It was the Night before Alcibiades' Sicilian Expedition... Hermenfrevel and an ill-fated military adventure

11 May 415 BCE, just before an Athenian expeditionary force was about to set sail for the conquest of Sparta’s ally Syracuse in Sicily, all of the hermai of Athens had been found vandalised.

“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 fares mutilated. No one knew who had done it, but large public rewards were offered to find the authors; ... 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”)

Hermes ithyphallicus, a herm in the Archaic style, around 500 BCE

The hermai were heads, usually but not exclusively, of the god Hermes, mounted on a simple rectangular stone slab, together with a sculpted erect phallus. Their function was to avert evil from auspicious places, such as crossroads, squares or doorways and guarantee good luck. It was customary to adorn them with garlands and rub them with olive oil.

Athens had a special fondness of hermai and when all of them were found with their genitalia hacked of and rascalities scribbled on their foreheads, the city realised that they had a major issue with public security as well as one of the worst conceivable bad omens for the upcoming campaign abroad in Sicily.

Anselm Feuerbach's imagination of a drunken Alcibiades and his cronies bursting into Agathon's living room, a scene from Plato's Symposium (1869)

Suspicion quickly fell, of all the people, on the expedition’s commander, Alcibiades. While it was rumoured that he and his cronies had a rather lax attitude in dealing with sacrilege and all things moral in general, supporters of his political opponent Nicias a bit too quick at him. And Athens was at the time far too keen to see young, glorious Alcibiades succeed and plunder rich Syracuse than to postpone the largest campaign the city-state had ever mounted, even though witnessing a juicy legal proceedings was tempting. Even enemy sabotage to sap the morale of the Athenian army had been suspected.

The expedition ended in an equally great disaster and the army did not need any foreign morale sapping with three completely incompetent commanders in succession. Two years later, ten thousands of Athenian hoplites, skirmishers and experienced oarsmen including the fleet and other materiel had perished in the adventure, proving that democracies like the Athenian were not beyond committing brainless, self-destructive acts, much the same as autocracies.

The end of the Athenian army in Sicily as imagined by an unknown illustrator in 1893

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