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’.
Though vandalism by drunken revellers, then as now, was by no means unknown, the incident was at once recognised as something different. It was too widespread, too well organised, too deliberately selective, to be explained by random or casual rowdiness, and Athens’s citizens for the most part took it very seriously. There were two common theories as to what it meant. The first saw it as a bad omen affecting the imminent departure of a major expeditionary force to Sicily: since Hermes was the god of travellers, this was a predictable reaction. The second, and to us more surprising, reaction was, in Thucydides’ words, that it also looked ‘as though it had been done as part of a conspiracy for revolution and the overthrow of the democracy’. What connection was there between this kind of religious iconoclasm and the hard-scrabble political life of the Athenian demos?
A brief outline of the slightly complex political situation in Athens at the time: the conservatives were the well-heeled and well-established upper-class aristocrats and landowners. These old political families had never felt entirely happy with the post-Cleisthenic democracy, and regarded Cleisthenes himself as a traitor to his class: not surprisingly, since his extension of the franchise to the populace severely curtailed their hitherto reliable voting majority in the Assembly. They might adapt to the new system, and even gain some power in it, but their social and intellectual contempt for the common man remained fundamental to their sense of the city’s political structure. They went along with the Cleisthenic deal primarily because of the huge crisis presented by the Persian Wars, when willing manpower to crew the new triremes was crucial; but once the special conditions of the crisis were over, they found they lacked the votes to win an election under the new Periclean regime. They did profit considerably from the naval empire that was Pericles’ brainchild. But their true political ambitions – essentially oligarchic and authoritarian, based on class and tradition – were, for several decades, very much on hold, and restricted (as so often in such cases) to purely social privileges: the gymnasium, formalised pederasty, the symposion.
What changed the scene fundamentally was the first decade of war against Sparta (431-420), and in particular Pericles’ flawed (and to many upper-class Athenians repugnant) wartime policies, above all his belief that an Athenian citizen army couldn’t match Sparta’s trained hoplites in the field. As a result, while a Spartan army raided Attica unopposed, destroying these landowners’ farms, country houses, crops and vines, Attica’s rural population, crammed inside the Long Walls in highly unsanitary conditions, was dying of the plague, which in 429, being no respecter of persons, killed Pericles too.
Pericles’ death saw an instant change of policy. The inheritors of his radical tradition, men like Cleon, Hyperbolus and Androcles, were un-Periclean in two fundamental ways. They were neither upper-class nor landowners, but entrepreneurs and businessmen, with no respect for such aristocratic articles of faith as a firm belief that the only permissible occupation for a gentleman was working his own estate. Nor were they politically cautious when it came to risky foreign policy: the Sicilian expedition was in fact their long-fostered brainchild. Few propositions could have sat less well with the old guard, for whom rash and dangerous ventures abroad were anathema. They (as Aristophanes’ comedies make all too clear) regarded men like Cleon as vulgar lower-class tradesmen.
The misfortunes of war and the consequent diminution of Periclean-style prestige, had, after Pericles’ death, not only helped men like Cleon, but also much improved the chances for the political resurgence of what Athens’ conservatives regarded as the Right People. What were thought of as the socially dubious antecedents of the new-style radicals, their money made in trade and commerce, played straight into the conservatives’ hands, and brought them plenty of supporters, since they were far from being the only Athenian citizens with a vigorous anti-plebeian bias (Aristophanes again: Euripides’ mother selling vegetables in the market was always good for a laugh). It’s against this political and social background that we need to consider the two religious scandals of 415.
