Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.15

Vincent Azoulay, The Tyrant-Slayers of Ancient Athens. A Tale of Two Statues. Translated by Janet Lloyd.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xx, 276.  ISBN 9780190663568.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University (


Azoulay’s book is a pleasure to read —thanks also to the translator— as he travels with Harmodius and Aristogiton through the Athenian Agora, down unexpected Roman colonnades, and Syrian alleys. Although, as he confesses, the topic is familiar from political history and art history (“a torrent of specialist studies” 4; cf. 13), Azoulay presents good observations on the ambivalent ideologies of this statuefied pairing and unexpected viewpoints on changing “strategies of celebration.” Azoulay wishes to determine something about the long-lost original statues (5) and their lacunose history (no second century BCE evidence). His quest takes “methodological gambles” looking for the relationship between political meanings and the images that each generation constructed for itself (the familiar Francophone “Athenian imaginary”). The various meanings that a single historical monument can experience in the course of centuries after its original motivation and erection “animate the aura.” Responses include democratic veneration, elitist mockery, and even ritual and talismanic status (10).

The result presents micro-history ramifying in many directions beyond ready-made taxonomies. Azoulay even posits “defamatory monuments” (9). No example arises, unless he means acts occasionally inflicted to defame honorific monuments—as in Plutarch’s accounts of Hellenistic monarch statuary (e.g., Demetrius’ or Antony’s images), and common enough in Caesar’s Rome, or, more recently, in post-Stalinist Europe or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The first part examines the historical murder of Hipparchus, the junior tyrants’ junior partner and disappointed erotic suitor. Antenor’s nearly unknown, state-commissioned original monument stood in the “desert” of the archaic Athenian agora. The assassins’ monument was dedicated either soon after the Spartans’ misguided expulsion of the tyrants or after Marathon, a quarter-century question-mark. Then Azoulay looks at the Persians’ 480 heist of the bronze effigies and their replacement by Critius and Nesiotes’ images. He investigates how artists in ceramics responded to the unique and unprecedented “buff” life-sized images—not religious, funerary, or univocally honorary. Amid late fifth-century defeats, Harmodius and Aristogiton’s valence changed when oligarchs likewise assassinated democrats during coups d’état. Their glory revived in the restored democracy early in the fourth-century.

Part II examines ancient reception in the late classical age, the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and the twentieth century. Azoulay has a good eye for ironies, as did the revisionist historian Thucydides, both asserting correction of popular misconceptions. Two angry upper- class lovers, dissed by insult to a proxy—Harmodius’ virgin sister—determined on murderous revenge. Mistakenly thinking themselves betrayed (who knew this?!), they assassinated not the tyrant Hippias—but his nearby sibling assistant. They then became symbols of democracy and liberty without having ended the tyranny—much less created a form of government that had as yet no name and no institutions. There was more eros and orgê than politics in their motives at the fateful 514 BCE Panathenaia. The episode furnishes ancient and modern historians with “a case study in the fallibility of popular understanding of key past events” (xvi, Paul Cartledge, Forward).

First, Hipparchus the cadet Pisistratid had to die, for insulting Harmodius and/or his sister. Both Herodotus and Thucydides play down or deny the politics for the private love-feud, although Azoulay points out that Athenian personal affront and political distaste were “mutually sustaining” (17). For Herodotus’ analysis of autocracy (whether monarch or tyrant), illegitimate sexual acts were central (3.80, a point overlooked here by Azoulay and in his discussion of isonomiê). The author wonders why the assassination of the non-tyrant Hipparchus was heroic and venerated, while that of the hopeful tyrant-athlete Cylon, a century before, was sacrilege and [un]mitigated Alcmaeonid pollution (19). He argues that the “press” (Herodotus, Thucydides, “Aristotle” Athenaiôn Politeia) for the earlier murder appears worse than the successes of the Alcmaeonid perpetrators would suggest. Insult, outrage, and revenge constituted a commoner Athenian pattern of “negative reciprocity” than idealists and eulogists like Pericles admit. The assassination was a fatal insult, the erection of the executed killers’ statues was itself a reprisal, not only honoring the tyrannicides but insulting the memory of the tyrants—in whose five-decade, on-and-off period of power many long-surviving Athenian bigwigs were implicated. And later, relatives and colleagues of the tyrants served as archon—e.g., Hipparchus son of Charmus, elected 496 BCE. So, as in the afterlife of other authoritarian regimes, their disrepute solidified over time and as memory of their helpful deeds waned. This surviving Hipparchus, indeed, was the first man ostracized—and his dedication infamized—by the new regime.

