A Festival of Tyrants: The Peisistratids and Their Great Panathenaia, 566–507 B.C.
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Voltz, Alexander. "A Festival of Tyrants: The Peisistratids and Their Great Panathenaia, 566-507 B.C." A. D. K. Voltz. Last modified [month and year on website footer; see below]. https://adkvoltz.com/essays/a-festival-of-tyrants/.
Public festivals in Ancient Athens were, according to Strauss, ‘the bread and circus of democracy’. A modern comparison lies in the United States’ Electoral College, which serves as a vital yet spectacular institution. The same could be said of the Great Panathenaia, Athens’ quadrennial celebration of the goddess Athena. The Panathenaia was ‘crucial’ in the discharge of Athenian democracy; for example, the procession simultaneously demonstrated the ‘political hierarchy of the polis’ in conjunction with a unified ‘diverse population’. The festival’s militarism, however, provided avenues for political exploitation. This is most apparent under the short-lived yet largely benign sixth century tyrannies of the Peisistratids, who used the Great Panathenaia, particularly its martial qualities, to solidify their authority. In this essay, I investigate chronologically the association between the Peisistratids and their Great Panathenaia. The Panathenaic myths along with the festival’s reorganisation in 566/5 B.C. paved the way for the third and lasting tyranny of Peisistratus. During 546/5 and 528/7, Peisistratus manipulated the Great Panathenaia’s agōnes to his advantage. His dynastic successors, Hippias and Hipparchus, did the same, and Hipparchus’ assassination at the festival sheds additional light on its importance. Finally, I briefly argue that Isagoras, Cleisthenes’ tyrannical opponent, attempted to follow in the Peisistratids’ Panathenaic footsteps. Just as the Electoral College can enforce regime, so too could the Great Panathenaia.
There is no certainty surrounding the origins of the annual Panathenaia, let alone its quadrennial relative. The Illiad is the earliest surviving source to detail the annual festival and relates it to the reign of Erechtheus. Hephaestus is often regarded as the father of Erechtheus, and Davison argues that Hephaestus was a significant deity within Panathenaic celebrations. Alternatively, Plutarch names Theseus as the Panathenaia’s founder. Analysing a scholiast on Plato’s Parmenides, Davison suggests that Erechtheus founded the annual festival and Theseus the quadrennial. Confusion amplifies when another scholiast, this time writing on Aelius Aristides, reports that while Erechtheus oversaw a ‘small festival’ to commemorate Athena’s slaying of the giant Asterios, it was Peisistratus that made the ‘great festival’. Scholars agree that the Great Panathenaia was instituted in 566/5, and among its many reforms were the addition of a grand procession and several agōnes. Shear refutes Peisistratus’ involvement, however, noting that his first tyranny did not begin until 561/0, and that he was outside Athens in 566/5. The first Great Panathenaia that coincided with Peisistratus’ rule was the festival of 550 during his second tyranny.
