Harmodius and Aristogeiton were two lovers from ancient Athens.
They became known as the Tyrannicides, the preeminent symbol of democracy to ancient Athenians, after they committed an act of political assassination at the 514 BC Panathenaic Festival.
They assassinated Hipparchus, thought to be the last Peisistratid tyrant. They also planned to kill the tyrant of Athens, Hippias, but were unsuccessful.
The two principal historical sources covering Harmodius and Aristogeiton are the History of the Peloponnesian War (VI, 56–59) by Thucydides, and The Constitution of the Athenians (XVIII) attributed to Aristotle or his school.
However, their story is documented by a great many other ancient writers, including important sources such as Herodotus and Plutarch.
Herodotus claimed that Harmodius and Aristogeiton were of Syrian or Phoenician origin. Plutarch, in his book On the malice of Herodotus criticised Herodotus for prejudice and misrepresentation and he argued that Harmodius and Aristogeiton were Euboeans or Eretrians.
Peisistratus had become tyrant of Athens after his third attempt in 546/7 BC.
In Archaic Greece, the term tyrant did not connote malevolence. A tyrant was simply one who had seized power and ruled outside of a state’s constitutional law. When Peisistratus died in 528/7 BC, his son Hippias took the position of Archon and became the new tyrant of Athens, with the help of his brother, Hipparchus, who acted as the minister of culture. The two continued their father’s policies, but their popularity declined after Hipparchus began to abuse the power of his position.
Thucydides offers this explanation for Harmodios and Aristogeiton’s actions in Book VI: Hipparchus was rejected by Harmodius, for whom he had unrequited feelings. Hipparchus invited Harmodius’ young sister to perform a ceremonial role at the Panathenaea festival, then publicly chased her away on the pretext she was not a virgin, as required. This publicly shamed Harmodius’ family.
With his lover Aristogeiton, Harmodius resolved to assassinate both Hippias and Hipparchus and thus to overthrow the tyranny. Harmodios and Aristogeiton successfully killed Hipparchus during the 514 BC Panathenaia, but Hippias survived and remained in power. In the four years between Hipparchus’ assassination and the deposition of the Pisistratids, Hippias became an increasingly oppressive tyrant.
According to Aristotle, it was Thessalos, the hot-headed son of Peisistratus’ Argive concubine, and thus half-brother to Hipparchus, who was the one to court Harmodius and drive off his sister.
The plot – to be carried out by means of daggers hidden in the ceremonial myrtle wreaths on the occasion of the Panathenaic Games – involved a number of other co-conspirators. Thucydides claims that this day was chosen because during the Panathenaic festival, it was customary for the citizens taking part in the procession to go armed, while carrying weapons on any other day would have been suspicious. Aristotle disagrees, asserting that the custom of bearing weapons was introduced later, by the democracy.
Seeing one of the co-conspirators greet Hippias in a friendly manner on the assigned day, the two thought themselves betrayed and rushed into action, ruining the carefully laid plans. They managed to kill Hipparchus, stabbing him to death as he was organising the Panathenaean processions at the foot of the Acropolis. Herodotus expresses surprise at this event, asserting that Hipparchus had received a clear warning concerning his fate in a dream.
Harmodius was killed on the spot by spearmen of Hipparchus’ guards, while Aristogeiton was arrested shortly thereafter. Upon being told of the event, Hippias, feigning calm, ordered the marching Greeks to lay down their ceremonial weapons and to gather at an indicated spot. All those with concealed weapons or under suspicion were arrested, gaining Hippias a respite from the uprising.
Thucydides’ identification of Hippias as the two’s purported main target, rather than Hipparchus who was Aristogeiton’s rival erastes, has been suggested as a possible indication of bias on his part.
Aristotle in the Constitution of Athens preserves a tradition that Aristogeiton died only after being tortured in the hope that he would reveal the names of the other conspirators. During his ordeal, personally overseen by Hippias, he feigned willingness to betray his co-conspirators, claiming only Hippias’ handshake as guarantee of safety. Upon receiving the tyrant’s hand he is reputed to have berated him for shaking the hand of his own brother’s murderer, upon which the tyrant wheeled and struck him down on the spot.
His brother’s murder led Hippias to establish an even stricter dictatorship, which proved very unpopular and was overthrown, with the help of an army from Sparta, in 508. This was followed by the reforms of Cleisthenes, who established a democracy in Athens.
Subsequent history came to identify the figures of Harmodius and Aristogeiton as martyrs to the cause of Athenian freedom, possibly for political and class reasons, and they became known as “the Liberators” and “the Tyrannicides”.
After the establishment of democracy, Cleisthenes commissioned the sculptor Antenor to produce a bronze statue group of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. It was the first commission of its kind, and the very first statue to be paid for out of public funds, as the two were the first Greeks considered by their countrymen worthy of having statues raised to them.
According to Pliny the Elder, the statue was erected in the Kerameikos in 509, as part of a cenotaph of the heroes. However, a far more probable location is in the Agora at Athens, and many later authors such as Pausanius and Timaeus attest to this.
Annual offerings were presented there by the polemarch, the Athenian minister of war. There it stood alone as special laws prohibited the erection of any other statues in their vicinity.
The statue was taken as war booty in 480 BC by Xerxes I during the early Greco-Persian Wars and installed by him at Susa. As soon as the Greeks vanquished the Persians at Salamis, a new statue was commissioned. It was sculpted this time by Kritios and Nesiotes, and set up in 477/476 BC. A copy of that statue was found in the ruins of Hadrian’s villa and is now in Naples.
According to Arrian, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, in 330, he discovered the statue at Susa and had it shipped back to Athens.
Importance to the erastes-eromenos tradition
The story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and its treatment by later Greek writers, is illustrative of attitudes to pederasty in ancient Greece. Both Thucydides and Herodotus describe the two as lovers, their love affair was styled as moderate (sophron) and legitimate (dikaios).
Further confirming the status of the two as paragons of pederastic ethics, a domain forbidden to slaves, a law was passed prohibiting slaves from being named after the two heroes.
The story continued to be cited as an admirable example of heroism and devotion for many years. In 346 BC, for example, the politician Timarchus was prosecuted (for political reasons) on the grounds that he had prostituted himself as a youth. The orator who defended him, Demosthenes, cited Harmodius and Aristogeiton, as well as Achilles and Patroclus, as examples of the beneficial effects of same-sex relationships.