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three pairs of lovers with space



This most celebrated of all true stories of profound change occasioned by a Greek love affair was recounted at greatest length by the preeminent Athenian historian Thukydides in his The Peloponnesian War, VI 53 iii-59 iv, written shortly before 411 BC. (when it breaks off, probably due to his death).  It was retold by the philosopher Aristotle between 330 and 322 BC in a shorter version with some additional details in his The Constitution of the Athenians, III 17-19. Both are given here. The story also forms the main plot of a fine novel by Mary Renault, The Praise Singer (London, 1978).

The events described range from the death of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos in 528/7 BC to the expulsion of his successor Hippias in 510, while the main story of Harmodios and Aristogeiton took place in 514. Their greatest political significance is that they led in 508/7 to the first introduction of democracy in Athens. The lovers were subsequently idolised as “liberators” for their role, despite their entirely personal motivation.


The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thukydides

The following translation was made by Richard Crawley and published under this name by J. M. Dent in London, 1910. The only changes made here are to replace the then conventional Latinisation of Greek names with literal transliteration.

This digression from his narrative of events in 415 BC into events about ninety years earlier was given by Thukydides as an explanation as to why the Athenians were so fearful and suspicious as to make the disastrous decision to recall their general Alkibiades from his command in Sicily in order to stand trial for alleged impious mutilation of the Hermai statues.

The commons had heard how oppressive the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons had become before it ended, and further that that tyranny had been put down at last, not by themselves and Harmodius, but by the Lacedaemonians, and so were always in fear and took everything suspiciously.

Harmodios and Aristogeiton. A roman copy of the 2nd Athenian commemorative statue made 477 BC, after the Persians looted the first.

Indeed, the daring action of Aristogeiton and Harmodios was undertaken in consequence of a love affair, which I shall relate at some length, to show that the Athenians are not more accurate than the rest of the world in their accounts of their own tyrants and of the facts of their own history. Peisistratos dying at an advanced age in possession of the tyranny, was succeeded by his eldest son, Hippias, and not Hipparchos, as is vulgarly believed. Harmodios was then in the flower of youthful beauty, and Aristogeiton, a citizen in the middle rank of life, was his lover and possessed him. Solicited without success by Hipparchos, son of Peisistratos, Harmodios told Aristogeiton, and the enraged lover, afraid that the powerful Hipparchos might take Harmodios by force, immediately formed a design, such as his condition in life permitted, for overthrowing the tyranny. In the meantime Hipparchos, after a second solicitation of Harmodios, attended with no better success, unwilling to use violence, arranged to insult him in some covert way. Indeed, generally their government was not grievous to the multitude, or in any way odious in practice; and these tyrants cultivated wisdom and virtue as much as any, and without exacting from the Athenians more than a twentieth of their income, splendidly adorned their city, and carried on their wars, and provided sacrifices for the temples. For the rest, the city was left in full enjoyment of its existing laws, except that care was always taken to have the offices in the hands of some one of the family. Among those of them that held the yearly archonship at Athens was Peisistratus, son of the tyrant Hippias, and named after his grandfather, who dedicated during his term of office the altar to the twelve gods in the market-place, and that of Apollo in the Pythian precinct. The Athenian people afterwards built on to and lengthened the altar in the market-place, and obliterated the inscription; but that in the Pythian precinct can still be seen, though in faded letters, and is to the following effect:—“Peisistratus, the son of Hippias, Set up this record of his archonship In precinct of Apollo Pythias."

