Scholia Reviews 2 (1993): 3

Michael W. Taylor, The Tyrant Slayers: The Heroic Image in Fifth Century BC Athenian Art and Politics. Salem: Ayer,1991. Pp. xxi + 115, incl. 37 plates. ISBN 0-88143-113-3.US$34.50.

E. A. Mackay
University of Natal, Durban

Taylor sets out to analyse the significance of the Tyrannicides’ statues set up in the Athenian Agora, and their subsequent influence on art and literature throughout the fifth century. Chapter 1, ‘Athenian Laws and Customs Regarding the Tyrannicides’, factually establishes the fame of Harmodios and Aristogeiton and the public honours paid to them and their descendants. Chapter 2, ‘The Statue Groups of the Tyrannicides’, looks briefly at the evidence for the the first ‘Antenor’ group stolen by Xerxes, and for the replacement by Kritios and Nesiotes. It is anomalous that neither here, where arguably most relevant, nor in the later chapters tracing visual influence, where most needed, does this monograph offer a single illustration showing the statues’ appearance.[[1]] Nevertheless, Taylor does show that the statues were a ‘tangible symbol of Athenian liberty … an heroic image which was ever present and ready for emulation.’ (p. 19) This is an important premise for what is essentially his main thesis in the fourth chapter, that the representations of Theseus on vases between about 470 and 450 BC were deliberately composed after the pattern of Harmodios or Aristogeiton.

First, however, Taylor offers in Chapter 3, ‘The Tyrannicide Scolia and Epigram’, discussion of the elevation of Harmodios and Aristogeiton to a heroic, even Homeric, level by the associations of the words and images used in the skolia. Most times when Taylor quotes texts in the original he provides an English translation, but in a few instances he fails to do so,[[2]] and where the text is the subject of discussion, this could be a drawback for the ‘general reader’ anticipated in the 1991 introduction.[[3]]

Chapter 4, ‘The Tyrannicides and the Labors of Theseus in Vase-Painting’, is by far the weightiest section, offering analysis of over fifty vases to show how the manner of representing Theseus established in the Late Archaic and Early Classical periods is reformulated in the 460s and 450s, as vase painters assimilated him variously with Aristogeiton or Harmodios in their famous Kritios and Nesiotes poses. The case is tightly argued, and as references to vases abound, Taylor would have been well advised to have adopted the numbered catalogue system commonly used by those discussing numerous ceramic or epigraphic examples. The assertion that the representation of a mythological character was influenced by the images of historical figures is striking, and casts new light on the ancient habit of drawing visual and conceptual analogies between historical and mythological events. Taylor’s argument for deliberate assimilation is convincing and well supported by his thirty-seven plates (of varying quality and clarity); his cautious comments on the political connotations of the pose as the century progressed are less conclusive, but are further explored in the last chapter.

Chapter 5, ‘The Tyrannicide Motif in Monumental Painting and Sculpture’, somewhat hypothetical in places owing to the nature of some of the evidence, nevertheless succeeds in tracing a line of development in the major arts which complements the ceramic evidence. Taylor notes that the activepose of Harmodios gradually began to eclipse the defensive one of Aristogeiton. This is a distinction which recurs to more purpose in Chapter 6; at this stage Taylor merely raises the possibility of a conservative ‘message’ encoded in the placing of Theseus in the pose of Aristogeiton in the frieze directly over the east door of the Hephaisteion.

Chapter 6, ‘The Reaction Against the Tyrannicides’, evaluates the significance of literary references to the Tyrannicides. Further developing the programmatic interpretation introduced in the previous two chapters, Taylor puts forward a theory that Athenian attitudes to the Tyrannicides hinged on the response to the TO/LMA (‘dash and bravado’) that they were perceived as exemplifying in their deed. For instance in Thucydides’ and Aristophanes’ references to Harmodios and Aristogeiton both writers, Taylor suggests, were criticising A)LO/GISTOJ TO/LMA on the part of contemporaries like Cleon, and urging Athens toward a more cautious, defensive position.

At the end of the book (pp. 98-109) are lists of ancient sources — literary, epigraphic, numismatic, ceramic and other — which should prove of value to anyone embarking on research on the Tyrannicides.

There are certain flaws in the book: it was based on a PhD presented in 1975, and this has left traces in an occasional doggedness in the pursuit of every conceivable aspect of a point.[[4]] As the author acknowledges in his ‘Introduction to the First Edition’ and ‘Note Regarding the Second Edition’, the bibliographical references unfortunately do not take cognizance of scholarly advances in the interim.[[5]] The physical presentation of the book is marred in places by erratic spacing.[[6]] There are some textual inconsistencies: p.39, the Fogg neck-amphora 1960.312 is erroneously said to be ‘painted in the manner of Antimenes’ (sic), while the caption to its photograph in Plate 1 reads ‘Group E near Exekias’: the attribution is properly Near Exekias, by no means synonymous with Group E.[[7]] There are transliteration inconsistencies in the text and photograph captions: Kachrylion/Cachrylion (p.38 and subsequently/captions top ll.2-5); Stoa Poikile/Poicile (p.71/p.97); and this reader prefers skolion to scolion. Few real misprints stand out: an exception is p. 20 n. 8 (Hommole for Homolle). Illustrative omissions must be noted: in addition to the above-mentioned need for illustration of the Tyrannicide group, a plan of the relevant part of the Agora would have made the discussion of the probable position of the group (p. 16f.) easier to follow.

On the whole, The Tyrant Slayers is a stimulating book which, as Gregory Nagy writes in his Foreword to the 1991 edition, demonstrates the idea that ‘Harmodios and Aristogeiton achieve immortalization by unwittingly becoming the founding cult-heroes of Athenian Democracy’ (p. x). It brings together evidence from archaeology, literature, epigraphy and history in a thought-provoking blend of fact and hypothesis, which should have some impact on scholarly work in the separate disciplines.


[[1]] Either in the form of the Naples versions (Naples, Mus.Naz.inv.6009/6010), or less controversially, of vase-painting representations such as the panathenaic amphora London B 605 (J. D. Beazley, Attic Black-figure Vase-painters(Oxford 1956) [hereafter ABV] 411,4 — wrongly listed by Taylorp.109 as ABV 411,1), where Athene’s shield has the pair as ablazon.

[[2]] For instance in the case of the epigram of Simonides on p. 32.

[[3]] ‘Introduction for the General Reader’ pp. xii-xvi, giving the historical background to the act of tyrannicide.

[[4]] For instance the discussion of the nature of a skolion, p. 27ff.

[[5]] Notable omissions would be P Suter, Das Harmodiosmotiv (Basel 1975), and B. Fehr, Die Tyrannentöter, oder kann man der Demokratie ein Denkmal setzen? (Frankfurt 1984).

[[6]] Of letters (especially in the Greek text) and words, and even of lines (in the notes).

[[7]] ABV 148 foot, and J. D. Beazley, Paralipomena (Oxford 1971) 62.