Andocides, On the Mysteries


This subject material includes Ancient Greek in both the text and the commentary, which will not appear correctly unless your computer has the appropriate software installed.

Before proceeding further, Click Here.

Important Guidelines for Students using this Medium

Set out below is an introduction to the subject (very important), with information on the historical background, and links to subject material on the web.

After reading the material below, you should work through the linked textual material in accordance with your tutor's instructions and timetable. There will be a one-hour class session with your tutor each week for text discussion and presentation of material. If you need to contact your tutor urgently (eg. for a point of clarification without which you cannot proceed), you may email him at

This web-based material is divided into 150 sections. Each section has its own commentary for you to note.

You will see that the original Greek text appears in the top half of your screen, and commentary and explanations in the lower half. By clicking on a coloured (and, depending upon your browser configuration, underlined) word or phrase, the appropriate commentary will appear in the bottom half of the screen.

Please note that, where a comment appears with a blue symbol, it deals with either a) words or passages which have been translated in the notes, or b) matters of language and grammar. Where a comment appears with a red symbol, it deals with matters of content, including historical and political allusions.

You may possibly find it useful to print out the Ancient Greek text. This would give you a hard copy to carry with you, and in some cases may clarify textual characters which your computer does not show as clearly as you would like. If so, click the mouse button inside the frame where the Greek text is displayed, and then print.

Ideally, your browser should be used 'full screen', with screen definition set to 800x600 and colours set to greater than 256 (ie. 'hi-colour').

If you find that the size of the print on the screen is too large, ie. that only a very few lines of text appear in each of the frames on the screen, check the screen font size setting for your browser, and decrease the point size. Alternatively, you may need to adjust the font size to "small fonts" in your computer's monitor setting; however, if you have already set your screen definition to 800x600, this should not be necessary.

Should students feel that a dedicated email discussion group (mailing list) would be of use for exchanging ideas between classes, etc., please ask your tutor; that facility will then be set up immediately.
To bring up the relevant work material, click on the appropriate link below:

[Sections 1-15] [Sections 16-30] [Sections 31-45] [Sections 46-60]
[Sections 61-75] [Sections 76-90] [Sections 91-105] [Sections 106-120]
[Sections 121-135] [Sections 136-150] [Thucydides]


Andocides' speech PERI TWN MUSTHRIWN is one of our most important sources of information on two notorious scandals in the history of Athens during the period of the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Athens and Sparta, and their allies on each side, which occupied much of the last three decades of the 5th century (431-04 B.C.). These scandals, which occurred in 415 shortly before Athens dispatched a fleet for operations in southern Italy and Sicily, involved a parody of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the mutilation of a number of hermae, statues of the god Hermes.

The notes which follow cover the whole speech except secs. 86-91 and 132-39. These sections are not for detailed study (though you might read them for yourself). In place of them, some chapters from Thucydides Book 6 have been included - namely, Chapters 29-31, 53, and 60-61. These contain Thucydides' treatment of the two episodes referred to above (with particular reference to the involvement of Alcibiades, the most prominent political figure in Athens at the time). Notes on these chapters are appended at the end of the notes on Andocides' speech. You might, however, prefer to consider the Thucydidean passages after sec. 70 of Andocides' speech, which brings to an end Andocides' account of the events in question and the persons allegedly involved.

The notes are intended to serve as guidelines and provide you with assistance in reading the texts (with some short passages translated literally, more freely, or both). The most comprehensive edition of the Andocides' text is that of D. MacDowell, Andokides On the Mysteries, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962. In addition to his notes on the text, MacDowell provides much useful background information in his Introduction and Appendices. A more recent though less detailed edition is that of M. Edwards, Warminster, Aris & Phillips, 1995. Edwards also provides a translation of the speech, which sticks fairly closely to the original. A.N.W. Saunders' translation (in Greek Political Oratory, Penguin Classics) is somewhat freer and a little questionable in places. The notes provided here cite some of the notes from MacDowell and Edwards, without going into all the niceties of the legal arguments as MacDowell does. On grammatical points, occasional references are made to the JACT (= Joint Association of Classical Teachers Reading Greek Course) volume on Grammar, Vocabulary and Exercises, and to Goodwin's Greek Grammar.

Historical background to the speech

In 421 B.C., ten years after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Athens concluded a peace treaty with Sparta which was supposed to last for fifty years. It is commonly known as the Peace of Nicias, after the Athenian politician Nicias who played the leading role in bringing hostilities to an end. Yet the terms of the treaty proved unsatisfactory to both sides, and tensions between them remained high. Further hostilities broke out between Sparta and an anti-Spartan coalition supported by Athens. In Athens itself there were many, particularly amongst the radical democratic elements, who favoured a renewal of the war with Sparta. In this context Alcibiades, a man from a distinguished aristocratic background, rose to prominence in the political scene. A cousin of Pericles, he advocated a war policy on a far more ambitious scale than had ever been envisaged by Pericles. His policy was one of deliberate aggression leading to ultimate territorial expansion.

The opportunity to put this into effect was provided in 415 when some of the small states of Sicily appealed to Athens for assistance against the powerful state of Syracuse. The matter was debated in the Athenian Assembly, and opposing points of view were put forward. However, Alcibiades finally won the day with the proposal that the Assembly authorise a naval expedition to Sicily for a campaign against Syracuse. This would mean the renewal of full-scale war with Sparta - for Syracuse and Sparta were allies, obliged to come to each other's aid in the event of an attack upon either one. The debate in Athens had resolved itself along political lines. Those with oligarchic sympathies strongly opposed the renewal of war. But they were far outweighed by the democratic elements and the influence of Alcibiades. Thus preparations were made for the dispatch of the fleet to Sicily.

The profanation of the Mysteries and the mutilation of the hermae

Before the fleet sailed, two incidents occurred which were to have major political repercussions in Athens:
1. A man called Pythonicus stated before the Assembly that Alcibiades and a party of friends had engaged in an act of gross blasphemy. In secret they had parodied the ceremonial rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual national festival of Athens in honour of the earth goddess Demeter and her daughter Core (Persephone). Uproar followed. "Athens was not prepared to see a cult which gave expression to her most intimate religious beliefs exposed to deliberate ridicule." (MacDowell)
2. The scandal was intensified when it was further discovered that a number of hermae (stone images of the god Hermes) had been mutilated in a single night. A commission was quickly appointed to conduct an enquiry into both outrages, and rewards were offered for information.

Accounts of both these incidents are given by Andocides and Thucydides. It has been suggested by A.N.W. Saunders that the first of the two incidents, the profanation of the Mysteries, was "a sophisticated rebellion against convention", though as he further comments, it seems to have been carried out with surprising recklessness in the presence of uninitiated slaves. Very likely it was little more than an ill-timed, irresponsible, drunken escapade. But the mutilation of the hermae was a much more serious affair. Almost certainly there were political motives underlying it; as Thucydides reports, it was widely regarded as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the democracy. It was also regarded as a bad omen for the sailing of the expedition to Sicily. The mutilation was a gross insult to the god Hermes, who was the god of travellers. There could hardly have been a worse time to offend this god than when an Athenian fleet was about to set off on a difficult and dangerous enterprise in the west. From the names, recorded in Andocides' speech, of those allegedly involved in the mutilation, it is clear that at least some of them were men of oligarchic sympathies. At all events, both incidents were seen as part of a plot to overthrow the democracy.

Almost certainly Alcibiades was not involved in the mutilation of the hermae. He had nothing to gain by it, and would certainly have done nothing to jeopardise the expedition of which he had been the prime instigator. On the other hand, there is little doubt that he took part in the profanation of the Mysteries, even if only as a drunken escapade, and had previously been known to have engaged in mutilations of a more trivial nature (thus Plutarch in his Life of Alcibiades, 19.1). It would have been easy to rouse against him, as his enemies attempted to do, the suspicion that he had been involved in the mutilation of the hermae as well, though almost certainly he was never charged with this offence. The outcome of these incidents, as far as Alcibiades is concerned, is reported in the passages from Thucydides with which we'll be dealing below.

The question of Andocides' involvement and the charges which he faced in 400 B.C.

What of Andocides? Like Alcibiades, he was a member of an old and distinguished family with oligarchic sympathies, and he was amongst a number of oligarchs denounced and imprisoned for being implicated in the above incidents. However, he avoided conviction and punishment by execution apparently by confessing his guilt and giving evidence against his accomplices (though he denies this in his speech). Shortly afterwards the decree of Isotimides was passed, which forbade anyone guilty of impiety, and having confessed to it, from ever entering again the temples or the Agora at Athens. It is thought that Andocides may have been the particular target of the decree. At all events, life in Athens apparently became intolerable to him, now widely scorned and detested, and he went into exile in Cyprus, and visited other parts of the Greek world. Several attempts made by him to return to Athens were unsuccessful. However in 403, in accordance with the general amnesty proclaimed in Athens after the overthrow of the oligarchic regime of the Thirty and the restoration of democracy, he was finally allowed to return home. And once more he returned to public life.

Several years later, probably in the autumn of 400, he was brought to trial in Athens on two charges: (i) that he had attended the annual celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries although forbidden to do so by Isotimides' decree; (ii) that he had laid an olive-branch on the altar of the Eleusinium* while the celebration of the Mysteries was in progress, which was illegal. The chief prosecutor was a man called Cephisius (at the instigation of the wealthy, urbane Callias), assisted by three others - Meletus, Epichares, and Agyrrhius. The text you will be studying is Andocides' defence against the charges.
(*The Eleusinium was the temple of the goddesses of Eleusis (Demeter and Core) at Athens, to the south east of the Agora.)

With regard to the first of these charges, there is no doubt that he had in fact entered the temples and Agora after his return from exile, and little doubt that he had taken part in the celebration of the Mysteries in 400. He does not dispute this in his speech. His defence rests on two main issues: (i) that he was in fact innocent of the offences covered by Isotimides' decree in 415; (ii) the issue of whether the decree is now, in 400, invalid, in view of the amnesty of 403. With regard to the second charge, Andocides does not dispute the illegality of the action referred to, but simply claims that he did not commit this action. A note on the outcome of the trial is given in the Epilogue.

Copyright: Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Queensland
Subject Development: Professor T R Bryce, MA, PhD, FAHA.
Web Development: Mr Gayle Paltridge, BA

Return to Classics page.

Last revised: December 11, 2000