The Tyrannicides: a love story

Words: Ellen Knight

In 514 BC, lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton murdered Hipparchus, the tyrant of Athens. The two men became known as the Tyrannicides (tyrant-slayers), and for centuries were the unexpected icons of Athenian democracy, which was the foundation of democracy as we know it today. They were the first Athenians to ever have a public grave. 

Despite this – and despite our culture’s fascination with the Classics – you might have never heard of them. 

The tyrant Peisistratos had died about 13 years before, and his sons Hippias and Hipparchus ruled in his stead. (The word ‘tyrant’ in the 6th century BCE didn’t carry the corrupt, violent connotations it does now. ‘Tyrant’, from the Greek tyrannos, just meant a monarch or ruler.) Hippias and Hipparchus were mostly popular, but their support declined as Hipparchus started to abuse his position.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton were from the same clan, the Gephyraei, which had been expelled from the neighbouring state of Boeotia and taken in by Athens. Clans in ancient Greece were groups, or tribes, usually classified by geographical locations. The Gephyraei hailed from Tanagra, an area north of Athens, and are said to have originated from Phoenicia (modern Lebanon). As foreign refugees, they weren’t considered equal with Athenians, who saw themselves as autochthonous – ‘born of the earth’ – and the natural inheritors of Greece.

Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general writing in the late 5th century BC, tells us that Harmodius, ‘in the flower of youthful beauty’, caught the eye of Hipparchus, who made advances. Harmodius told Aristogeiton, who feared that the powerful Hipparchus would assault him. 

Others say Aristogeiton was jealous, or that he feared Hipparchus would punish Harmodius for his rejection. Whatever the catalyst, Aristogeiton hatched a plan with other, unnamed conspirators – probably family members, also from the Gephyraei clan – who were also displeased enough with the tyrants to take direct action.

Aristogeiton’s fears weren’t misplaced: Hipparchus took out his anger on Harmodius’ family. In Athenian tradition, virginal young women would take part in the Panathenaic Games – a combination of religious ceremony, cultural festival and athletic competition – as ceremonial basket-weavers. Hipparchus rejected Harmodius’ sister for the role, humiliating her by implying that she wasn’t a virgin. Harmodius, as a brother, was expected to retaliate.

According to Thucydides, the Panathenaic Games was one of the only times Athenians could carry weapons in public. Harmodius, Aristogeiton and their co-conspirators went to their games with their weapons concealed in wreaths of myrtle, the sacred plant of Aphrodite, goddess of love. 

What followed was a tragedy of miscommunication. Harmodius and Aristogeiton saw one of their co-conspirators greeting Hipparchus and jumped to the conclusion that they had been betrayed. They rushed into action, abandoning their careful plans.

Hipparchus was stabbed to death near the temple of the daughters of Leos. The moment is described movingly by Thucydides: Harmodius and Aristogeiton ‘recklessly fell upon [Hipparchus] at once; infuriated, Aristogeiton by love, and Harmodius by insult.’

Harmodius was executed on the spot.

Aristogeiton was taken into custody and tortured. The Athenaion Politeia (Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution) describes how he remained defiant: he offered to give information about co-conspirators, convincing Hippias to clasp his right hand as a pledge of good faith – and then taunted him for having given his hand to his brother’s murderer. Hippias was enraged, and killed him.

This account fuelled the growing cult of the Tyrannicides, characterising Aristogeiton as an insolent rebel who knew his fate, and met it gladly.

Having achieved martyrdom, Harmodius and Aristogeiton are said to have inspired the return of another clan, the Alcmaeonidae, who had been exiled from Athens in 546 BCE. The clan began planning an invasion to remove Hippias, whose previously benevolent rule had been transformed by his brother’s death into a tyranny as vicious as the modern word suggests.

Four years later, Cleomenes I of Sparta and Cleisthenes of the Alcmaeonidae successfully invaded Athens, and Hippias fled to Persia. Athenian democracy was restored: Harmodius and Aristogeiton became the heroes of the anti-tyrannists. 

Thucydides’ account suggests that their motive was emotional, rather than political, but the historical perception of the pair is one of freedom fighters. With the Athenian celebration of their act, the concept of tyrant-slaying grew in the public consciousness. The word ‘tyrant’ became a more pejorative term, applied to malevolent leaders hungry for power. Sic semper tyrannis, said the Romans – ‘thus always to tyrants’, a phrase supposedly uttered at the assassination of Julius Caesar. Harmodius and Aristogeiton’s love was lost, leaving only the political glory and the violence that later political assassins have tried to emulate. 

Democracy is the holy grail of contemporary Western politics. We pride ourselves on its (supposed) presence, and invade in its (supposed) defence. It’s remarkable, then, that the original heroes of the democracy supposedly so beloved by the elites currently in control of our political system were – in simplistic, modern terms – queer refugees, committing a crime.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton had an immense impact on Athenian identity. With their bronze statues watching over the agora, the lovers became a potent symbol of the struggle for a politics for all. But don’t forget that this is a love story, too – romantic love, familial love, love of your people. Aeschines, a 4th-century BCE statesman and orator, honoured Harmodius and Aristogeiton with powerful words that do justice to their story: Harmodius and Aristogeiton, he says, are an example of dikaios erōs – ‘just love’.

learn more

  • ARTICLE: ‘The Cult of Harmodius and Aristogeiton’ – Charles Fornara (Philologus vol. 114)
  • BOOK: The Classical World – Robin Lane Fox
  • PODCAST: In Our Time – BBC (episodes: Thucydides, Democracy, Aristotle’s Politics, Heroism, Tragedy, and Greek and Roman Love Poetry)

Ellen Knight is an Ancient and Medieval History student at the University of Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter.