Hermias of Atarneus
The first mention of Hermias is as a slave to Eubulus, a Bithynian banker who ruled Atarneus. Hermias eventually won his freedom and inherited the rule of Atarneus. Due to his policies, his control expanded to other neighboring cities, such as Assos, in Asia Minor.
In his youth, Hermias had studied philosophy in Plato's Academy. There he first met Aristotle. After Plato's death in 347 BC, Xenocrates and Aristotle traveled to Assos under the patronage of Hermias. Aristotle founded his first philosophical school there and eventually married Pythias, Hermias' daughter or niece.
Hermias' towns were among those that revolted from Persian rule. In 342 BC, the Persian King, Artaxerxes III, sent Memnon of Rhodes to reconquer these coastal cities. Under the guise of truce, Memnon tricked Hermias into visiting him, whereupon he sent Hermias in chains to Susa. Hermias was tortured, presumably for Memnon to learn more about Philip of Macedon's upcoming invasion plans. Hermias' dying words were that he had done nothing unworthy of philosophy.
After Hermias' death, Aristotle dedicated a statue in Delphi and composed a hymn to Virtue in Hermias' honor.
Hermias of Atarneus had surprisingly humble origins for the amount of political prestige and recognition he would gain in the later years of his life. Although his date of birth remains unknown, he is first mentioned as a Bithynian slave to Eubulus, a wealthy banker and despotic tyrant of the lands surrounding Assos and Atarneus, two commercial towns on the Troad coastline of Asia Minor. While several ancient historians, such as Theopompus, claimed that Hermias was a eunuch, modern historians discredit these baseless remarks as nothing more than attempts to blacken his reputation. Although Hermias was considered a slave, he was extremely valued, respected, and privileged. At an early age, Hermias was sent to Athens to study under Plato and Aristotle for several years. It was during these years of his formal education that Hermias developed a strong and intimate friendship with Aristotle. It is crucial to recognize the global setting during Hermias’ early years to solidify our understanding of the actions taken during his mature life. The first years of Hermia’s life are spent in a transitional phase anticipating the colossal expansion of the Macedonian Empire, led by Alexander the Great. During this period of time, most neighboring powers face great internal strife and disorder. While the power of Greek city-states continues to dwindle in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, the Macedonian Kingdom to the North remains embroiled in dynastic conflicts. Likewise, the once-great Persian Empire is hampered by internal feuds and incompetent leaders, resulting in a loss in western territories as lands in Asia Minor begin to revolt or cede from the empire (such as the despotic government created by Hermias owner).
The amount of political disorganization among neighboring powers outlined in Hermias' early life allowed him to achieve a significant amount of political power and independence. After the completion of his education in Athens, Hermias returned to Atarneus to form a partnered rule with Eubulus. However, not long after their reunion, Hermias' master died, leaving him to succeed the despotic rule in about 351 BC. In control of a large expanse of territory, Hermias began to attract the attention of neighboring powers as his domain continued to expand. Eager to launch expansive campaigns into Thrace and possibly Persia, Philip II of Macedon viewed Hermias as a useful prospective ally. Offering a strategic launching point for Macedonian invasions, an alliance with Hermias seemed vital. Taking advantage of their past friendship, King Philip ordered Aristotle “to proceed to Asia Minor and join Hermias of Atarneus for political or imperialistic reasons”. Having taken leave from Athens due to rising resentment towards Macedonians as well as the death of Plato in 347 BC, Aristotle agreed to travel to Asia Minor, as requested by King Philip. Accompanied by fellow philosopher Xenocrates, Aristotle received a warm welcome and immediately began establishing political ties between King Philip and Hermias. One surprising aspect of Hermias life is the amount of influence Aristotle plays on his decisions. While originally ruling his lands with a strict despotism, Aristotle’s arrival in Atarneus is quickly followed by a governmental shift to more Platonic methods, as well as a milder tyranny. Not only did these changes win Hermias the support of neighboring peoples, they also managed to increase his territory into much of the coastal countryside. As time passed, Hermias began to fear a Persian invasion of Asia Minor. Indeed, while he had matured during a period of incompetent Persian leaders and rampant internal conflicts, the ascension of Artaxerxes III Ochus to the throne of Persia in 358 BC promised eventual confrontation as he was determined to regain lands lost to revolt and secession from the Persian Empire. While Hermias’ early life takes place during the disorder preceding the massive Alexandrian conquest, his mature life reveals the emergence of the Macedonian Kingdom as a formidable power, as well as the beginning stages of King Philip’s invasion plans later followed by his son, Alexander.
