Sunday, December 16, 2012


Debra Hamel, The Mutilation of the Herms: Unpacking an Ancient Mystery. North Haven, CT: Debra Hamel, 2012. Pp. i, 54. ISBN 9781475051933.

Reviewed by Carolyn Swan, The Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site

The ancient Greek herm—a semi-iconic statue, consisting of a rectangular stone pillar topped by the bearded head of Hermes and sporting an erect phallus (carved in relief or in-the-round)—is unquestionably an unusual sculptural type, and one that has never been treated in a particularly thorough or satisfactory manner. Likewise, the sudden and wide-scale mutilation of the Athenian herms in 415 B.C. is an event that remains puzzling despite the contemporary literary accounts that survive. Debra Hamel rightly draws attention to the ongoing obscurity of the event in this slim, self-published volume; she uses the event as a case study to illustrate both the principles and limitations of Classical scholarship to a non-Classicist and student audience. In seventeen short chapters—each chapter consisting of one to three pages of text, for a total of about 40 pages—Hamel presents the reader with an overview of the events of 415 B.C., identifies the men who were involved, and comments on the nature of their individual testimonies.

In her introductory chapter, Hamel gives a brief overview of the facts: one morning in the spring of 415 B.C. it was discovered that the herms dotting the urban landscape of Athens had been vandalized, which launched an investigation into impious acts and caused many Athenians to flee or be put to death. In the second chapter ("How Were the Herms Damaged?"), Hamel highlights the evidence for the manner in which the herms were actually vandalized. Although contemporary sources like Thucydides refer to the damage of faces (prosopa) specifically, Hamel speculates it is unlikely that the damage ended there. She points primarily to the references in Aristophanes' 411 B.C. comedy Lysistrata (lines 1093-1094) that warns the ithyphallic characters in the play of the dangerous hermokopidai ("herm-choppers"), and thus Hamel suggests it would be reasonable to conclude that the phalloi of the statues did not escape the attention of the vandals.

The third chapter ("The Sicilian Expedition") identifies the Peloponnesian War and the Athenians' planned naval attack on Sicily as the main social and historical context of the events under consideration. Hamel observes that the mutilation of the herms had a major impact on the Sicilian expedition—regardless of whether or not this outcome was the intention of the vandals. The Eleusinian Mysteries are introduced in Chapter Four ("The Mysteries") as an integral part of the larger story. After the mutilated herms were discovered, a commission of inquiry was established to investigate the crime and rewards were offered for information about any sacrilegious acts (not just the desecration of the herms). Most importantly, Alcibiades—one of the three Athenian generals appointed to command the Sicilian expedition—was implicated in profanation of the Mysteries.

The following four chapters make up a chronological discussion of the various witnesses who came forward and their testimonies about the mutilation of the herms and the profanation of the Mysteries. Chapter 5 ("Andromachus' Testimony") presents the first of these witnesses, a slave who implicated Alcibiades and ten other men in the profanation of the Mysteries, while Chapter 6 ("Alcibiades and the Departure of the Fleet") describes Alcibiades' reluctance to depart for Sicily before the charges brought against him were actually addressed in trial. Chapter 7 ("Teucer, Agariste, Lydus, and Leogoras") outlines several testimonies that took place after Alcibiades' departure, which included information about both the herms and the Mysteries. Chapter 8 ("Diocleides' Story") outlines an interesting but probably false eyewitness account of the herm mutilation; Chapter 9 suggests why the story of Diocleides was particularly believable, introducing to the reader the role of social clubs (hetaireiai) and drinking parties (symposia) in Athenian society.

In the next three chapters, Hamel draws attention to the fact that the main source of evidence we have for the information presented during the inquiry comes from a speech given by Andocides ca. 400/399 B.C., when he himself was accused of profanation. Chapter 10 ("Andocides' On the Mysteries") introduces the circumstances of his trial and makes the point that Andocides was likely not an impartial reporter of the events of 415 B.C. Chapter 11 ("Andocides' Story") and Chapter 12 ("Was Andocides Guilty?") are two of the slightly longer chapters of the book, describing in somewhat more detail the testimony of Andocides and its effect on the outcome of the inquiry, and considering whether he was lying about his own involvement in the impieties.

