Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.23

Vincent Azoulay, Les Tyrannicides d'Athènes: vie et mort de deux statues. L'Univers historique.   Paris:  Editions Seuil, 2014.  Pp. 368.  ISBN 9782021121643.  €23.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Catherine M. Keesling, Georgetown University (

This new book on the portraits of Harmodios and Aristogeiton in the Athenian Agora by the author of a biography of Perikles now translated into English,1 is such a good idea one wonders why it hasn’t been done before. The answer is surely that statues have not been considered a suitable subject for history. Sture Brunnsåker’s foundational volume on the tyrannicides, published in English in 1971, is just what its subtitle calls it: a critical study of the sources and restorations.2 Most subsequent scholarship, thoroughly surveyed by Azoulay in his endnotes, preserves an art historical orientation. Though Azoulay himself flirts with calling his own work an object biography in the art-historical mode, it can more accurately be termed a micro-history. Azoulay’s book is highly readable and up-to-date with bibliography in a variety of fields, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in how the Athenians chose to commemorate the assassination of Peisistratos’ son Hipparchos at the Panathenaia in 514 B.C., and in how that choice reverberated through subsequent centuries across Greek and Roman history, literature, and society, broadly defined.

The first two chapters deal succinctly with the main historical accounts of the assassination in Herodotus (5.55-57), Thucydides (6.53-59), and the pseudo-Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (17.3-19.1)—none of which mentions the statues—while attempting to situate the original portrait group by the sculptor Antenor within the context of contemporary attitudes and practices. The immediate and violent death of Harmodios and Aristogeiton contributed toward the unprecedented decision to erect their portraits in the Agora, and toward their treatment as heroes (in both the cultic and the broader sense). After surveying the arguments on either side, Azoulay prefers to date Antenor’s tyrannicides after Marathon rather than immediately after Kleisthenes’ reforms of 508/7 B.C. By the time Azoulay moves on to Kritios and Nesiotes’ replacement group of 477/6 B.C. in Chapter 3, one senses his exasperation with some traditional art historical/archaeological questions. What did the Antenor group look like? Did divine/heroic iconography influence the pose of Harmodios in the Kritios and Nesiotes group, or vice-versa? Where in the Agora did the tyrannicides stand, and why? The latter question turns out to be of some importance for Azoulay’s reading of the statues’ Nachleben, as we shall see.

The chapters that follow form the core of this study (pp. 69-186). Azoulay clearly views his own project not as a peeling back of layers to reveal the “original” tyrannicides, but rather as a dissection of the various strata of meaning laid down over the monument throughout its history. In the late fifth century, two events stand out. After the end of the oligarchic regime of 411 B.C., the assassination of the oligarch Phrynichos led in 410 to Demophantos’ decree, inscribed on a stele in front of the Bouleuterion and quoted by Andokides (Myst. 96-98). This decree required all citizens to swear an oath to kill tyrants and their supporters in the future.3 Since the wording of the law as we have it makes explicit the analogy between potential tyrant-slayers of the future and Harmodios and Aristogeiton, the Demophantos decree helps to explain how portrait statues came into play as an honor the democratic state could award to others when Konon and Euagoras freed Athens from Spartan “tyranny” in 394 B.C. (87-92). The honorific portrait habit inaugurated by the statues of Konon and Euagoras in turn “resemanticized” the tyrannicides, transforming them into civic benefactors. In the aftermath of the regime of the Thirty Tyrants and the restoration of the democracy in 403 B.C., Kritios and Nesiotes’ statues of the tyrannicides in the Agora were also “sacralized,” receiving ritual attention in their own right. A passage in Demosthenes’ speech On the False Embassy (19.280), delivered in 343 B.C., is key here. Azoulay suggests that Demosthenes’ reference to honors for the tyrannicides like those for gods and heroes could have encompassed ritual attentions (libations, crowns, and hymns) to Kritios and Nesiotes’ portraits of Harmodios and Aristogeiton in the Agora during the Panathenaia, beyond the enagismata at their cenotaph in the Demosion Sema performed by the archon polemarch (Arist. Ath.Pol. 58.1). The appearance of images of the statues on choes , including one vase found buried in the peribolos of Dexileos’ family in the Kerameikos, suggests that Kritios and Nesiotes’ tyrannicides were integrated into another important civic festival, the Anthesteria, as well (103-117).