One factor immediately apparent concerns the leadership of the post-Periclean radical group. The young and flamboyant Alcibiades, opportunistic as always, and confident that his aristocratic background would be no impediment, had been trying hard to take control of the group’s activities. There’s ample evidence for his determination to spearhead the movement advocating the invasion, and conquest, of Sicily. Since there’s also good evidence for the project having originated with the new radicals, Androcles’ well-documented hostility to Alcibiades is more than understandable: the prospect of having his thunder stolen at the last minute by this plausible and well-connected charmer must have infuriated him; and his anger will only have been compounded by an embarrassing event the previous year. In their effort to get rid of Alcibiades, the radicals, led by Hyperbolus, attempted to have either him or Nicias, the ultra-conservative leading opponent of the Sicilian expedition, ostracised. In the event, Alcibiades colluded with Nicias, their supporters combined, and when the votes were counted, the ostracism’s unexpected victim was neither Alcibiades nor Nicias, but Hyperbolus himself, who was thus not only foiled but exiled for ten years, and made a public laughing stock in the bargain.
Back now to the events of that June night. The identity of the perpetrators was unknown. A commission of inquiry was set up to solicit public information, and was authorised to pay large rewards (at first one, then ten thousand drachmas) out of public funds to anyone, whether citizen, resident alien or slave, who named individuals responsible. The witnesses were to be granted immunity from prosecution, should they need to incriminate themselves as well as others, with the caveat that anyone found to have brought a false accusation would be executed. Some wondered whether the job might have been done by Corinthians, since Syracuse (the main target of the prospective attack) was a Corinthian colony, but this line of inquiry went nowhere. Others believed that their bête noire, Alcibiades, must somehow be at the bottom of the scandal (he almost certainly was not), and this may have been why the search was soon extended to cover information about any sacrilegious act, not just Herm abuse.
The first public denunciations soon followed. They had, significantly, nothing to do with the attack on the Herms. Androcles, the radical dêmagôgos, determined to use this handy scandal to nail Alcibiades, produced various resident aliens and slaves who accused him and his friends of damaging ‘other statues’, but not the Herms. They also introduced a new charge, that of mimicking the ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries at a drunken party, in the presence of slaves. This accusation, far more dangerous to Alcibiades, was repeated at an Assembly meeting held in the Piraeus docks to hear final reports from the three generals – including Alcibiades himself – in charge of the upcoming Sicilian expedition. In both cases, though details varied, Alcibiades was reported as having played a leading role in the performance, while others present posed as minor celebrants or initiates. Thus, early on, two quite distinct issues, those of Herm abuse and the profanation of the Mysteries, became thoroughly confused in most people’s minds.
There’s good reason to suppose that this confusion was deliberately brought about, with the aim of discrediting Alcibiades. ‘Taking up the charges,’ Thucydides says, ‘were those who especially resented Alcibiades for standing in the way of their assured ascendancy over the people, and in the belief that by removing him they would rise to the top.’ (Though he does not name them, Thucydides is referring here to Androcles and his fellow populists.) They therefore ‘raised the cry that both the Mysteries and the mutilation of the Herms were connected with the overthrow of the democracy, and that none of this had been done without [Alcibiades’] complicity, adducing as evidence the undemocratic licentiousness of his conduct in general’. The public was duly aroused against Alcibiades, and Androcles inflamed them still further. Seeing what he was up against, Alcibiades demanded an immediate trial: sending him out as a major commander with a capital charge still hanging over him made no sense. But his enemies ‘urged that he sail now and not delay the departure … wanting him to go on trial when recalled under heavier incrimination, which they expected to bring about more easily in his absence’. They prevailed: the fleet left for Sicily, and Alcibiades with it.
Hysteria and panic were in the air, and further denunciations followed. The first informer to surface after the fleet’s departure was a resident alien named Teucer, who had prudently left Athens and was hiding out in Megara. When the commission granted him immunity, he came back and gave a total of 29 names – not only in the matter of the Mysteries (where he himself had been a participant), but also in that of the Herms. The first list included a member of the commission hearing his testimony. Neither list, however, named Alcibiades. As with the citizens earlier denounced, most of those named by Teucer at once, and wisely, left Athens and survived: those who remained were arrested and executed without trial.
At this point, despite the arrests, two members of the commission announced that the events under investigation ‘were not the work of a few individuals, but aimed at the overthrow of the demos’, and that inquiries should therefore not be abandoned. The absence of Alcibiades’ name in Teucer’s denunciations may well have dictated their insistence. The degree of public alarm – and the beginning of a witch hunt – can be judged by the fact that when the flag was lowered to indicate a Council meeting, everyone instantly vanished from the Agora, out of a general (and by no means unjustified) fear of arbitrary arrest.