Although Hermias could have benefited greatly from a strong Macedonian military protecting his borders from Persian invasion, King Philip suddenly severed all communications with him as a result of Athenian threats to attack Macedonia with Persian aid if they continued plots to invade Asia Minor. This betrayal deserted Hermias to a cruel fate. In order to regain the losses of Persian territory and discover Macedonian invasion plans, Artaxerxes III commissions a traitorous Greek mercenary named Mentor. While some believed Hermias' captor to be Memnos of Rhodes, historian Diodoros claims that it was in fact his brother Mentor. Mentor is charged with the task of capturing Hermias, and therefore restoring his lands to the Persian Empire. Disgusted with the actions taken by King Philip, Aristotle begins to write letters to persuade Mentor to change sides. Although he eventually agrees in order to secure the trust of Hermias, Mentor seizes the next opportune moment to capture him, sending Hermias to Susa in chains. Once in Susa, Hermias is tortured in a vain attempt to extract information regarding King Philip’s invasion plans. Refusing to betray his companions, his last words were “tell my friends that I have done nothing shameful or unworthy of philosophy”. His death occurs in 341 BC. His final statement displays the magnitude of Hermias' friendship with Aristotle as well as the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy on his life. After his death, Aristotle creates a memorial at Delphi commemorating Hermias’ loyalty and writes a hymn to his name. Aristotle also reserves the right to marry Hermias' niece or daughter, Pythias once she comes of age.
Hymn in honour of Hermias
O Virtue, won by earnest strife,
And holding out the noblest prize
That ever gilded earthly life,
Or drew it on to seek the skies;
For thee what son of Greece would not
Deem it an enviable lot,
To live the life, to die the death
That fears no weary hour, shrinks from no fiery breath?
Such fruit hast thou of heavenly bloom,
A lure more rich than golden heap,
More tempting than the joys of home,
More bland than spell of soft-eyed sleep.
For thee Alcides, son of Jove,
And the twin boys of Leda strove,
With patient toil and sinewy might,
Thy glorious prize to grasp, to reach thy lofty height.
Achilles, Ajax, for thy love
Descended to the realms of night;
Atarneus' King thy vision drove,
To quit for aye the glad sun-light,
Therefore, to memory's daughters dear,
His deathless name, his pure career,
Live shrined in song, and link'd with awe,
The awe of Xenian Jove, and faithful friendship's law.
Although Hermias played a minute role in the political quarreling preceding the expansion of Macedonia, the details of his death had serious historical repercussions. Having kept in contact with King Philip through the presence of Aristotle, Hermias likely knew the specifics of his invasion plans in Thrace, Asia Minor, and Persia. Even after being severely betrayed by King Philip, Hermias displays great loyalty in his refusal to submit to Persian questioning. This steadfast devotion to his allies protected the secrecy of Macedonian invasion plans and most likely played a small role in the ease of Alexander’s expansion. Another of Hermias’ significant contributions is the insight gained through his accounts of social and political dealings in the fourth century B.C. A knowledgeable witness active in the political power struggle of the time, Accounts of Hermias' life offer information regarding the political circumstances that allowed for Macedonian conquest. This includes the diminishing power and general disorder of older empires. While the turmoil of the Peloponnesian War prevents Greek city-states from rising to a seat of Mediterranean power, internal conflicts and incompetent leaders allow for a large recession in Persian power and territory. By ending its dynastic conflicts and uniting under King Philip, Macedonia asserts itself as a stable and formidable kingdom capable of vast expansion. Hermias’ accounts offer an unbiased source of information of this period. While history is commonly determined by the victor, Hermias’ strong friendship with Aristotle preserves his story as he is constantly mentioned in much of Aristotle’s writing. If it were not for this strong bond, Hermias’ existence would have been forgotten, and his effects on historical outcomes neglected.
As little is known of Hermias apart from the accounts of Aristotle, there are few sources of past historical interpretations. Due to his Bythinian origins, early Greek historians such as Theopompus and Theocritus regarded him as a barbarian. Declaring him a barbaric tyrant, they often made attempts to blacken his reputation, such as spreading the rumor that he was a eunuch. The negative criticism gained from Theocritus and Theopompus is most likely due to his usurpation of Atarneus. Both historians having been born in Chion, an island whose territory once included Atarneus, resentment to Hermias is understandable. Threatened by Macedonian invasion from the north, most of the Greek city-states condemned Hermias because of his connections to King Philip. Even Aristotle was forced to leave Athens as he had connections with both. While immediate historians rebuked Hermias for his affiliations with Macedonia, later studies of Aristotles’ writing created a general appeal towards the tyrant. More modern interpretation offers that Hermias was incredibly intelligent, suffering his harsh fate only because of his sudden betrayal. Joseph M. Bryant states that his significance is rooted in his attempts to “bring philosophy to power”. Influenced by his academy-based education as well as his array of philosopher comrades, Hermias gradually loosened his harsh tyranny, leaving in place a Platonic government. While original historical views of Hermias were critical due to the Chian sentiments, interpretation soon opened to illuminate both his intelligence, as well as his significance in his political power and use of philosophy.
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