The tale of the first democracy in the world is an epic of tyrants, love, lust, bloody vengeance, tragedy and the ascension of two legendary heroes.
In 541 BCE, twice-exiled politician and military leader Pisistratus finally seized control of Athens for good. Being a tyrant didn’t have the same connotations it does today. Pisistratus seized power by force but was still considered to be a relatively beneficent leader; Aristotle describes him in The Athenian Constitution as a fair and forgiving leader, one who supported the poor, a populist who “burdened the people as little as possible with his government, but always cultivated peace and kept them in all quietness.”
When he died in 527 BCE, the two sons of his first wife, Hippias and Hipparchus, assumed control of Athens. For a time a relatively stable rule continued, although the pair had a habit of elevating family members to positions of power.
Hippias was described as “statesmanlike” and “shrewd,” a true political leader, whereas Hipparchus was “youthful in disposition, amorous and fond of literature,” often inviting poets to Athens. According to Aristotle, the latter’s character precipitated “all the evils arose which befell the house.”
The trouble began when Hipparchus became enamoured with a young man named Harmodius, described by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War as “then in the flower of youthful beauty.” Hipparchus tried to seduce Harmodius but was rejected, as the youth was already in a relationship with Aristogiton, a middle-aged citizen of Athens.
Harmodius told his lover of Hipparchus’ desire, and the older man feared that the powerful tyrant might take his beloved by force. Thucydides says that Aristogiton “immediately formed a design, such as his condition in life permitted, for overthrowing the tyranny.”
Hipparchus persisted in pursuing Harmodius, who continued to resist the Athenian ruler’s advances. While Hipparchus was unwilling to resort to violence against his quarry, he still wanted to take action against Harmodius. His scheme involved inviting Harmodius’s young sister to be the basket-bearer of ceremonial offerings in an extremely important parade of the Great Panathenaea — a prestigious games and religious celebration begun by Pisistratus.
When she showed up for the honoured position, Hipparchus claimed he had never invited her at all. Conflicting accounts suggest that he either proclaimed her unworthy or alleged her brother was “a person of loose life.”
Regardless, this was the Athenian equivalent of calling someone a hoebag.
“If Harmodius was indignant at this, Aristogiton for his sake now became more exasperated than ever,” Thucydides writes. “Having arranged everything with those who were to join them in the [coup], they only waited for the great feast of the Panathenaea.” According to Thucydides, this is because the event was taking place on “the sole day upon which the citizens forming part of the procession could meet together in arms without suspicion.”
They would kill not just Hipparchus, but both tyrannical brothers.
On the appointed day, the lovers and leaders of the assassination plot were surveilling Hippias, Hipparchus’ elder brother, who was awaiting a ceremonial procession to the feast at the Acropolis. Harmodius and Aristogiton spot one of their co-conspirators chatting amicably with Hippias and panic, thinking they were being betrayed. They rushed from the Acropolis, found and killed Hipparchus, but their plan ultimately failed. Harmodius was killed on the spot and Aristogiton was arrested and tortured for information.
According to Aristotle, Aristogiton sought to incriminate friends of the tyrants to sow confusion. When he was near death from torture, Aristogiton promised to give more information, insisting on sealing the deal with a handshake from Hippias.
Now indulge me, because I’m going to improvise some dialogue for dramatic effect. As soon as Hippias took his hand, Aristogiton hissed at him, “You’re shaking the hand that murdered your brother.” As the story goes, Hippias flew into a rage, snatched his dagger and killed Aristogiton.
In the aftermath of his brother’s death, Hippias became paranoid and violent. He killed and exiled many Athenians, believing the people planned to rise up against him. There was indeed a revolution in the works, and he was eventually deposed with the help of a Spartan army in 508 BCE.
Eventually Cleisthenes, brother-in-law to Pisistratus, came to power in Athens and reformed the legal landscape so that political tribes were based on area of residence rather than familial connections. Before this, he commissioned the sculptor Antenor to produce of Harmodius and Aristogiton as a way to commemorate the sacrifice of the tyrannicidal lovers.