W. Riess (Chapel Hill), Dying like a Tyrant: The Semantics of Political Assassination in Fourth-Century Greece

Political assassinations were an intrinsic part of ancient policy-making, deeply rooted in the cultural, mental, and political structures of the time. This article concentrates on political assassinations perpetrated in the Greek world between 404BC and 336BC. A thorough analysis of the source material reveals that the killing of high-ranking politicians were not senseless deeds. They were a meaningful social practice that followed certain cultural rules and depended on the political and strategic circumstances. Basically, we can distinguish two types of assassinations. Each of them conveys a specific symbolic message.
1. In the constitutional hoplite polis murder was justified to get rid of a tyrant or prevent tyranny. A culturally complex semantic system defines what a tyrannicide must look like to be accepted as one. A young man must have the courage to face the tyrant in public and strike him down there in the eyes of witnesses, whose task it is to adjudicate the deed. Only this public display of the deed can help lending legitimacy to it. This condition has a socially stabilizing function, because young men will have thought twice before committing such an assassination. Many compelling reasons must have accumulated to entice someone to really go ahead and kill the ruler of a city. In a way, this high moral and psychological threshold protected the lives of members of the elite at least to some extent. In hoplite poleis the citizenry wanted to be involved in the process of defining the legitimacy of an assassination. In general, the killing of a tyrant was regarded as legitimate (Euphron of Sicyon, Thebes, 366BC; Clearchus, Heracleia Pontike, 353/2BC), although the problem of tyrannicide was already clearly seen (Timophanes, Corinth, 365/4BC). If the assassin failed to portray the dead as a tyrant convincingly and stylize himself as a tyrant slayer, his deed lacked legitimacy and he ran into serious trouble (the family of the Diagoreians, Rhodes, 395BC; Dion, Sicily, 354BC).
2. In established tyrannies and monarchies the common people had no saying whatsoever in the process of defining a political murder as legitimate or illegitimate. The question of legitimacy vs. illegitimacy itself was even irrelevant to the power-mongers at court. Sole rulers were surrounded by their bodyguards most of the times so that they were harder to kill. Plots were necessary to overwhelm them in their private chambers. The killing of a monarch was the court’s business only, it had no or few impact on society as a whole. A dynastic murder carried out in a chamber had often little symbolic meaning. Therefore, the deed could take place behind palace walls and closed doors. In most cases, family members killed their powerful relative, not because he was necessarily a tyrant doing harm to society, but for dynastic reasons only (Polydorus, Thessaly, 369BC; Dionysus I., Sicily, 367BC; Alexander of Pherai, Thessaly, 358BC; the dynastic killings in Macedonia).
It goes without saying that these two scenarios are ideal paradigms. Exceptions confirm the rule (Philipp II., Macedonia, 336BC). According to the assassins’ plans and wishes, the categories could be mixed and transformed so as to convey complex symbolic messages to an audience.