such an attempt is, in the first place, barely twenty years old, and secondly, altogether uneducated; furthermore, that when his lover tells him that he must first learn, and take pains over himself, and practise, (123e) before he enters on a contest with the king, he refuses, and says he will do very well as he is, I expect she would ask in surprise, “On what, then, can the youngster rely?” And if we told her, “On beauty, stature, birth, wealth, and mental gifts,” she would conclude we were mad, Alkibiades, when she compared the advantages of her own people in all these respects. And I imagine that even Lampido daughter of Leotychides [king of Sparta] (124a) and wife of Archidamos and mother of Agis, who have all been kings, would wonder in the same way, when she compared her people’s resources at your intention of having a contest with her son despite your bad upbringing. And yet, does it not strike you as disgraceful that our enemies’ wives should have a better idea of the qualities that we need for an attempt against them than we have ourselves?

My remarkable friend, listen to me and the Delphic motto, (124b) “Know yourself.” For these people are our competitors, not those whom you think, and there is nothing that will give us ascendancy over them except pains and skill. If you are found wanting in these, you will be found wanting also in achievement of renown among both Greeks and barbarians. With regard to renown, I notice you are more enamoured than anyone else ever was of anything.

[Socrates as an ideal teacher because he was raised by god rather than an average Athenian]

Alkibiades: Well then, what are the pains that I must take, Socrates? Can you enlighten me? For I must say your words are remarkably like the truth.

Socrates: Yes, I can, but we must put our heads together, you know, as to the way in which (124c) we can improve ourselves to the most. For observe that when I speak of the need of being educated I am not referring only to you, apart from myself. My case is identical with yours except in one point.

Alkibiades: What is that?

Socrates: My guardian is better and wiser than yours, Perikles.

Alkibiades: Who is he, Socrates?

Socrates: God, Alkibiades, who until this day would not let me converse with you. Trusting in him I say that through no other man but me will you attain to eminence. (124d)

Alkibiades: You are joking, Socrates.


Source of the translation: W.R.M. Lamb, Plato in Twelve Volumes, volume 8 (Cambridge, MA, HUP, 1955). This segment of a work drawn from Perseus is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 US, adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *