The Attack on the Hermas

161114hermaA strange thing happened one night in ancient Athens. This incident, the attack on the hermas, provides the background for my short story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” in the collection Hidden Youth. While there are no stone monsters in the actual history, it’s a fascinating story in its own right.

It was the spring of 415 BCE. All around the city—at crossroads, in marketplaces, in front of houses and temples—stood square stone posts carved with human heads on top and crude penises in front. These were the hermas, stones sacred to the god Hermes that the Athenians believed protected their homes and city against bad fortune. The people of the city woke up one morning to discover that the hermas had been smashed up in the night.

Now, in any city, you would expect people to be upset to wake up to widespread vandalism, but Athens was no ordinary city and these were no ordinary times. Athens had been at war with Sparta for more than a decade. A war that both sides had expected to be quick and decisive had turned into a long, unwinnable slog. The Spartans had repeatedly ravaged the Athenian countryside. Farms had been burned and vineyards wrecked. Behind the walls of Athens, plague had slaughtered the refugees who sought shelter from the Spartans. Athens had not seen such suffering since the Persian army of Xerxes captured and burned the city more than half a century before.

In the midst of the destruction, democracy and social cohesion suffered. The poor farmers from the countryside whose homes and fields got burned lost everything while the rich merchants and landowners in the city were mostly unaffected. The leading general Pericles’ strategy of pulling back behind the walls and sending out the fleet to raid the Spartan coast felt slow and cowardly to people used to the swift clash of the hoplite phalanx. Indeed, it was the solidarity of standing shoulder-to-shoulder, row upon row in the phalanx, regardless of family or property, that grounded the Athenian democracy, but those who served as hoplites were now helpless behind the walls. When the plague struck, already weakened social bonds were snapped as everyone looked out for themselves and people who felt sure they were going to die anyway indulged in every impulse and vice.

In times like this, when social solidarity was strained by factional and regional conflicts, many Greek cities had turned to tyrants: aristocrats who held themselves out as champions of the people and leveraged popular anger as a way to propel themselves into power. Athens itself had had tyrants, in the decades before the wars with Persia. Wherever tyrants had risen, they crushed their rivals and abused their power until finally they were driven out and replaced with new, more balanced forms of democracy. The same had happened in Athens, but the time seemed ripe for a new tyrant to rise and sweep away the democratic system with the anger of a frustrated and fed-up populace.

A new leader had already arisen to promise the people of Athens a better future. Alcibiades, a rich and flamboyant aristocrat with time on his hands, had pushed for a major expedition to sail to Sicily and attack Syracuse. Syracuse had largely stayed out of the war between Athens and Sparta, but they had cultural ties to Sparta and were a major exporter of grain, so there was a fear that Syracuse might decide to step in and shore up Sparta against Athenian raids. The people of Athens were enthusiastic about the prospect of getting out of the city for a fight they could win. They looked forward to looting the treasuries of Syracuse and coming home victorious and rich.

Then the hermas got smashed.

Suspicion fell immediately on Alcibiades. It seemed like the sort of thing he would do. He was well known for holding raucous drinking parties with other rich young men and had a reputation for flippancy and arrogance. He was a student of Socrates, that annoying old man who refused to participate in the democratic assembly but liked to ask people tricky questions and make them look stupid. If anyone in Athens wouldn’t respect the hermas and would think that running around town at night doing some property damage would be a good joke, it would be Alcibiades.

There was some legal wrangling about whether to bring charges against Alcibiades at once or let the expedition go ahead as planned, but the upshot was that the expedition went out and Alcibiades fled Athens to find refuge among his friends in Sparta.

This all may seem like an overreaction to what amounts to little more than the ancient Athenian equivalent of some frat boys going on a bender and playing a little mailbox baseball, but context is everything. It wasn’t just that the people of Athens valued their good luck statues. This sort of flippant disregard for tradition was exactly what one expected from a tyrant. The hermas may have been old-fashioned relics of simpler times, but so, in its way, was the democracy. In the Athenian assembly, the will of the people was the law, and if it was the will of the people to have crude statues in front of their houses, to disrespect that choice was to disrespect democracy itself.

Alcibiades was exactly the sort of person who aimed at tyranny: rich, idle, and dismissive of tradition. The smashing of the hermas made those qualities obvious in a way that no one could ignore.

Thoughts for writers

It’s easy to look at the past and be perplexed by the weight people attached to symbols and minor events, but it is context that gives importance to those things that seem trivial to us. In other times, the attack on the hermas would have been a case of petty vandalism, a scandal to be argued over in the marketplace for a few days and in time forgotten. Because of the times in which it happened, it became the tangible symbol of something far more perilous: a threat to Athenian democracy itself.

This is one of the challenges of worldbuilding. Making a world that works differently from our own means creating contexts in which things that seem trivial to us carry profound weight. The power of such small things depends on the context in which they occur. The smashing up of the hermas might not seem important to us, just like no one from a hundred years ago would grasp the significance of yellow stars and shattered shop windows, or a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Creating such moments—and giving our readers the context to understand them—is part of how we make our worlds feel real.

Image: herma, photograph by André Frantz via Wikimedia (Siphnos; c 520 BCE; marble)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.