Second, Antenor sculpted in bronze the first statue pair, a memorial soon (480) carted off to Xerxes’ capital for symbolic captivity. His bronzes had presented the first images of mortals in the Agora (24). While the Acropolis contained a “forest” of monumental dedicated images, the Agora below was still a “desert” for such statues of mortals (25). So, the role of the killer duet in popular imagination eclipsed the role of Cleisthenes who more effectively had ended the tyranny and established isonomiê. The statues combined memory and oblivion—the victim was not represented in the original or its replacement (not a copy). Stealing the sacred images of enemies was a “long established Eastern tradition” (33), and aged Hippias, Xerxes’ quisling fellow-traveler, had respectable reasons to exploit the “political semantics” by humiliating the statues’ human honorees and their living supporters. Insult answers insult.

The third chapter collects information on the replacement statues, arguably more famous since the original group went “missing” from 480 to ca. 323, when Alexander or a successor returned the well-traveled pair. Chapter four examines the topography of the statues in the north-central area of the Agora, next to the Sacred Way, by no coincidence near the presumed site of the sacrilegious (non-)liberation itself. Part of the base and its epigram has been recovered (photo, 38). Harmodius and Aristogiton, Azoulay avers, were perceived as much an erotic as a warrior couple, ephebe and elder mentor, although he acknowledges that Harmodius was married and already a father, not a passive teenaged eromenos (41-2). He argues that Aristogiton’s sword was a “surrogate phallus.” This perception of couplehood contributes to his troubling doubles obsession (123, 175 ff.).

Herodotus anticipated Thucydides trying to demolish misleading views of Harmodius and Aristogiton, a civic foundational myth in several senses. Legend insisted that two angry men ended or otherwise diminished Hippias’ tyranny. Once, however, fears of any tyrant otherwise dissipated, the celebrated duo were available to take on new meanings. The statues needed an aetiology. The democracy aborning could claim them as liberators and intentionally “forget” Sparta’s decisive role (itself a result of comical frauds Delphic and Attic) in liberating Athens (ch.4). Meanwhile, elite males at their symposia mocked the alleged heroes of the revolution, and perhaps Thucydides and Aristophanes enjoyed symposiastic deviations and carousers’ distortions from the “official” tyrannicide hymns (e.g., Athen. 5.694F, p. 48- 50). Partyers improvised slanderous verses against the pair, a practice that later law prohibited. Azoulay proposes that various ceramic images also parodied “by winks and nudges” the tyrannicides as Amazons or even battling each other (image, p. 54).

This aristocratic deviancy led naturally (ch.5) to brief oligarchic revolutions in 411 and 404. Aristophanes’ decrepit chorus leader (Lys. 630ff., 665, 802-3; cf. 1149ff.) is said to mimic handsome young Harmodius and quote his patriotic skolion. New liberators arranged Phrynichus’ murder, his defamation, his house’s destruction, and his assassins’ honors (63). Demophantus’ decree (Andoc. Myst. 96-8) enshrined a pledge of allegiance to tyrant-killers and the restored democracy—mentioning our subjects’ effigies. But, after the Peloponnesian War, the “Thirty” seized power, and their government was denominated a “tyranny” (71, ch.6). Liberation by the men of Phylê led to new honors for Harmodius and Aristogiton, veneration resembling that for the original tortured and killed patriotic martyrs. They suddenly appear on Panathenaic amphoras (p. 78) and Anthesteria choes, that is, in public honor and private dedications. Their significance, however, was insufficiently stabilized: funerary, religious, honorific, and defamatory options remained. Nevertheless, Harmodius and Aristogiton’s statues were henceforth Mediterranean “archetypes of honorific statuary” (105, cf. Pliny HN 34.9.17).