It was now that the most thoroughgoing informer of the lot appeared on the scene. His name was Diocleides, and he claimed to have been out and about on the night the Herms were mutilated. Passing by the Theatre of Dionysus, he had observed (he said) some three hundred individuals standing about in small groups, many of whom he had recognised by the light of the moon; the next day, when news of the scandal broke, he realised (he said) that these people must have been the conspirators who carried out the act of vandalism. After an unsuccessful attempt to blackmail one of them into paying for his silence (a fact he had no qualms about reporting) he came before the commission and identified no fewer than 42 of them. They were all wealthy, well-connected property-owners, including two members of the current Council. Notable among them were Leogoras, an aristocrat from an old and distinguished family; his playboy son Andocides; and Critias, Plato’s uncle and a notorious oligarch, who after the fall of Athens became one of the Thirty Tyrants who took over the government.
Diocleides’ revelations caused a sensation, not least because his widespread charges so exactly matched the average Athenian’s fears of a large, dangerous, well-planned oligarchic coup. In this heated atmosphere, the law forbidding the examination of citizens under torture was suspended by acclamation. Those Diocleides had named were rounded up and thrown in jail. When news came of suspicious Spartan and Boeotian troop movements, Athens’s citizens stood to arms overnight, while Diocleides was publicly feasted as his country’s saviour.
But during the night – all this may have taken longer: the chronology is uncertain – Andocides, who was believed, with good reason, to have been privy in some way to the attack on the Herms, was approached by a fellow prisoner, his cousin Charmides (yes, that one: it’s interesting how often members of the Socratic circle turn up in the lists of names), speaking on behalf of a dozen more members of the family jailed in the round-up. Charmides urged him, if he knew the truth, to tell it. ‘The men with whom you were on intimate terms, and quite different from us, your relatives, have either been executed, or admitted their guilt by fleeing the country, for the capital crime with which we are now being charged.’ These non-relatives, we learn here for the first time, are the members of a conservative, upper-class social club (hetaireia); and what Andocides had to decide was which comes first: loyalty to family or loyalty to associates; not least since, as he proceeds to claim, though of course exempting himself from actual participation in the deed, it was the members of this club who were (he said) responsible for the mutilation of the Herms.
Whether the individuals from his extended family whom Andocides was asked to exculpate were in fact innocent is impossible to determine; but he certainly knew enough to cast doubt on the scattershot claims made by Diocleides, who had nevertheless cleverly targeted the social group best guaranteed to arouse instant suspicion in the minds of the general populace. What Andocides did was to confirm the limited list of participants supplied by Teucer, and add four names of his own. The commission found his account persuasive, and summoned Diocleides for re-examination. He broke down almost immediately (among other things, he’d claimed to recognise faces by moonlight on a moonless night), and confessed to having manufactured his whole story with the assistance of Alcibiades’ cousin, which probably means it was intended to divert attention from Alcibiades himself. Andocides’ testimony carried the day. Those he accused were condemned to death, and their property confiscated and sold (we have fragments of the inscription recording this). His relatives, and any others whom Diocleides had denounced, were released. Diocleides himself was executed for giving false testimony. Though Andocides remained discreetly vague about the actual purpose of the mutilation – perhaps a quasi-political pledge, a pistis, to bind members together? – the case of the Herms was now, officially at least, closed.
