This was certainly one of the most famous sacrilege actions in Classical Athens: an event that remains obscure despite the contemporary literary accounts that survive.
The ancient Greek Herm is a representation of the God Hermes in which the body and arms are given only an angular shape, formed by a square cut-stone pillar, while the most vital parts (i.e., the head and the genitals) are rendered naturalistically. This undoubtedly unusual form of God was very famous around Greece and suited particularly to Hermes’ character as protector of travelers and guardian of routes and entrances.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Athens was packed with Herms. The most well-known of them were placed near the principal entrance to the Agora, namely, before entering the city’s main square, its commercial and civic center. This cluster of Herms became eventually so popular that the entire area was named after them. Hence, “the Herms” were used as a point of reference in several well-known cases; for the rallies of the cavalry, for the location of shops, and for setting the limits of Socrates’ meeting place.
Since the early 430s BCE, Athens was in the midst of a fatal war against Sparta (i.e., the Peloponnesian War). It was around 415 BCE that the Athenian Assembly, after Alcibiades’ urgings, had decided to invade Sicily: an expedition far from the Greek lands that would prove disastrous for the outcoming of the war and the future of democratic Athens. It was at that time and before this major naval expedition set sail that “the Herms”, symbols of Hermes who protected the travelers, were mutilated in a single night. Rumors went around the city. Was it a bad omen for the upcoming mission? Was it an act of impiety against the Gods and of disrespect to the Athenian customs and institutions? Was it an accidental event or perhaps just an act of drunken vandalism, as it turned out later?
The people of Athens feared a conspiracy against democracy. Over the next few months, accusations led to executions, exile, torture and imprisonment affecting several people, some of whom were close to the philosopher Socrates. Among them was Alcibiades, one of the most divisive personalities of Classical Athens and a significant influencer of Greek politics.
Born in 450 BCE from one of the most famous aristocratic families of Athens, Alcibiades was the nephew of the great Athenian statesman Pericles, and as a young man was a pupil and close friend of Socrates. Rich and extremely charming, he was also infamous for his glamorous lifestyle, his voracious sexual appetite, and his loose morality – certainly a man who arose strong emotions in his fellow citizens. He rose to the rank of General at an early age and soon thereafter, he unraveled his competence and imperialist ambitions. When the incident of the “mutilated Herms” occurred in Athens, Alcibiades was accused, as he was already known for committing other sacrilegious actions. He asked to be allowed to stand a trial immediately to clean his name but his request was denied. It was only after the war in Sicily (Alcibiades was the main instigator of this mission which ended in a complete and humiliating defeat) that the city’s civil officials demanded that he return to Athens to stand trial. Alcibiades was very suspicious of their intentions believing that his absence had encouraged his political enemies. As the ancient authors' record, “the Athenians were always in fear and took everything suspiciously”. Thus, the charges against him could be connected to a plot against democracy. Alcibiades was found guilty of impiety and the penalty automatically imposed was death. However, he managed to escape that fate by flight to Sparta, Athens’ bitterest rival.
Although Alcibiades was later forgiven, his collaboration with the Spartans and the Persians as a military adviser, and his involvement in 411 BCE to an aristocratic coup d’état in Athens, made him the most controversial political figure of his time: an astute observer, great thinker and orator, certainly thirsty of power and wealth, perhaps gambler and mere opportunist. A man who had exchanged sides a few good times influencing both his foes and allies.
While Alcibiades had been already murdered somewhere in Phrygia of Asia Minor (the real conditions of his death are still vague), Athens was experiencing the darkest hours of its entire history. The lost war against Sparta gave room for oligarchic upheavals that led to the rise of a junta in 404 BCE. This was a kind of collective tyranny that acted as Sparta’s puppet government in Athens, also known as the “Thirty Tyrants”. The time of “terror” for Athens lasted approximately a year and democracy was restored soon.
The Thirty were killed and for all the citizens there was to be an official amnesty of their past anti-democratic activities. The Athenians wanted to leave all these horrible stories behind and restore their fragile democratic regime. Thus, they did, successfully indeed, but not without victims.
Socrates’ crisis was to come soon thereafter. Although he had not supported the Thirty Tyrants, he had not sided with the democratic resistance, either. In other words, he was probably one of those to profit from the amnesty. However, in 399 BCE Socrates was put on trial, as he was accused, first, of not recognizing and worshipping the gods of the city and of introducing new deities and, secondly, of corrupting the youth of Athens. Regarding the second charge, there is little doubt that the prosecutors had in mind two Athenian youths who Socrates had been closely connected with and had mentored: Critias (friend of Alcibiades and among the Thirty) and Alcibiades himself. Although this was officially a trial on religious affairs, many believe that Socrates was accused (and eventually condemned to death) because of his political ideas and his very connection with the traitors of democracy.
Today, the small museum of the Ancient Agora exhibits some excavated Herm heads found at the spot where once the main entrance was. Several of them are dated to the 5th century BCE and they show signs of damage and repair raising questions about their potential link to the famous scandal. Few meters away, a marble stele is topped with a beautiful relief depicting Democracy (the female figure on the right) crowning the seated Demos (who personifies the People of Athens). The inscription written below is the Athenian decree of 337 BCE against Tyranny, namely a law forbidding any cooperation with those plotting an anti-democratic coup.
Although there is almost a century that separates herms and law, today they are standing next to each other as reminders of the most tragic eras of the Athenian democracy. In 338 BCE the forces of Philip II of Macedon and his son and successor Alexander had defeated the Athenians (battle of Chaeronea) who were now extremely concerned about the future of their democracy. Thus, they did their best to avoid repeating their past mistakes, although this time to no avail.
Nota Karamaouna (Archaeologist and Tour Guide).