That Hippias was the eldest son and succeeded to the government, is what I positively assert as a fact upon which I have had more exact accounts than others, and may be also ascertained by the following circumstance. He is the only one of the legitimate brothers that appears to have had children; as the altar shows, and the pillar placed in the Athenian Acropolis, commemorating the crime of the tyrants, which mentions no child of Thessalos or of Hipparchos, but five of Hippias, which he had by Myrrhine, daughter of Kallias, son of Hyperochides; and naturally the eldest would have married first. Again, his name comes first on the pillar after that of his father, and this too is quite natural, as he was the eldest after him, and the reigning tyrant. Nor can I ever believe that Hippias would have obtained the tyranny so easily, if Hipparchos had been in power when he was killed, and he, Hippias, had had to establish himself upon the same day; but he had no doubt been long accustomed to over-awe the citizens, and to be obeyed by his mercenaries, and thus not only conquered, but conquered with ease, without experiencing any of the embarrassment of a younger brother unused to the exercise of authority. It was the sad fate which made Hipparchos famous that got him also the credit with posterity of having been tyrant.

Harmodios's sister is affronted in public by Hipparchos, a copper engraving of 1832

To return to Harmodios; Hipparchos having been repulsed in his solicitations insulted him as he had resolved, by first inviting a sister of his, a young girl, to come and bear a basket in a certain procession, and then rejecting her, on the plea that she had never been invited at all owing to her unworthiness. If Harmodios was indignant at this, Aristogeiton for his sake now became more exasperated than ever; and having arranged everything with those who were to join them in the enterprise, they only waited for the great feast of the Panathenaia, the sole day upon which the citizens forming part of the procession could meet together in arms without suspicion. Aristogeiton and Harmodios were to begin, but were to be supported immediately by their accomplices against the bodyguard. The conspirators were not many, for better security, besides which they hoped that those not in the plot would be carried away by the example of a few daring spirits, and use the arms in their hands to recover their liberty.

At last the festival arrived; and Hippias with his bodyguard was outside the city in the Kerameikos, arranging how the different parts of the procession were to proceed. Harmodios and Aristogeiton had already their daggers and were getting ready to act, when seeing one of their accomplices talking familiarly with Hippias, who was easy of access to every one, they took fright, and concluded that they were discovered and on the point of being taken; and eager if possible to be revenged first upon the man who had wronged them and for whom they had undertaken all this risk, they rushed, as they were, within the gates, and meeting with Hipparchos by the Leocorium recklessly fell upon him at once, infuriated, Aristogeiton by love, and Harmodios by insult, and smote him and slew him. Aristogeiton escaped the guards at the moment, through the crowd running up, but was afterwards taken and dispatched in no merciful way: Harmodios was killed on the spot.

When the news was brought to Hippias in the Kerameikos, he at once proceeded not to the scene of action, but to the armed men in the procession, before they, being some distance away, knew anything of the matter, and composing his features for the occasion, so as not to betray himself, pointed to a certain spot, and bade them repair thither without their arms. They withdrew accordingly, fancying he had something to say; upon which he told the mercenaries to remove the arms, and there and then picked out the men he thought guilty and all found with daggers, the shield and spear being the usual weapons for a procession.

In this way offended love first led Harmodios and Aristogeiton to conspire, and the alarm of the moment to commit the rash action recounted. After this the tyranny pressed harder on the Athenians, and Hippias, now grown more fearful, put to death many of the citizens, and at the same time began to turn his eyes abroad for a refuge in case of revolution. … Hippias, after reigning three years longer over the Athenians was deposed in the fourth by the Lakedaimonians and the banished Alkmaionidai …


The Constitution of the Athenians by Aristotle

The following translation was made by Sir Frederic Kenyon and published first in 1891 and then under this name by the Clarendon Press in London in a new edition of 1920, from the which the text here is taken. The only changes made here are to replace the then conventional Latinisation of Greek names with literal transliteration.