Azoulay often “play[s] the analogy card” and “read[s] between the lines” (67); that is, he conjectures and speculates when little, or no, evidence exists, although he meticulously footnotes predecessors in eikonology and agalmatology (worshipped images). Although no one previously attempted a biography of these two statues, the study is justified by Azoulay’s insightful observations. “Stabs” in the dark emerge, as when he wrongly reads Thucydides’ placement of his revisionist account of Harmodius and Aristogiton in the Sicilian Expedition. Azoulay suggests that the two’s murderous sacrilege was “the original sin of this over-confident democracy.” Democracy’s destruction was then “the inevitable penalty” (89). Argument remains unsettled whether an official hero cult arose. Were sacrifices annually performed at the nearby (?) cenotaph of the tyrannicides? Were funerary enagismata sacrifices performed at the empty grave in the Ceramicus? Songs and libations for their effigies in the Agora are “not hard to imagine” (85) but impossible to prove.

Part II maps the statues’ fortunes and meaning in the tempestuous fourth century (ch.7), in the Hellenistic period (ch.8), and the Roman period (ch.9), before the Epilogue, the “statuary group’s belated rebirth in the [modern] West.” An age of unprecedented honors filled the Athenian Agora with local generals, Conon 394 BCE and Iphicrates. Conon was the first mortal to be so glorified since Harmodius and Aristogiton. The Athenians granted routine and special honors in a standardized, helpful hierarchy (99). Statues for foreign potentates following Evagoras (394) included Alexander, Antigonus and Demetrius the Besieger (another “twosome”), and Ptolemies. “Under the cover of reviving an ancestral tradition, the Athenians in reality [introduced] a radical innovation,” representations of an individual, not the collectivity. (94). Until the 320s, however, the Athenians had been parsimonious in awarding honorific statues (110, total: five Athenians, plus one Cypriot king). “Competition” now eroded Harmodius and Aristogiton’s statues’ splendid isolation. The recalcitrant duo’s own wobbly, indeed contradictory, image was doubled by Alexander’s return of Antenor’s kidnapped and far journeying, antique effigies. The Athenians felt pressured to reciprocate the gift with a portrait statue of the Macedonian donor, so (120) the unique honor of “liberators” became an honor for the de facto autocratic subordinator!

Antigonus Monophthalmus and his savior son were granted statues “right next” to the tyrannicides. King Demetrius’ sense of humor extended at least from the Agora to the Acropolis. There he installed his debauched girlfriend in Virgin Athena’s sanctuary. His anxious subjects awarded him unprecedented rewards: a golden [gilded bronze?] statue adjacent to the tyrannicides in the de facto and exclusive “liberator” zone, crowns, an altar, two new civic tribes, annual games, and their portraits woven into Athena’s peplos (Diod. 20.46.2). At least thirteen other royal neighbors soon gathered in proximity to Harmodius and Aristogiton (128-30, map). Azoulay implausibly argues that the statues established a middle ground with the kings: not “purely vile flattery,” but a stubborn claim to resistant independence and autonomy (133). Liberty became more abstract; the tyrannicides’ image was diffused in the Aegean and then the Mediterranean world, now more a cultural ideal (patrimonialization?, 136-8) than a political symbol.

Thus the pair traveled to Brutus the liberator’s Rome. Sulla the butcher also called himself the “Liberator from tyrants” and got an Athenian statue—as such. Cicero could both accuse Clodius the popularis leader of aiming at tyranny and praise Milo, the “optimate” oligarchs’ hit-man, for filling Harmodius and Aristogiton’s capacious sandals (139). While some might consider Cicero’s rhetoric as hyperbole or actually see statues of “the [liberating] couple” (149) Brutus and Cassius as the servile neutralization of liberationist rhetoric and iconography, Azoulay differs. For him, the Athenian effigies continue to stimulate Roman debate on the Capitol. Misunderstanding served all parties’ propaganda. Thus, all cities of Hellas were told to set up images of Caesar, the assassinated tyrant (150, from Dio). Lucian mockingly domesticates and degrades the tyrannoktonoi exhibited in Eucrates’ decorative household niche, allegedly one “unofficial channel” of display and discussion (Philops. 18).

Assassination can have its rewards. Briefly we learn about events of seven ancient centuries for monuments to democratic martyrs unveiled before recognizable democracy existed. Azoulay’s intriguing epilogue explores Harmodius and Aristogiton’s utility in modern times from Fénelon to Nazi “faith and fidelity” and Communist “worker and Kolkhoz woman” statuary exhibitions in 1937. Memories are malleable, even, or especially, when memorialized in statues. Illustrations and topographical maps assist. Azoulay properly dismisses many unfounded allusions to the cut-and-thrust liberators (190). His monograph requires careful discrimination between brilliant gambles and dubious hypotheses.

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