National Archaeological Museum, Naples/DEA/G. Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images

Aristogiton and Harmodius, Roman copies in marble after Greek bronze statues, circa fifth century BC

In 514 BC the city of Athens, then under the control of the tyrant Hippias, witnessed a daring assassination, the first known political murder in European history. A pair of male lovers, the older named Aristogiton and the younger Harmodius, plotted to kill Hippias at the Panathenaic procession, a public ritual instituted by Peisistratus, Hippias’s father and the city’s previous ruler. But when Harmodius and Aristogiton saw their target in conversation with someone who knew about their plot, they assumed they had been betrayed. As they fled, they encountered the tyrant’s brother, Hipparchus, and, being armed and mentally prepared, slew him instead of Hippias.

At first, the misdirected blow might not have seemed consequential. Hippias remained in power, the tyranny seemed secure, and the assassins, both killed in the aftermath of the crime, were rumored to have acted only out of personal motives—incensed, perhaps, that Hipparchus had coerced Harmodius into sexual relations and insulted his sister. But Hippias, disturbed by the near miss, began to take increasingly harsh measures to protect his family’s dynasty. In 510, when a Spartan intervention presented an opportunity to kick Hippias and his children out, the Athenians welcomed it, though they had seemed reasonably content with Peisistratid rule just a few years earlier.

Harmodius and Aristogiton had played only an indirect part in the ouster of Hippias, but they were nonetheless cast as freedom fighters and liberators. Within a few decades, their legend had grown to near-mythic proportions. Vase painters portrayed the murder of Hipparchus, the earliest known illustrations of a historical event.1 A song celebrating their deed was de rigueur at late-fifth-century Athenian symposia, to judge by the writings of Aristophanes and Plutarch. And the Athenians put on display a group of bronze statues that showed the pair striding into action, the first state-commissioned images to depict real human beings rather than gods or figures of legend. Copies of these statues eventually spread throughout the ancient world. The drawn-sword poses of the two tyrannicides—especially that of Harmodius, with his right arm raised and cocked behind his left shoulder for a downward slash—became as recognizable and as suggestive of a free society as today’s raised-torch stance of the Statue of Liberty.2

Whatever they meant to achieve with their plot, Harmodius and Aristogiton put Athens on a long course of political and social transformation. A newcomer named Cleisthenes filled the power vacuum left by Hippias and overhauled the constitution along populist lines, initiating a period of remarkable efflorescence. Athens gained an empire, built up its navy to dominating strength, and experimented with ever-more radical means of transferring power from the aristocracy to the dēmos, the masses. By the time the last witnesses to the killing of Hipparchus passed away, around 440 BC, Athens had become a far wealthier, vastly more democratic, and smarter city than in the late sixth century. It had arrived at what we now acknowledge to be its “golden age.” Through all these changes of Athenian political culture, as Vincent Azoulay explains in The Tyrant-Slayers of Ancient Athens, statues of Harmodius and Aristogiton continued to beam to the Greek world their messages of liberation, fearless activism, and the redemptive power of erotic love.

Azoulay boldly attempts to resolve many difficult questions surrounding the tyrannicide statues, including where and when they were originally erected. A number of scholars trace them back to the rule of Cleisthenes, but Azoulay disagrees, arguing that “it is hard to see why Cleisthenes would have promoted a symbol that would tend to obscure his own role in the liberation of Athens.” He proposes instead that the statues were commissioned after Athens repelled a Persian naval invasion in 490, accompanied by the aging Hippias hoping to return to power. Many in Athens shared his hope, and, after Persian forces were defeated at the plain of Marathon, a pro-Hippias faction within Athens apparently tried to signal them to mount a fresh assault. In Azoulay’s view, the victorious democrats subsequently created the tyrannicide monument as a riposte to their foes and a declaration that the rout of the Persians at Marathon had put a decisive end to Peisistratid rule.

But the Persians, now led by Xerxes, invaded a second time, in 480, and succeeded in capturing Athens; members of Hippias’s family, according to Herodotus, were once again in their train. The presence of these third-generation Peisistratids explains, for Azoulay, the Persians’ decision to have the tyrannicide bronzes taken down and sent deep into their own territory. The disgrace of the tyrant’s family was thus symbolically avenged. The Athenians, after regaining control of their city and driving out the invaders, escalated the quarrel by commissioning new statues, in more costly marble, from the celebrated sculptors Critius and Nesiotes. The erection of this second monument can be precisely dated, on inscriptional evidence, to 477 BC, and fixed to a particular location in the agora, the well-trafficked and highly public market square (a 1936 excavation there recovered a portion of a marble statue’s base, with Harmodius’s name legibly engraved on it). Ultimately the bronzes would be recovered and set up there as well, after the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great a century and a half later.


