Harmodius and Aristogeiton

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Harmodius (Greek: Ἁρμόδιος, Harmódios) and Aristogeiton (Ἀριστογείτων, Aristogeíton; both died 514 BC) were two lovers from ancient Athens. They became known as the Tyrannicides (τυραννοκτόνοι, tyrannoktonoi) after they killed the Peisistratid tyrant Hipparchus, and were the preeminent symbol of democracy to ancient Athenians.


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 such as Herodotus and Plutarch. Herodotus[1] claimed that Harmodius and Aristogeiton presumably were “Gephyraeans” (el) i.e. Boeotians of Syrian or Phoenician origin. Plutarch, in his book On the malice of Herodotus criticized 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 BCE. In Archaic Greece, the term tyrant, referred to one who had seized power and ruled outside of a state’s constitutional law, and did not carry the same negative implications it does today. 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.

Following Hipparchus’ rejection by Harmodius, for whom he had unrequited feelings, Hipparchus invited Harmodius’ young sister to be the kanephoros (to carry the ceremonial offering basket) at the Panathenaea festival, and then publicly chased her away on the pretext she was not a virgin, as required. This publicly shamed Harmodius’ family; then he, with his lover Aristogeiton, resolved to assassinate both Hippias and Hipparchus and thus to overthrow the tyranny. The assassination attempt succeeded and Hipparchus was killed in 514/3, but Hippias remained in power. The truly tyrannical (by today’s standards) actions in the remaining years of his reign are typically attributed by contemporary scholars as paranoia and anger over the assassination.

According to Aristotle, however, 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 assassination

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 was the only day on which it was possible for the citizens who formed the parade to assemble armed without arousing suspicion”[verification needed] 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 organizing 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.

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