The affair of the Mysteries, however, had not yet quite run its course. Two further reports of cases involving illegal, if not parodic celebrations of the Mysteries (making five in all), now surfaced, and both named Alcibiades as a leading participant. Thessalus, son of the great conservative statesman Cimon, lodged a formal charge against him, which Plutarch cites verbatim. Summoned back from Sicily to stand trial, Alcibiades jumped ship en route; his case went by default, his property was seized and auctioned off, he was formally cursed by the priesthood, and condemned to death in absentia. ‘I’ll show them I’m still alive,’ he remarked on hearing the news, and he did. He made his way to the Peloponnese, where the shrewd advice he gave the Spartans was a signal contribution to Athens’s ultimate defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
Such was the notorious episode of the Herms and Mysteries. At the time the vexed question was whether those actually responsible for the mutilation had been caught. (Some of them, probably, yes.) But for the modern historian, what is crucial – and, in the end, revealing – is to place the affair in its long-term historical context. It is very far from being an isolated episode. It looks forward to the oligarchic coup of 411, to the rule of the Thirty Tyrants after Athens’s defeat by Sparta in 404, to the trial of Socrates in 399; but it also, as we have seen, looks back, to Cleisthenes’ expansion of citizenship at the close of the sixth century, which not only helped win the Persian Wars, but also, by changing the demographics of Athens for a century, facilitated the long, quasi-dictatorial rule of Pericles, and relegated the old blue-blooded political families largely to a social role, or, at the best, while Pericles lived, to that of a more or less permanent minority political opposition. But the decade following his death saw the transfer of his radical power to a group of dangerously ambitious commercial dêmagôgoi, opposed by this resurgent group of old-style landowners, at once authoritarians at home and isolationists abroad. We are now in a better position to understand just why, in 415, the Athenian populace was so scared of the possibility of an oligarchical coup.
The determination, by more or less everyone involved, conservatives and radicals alike, to get Alcibiades on any possible charge can be seen as the main, and possibly the only, reason for extending the investigation of Herm abuse into an area where there was a good chance of getting him condemned. That he had nothing to do with the mutilation, and indeed may well have had an unbreakable alibi for the night in question, should be a no-brainer. If the purpose of the vandalism was to create an omen bad enough to stop the fleet sailing (a significant miscalculation, and perhaps a pointer to those actually responsible), then Alcibiades, who had everything to gain, in his own mind, by the expedition going forward, would have been the last person to prejudice its departure by so calculated a gesture. On the other hand, he was quite certainly guilty – as were quite a few other well-connected Athenians – of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries by carrying out private, and possibly parodic, performances of their secret ritual, and it seems clear that it was this fact that induced the radicals to publicise what was a well-known private practice, but in the strict sense had nothing to do with Herm abuse (except that both were religious offences), and simply served as a convenient pretext to ruin Alcibiades, both legally and in the minds of the demos.
Who then, in the last resort, is most likely to have been responsible for the defacing (and dephallusing) of Athens’s Herms, and why? How far can the episode be interpreted, as many thought at the time, as evidence for an oligarchic plot to overthrow the democracy? That there were oligarchs with that aim in mind the events of the next few years make clear enough; but that such men would signal their intentions so brazenly defies common sense. Men plotting a coup need secrecy, not publicity, and when the time came, they got it. However, the term ‘oligarch’ covered a wide spectrum of adherents, and (as our evidence, including that for the members of Andocides’ hetaireia, shows) most were well-off, well-connected landowning moderates: precisely the kind of isolationists who would regard the radical scheme for the conquest of Sicily with horror.
It was such people – conservative, pious, traditionalist – who might well not only seek to produce a really bad omen for the sailing of the fleet (their seers were already busy prophesying disaster), but fatally exaggerate in their minds the effect such an omen was likely to have. Unfortunately for them, the dream of El Dorado had taken firm hold, not least on the debt-ridden Alcibiades: he and his fellow enthusiasts for the doomed Sicilian venture simply countered this move by cynically buying up other, more venial, oracle-mongers to foretell glorious success. That Andocides’ hetaireia was involved, perhaps with others, in an understandable but psychologically hopeless attempt to abort the Sicilian expedition seems very probable. In the event it would, of course, have been better for Athens had they succeeded, since it was, ironically enough, the disastrous failure of the expedition that was to give the oligarchs their opening, and start the city on the downward slope that led, inevitably, to the triumph of Sparta and the final demise, in any truly effective sense, of Athens’s imperial democracy: the Periclean era’s oddest, most paradoxical, and most richly creative achievement.