Pulling Penises Off Statues: How Defacing Statues Is Not a Modern Concept

The removal, defacing and drowning of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, UK, has been the subject of great interest over the opening weeks of June 2020. The act, a result of the #blacklivesmatter movement sweeping across the world, has caused eyes to be fixated upon other statues and monuments erected across the UK and further afield. This week (commencing 15th June 2020) there have been fresh calls for the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University to be taken down due to Rhodes’ connections with white supremacy. Clearly we are going through the motions of a massive culture cleanse starting with the removal of controversial figures from history. The removal and defacing of statues causes great debates and, in London, has led to unnecessary and shocking violence from racist groups.

I do not have an issue with removing figures like Colston and Rhodes from our immediate vision – we should not be celebrating the so-called glory days of the British Empire anymore. Monuments dedicated to racial atrocities serve no real purpose on our streets but it is important that the history remains to be taught. Removing statues is all well and good as long as we remember the role our nation played in the slave trade instead of allowing the government to slide these issues under No. 10’s carpet.

The real reason for this post is not to launch an attack on the government but to show that the removal or defacing of statues is not a new phenomena and, to give you a great example of how old this tradition is, I am going to take you on a trip to ancient Greece, 415 BC.

In my Get Rich Quick With Fermented Fish post from May, I briefly discussed a popular classical figure named Alcibiades. I mentioned his tendency to be a nuisance by switching sides in the Peloponnesian War to whoever appeared to have the upper hand but, today, I want to reveal to you his night on the town which saw him, and some of his followers, accused of ruining statues in Athens.

Alcibiades (left) being taught by Socrates (middle) – Painted by Francios-Andre Vincent, 1776.

So chances are, if you are not aware of the story already, the title has peaked your interest and I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know it isn’t click bait.

During the Peloponnesian War, Athens planned an expedition to Sicily the prospect of which split opinion with Athenian officials. Our man, Alcibiades, was a keen supporter of the expedition and promised it would bring riches and glory to Athens not seen since the previous wars against the Persian Empire. The decision to set sail to Sicily would go down as one of the worst defeats the Athenian navy would suffer over the course of the war, but was it doomed from the outset?

Auspicious signs, prophecies and oracles played a big role in the ancient Greek world especially when war loomed over the communities. Greek states sought signs that would point towards an outcome, being positive or negative, so they could plan their next steps and make an informed decision to either go to war or stay home. The Sicilian expedition was no different and there were two instances which set the course for disaster – Alcibiades and an eclipse.

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The Mutilation of the Herms

Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, describes the events of the night prior to the launch of the expedition:

“While these preparation were going on it was found that in one night nearly all the stone Hermae in the city of Athens had had their faces disfigured by being cut about.”

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.27

The Herms were statues of Greek figures, mainly deities and often depicted Hermes, and were incredibly popular throughout the city of Athens. They could be found on temples, public buildings and even in the porches of private residences and held great political significance. It wasn’t just the head on the shoulders of these statues that were defaced, oh no, the penises of each statue were also targeted.

Example of the type of statue found across Athens. This image is of Demosthenes.

With the faces disfigured and the penises scattered across the streets of Athens, state officials were said to be outraged and shocked by this act. They were so enraged that Thucydides tells us substantial rewards were offered for accurate information leading to identification of the responsible person(s) and evidence was indeed submitted. A claim was put forward that Alcibiades was the culprit due to previous episodes of what our society would consider examples of anti-social behaviour. Athenians were keen on discussing evidence which suggested groups of young men, drunk on wine, would often become rowdy after having more than they could handle – look, we’ve all been there. Alcibiades, well-known for his drunken antics, was a prime suspect according to those who opposed him politically.

If any of you have played Assassins’ Creed: Odyssey (a game which I cannot recommend enough) for Xbox, PS4 or PC, you will know how Alcibiades is generally depicted. A flamboyant, lust-filled character who enjoys the company of men, women and wine. It therefore comes as no surprise that due to this image of him, he has been attributed to a drunken act of impiety within the city.

The mutilation was also considered to be a bad omen which would have a direct impact on the outcome of the expedition the following day. People in Athens believed that from this point on the expedition was doomed to fail but, I argue, no one could have predicted the fashion in which it would. The naval attack on the city of Syracuse was delayed due to an eclipse – another auspicious sign for the Athenians – meaning the Athenian navy waited until the celestial phenomena had ended to advance on the enemy. The Sicilian Navy had no such thoughts, planning an ambush which would work so perfectly, the Athenians would be humiliated.

Despite the omen theory, the real reason behind the accusation that the mastermind was indeed Alcibiades came down, as briefly mentioned, to politics. His enemies framed him for the crime. It was deemed an attack not only on Greek religion, but also on democracy itself. In fact, politicians in Athens thought this act represented a conspiracy to overthrow Athenian democracy which just goes to show how contentious the removal or defacing of statues can be to a society.

Alcibiades was put to trial for this act although he was part of the expedition away in Sicily when it was scheduled. This was a deliberate occurrence planned by his political enemies and Alcibiades was ordered to return to Athens early from the expedition. Alcibiades set sail on a course toward Athens but, when clear from view of anyone who may have been watching, he darted away to Thurii and then to the Peloponnese (home to Sparta) and into hiding. Athens put a price on his head and sentenced him to death in absentia regardless, although Alcibiades would snake his way through the remainder of the war until the very end where he would be killed by a shower of arrows on a mountainside.

So, Where do We Go From Here?

We can of course say, with particular confidence, that the removal of certain statues and monuments across the UK will not result in an eclipse and then a catastrophic naval defeat in Sicily. What this does do is divide opinion. There will be an inevitable debate when statues come down but it is vital that we are all fully educated on the history of our country and the figures that have been celebrated in metallic form. Holding on to the past and celebrating it are two very different things and it is important that we do not blur these lines and create tensions in society. On the plus side, it gives our communities a chance to celebrate and recognise greater people who have had had a positive impact in these modern times.

All of the information for the events of the Sicilian expedition and the mutilation can be found in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War Book 6. As I was writing this, an article was published via The Guardian discussing other examples from Rome of the toppling of statues – it can be found here.

Classics Lew.

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Published by ClassicsLew

I'm currently completing an MA in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. This space is an area where I will post little articles that spring into my mind about the Classical world which I think are interesting and engaging. My research areas are focused on Classical Reception and therefore my articles will feature my thoughts within that field for the most part.

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