The Rude Statues That Caused Athens' Democratic Downfall
Talk to any classics professor after they've had a few amphorae of wine and they'll let slip that Grecian stories all share two key ingredients: a fascination with ironical punishment and lots of dicks. And so, there might be no greater Grecian tale than the time a self-fulfilling prophecy involving a bunch of dongs caused the downfall of the birthplace of democracy.
In the year 415 BCE, an important Athenian military expedition to Sicily was approved to expand the city state's influence and hamper Sparta's rise to power. To bless this cockblock, the Athenians put their faith in blocks of cock called the hermae. Erected on all Athenian roads, hermae were monolithic statues of the god of travel Hermes recognizable by his hairy face and equally hairy erect phallus. And it was those blessed boners that kept the Athenians safe during their travels.
So there could have been no iller omen for the Sicilian expedition then when, right before its departure, Athenians awoke to a mass-castration. Under cover of night, someone had snapped all the phalluses off the hermae one by one. The Athenians didn't consider this genital-ocide simply a kick in the balls to Hermes, but as "part of a plot to subvert democracy" itself. And they knew exactly where to look for the new owner of this sinful dildo collection: Alcibiades, the very leader of the Sicilian expedition.
While there wasn't a shred of evidence that Alcibiades was trying to sink his own expedition, it wasn't hard to finger him for the dick-yanking. A notoriously rowdy party boy, the unpopular (with the upper class) Alcibiades had a history of drunkenly disrupting religious rites for the hell of it. But aside from being the O.G. toga-wearing frat bro, Alcibiades was also a brilliant and cunning general. So, scared he would rally the army against them, the Athenian patricians waited until he was at sea before they tried him in absentia, sentencing the strategos to death over destroying dicks so as to save their democracy.
So here, in the true Greek fashion, we arrive at the irony. Instead of coming home to orderly get his head chopped off, Alcibiades turned coat and offered his services (and state secrets) to Athens' enemies. Bitter of his banishment, the military genius spent the next years helping both Sparta and Persia penetrate Athen's defenses, ruining the expedition, causing Asian clients states to revolt, and leaving the sophisticated city-state at the brink of economic collapse.
Eventually, Alcibiades decided the best way to convince Athens he was no longer a threat to their democracy was to get rid of their "radical democracy" altogether. With his help, a group of rogue military leaders called The Four Hundred staged a coup that transformed the birthplace of democracy into an anti-democratic plutarchy for one year -- and also got Alcibiades reinstated as general. And so, a political ploy to get rid of a rowdy general by pinning a penis peccadillo on him to 'save the democracy' in fact briefly broke Athen's streak of the longest continuous democracy in history.
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Top Image: Philippe Chery, QuartierLatin1968/Wiki Commons