THE TYRANT-SLAYERS OF ANCIENT ATHENS: A Tale of Two Statues

Vincent Azoulay (tr. by Janet Lloyd)

OUP (2017) h/b 276pp (42 ill.) £22.99 (ISBN 9780190663568)

Advance praise, including a congratulatory foreword by Paul Cartledge, accompanies this translation of A.’s French original published in 2014. The ‘so-called’ Tyrannicides, two bronze statues that personified the Athenians Harmodius and Aristogiton, have been studied more than any other Greek statues of which the originals are lost. This is, of course, a tale of four statues. 

The late archaic version by Antenor is completely lost—it was set up in the open area of the Athenian agora, soon removed to Susa by the Persians and returned to Athens 150 years later by Alexander. Its early classical replacement by Critius and Nesiotes exists in a small number of copies and on a few painted versions and allusions on 5th C and 4th C century pottery. Study of this later pair has always tended to focus on their art-historical importance. In a densely argued treatment, A. has released them from their art- historical straight-jacket and has considered them in their historical, political and social setting. 

As the centuries progress, the chapters follow the fortunes and misfortunes of the pair. This involves A. and readers in a close study of Greek historians and orators, who interpreted and re-interpreted how significant the killing of Hipparchus (not a tyrant) was in the move from tyranny to democracy, and how the importance and meaning of the statues in the agora was diluted by a crowd-like addition of other statues at their originally isolated location. The marble copying of the bronze figures in the Roman period returns us to the statues themselves and the significance they had so many centuries after the event and the way in which that significance changed. The best preserved copy of the pair is in Naples and was inevitably the one chosen to be reproduced in colour on the dust jacket, though it is well known that more recently discovered marble copies and vase-paintings designed soon after the event show that the action of Harmodius’ right arm (‘the Harmodius’ blow’) is certainly inaccurate (see figs. 3.3 and 3.4). After a chapter on the statues during the Roman period Azoulay is not finished with the story. He moves on to consider modern addenda and concludes with the German and Russian manipulations of the figures in the 20th  century. 

This is an original and fascinating study that shows how the statues of Harmodius and Aristogiton and their story have reverberated down the centuries. 

Brian A. Sparkes    

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