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Thucydides’ History and the Myth of the Athenian Tyrannicides

Sarah Miller Esposito

In his proem, Thucydides blames both the tellers and the hearers of history for perpetuating errors: while carelessness and apathy perpetuate even innocuous mistakes, the exaggerations of poets and the flattery of logographers are aimed at their audiences’ desire for grandeur, gratification, and affirmation (1.20-1.21). Thucydides’ critique of history’s reception is designed to have a rhetorical effect upon his own history’s recipients: his proem is aimed at a reader who wants to demonstrate his interest in accurate knowledge, and thereby distinguish himself from the self-indulgent seekers of τὸ μυθῶδες (1.22, Connor 1984).

In Book 6, Thucydides revisits one of the historical errors specified in the proem: the Athenians’ belief that Harmodius and Aristogeiton killed a tyrant, rather than the tyrant’s brother. Reading the Book 6 excursus in conjunction with the proem, scholars have shown how the excursus exemplifies Thucydides’ painstaking methodology in contradistinction to the Athenians’ careless approach; additionally, the narrative of the Herms and Mysteries trials that frames the excursus demonstrates how much is at stake (Meyer 2008 and sources, Grethlein 2010). The focus in these readings is on the crucial importance of historical accuracy.

This paper focuses instead on the reasons why the erroneous belief that Harmodius and Aristogeiton killed a tyrant persists, and argues that the answer lies in Thucydides’ concept of “myth.” The story of the tyrannicides resists correction because, as Monoson 2000 and others have shown, the story in which Harmodius and Aristogeiton ended tyranny in Athens signified the innate potential of the Athenian citizen to champion democracy (Monoson 2000, Wohl 2002, Ludwig 2002). This popular foundation myth has already been corrected in Thucydides’ account: the Athenians are frightened because they have learned that the tyrants were ousted and the democracy restored only with Lacedaimonian assistance (6.53.3). The Athenians persist in characterizing Harmodius and Aristogeiton’s act as tyrannicide because they are still interpreting this historical event as a foundation myth. This newly historicized foundation myth is frightening because it now expresses Athens’ vulnerability to tyranny.

Elsewhere in Thucydides, foundation myths and historical accounts are clearly distinguished. When the Amphipolitans choose to honor Brasidas as their founder in place of their historical founder, Hagnon (5.11), the politically advantageous story begins to win its way into myth (1.21.1). Meanwhile, however, the two stories coincide. While Athenian public discourse develops over the course of Thucydides’ narrative, the reason why the Athenians are allowing history to interfere with foundation myth ultimately originates in the speeches of Pericles.

Pericles’ funeral oration repeatedly echoes Thucydides' own proem in rejecting flattery and poetic exaggeration in favor of facts and evidence. The reader projected by the rhetoric of the proem is tempted to identify Thucydides’ and Pericles’ perspectives (Dewald 1999). But in Thucydides, Pericles has no interest in the contingencies of history which only serve to impede rational plans (e.g. 1.140.1, cf. Grethlein 2010). Rather than truly rejecting τὸ μυθῶδες, Pericles reconstructs a foundation myth of Athenian character that relies on abstract ideals supposedly derived from self-evident facts.

Pericles encouraged the Athenians to rely on themselves rather than identify with civic heroes. The excursus of Book 6 shows that Pericles failed to supplant the Athenians’ habit of deriving confidence and a sense of political identity from stories. The Athenians are instead persuaded that their foundation myths and their history should coincide. This is why, when they learn that Harmodius and Aristogeiton historically failed to end tyranny in Athens, they respond by attempting to reenact a successful tyrannicide through the Herms and Mysteries trials, ultimately casting Alcibiades in the role of tyrant.

The tyrannicides excursus teaches not only about the dangers of inaccuracy, but also about the danger of failing to recognize the mythical when it takes a plausible form, and failing to distinguish it from the historical in practice and in principle. The reader of Thucydides' proem thus learns to take care with facts, but also with motivations, in doing history.

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Problems in Greek History and Historiography

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