Having linked the statues’ creation to a contest over the form of Athenian government, Azoulay proceeds to trace their fortunes and that of the legend of Harmodius and Aristogiton from which they sprang. By the late fifth century, following two brief oligarchic overthrows of the Athenian democracy, opinions about the killing of Hipparchus had become split, as a passage from Thucydides informs us. Some in Athens claimed that Hipparchus, not his brother Hippias, had actually been the ruler at the time and that his murder had therefore been a true act of liberation, while others trivialized it, attributing it to purely private motives of erotic jealousy and offended honor. By this point, Athens had officially granted the high privilege of sitêsis—the right to free meals at state expense—to the living descendants of Harmodius,3 and an oath had been composed whereby all citizens swore to kill any future tyrant and to honor tyrant-slayers just as they honored Harmodius and Aristogiton. Under pressure from its internal foes, supporters of Athenian democracy clung to the tyrannicides as talismans of inviolability and magnified the brothers’ deed into a direct attack on tyranny rather than a glancing blow.

The tyrannicide statues stand at the intersection of many issues that interest Azoulay, some of which extend far beyond his expertise in classical Greek political history. He takes many interpretive gambles and frequently admits that he is going out on a limb. Did satires and verbal attacks on the statue group reach a crescendo at the time of the first oligarchic revolution in Athens, in 411 BC? “In all probability they did, although there is no formal evidence to prove it,” Azoulay writes. Such speculations will dismay the more empirically minded among the book’s readers, though others will find his brashness refreshing. In some cases, he certainly presses his evidence too hard, as when he cites painted vases that give “a wink or nudge” to the viewer by depicting various figures, including Amazons, in poses that, he claims, evoke those of the statues. It’s quite a stretch to imagine that, prompted only by the visual cues of swords held at certain angles, the users of these pots would link legendary barbarian women to historical Athenian males, or that the differences involved would evoke specific meanings rather than discourage all comparison.

One avenue that Azoulay starts down, and on which one wishes he traveled further, is the homoerotic dimension of the tyrannicides and their statues. He observes that, at least in the marble statue group, the pairing of a bearded man and a beardless, short-haired youth would have evoked, for Athenian observers, a familiar pattern of intergenerational male pair-bonding. The statues’ grafting of sexual desire onto the fight for political freedom thus anticipates a later dictum of Pericles (as quoted by Thucydides) that Athenians ought to have erotic passion for their democratic city. Azoulay notes this connection, but then veers off in an unexpected direction:

By exalting the union of the two assassin-lovers, the statuary group aimed to encourage spectators to identify with the protagonists. The passer-by was encouraged to feel desire for the handsome Harmodius, so perfectly represented, and to put himself in the place of Aristogiton…. Through its very arrangement, this was a monument that had the power to draw a spectator into the scene, absorbing his very body and encouraging him to relive the liberating exploit of the two lovers.

Azoulay goes on to qualify this statement. In his conclusion, he argues that “one was forced to choose and identify oneself with either the victim or with the murderers” (my emphasis). But he fails to show why identification is the right model for the viewer’s response to this particular statue group, and he does not return to his initial, rather startling suggestion that the effect of this identification would be the evocation, in male viewers at least, of sexual desire.

The story of the tyrannicide statues becomes more episodic and patchy during the second half of Azoulay’s survey, in keeping with the dismal twists and turns of subsequent Athenian history. The Hellenistic dynasts who inherited the fragments of Alexander the Great’s empire came to control the political fortunes of the city in the late fourth century BC, and Roman armies arrived on the scene less than two centuries later. As Athens lost its autonomy and its form of government became a moot question, the message of the Harmodius and Aristogiton statues grew increasingly confused. In the first century BC their outline, stamped on a coin, was deployed to show support for the Roman military strongman Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who may also have installed copies of the group on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. An image that had previously represented the rejection of state control was appropriated, in Orwellian fashion, by a regime that sought to impose control through brute force. In his epilogue, Azoulay shows how adaptations of the tyrannicide statues in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia resemble their exploitation by Sulla.


Azoulay sometimes struggles to connect disparate evidence into meaningful patterns and to fill gaps where evidence is lacking, but the overall design of his microhistory is ingenious. By focusing on a single object originally found at the center of Athens, he conveys us meaningfully through seven centuries of political evolution: Harmodius and Aristogiton become the fixed points around which all of Greek history revolves. By contrast, Robin Osborne, in The Transformation of Athens, explores a wider range of images and artworks but limits himself to a far shorter period: roughly, the decades from 520 to 440 BC, the era of the so-called “Greek revolution” that produced the mature classical style in sculpture and painting as well as full-fledged Athenian democracy. Like Azoulay, Osborne is interested in the ways Athenian art and its reception changed in response to historical developments, but he is also playing for far bigger stakes—nothing less than (as his subtitle proclaims) “the creation of classical Greece.”

Though a historian by training (and by departmental affiliation at Cambridge), Osborne rejects the traditional historian’s reliance on textual evidence. As he explains in his preface:

The texts that we study were almost all written not simply at a definitive moment but for a definitive purpose; this makes it hard to recognize from texts when the way they present the world is instrumental, a means to an end, and when the way they see the world reflects a view generally shared across the society.

That sentence will throw a glass of cold water in the face of many of Osborne’s fellow classicists (including myself), who might object that tragic dramas, at least, written as part of a prize competition and performed before a large percentage of the population, have a fair claim on representing views “generally shared across the society.” Osborne also has little love for the craft of art history, with its emphasis on influences, stylistic evolution, and technique. Though he takes works of art as his principal evidence, his objects of study are not the works themselves but rather the “ways of seeing the world” that produced them, and the ways they in turn trained their purchasers or spectators to see the world.