After the death of Peisistratos his sons took up the government, and conducted it on the same system. He had two sons by his first and legitimate wife, Hippias and Hipparchos, and two by his Argive consort, Iophon and Hegesistratos, who was surnamed Thessalos. …

The assassination of Hipparchos depicted on an Athenian vase

Hippias and Hipparchos assumed the control of affairs on grounds alike of standing and of age; but Hippias, as being also naturally of a statesmanlike and shrewd disposition, was really the head of the government. Hipparchus was youthful in disposition, amorous, and fond of literature it was he who invited to Athens Anakreon, Simonides, and the other poets), while Thessalos was much junior in age, and was violent and headstrong in his behaviour. It was from his character that all the evils arose which befell the house. He became enamoured of Harmodios, and, since he failed to win his affection, he lost all restraint upon his passion, and in addition to other exhibitions of rage he finally prevented the sister of Harmodios from taking the part of a basket-bearer in the Panathenaic procession, alleging as his reason that Harmodios was a person of loose life. Thereupon, in a frenzy of wrath, Harmodios and Aristogeiton did their celebrated deed, in conjunction with a number of confederates. But while they were lying in wait for Hippias in the Acropolis at the time of the Panathenaia (Hippias, at this moment, was awaiting the arrival of the procession, while Hipparchos was organizing its dispatch) they saw one of the persons privy to the plot talking familiarly with him. Thinking that he was betraying them, and desiring to do something before they were arrested, they rushed down and made their attempt without waiting for the rest of their confederates. They succeeded in killing Hipparchos near the Leokoreion while he was engaged in arranging the procession, but ruined the design as a whole; of the two leaders, Harmodios was killed on the spot by the guards, while Aristogeiton was arrested, and perished later after suffering long tortures. While under the torture he accused many persons who belonged by birth to the most distinguished families and were also personal friends of the tyrants. At first the government could find no clue to the conspiracy; for the current story, that Hippias made all who were taking part in the procession leave their arms, and then detected those who were carrying secret daggers, cannot be true, since at that time they did not bear arms in the processions, this being a custom instituted at a later period by the democracy. According to the story of the popular party, Aristogeiton accused the friends of the tyrants with the deliberate intention that the latter might commit an impious act, and at the same time weaken themselves, by putting to death innocent men who were their own friends; others say that he told no falsehood, but was betraying the actual accomplices. At last, when for all his efforts he could not obtain release by death, he promised to give further information against a number of other persons; and, having induced Hippias to give him his hand to confirm his word, as soon as he had hold of it he reviled him for giving his hand to the murderer of his brother, till Hippias, in a frenzy of rage, lost control of himself and snatched out his dagger and dispatched him.

After this event the tyranny became much harsher. In consequence of his vengeance for his brother, and of the execution and banishment of a large number of persons, Hippias became a distrusted and an embittered man. About three years after the death of Hipparchos, finding his position in the city insecure, he set about fortifying Mounichia, with the intention of establishing himself there. While he was still engaged on this work, however, he was expelled by Kleomenes, king of Lacedaimon ...



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Daemonic Rise   29 December 2017

Harmodios and Aristogeiton weren't tyrannicides and could fairly be charged with causing a beneficial tyranny to turn nasty. The later popular will to mythologise them must have been due to reasons other than their historical role.

The true hero of Athenian democracy, worthy of a commemorative statue, is Cleisthenes. He invented and implemented a democratic system that the Greeks desperately needed but couldn't stop fighting long enough to realise they wanted. Harmodios and Aristogeiton gave history nothing more than a reckless dice-throw in a dangerous game of Who's-Up-Who-And-Who's-Paying-The-Rent.

But it was Harmodios and Aristogeiton who were chosen to represent the democratic ideal. This committed man-boy couple represented the freedom and daring, the pedagogic Greek love, and the barely restrained hubris, that was to drive the astonishing creativity of the Classical era. They also linked an urbanised people with the arete of the earlier fiercely martial and pederastic Dorian tribes. The very idea of a free-standing statue was born of archaic Greek idolisation of the boy. Classical Greeks mythologised themselves in a dizzying feedback loop of inspiration and achievement.

Shift this tyrant-slaying scene a few hundred miles east, and Harmodios and Aristogeiton wouldn't even rate a footnote. Instead we'd have today a few clunky Cleisthenic tablets telling us when to vote and how many hairs to split in the process. Amen to the Greeks, I say.