Hippias and Hipparchus were sons of Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens who ruled from 546 BCE until his death in 527 BCE. Upon the tyrant’s death, power in Athens passed to his sons, of whom the eldest son, Hippias, took the lead political role. While his older brother ran the city-state, Hipparchus seemed to devote much of his time to pursuing pleasure. One such pursuit of desire, however, would become fatal for all parties involved in the drama.
As told by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VI), Hipparchus lusted after a beautiful person named Harmodius. Although he laid on as much charm and seductiveness as he could muster, Hipparchus completely failed in realizing his sensual ambitions. As it happened, Harmodius already had a lover named Aristogeiton, and when Aristogeiton learned of Hipparchus’ advances, he was enraged. He also reportedly feared that Hipparchus might use his power and influence as a member of the Peisistratid family to force Harmodius into an unwanted relationship.
Indeed, Hipparchus’ lust had apparently evolved into emotions of anger after being faced with rejection. Yet, instead of unleashing his anger on Harmodius, Hipparchus instead publicly disgraced Harmodius’ sister in the midst of a parade or procession for all the population of Athens to see. This public act of cruelty was too much for Harmodius and Aristogeiton to bear, so they began planning the murder of Hipparchus.
Sometime during their macabre plotting, Harmodius and Aristogeiton broadened their horizon and, instead of just murdering Hipparchus, they decided to topple the whole tyrannical regime of the Peisistratids. In order to carry out the conspiracy, the lovers recruited other passionate Athenians to their cause. Yet, they kept the overall number of conspirators relatively small for the sake of lowering the chance of their plot being discovered.
The conspirators finally struck during the feast of the Panathenaea (or the Panathenaic festival) of 514 BCE. Yet, despite all their planning, the conspiracy quickly fell apart. Riled up by emotion, Harmodius and Aristogeiton raced off to find Hipparchus before the rest of the conspirators could get into position and surround the elder (and more powerful) Peisistratid brother, Hippias. The lovers cornered Hipparchus near the Leocorium and, without a thought for their compatriots, they stabbed their target to death with daggers. As soon as the commotion occurred, the Peisistratid private army of guards and mercenaries sprung into action. Harmodius was slain on the spot and Aristogeiton was captured.
As the conspirators did not strike in unison or with coordination, Hippias and his guards were forewarned of possible danger. Appraising the heightened security measures of the Peisistratid guards, the rest of the conspirators did not attempt to assassinate Hippias. The conspirators had also hoped that the Athenian masses would rise up against the tyrants when news of the attack spread. Yet, the Peisistratids, although they had gained power by force, had hitherto ruled Athens with a fairly light touch. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the assassination of Hipparchus did little to sway the masses to their cause. In fact, the man most inspired by the assassination of Hipparchus was Hippias, who, in response to his brother’s murder, hunted down the conspirators and began a wave of persecutions. For his part in the attack, the captured Aristogeiton was executed through tortuous and painful means. As for Hippias, he continued to rule as tyrant of Athens for four more years until he was forced to flee in 510 BCE by a military intervention from Sparta.
Despite the failure of Harmodius and Aristogeiton bring down the Peisistratid regime, their act of murdering Hipparchus was later celebrated as an act of liberty in Athens. Some even wrongfully credited the lovers as being responsible for Hippias’ departure from Athens, a falsehood that annoyed Thucydides. Therefore, setting the story straight was one of the reasons why Thucydides wrote down the tale in his history. Before launching into the story, Thucydides prefaced his account of the love triangle with a cautionary statement that read, “the Athenians themselves are no better than other people at producing accurate information about their own dictators and the facts of their own history” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VI, section 54).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Exhibit of a stamnos depicting the assassination of Hipparchus, housed in the Martin von Wagner Museum – Würzburg, Germany. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).