Ashmolean Museum/Mary Evans/Everett Collection

An Athenian red-figure vase depicting a woman doing her hair, circa 430 BC

Having dealt in his previous study, The History Written on the Classical Greek Body, with evidence from both sculpture and vase painting, Osborne here restricts his inquiry to Athenian red-figure vases—the pots that became a staple of Athenian manufacture in the classical age, made by using a black glazed background to outline images against the natural red-brown of the clay. These were commodities, created for sale in Athenian shops and also widely exported, especially to Etruscan cities in Italy. The fact that they were produced strictly for consumers is important to Osborne, since it means that no official program or patron’s directive determined their content:

Painters wanted to attract buyers’ attention, and might do that by being thought provoking, but they did not seek to teach…. The patterns of choice of scene to depict on pottery therefore have a strong chance of reproducing the way in which painters saw the world, unconstrained by any need to persuade others or conform to others’ views.

This nondidactic character of painted pottery suits Osborne’s bottom-up approach to Greek history, although he also discusses state-sponsored—i.e., top-down—sculptures, including the tyrannicide groups of Critius and Nesiotes, in the final chapters. The fact that a large number of surviving Athenian pots have been recovered from Etruscan graves, rather than from Athens itself, does not trouble him; Etruria was “omnivorous” and merely absorbed what Athens sent its way, he argues. Some may find this an extreme position: art historians have in fact been deeply divided over how closely Athenian pots found in Etruria reflect Athenian tastes.

Although Osborne also looks back briefly to earlier images in the black-figure style, red-figure vases that came into fashion in Athens around 520 BC are the starting point of his study. The city was then just about to go through the events that concern Azoulay—the ouster of the tyrants and the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes—but Osborne is not interested in them. He concentrates on vases that depict private, nonpolitical activities, on the assumption that these actions did not vary widely over time. Apart from mythological scenes and portraits of the gods—which Osborne excludes from consideration—the most common subjects of Athenian pots during the period in question were exercise in the gymnasium, soldiering, courting and lovemaking, drinking and carousing in the symposium, and religious sacrifices to the gods. He deals with these one by one in his core chapters, comparing a few select examples to trace how each type of scene was handled over the eight decades he studies.

Osborne’s decision to organize his study by subject, rather than by individual painters, pot shapes, or eras, is another way he distances himself from previous historians of Greek ceramics. In a polemical discussion of earlier work in the field, including that of the revered Sir John Beazley and Sir John Boardman, Osborne notes, “What all these explanations share with one another…is an exclusive concentration on form and style…. The subject represented is treated as just so much noise, to be eliminated so that the work of art can be seen more clearly.” Osborne is certainly interested in style, but equally concerned with choices about what gets represented, how it gets represented, and how these choices change over time.

Osborne notices a trend in the development of each of the five scene types he examines, and he even adds a sixth as a test case: depictions of satyrs, generated entirely from artists’ imaginations. Figures seen in vigorous, often contentious activity in his earliest examples become more sedate and detached in later scenes:

Athletes no longer compete, they are no longer seen to run, jump, throw discus or javelin…. Soldiers no longer fight except in the stylized warfare with Persians or in mythological combats…. Courtship ceases to be physically active. What we see is the athlete relaxing once the athletics is over, on his own or with others, the soldier within the domestic context, taking his helmet to go play his role in the army…individuals deep in thought, concentrating on what is to be done.

Osborne relies on various terms to describe this evolution, sometimes contrasting the two modes as “specific” versus “non-specific,” at other times as “theatrical” versus “absorbed” (the latter term is expanded at one point to “absorbed in their own worlds”). Turning to sculpture, Osborne cites the tyrannicide statues, which, because they represent “a particular action performed by particular men,” he takes as exemplars of the “theatricality” of his archaic red-figure vases, as compared to the composed, contemplative “absorption” of classical statuary.

What interests Osborne about these artistic trends is that they reflect “a transformation in social expectations and values.” Drawing on a 1960 book by Arthur W.H. Adkins, Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values, he describes this transformation as a movement “from more individualist to more corporate” social attitudes, from an ethic of competition to one of participation. The mature Athenian democracy, as described in Pericles’ funeral oration, relied on a vision of civic community rather than rivalry between individuals. Thus its artists increasingly emphasized “bodies that cannot be told apart, performing actions that do not open themselves up to judgments as to whether they are well or badly done.”

Experts will no doubt disagree with one or another of the premises of Osborne’s argument. The fact that much of his evidence comes from Etruscan gravesites, a sampling that some regard as skewed, is particularly worrisome. But Osborne’s gifts as an observer of ancient art are beyond dispute. His discussions of the vase scenes he has chosen to explore are filled with the kind of insight that make one inclined to accept any conclusions to which they might lead. His book offers a radically new approach to the Attic vases, one that might even achieve the two grand goals Osborne sets for it: not only to “rewrite the history of art” but also to “rewrite history.”