Tyrant Slayers

Thoughts on the day Muammar Gaddafi was killed

This will be a crucial day in Libya’s history – so much is certain. The day a tyrant dies cannot be anything else. But what will we, what will the Libyans remember? We can be certain that this history will be contested, and that it will be shaped by those who take charge of the country next – and that history will be what they need it to be.

On a day like this, it’s sometimes worthwhile going back to Thucydides. As an Athenian, he, like all his fellow-citizens, grew up with the glorious story of Harmodios and Aristogeiton.  These two men, so the simplified story goes, assassinated Hipparchos, the Athenian tyrant: they died in the act, but this assassination led to the freedom of Athens, and to the introduction of Athenian democracy. Harmodios and Aristogeiton are the tyrant slayers: their deed, and its glorious memory later on, made Greeks think about the act of tyrant-slaying and its philosophical implications. Ever since, there has been a line of thought in Western tradition which considered tyrant-slaying a noble act. The rhetoric surrounding the deaths of people like Ceausescu, Saddam or Gaddafi still harks back to that tradition, even if most people have forgotten its origins.

But Thucydides (6.54-59) was wary of that ‘history’.

Indeed, the daring action of Aristogeiton and Harmodios was undertaken in consequence of a love affair, which I shall relate at some length, to show that the Athenians are not more accurate than the rest of the world in their accounts of their own tyrants and of the facts of their own history.

Statues of Harmodios and Aristogeiton
Statues of Harmodios and Aristogeiton (ancient copies of originals set up in the Athenian market place in the 470s BC.

He goes on to point out that far from wanting to perform a political act, Harmodios and Aristogeiton were driven by a love affair that had gone wrong; that they only killed one of two ruling brothers; that the surviving tyrant installed a terror regime as a consequence of the assassination and that the regime was finally ended some years later, with the help of the Spartans, probably in collusion with one of the leading aristocratic families of Athens. Thucydides might have added that was followed was not immediately the invention of the new democratic system, but a period of turmoil in which aristoratic factions were competing for power.

But the Athenians continued to celebrate Harmodios and Aristogeiton as heroes of the democracy – they sang drinking songs about them, honoured their descendants and set up statues for them in the market place. This was surely more attractive than celebrating the Spartans and some of the Athenian politicians who had collaborated with that foreign power in order to end the tyranny, presumably to further their own personal ambitions.

In spite of their botched attempt, in spite of what followed, Harmodios and Aristogeiton became the tyrant slayers, the heroes of democracy (a system they themselves never got to see, since it was invented only some years later) because democratic Athens needed its founding heroes – and neither Spartans nor ambitious aristocrats fitted that picture.

So: back to Libya…

Of course the situation there is very different from ancient Athens. Based on the ancient example, we might assume that David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy need not worry – there won’t be tyrant slayer statues in their honour.

But what will the history of this day look like? We can’t yet say, because we don’t quite know yet who will be writing that history. But with the ancient story in mind, we can watch out for the first signs of a tyrant slayer myth in the making.

While Harmodios and Aristogeiton (not knowing what a tradition of tyrant-slayer myths they would trigger) may not have been aware of the potential long-term consequences of their deed, Libya’s tyrant slayers knew exactly what they were doing. The story is already contested, perhaps embellished, as its first draft is being written.

A fighter loyal to Libya’s interim authorities told the BBC he found Gaddafi hiding in a hole and the former leader begged him not to shoot. The fighter brandished a golden pistol he said he took from Col Gaddafi.

A man claiming to be an eyewitness told the BBC that he saw Col Gaddafi being shot with a 9mm gun in the abdomen at around 1230 local time.

NTC official Abdel Majid Mlegta told Reuters that Gaddafi had been wounded in both legs.

“He was also hit in his head,” he said. “There was a lot of firing against his group and he died.”

Words can be easily contested, and  history (no matter its accuracy) often gets fixed in people’s memories when there are monuments to go with the stories. Human beings may be sceptical about words – but when you can point at a place and see the traces: that’s when history starts to settle in the imagination.  And indeed, the monumentalisation of the story, its rooting in the memorial landscape, has started already. The BBC has a picture of the culvert where Ghaddafi is said to have been captured and/or killed.

the site where Ghaddafi died, with memorial graffito

The place where Ghaddafi was found

The Graffito, which can’t have been added more than a few hours after the event, reportedly says:

This is the place of Gaddafi, the rat… God is the greatest.

What will happen to this place? Will they allow the graffito to disappear? Will they carve it into the concrete? Will they replace it with another monument? Or will the new government want this place to be forgotten and obliterated as quickly as possible?

What it tells us is that memories are already being shaped – Libya’s future, more so than what actually happened, will decide how this day and this place will be remembered.

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3 Responses to Tyrant Slayers

  1. Another excellent post, and I especially like your comments about how memories are strengthened when they are written into the landscape in material form – very important to the formation of traditions in Rome, too. So glad you started this blog. 🙂

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Thanks, Penny!
    Monuments and their links to memories are close to any Pausaniac’s heart, as you might imagine…. and I hope I can find many more modern examples. But this, I thought, was truly remarkable! I wonder what its impact in Arabic is, but even the translation has the kind of strong impact you’d hope to achieve with an inscription. I can’t think of an example where memorialisation (if that’s a word) has been so quick and inprovised – unless one wants to compare the way in which trophies were set up as improvised victory monuments on ancient battlefields…

  3. Kaja Harter-Uibopuu says:

    Excellent, Maria! Your post is full of inspiring thoughts and just made me reconsider one of my next classes. I will read I.Ilion 25 with my students and discuss “tyrant-slaying”.

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