Loving Assassins

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…

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