There can be no doubt, however, that Peisistratus felt an affinity towards the Great Panathenaia, whether through his supposed ancestral link to Theseus or the festival’s martial qualities. He was a strategos by occupation whose successes were well reported, and Lavelle believes this kindled within him a desire for greater power. Peisistratus first rose as Athens’ tyrant through a traditional coup d’etat, but his regime was only brief. His second attempt was far more inventive, and seemingly inspired by the Cylonian Affair. According to Thucydides, Cylon received a divine command to ‘seize the Acropolis of Athens on the grand festival of Zeus’ in 632. Shortly following the Great Panathenaia of 558, Peisistratus entered Athens via chariot beside a battle-dressed woman, and heralds declared the return of Athena’s chosen representative. With the Great Panathenaia fresh in the collective Athenian mind, it is no wonder the ploy was immediately successful. Its effectiveness must have resonated for Peisistratus. In his mind, the public festival was now a bloodless weapon for the political opportunist. As Athena had conquered a giant, so too had Peisistratus conquered the polis, and subsequent Panathenaic festivals must have reinforced this.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that it was wealth and military force which returned Peisistratus to power conclusively in 547/6. By all accounts, his third tyranny was popular. Pseudo-Aristotle, in The Constitution of the Athenians, declared Peisistratus as ‘constitutional’, ‘kindly’ and ‘merciful’, a man who was ‘willing to administer everything according to the laws in all matters, never giving himself any advantage’. In fact, the advantage was just that. Absolute centralisation provided Peisistratus the administrative freedom he required to retain the Athenian people’s favour. The embrace of ‘prevailing cultural traditions’ was a tried and tested tactic for tyrants, and it should come as no surprise that Peisistratus chose to embrace the Great Panathenaia. Competitive events prospered; for example, a prize amphora dating between 550 and 540 depicts armoured hoplites competing in a foot race. Pritchard alludes to these agōnes as a means of simulating the thrill of war without the cost of life, a reality Peisistratus was surely familiar with. Similarly, agōnes manipulated ‘the Greek passion for competition and honour’ to achieve ‘social cohesion’ by ‘uniting elites and more middling citizens’. Through indiscriminate festive practises, Athens could solidify its sociocultural identity. Stein-Hölkeskamp asserts that tyrants faced greater threats from aristocratic factions than they did the dêmos. Peisistratus did not just appease the Athenian elite through displays of wealth and magnanimity, but through by affording them the option to compete for honour in the Great Panathenaia. Olympic victors often went on to lead armies, hold office, or achieve public status; certainly, the aforementioned Cylon is but one example. Through promoting Panathenaic competition, Peisistratus was directly enticing aristocrats to heighten their power. Shear diverges from the general scholarly consensus, arguing that Peisistratus’ nurturing of Panathenaic customs minimally affected Athens. Indeed, it is unknown if he commissioned additional events for the Great Panathenaia following its 566/5 reorganisation. Nonetheless, it is on the subject of Peisistratus’ Panathenaic legacy that an importance truth emerges. If the tyrant did not start or even improve the quadrennial festival, he also cannot be credited with its termination. The assumption is that Aelius Aristides’ scholiast referred to Peisistratus as founding the Great Panathenaia. Rather, perhaps ‘great festival’ should be interpreted as Peisistratus’ creation of a far-reaching Attic spectacle, to which he owed his authority.
Under Peisistratus, the Great Panathenaia was indeed far-reaching. Since the seventh century, ‘mother cities’ had received ritual tributes from their vassal states. IG I3 34.41-3 and IG I3 71.55-8 reveal that this gift-giving practise had been incorporated into the Great Panathenaia. By 425, all allies were required to bring a cow and panoply, and to participate in the procession. Shear states the ‘obvious’ conclusion that some allies were already doing this. Again, it is uncertain when this practise begun, but what can be said is that foreigners participating in the festival prospered just as Athenians did. Dating between 550 and 530, a series of prize amphorae fragments depict foreign athletes not just competing in the Great Panathenaia but winning. Similarly, Thucydides writes of Argive, Mantinean and Elean delegations renewing their oaths of allegiance in preparation for the festival. Moreover, Shear’s observation that the Great Panathenaia assimilated its participants into Athenian culture is critical. In conjunction with enforcing offerings and relating diplomatic affairs to the festival, this ensured that Athens achieved dominance over Attica. It seems likely Peisistratus was responsible for this shrewd foreign policy; after all, his decision to marry an Argive woman had afforded Athens an ally. In any case, Pritchard’s allusions are again relevant. Athens’ military might was showcased during the Panathenaic procession, disseminating the superiority of the polis to potential rivals at no cost to human
The cost to Peisistratus’ treasury cannot have been as minimal. It would be foolhardy to argue that Pritchard’s estimations for an early fourth century Great Panathenaia bear any relation to the same festival held in the late sixth century. Herodotus emphasises Peisistratus’ affluence, and the tyrant certainly may have invested in his regime. Notably, Pritchard estimates that Attic farmers contributed a total 5 T. 2725 DR. to each Great Panathenaia. Peisistratus is recorded as subsidising Attic farmers, suggesting he thought the agricultural sector an essential component of his Athenian economy. Whatever the Great Panathenaia’s cost, Peisistratus clearly resolved that the festival’s benefits outweighed its expenditure.
