Mutilation of the Hermai in Athens in 415 B.C. and the ‘Defence of the Statues’ in 2020 and 2021 A.D.

Marc Barham
8 min readJun 17, 2020

‘Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.’’

(Winston Churchill)

It was during the Peloponnesian War ( 431 — 404 B.C. ) that a massive armed expeditionary force was prepared by the Greek city-state of Athens in 415 B.C. to attack Syracuse in Sicily. It was just before this fleet was about to set sail, under the leadership of Alcibiades, that a large number of statues known as hermai were literally, defaced, and mutilated. They were four-sided pillar statues with the face of the god Hermes, which were set up at the entrances of private houses and sanctuaries all over Athens. Only a few of these statues survived intact. According to the preeminent Athenian historian Thucydides (ca. 460–400 B.C.):

‘‘In the midst of these preparations all the stone Hermae in the city of Athens, that is to say the customary square figures, so common in the doorways of private houses and temples, had in one night most of them their faces mutilated. No one knew who had done it, but large public rewards were offered to find the authors; and it was further voted that any one who knew of any other act of impiety having been committed should come and give information without fear of consequences, whether he were citizen, alien, or slave. The matter was taken up the more seriously, as it was thought to be ominous for the expedition, and part of a conspiracy to bring about a revolution and to upset the democracy.’’

(Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 6 )

The multitude of the Athenian citizenry were shocked and deeply troubled by this act of vandalism and desecration. They immediately called for witnesses to this attack and agreed that the Athenian state would provide rewards for information. Anyone including foreigners and slaves could provide information. A most unusual declaration given the lack of full citizenship rights these two classes of aliens and non-persons were denied in the Greek polis.

Information was provided on the mutilation of the hermai but also on mock celebrations of the sacred Eleusinian mysteries…

Marc Barham

Column @ on iconic books, TV shows/films: Time Travel Peregrinations. Reviewed all episodes of ‘Dark’ @ site.