Like many tragedies written by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Timon of Athens is grounded in history, though it departs widely from the history on which it is based. The characters of Alcibiades, Timon, Apemantus, and Timandra all figure in the work of classical historians. The most interesting nonhistorical element is the play’s very prominent Athenian Senate.
Alcibiades (c. 450–404 BCE)
Of the historical characters presented in the play, Alcibiades is by far the most famous. His military and political career is detailed in the histories written by his Athenian contemporary Thucydides and by Xenophon (from the next generation) and in two orations by Isocrates, Xenophon’s contemporary. However, it is the “Life of Alcibiades” by Plutarch (c. 46–120 CE), as translated into English by Sir Thomas North (1579), upon which Timon of Athens draws. There one finds several of the features that mark Alcibiades’ character in the play: the eloquence he displays in 3.5 as he pleads for the life of his soldier; his licentiousness, represented in 4.3 by his appearing in the company of two concubines, Phrynia and Timandra (only one of whom, Timandra, is recorded in Plutarch); and Timon’s devotion to Alcibiades (1.1, 1.2, 2.2), which Plutarch mentions in the course of a brief digression in his “Life of Marcus Antonius.” In 3.5 Timon’s Alcibiades also refers to campaigns in Lacedaemon and Byzantium, campaigns that were conducted successfully by the historical Alcibiades in the last decade of his life when he was recalled to the service of Athens.
However, other events in the life of Timon’s Alcibiades have almost no connection to the career of the historical Alcibiades. There is nothing in history to match either Alcibiades’ exile for insubordinate behavior or Alcibiades’ campaign against Athens. The historical Alcibiades twice left the service of Athens, first when he was condemned to death in his absence while leading an expedition to Sicily and later, toward the end of his life, when he was relieved of his military command in Athens. Although neither of these departures technically constituted exile, Plutarch does write of him as “a banished man, a vagabond, and a fugitive,” terms that may have inspired the writing of Timon’s 3.5 and later scenes with Alcibiades. And while the historical Alcibiades did have the opportunity, as Plutarch notes, to lead Athenian forces against the oligarchy that ruled Athens from 411 to 410 BCE, he declined to weaken Athens before its enemies by plunging it into civil war. For this restraint, Plutarch lavishes praise on Alcibiades, whose life he paralleled to that of Coriolanus, the Roman general who, after being banished from his native Rome, led an army against it. (His story is told in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.)
Unlike Alcibiades, Timon receives attention from few ancient writers, although more allude to him. The chief sources are Plutarch’s Lives, cited above, and the fictional Dialogue of Timon by Lucian of Samosata (c. 120–c. 200 CE). For the connection between Plutarch’s Timon and the play’s, see the entry under Geoffrey Bullough in “Further Reading.”
The Athenian Senate
Athenian senators are among the play’s prominent characters. They are Timon’s false friends, and they exile Alcibiades. However, unlike Rome, Athens never had a senate. Its form of government underwent a number of changes in the late fifth century BCE, the temporal setting of the play, but certain features of its government remained fairly constant. Athens was governed by a popular assembly (Ekklesia). By the time the city-state’s democratization was complete, all male citizens could, at least theoretically, take part in the Ekklesia, though the poorest are not likely to have exercised their rights. The agenda for the Ekklesia was set by a council (Boule) of five hundred of its members. This council had important executive functions, but it remained subordinate to the Ekklesia and never was a separate legislative body like a senate. The closest thing in Athenian history to the senators that sentence Alcibiades’ soldier to death and Alcibiades to exile in 3.5 might be the strategoi; among the duties of these ten military leaders, elected annually, was to function as magistrates in military cases, bringing them to court and presiding over the trial. Alcibiades himself was a strategos. However, there is little reason to believe that Timon of Athens 3.5 is meant accurately to stage the workings of the strategoi.
The first three acts of the play create the strong impression that its fictional senate abuses its power: the senate refuses to help Timon, in spite of his crucial aid to the state in the past; the senators, according to Alcibiades, are usurious and self-serving; and even those senators who address Alcibiades when he returns in 5.4 acknowledge the faults of their predecessors. It is tempting to compare this senate of the first three acts to the revolutionary oligarchic council known as the Four Hundred that suspended democracy in Athens between 411 and 410 BCE, murdered prominent democrats, and intimidated the Ekklesia. Oddly enough, although this oligarchy had originally been encouraged by the fugitive Alcibiades, its creation also led the Athenian fleet, loyal to the democrats, to appoint Alcibiades as their commander, after winning brilliant victories against Sparta, he was welcomed back to Athens in 407. However, it is very unlikely that the utterly unhistorical Athenian senate of Timon of Athens is to be understood as a representation of the Four Hundred.