Democracy, it would seem, began with two gay lovers and a murder.
The ancient Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was efficient, lenient, and as popular as any steely-eyed autocrat can be, but after he died, control of Athens went to his sons (collectively called the Peisistratids), chiefly his eldest son Hippias, who couldn’t quite earn the same level of respect from the city as their legendary father. In fact, the new tyrants were so merciless and cruel, that when a pair of young Athenian noblemen suddenly attacked and assassinated one of the Peisistratids in 514 BCE during the Panathenaic festival, the city erupted in joyful celebration. The remaining tyrants were driven from the city. When the dust of the rebellion finally settled down, the people of Athens reclaimed their freedoms under a new democratic constitution.
Although the original Tyrant-killers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, had died in their attacks against the Peisistratids, the grateful Athenians never forgot their heroic deed and voted them many posthumous honors and monuments. The cult of the Tyrannicides became quite important in Athenian civic life, similar to the way Americans invoke the Founding Fathers every Fourth of July. In time, the Athenians erected a pair of gigantic inspirational nude statues of the Tyrannicides brandishing their weapons as a warning to anyone who would ever again try to subjugate the Athenians.
Except history is never so simple.
The conspiracy against the ruling tyrants began when one of the younger sons of Peisistratus – the historian Thucydides said it was the older co-tyrant Hipparchus, but Aristotle claims it was the immature and pleasure-loving Thessalus – became infatuated with a young man named Harmodius, who rejected his advances several times because he was already involved with a middle-aged gentleman named Aristogeiton. Upset and frustrated by the insult, Thessalus (or was it Hipparchus?) found many ways to show his displeasure. Harmodius' little sister was scheduled to carry a flower basket in the Panathenaic religious procession, but Thessalus decided that she wasn’t a virgin, and therefore ineligible. She was thrown out of the proceedings and publicly humiliated.
Harmodius was insulted on behalf of his family and angered that Thessalus had made a little girl cry, so he now plotted with his lover Aristogeiton and several friends with grievances of their own to kill the whole family of tyrants. They planned to strike during the Panathenaic festival when it was hoped the crowds would rally to their aid, but on the fateful day, they saw a co-conspirator chatting pleasantly with the tyrant Hippias. Assuming they were betrayed, the two plotters decided to strike immediately, even without everyone in place, and kill whoever was available before they got arrested. They killed the co-tyrant Hipparchus, who was nearby, but were stopped from getting at Hippias when Harmodius was speared by guards and Aristogeiton was taken prisoner.
Aristogeiton died under torture, but not before he broke down and named names, although these might not have been the names of actual conspirators, but rather friends of the government he wanted to cast doubt on. In fact, legend says that Aristogeiton only agreed to talk if Hippias promised with a handshake to let him live. Then he mocked Hippias for shaking the hand that killed his brother.
The attack made Hippias so paranoid that he started a reign of terror to destroy potential enemies lurking in the city. He purged and exiled many of Athens’ aristocratic families. Among them, Cleisthenes, brother-in-law of Peisistratus and the leader of the banished Alcmaeonid family, who brooded in exile and plotted a return. He needed an army to restore his family to the city, so he endowed the Delphic Oracle, the sacred voice of the god Apollo that was honored and obeyed throughout Greece, with an impressive bribe. The Oracle commanded a visiting delegation of Spartans to use their army (Greece’s largest) to invade Athens on his behalf. The Spartans marched in and surrounded the city. They captured the children of Hippias and threatened to kill them unless he took early retirement.
As Cleisthenes settled in to be the new tyrant, another Athenian nobleman, Isagoras, former ally of the Peisistratids and old friend of the Spartan king (with whom he had shared Mrs. Isagoras, according to rumor) convinced the Spartans to put him in charge instead. Isagoras offered the excuse that Cleisthenes’ family still carried a hereditary curse from when an ancestral tyrant had violated sanctuary and dragged political refugees from a temple to be killed. The Athenian people, however, would have none of it, so after the Spartan coup, they rioted and trapped Isogoras and his Spartan friends in the citadel until they agreed to leave. Cleisthenes was brought back around 508 BCE, and in gratitude, he agreed to distribute power equally among the people of Athens, offering them the first well-documented democratic constitution in history.
One of the reasons I love history is that it’s simultaneously so alien and so familiar. My home state of Virginia would never in a million years erect monumental statutes of nude homosexual assassins, and yet we already have a half-naked amazon② standing over a dead tyrant on our state flag.
Another reason I love history is that it never happens the way you want it to. Modern historians like to point out that democracy evolved in many places along many different paths, often propelled by impersonal forces instead of individuals, and democracy certainly can’t be tracked back to one dramatic act of defiance. More specifically, some historians would minimize the importance of the Tyrant-killers by pointing out that everyone involved in the fall of the Peisistratids acted for entirely selfish and almost petty reasons, and in any case, democracy didn’t fully establish itself in Athens until the power struggle ignited by the Tyrant-killers finally burned itself out many years later. In fact, the contrast between the two versions of the Tyrannicide story (the heroic legend and the cynical love triangle) has been noted for thousands of years, proving that contrarian wiseguys have enjoyed debunking popular historical myths as long as history has existed.
And all history is that way. It would have been nice if the first blow against tyranny had been struck by level-headed ideologists with a clear blueprint for human liberation, but it also would have been nice for the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights to not own slaves. History is messy and uncooperative. Democracy has often been brought into being by people who probably didn’t think that far ahead.
② We call her Millie.