When Peisistratus died in 527, his sons Hippias and Hipparchus ‘held the government, carrying on affairs in the same way’. Pseudo-Aristotle’s meaning is seemingly twofold. Between the two brothers, Peisistratus’ personality was perpetuated. Hippias kept an interest in the military, while Hipparchus championed populism through art. On the other hand, the brothers continued to support the Great Panathenaia; no doubt their father impressed upon them the festival’s political capacity. A prize amphora dated around 520 depicts a previously-unseen sprint for beardless young men, indicating Hippias and Hipparchus expanded the Panathenaic programme. A populist manoeuvre such as this could only have safeguarded the rather monarchical transition of power from a father to his sons.
The assassination of Hipparchus at the Great Panathenaia of 514 sheds new light on the festival’s martial character. When discussing this tyrannicide, ancient historians prove inconsistent. Thucydides argues that Hippias was marshalling the procession, while pseudo-Aristotle that the tyrant was preparing to receive it and that the procession’s organisation fell to Hipparchus. In any case, here is evidence that tyrants were directly involved in Panathenaic military events. Strikingly, the actions of Hippias and Hipparchus are reminiscent of twentieth-century dictators, who, to the sound of a roaring crowd, waved on their columns of force. For the Peisistratids, the procession of the Great Panathenaia was a chance to legitimise tyranny through adulation. Moreover, upon hearing of his brother’s murder, Hippias (quite reasonably) withdrew to the safety of his guard. To remain popular, a tyrant needed to appear in public; ideally, such an appearance could be conducted safely. Fisher considers it alarming that so many ‘critical disturbances’ to Athenian politics involved the Panathenaia, and the Peisistratids must have thought so too. If Peisistratus effectively established himself a Panathenaic deity alongside Athena, the festival’s procession may very well have been a large-scale, defensive arming of the tyrant’s fanatic cultists. Certainly, Hippias used the procession to that effect, albeit logically as opposed to brutally, when he foiled his brother’s assassins.
The Peisistratids quite clearly manipulated the Great Panathenaia, particularly its martial qualities, to their advantage. Following the murder of Hipparchus, Hippias became gradually more oppressive until he was expelled from Athens in 510/9. The ‘friend’ who might have taken his place was Isagoras. From a ‘notable house’ and an eventual ally of the Cleomenes, Isagoras was eponymous archon in 508/7, just as Hippias had been in 526/5. Very possibly, he had participated at least in a Great Panathenaic procession. If Hipparchus was killed in 514, the next quadrennial festival would have coincided with Hippias’ expulsion, and then the next in 506. By then, Isagoras had been ousted by Cleisthenes. If a Great Panathenaia had occurred under his archonship, the chances of Isagoras becoming tyrant may well have improved. In any case, though, Hippias had left a sour taste in the Athenian mouth, and the unveiling of Antenor’s bronze statues glorifying Harmodius and Aristogeiton could only have worked against Isagoras. In fact, here the Panathenaia’s loyalty inverts, abandoning its despotic past and rising as a symbol of democratic justice.
In this essay, I have levelled several contentions. Chief among them is that the Great Panathenaia was adopted by the Peisistratids as a mechanism which enabled tyranny. As such, Panathenaic practises came to reflect political priorities. Peisistratus manipulated the festival to rise as Athens’ ruling demigod. The festival’s procession and competitive agōnes afforded him security and prestige, whilst also promoting Athenian military and cultural dominance over Attica. The Great Panathenaia expanded under the Peisistratids, suggesting its financial cost was only of secondary importance. Hipparchus’ assassination reveals additional martial qualities of the festival, and the circumstances of Isagoras’ downfall highlight the extent to which the Great Panathenaia had become an instrument of tyranny during the sixth century. Dillion and Garland are unsure when ‘tyranny’ developed negative connotations, but attribute the term’s inception to Archilochus. Prior to Hippias’ oppression, arguably a manifestation of brotherly grief, the Peisistratids were benevolent rulers who used public spectacles like the Great Panathenaia to advance the common good. We should regret that our present-day leaders do not do the same.
A. D. K. Voltz
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