By way of contrast, Azoulay characterizes the Hellenistic afterlife of the Tyrannicides as a period of “symbolic erosion” or even “banalization”. The return of Antenor’s late Archaic portraits of Harmodios and Aristogeiton to the Agora—whether accomplished by Alexander (preferred by Azoulay) or one of the diadochoi—created an awkward juxtaposition with the replacements made by Kritios and Nesiotes. A monument originally conceived as standing alone in splendid isolation (the phrase is John Ma’s) began to be hedged about by honorific portraits.4 Much has been made of the provision, found in two Athenian honorific decrees of the early Hellenistic period (IG II2 450 for Asandros in 314/3 and IG II 2 646 for Herodoros in 295/4 B.C.), that the honorands’ portraits may be set up anywhere in the Agora “except beside Harmodios and Aristogeiton”. The flip side of such exclusionary provisions was the privileged placement of official portraits of Antigonos Monophthalmos and Demetrios Poliorketes in a chariot, honored as father-and-son saviors of the city in 307 B.C., near the Tyrannicides (Diod. Sic. 20.46.2). Paired portraits of Philip II and Alexander (mentioned by Pausanias 1.9.4) may have been there as well, with the final explicitly attested collocation near the Tyrannicides occurring in 42 B.C., when the demos awarded honorific portraits to the Caesaricides Brutus and Cassius (Dio Cass. 47.20.4). Azoulay considers the Hellenistic “zone of exclusion” around the tyrannicides to be an over-interpretation of these sources (157-179). He would place the portraits of the Ptolemies described by Pausanias (1.8.6-9.3), and even the portrait of Sulla that the Athenians set up somewhere in the Agora soon after 86 B.C. (IG II 2 4103), close enough to the tyrannicides for the collocation to be intentional. Here the question of location becomes critical. Azoulay reproduces a version of John Travlos’ actual state plan of the Agora (fig. 23) that shows a purely hypothetical substructure for the tyrannicides just east of the temple of Ares and north of the Odeion of Agrippa. But in the latest version of this plan, included in the new edition of the Agora Guide, this substructure has been edited out.5 John Camp seems to favor a location farther north, east of the Stoa Basileios and the Stoa of Zeus, and not far from the “crossroads enclosure,” an abaton shrine constructed in its present form in the late fifth century, possibly to be identified as the Leokorion near which (according to Thucydides) the assassination of Hipparchos took place.6 Though we will probably never know for certain where in the Agora the tyrannicides stood, the upshot here is that the base the excavators rejected has become the cornerstone for one of Azoulay’s central contentions. It also remains an open question whether only pairs of civic liberators were intentionally juxtaposed with the tyrannicides; one argument in favor of a location for the tyrannicides in the northern sector of the Agora is that this is where the paired honorific portraits of Konon and Euagoras stood.

Azoulay’s treatment of the Hellenistic, Roman, and modern Nachleben of the tyrannicides reads like a series of vignettes, some admittedly speculative, but the majority compelling and thought-provoking. Perhaps the most forceful vignette about portraits of tyrannicides does not concern Harmodios and Aristogeiton at all. The so-called Philetes stele from Erythrai in Asia Minor (I. Erythrai 503) reveals that a new, democratic regime in Erythrai in the mid-third century B.C. had to restore the statue of a tyrant-slayer named Philetes, whose sword had been removed during a phase of oligarchic rule (94-96). This striking example has been much discussed in recent scholarship; the fact that we hear of no later tangible interventions of any kind in connection with Kritios and Nesiotes’ tyrannicides in the Agora only underscores how little we really know about the physical objects themselves. According to Azoulay, the tyrannicides never completely lost their democratic political charge in antiquity—they were never “neutralized” into anodyne examples of the Classical male form—which helps to explain why so few Roman copies of the group seem to have been made (187-215). After their rediscovery by modern art history in 1859, Kritios and Nesiotes’ statues experienced a twentieth-century afterlife as the formal inspiration behind a pair of allegorical statue groups paraded through Munich on the infamous “Day of German Art” in 1937. In the same year, the Soviet pavilion at the Universal Exposition in Paris featured a monstrously large statue pair vaguely inspired by the pose of Harmodios (224-231).7

In the final analysis, this book is primarily a study of reception. The advantage of such an approach to the tyrannicides is that it is less sterile than most attempts to pin down the statues’ “original” form and meaning. Given that both sets of statues, and the later “doubles” grouped around them, are all lost, it is difficult to keep our eyes focused on what Andrew Stewart memorably called “two lambent poster-boys for the ‘iron-man’ self-image of the jubilant victors over the Persian and Carthaginian invaders in 480/79 BCE”.8 Azoulay’s book succeeds as an attempt to look beyond the events that led to their creation to the tyrannicides’ long trajectory through history.


1.   Vincent Azoulay ,Péricles: La démocratie athénienne à l’épreuve du grand homme, Paris 2010, and Pericles of Athens, trans. Janet Lloyd, Princeton 2014.
2.   The Tyrant-Slayers of Kritios and Nesiotes, Stockholm 1971.
3.   For detailed discussion of the Demophantos decree and other anti-tyrannical laws, see now David A. Teegarden, Death to Tyrants! Ancient Greek Democracy and the Struggle Against Tyranny, Princeton 2014, reviewed in BMCR 2014.10.35.
4.   John Ma, Statues and Cities: Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World, Oxford 2013.
5.   John McK. Camp II, The Athenian Agora Site Guide, fifth ed., Princeton 2010, especially 84-86 and 104-105.
6.   Incidentally, one of the few bibliographic omissions I find in this book is Jonas Grethlein’s recent discussion (in The Greeks and their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century BCE, Cambridge 2010, 214-220), which treats the story of the daughters of Leos as a crux for interpreting Thucydides’ treatment of Harmodios and Aristogeiton.
7.   For an earlier discussion of both statue groups, see Burkhard Fehr, Die Tyrannentöter, oder: Kann man der Demokratie ein Denkmal setzen? Frankfurt 1984, 54-68.
8.   CAAreviews 2006.70.

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