Questions of Class

Peter Green

  • 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’.[*]

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] 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.