Hamel wraps up her discussion of the evidence in Chapter 13 ("Case Closed") by noting that Andocides' confession largely ended the matter in the minds of the Athenians. She also acknowledges that most modern scholars accept the conclusion that members of a hetaireia were responsible for the mutilation of the herms, likely as a pledge of group trust (pistis). In Chapter 14 ("Cherchez Les Femmes") Hamel briefly engages with the feminist theory presented by Eva C. Keuls in The Reign of the Phallus (1985) that suggests women were the hermokopidai, but Hamel rejects this interpretation for lack of support in the ancient sources. Keuls' explanation is again referenced in Chapter 15 ("Why Were the Herms Mutilated?") as a point of departure for considering the possible reasons for attacking the Athenian herms. Hamel then wraps up some of the loose ends of the story in Chapter 16 ("The Further Adventures of Alcibiades"), and makes concluding comments about the overarching significance of the sequence of events in the epilogue of Chapter 17.

Only a few minor errors or omissions were noted in the text. For example, on page 23 the reference should read "Plut. Alc. 20.4" (there are no lines 6 and 7); the list of ancient sources on pages 44-45 should also include Andocides' On His Return; and in cases where Hamel has cited multiple works by one author, the publication date needs to be included in the parenthetical references (for example, the Furley citation on page 10). Some of the parenthetical references to ancient sources also seem to be placed rather late in the text (for example, on page 14 it would be helpful to see the reference to Andoc. 1.37 much earlier in the paragraph). A weak point of the book is the inclusion of lengthy explanations and asides placed within parentheses (e.g. pages 8, 15, 16, 23, 29, 30, 31, and 34). Presumably this format was chosen to impart a conversational feel that would appeal to undergraduates and newcomers to the field, thus distinguishing the book from overly scholarly tomes; however, the effect is actually quite distracting in that it breaks up the flow of narrative, and the reader would be better served by simple footnotes. Similarly, Hamel is often informal or even playful in her tone: in the opening line of the book, she describes herms as "looking like big Pez dispensers" (1). Other examples include the phrases "a broad invitation for anybody with dirt to dish to start dishing" (7), "leaving the poor schlubs who'd stood surety for them to face the music" (16), "to save four guys guilty as sin—was, or should have been, a no-brainer" (22), and "they sure as hell could make him wish he was elsewhere" (27). Whether this type of language is effective or distracting can be left up to other readers; in my opinion, however, it is somewhat less favorable to ignore standard rules of grammar for the sake of achieving an relaxed tone: at least two sentences begin with the preposition "But" (16 and 27), with an initial "And" also frequently cropping up.

From the beginning, Hamel is very clear about her purpose for writing this book and about the identity of her intended audience. In her introduction she writes that her aim is "to unpack" the event in a way that shows a non- Classicist and student audience what Classicists actually do know about this incident. She makes it very clear that her goal is to present a comprehensible account, and in that aim the book succeeds. The final pages contain a helpful list of ancient sources that refer to the mutilation of the herms; Hamel also provides the web link to the Perseus Digital Library, encouraging her audience to read translations of the primary texts for themselves. In addition, she provides a bibliography that includes select secondary literature dealing with ancient Greek politics and law.

Overall, this is a book that intends to outline, summarize, and highlight information. Hamel's approach is certainly in keeping with her stated purpose of showing the audience what is known about the events of 415 B.C., and for those readers who are interested in further exploration and deeper interpretation, Hamel's list of ancient sources and bibliography (which includes essential works like William D. Furley's 1996 Andokides and the Herms: A Study of Crisis in Fifth-Century Athenian Religion) are good places to begin. In short, Hamel's book is an accessible starting point for anyone interested in this particular event or for those who are curious about the practices of Classical scholarship. Hamel's core assessment that the mutilation of the herms is "a humbling reminder that however carefully and cleverly we piece together fragments of the information our sources have preserved, we'll never be able to fully reconstruct what happened that night" (29) is an important lesson that extends beyond this particular topic.


  1. I personally liked the comparison between the herms and pez dispensers. I do
    have to suggest that reviewers, who are critiquing grammar, should make sure
    their own English usage is spotless. In the same sentence in which she
    points out the author's grammar errors, she herself says "an relaxed" and
    calls "but" a preposition.

  2. Back in the 1990s I taught that part of ancient Greek history from 478 to 404 B.C.; the syllabus gave a brief attention to this event. I am now retired after 32 years as a teacher and another 18 as a student. I take a general interest in Greek history now for my own pleasure. I found this review took me back nostalgically to my days as a history teacher some 2 decades ago.-Ron Price, Tasmania


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