Questions of Class
- The Mutilation of the Herms: Unpacking an Ancient Mystery by Debra Hamel
CreateSpace, 54 pp, £5.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 4750 5193 3
On a summer morning in late May or early June of 415 BCE, the inhabitants of Athens woke to the discovery that the city’s numerous Herms – images of Hermes consisting of a square-cut stone pillar topped by a bearded head, and displaying an erect phallus, but otherwise aniconic – had been vandalised during the night: their faces had been cut about, and their phalluses may also have been damaged. These good-luck images were very popular: they were to be found all over Athens, mainly at the entrances to sacred sites and private homes, and there was a large number of them in the Agora. As Debra Hamel points out in her useful short listing and analysis of the sources for this notorious episode, they ‘stood guard … marking the boundaries between the sacred and the secular’.[*]
[*] Hamel’s too brief pamphlet could have been even more useful, especially as a teaching tool, had she provided the complete texts, in translation, of all the sources (inscriptions included) for this famous episode, some of which are hard to come by.
Vol. 35 No. 9 · 9 May 2013
Peter Green provides a masterful summary of the events around the defacement of the hermae in late fifth-century BC Athens (LRB, 25 April). But it’s a shame he doesn’t break ranks with those classicists who persist in translating hetaireia as ‘clubs’. There were many types of hetaireia, some primarily designed for mutual protection from legal charges, and others of a more sympotic nature. But from the beginning of the Peloponnesian War it seems that the members of hetaireia were increasingly young and likely to carry out acts of violence. At least, that’s the view of the middle-aged Thucydides. What seems certain, from the evidence Green surveys, is a tendency for these groups to express their identity through acts of sacrilege or aggression. Violence, it seems, was used as a way to prove loyalty to friends of the same age and social status. These young men were about to be sent off to fight, so creating tough little units among their peers would surely be of benefit, while allowing them to cock a snook at a society that was about to send to them to their deaths in Sicily. But it seems odd to me that these groups should be called ‘clubs’. If the hetaireia were composed of poor young men, and not of the sons of old aristocratic families, would they still be called ‘clubs’, or would they be called ‘gangs’?