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The Statues’ Story
a miniature drama in four acts

Dramatis Personae

Act 1. Athens, 514 BC.

In 514 Athens is under the control of a tyrant named Hippias. A man named Aristogeton and his lover, a younger man named Harmodius, decide to assassinate Hippias during the Panathletic procession, an event that had been instituted by Hippias’ father Peisistratus, who had preceded him as tyrant.

However, Aristogeton and Harmodius spot Hippias in conversation with a friend of theirs who knows of their plans, and they conclude that they are being been betrayed, so they flee the city.

Act 2. A road Outside Athens.

As they leave Athens, they encounter the tyrant’s brother Hipparchus. Some say that Hipparchus had earlier coerced young Harmodius into having sex and/or had insulted his sister. Historians don’t know quite what happened on the road, but it ends up with Aristogeton and Harmodius killing the annoying Hipparchus.

Shortly thereafter soldiers arrive, and the pair are captured and killed.

Act 3. Athens Four Years Later, 510 BC.

The tyrant Hippias, worried about the security of his position, has became more and more oppressive, and is at last successfully overthrown. (He will be followed eventually by Cleisthenes, who will be acclaimed as the father of Athenian democratic constitutionalism.)

photo by DKJ
Aristogeton and Harmodius
(National Archaeological Museum, Naples)

In the general enthusiasm over Hippias’ overthrow, the dead lovers Aristogeton and Harmodius are suddenly celebrated as early freedom fighters, martyrs of the fight against the hated Hippias. (A person who slays a tyrant is called a “tyrannicide”; so is the act of slaying a tyrant. Slaying Hipparchus had nothing to do with overthrowing the tyrant Hippias, of course, and Aristogeton and Harmodius had been killed by Hippias rather than killing him, but masses are easily confused and everyone likes history to be simplified, especially if a love story can be mixed up in it and even if no exams are involved.)

Immediately the pair became objects of various patriotic works of art, showing them slaying Hipparchus/Hippias (the earliest known illustrations of a documented historical event, as opposed to a mythological or legendary one). Songs are written celebrating them, and so many statues are produced that pretty much everybody can easily recognize a representation of young Harmodius with his right arm raised for a sword-stroke while Aristogeton stands beside him urging him on. (The frenzy of artistic production will continue well into Roman times.)

Act 4. Paris, France, 2500 Years Later.

Vincent Azoulay’s The Tyrant-Slayers of Ancient Athens: A Tale of Two Statues (Oxford University Press, tr. by Janet Lloyd, 2018), traces the artistic representations of Aristogeton and Harmodius as their symbolism moved from symbolizing both (1) erotic love and (2) the glories of liberation to symbolizing both (3) opposition to tyranny and (4) patriotic opposition to Persians in general and Persian invasions in particular. The statues kept multiplying and their interpretations kept mutating throughout Greco-Roman antiquity.

The pair of statues shown here is in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Similar representations were apparently common in the Greco-Roman world, although few survive. The note above is based on a review of Azouly’s book by James Romm (New York Review of Books, August 16, 2018, pp. 21-22.)

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