The Esablishment of the Concept of Tyranny in Ancient Greece

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Within the archaic Greek world, from roughly 700-480BC, before the rise, and perhaps resulting in the rise, of democracy, tyranny was seemingly common place, according to the evidence we have today such as the writings of historian Herodotus and philosophers like Aristotle. There are clear signs that the idea of a ‘typical’ tyrant was common in the Greek world with the stories we have amassed, but there is ambiguity in the nature of the evidence we hold and the way in which it can be analysed, therefore in this essay I will argue that there was such thing as a ‘typical’ tyrant in those times, however we cannot be certain of its legitimacy.

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The terminology for ‘tyrant’ did not exist within the Homeric world, even though such figures did exist. Today the word tyrant means ‘a ruler who has unlimited power over other people, and uses it unfairly and cruelly’, which could be said for many of the tyrants of Ancient Greece, however are not their only characteristics, nor their only shared characteristics. There was a typical way in which they gained power & typical background they all shared

They usually come about at a time of strife, presenting themselves as champions of the people within the democracy. Furthermore, they all came to power illegally. Aristotle discussed the nature of tyrant rise to power as starting within politics itself. Many tyrants, such as Cypseos of Corinth, originated from wealthy aristocratic families and thus already maintained a political standing and connections within the political world.

They established themselves as anti-elite however, regardless of their elite status. They often already had existing political title and thus access to power “nearly all tyrants started out as popular leaders (demagogoi)…who were trusted because they spoke against the distinguished.” He uses the example of Pheidon of Argos who “set up tyrannies from an existing kingship; a number of Ionian tyrants and Phalaris did so from magistracies; and Panaitios in Leontinoi, Kypselos in Corinth, Peisistratos in Athens, and Dionysius in Syracuse, as well as others in the same way, got their start from being popular leaders.’

Herodotus also describes the “oligarchic” that made up Corinth, where the ruling family kept rule by “marry[ing] amongst themselves” (1) they believed that the only those born within the family are worthy of maintaining power, already displaying the oppressive, power-hungry character of the tyrant definition we hold today.

The Activities of the Tyrants

Tyrants could also be typically recognised by their actions and the way they reformed their societies, and not all changes being negative. Many tyrants displayed religious piety in the way of temple foundation or building, such as the temple of Zeus in Athens by Samian Heraion, as well as dedications to the gods. However, while being acting as piety but could also be another way to display power and wealth. Not all the changes made were seemingly selfish either, for example improvements to interstate commerce, such as Polycrates, (t. Of Samos, & Egypt: Hdt. 3.39) – which enabled the boom of city state building as well as the building of infrastructure, such as the tunnel of Eupalinos, Samos (cf. Hdt. 3.60), an aqueduct system that not only showed off wealth but also acted as selfless in the betterment of citizen lives. Through their aristocratic and/or political background, they also hold ties to other Greek families of similar backgrounds and aristocrats from Persia and Egypt etc. While tyrants may come to power illegally, it is not purely the case that they will ignore all laws, therefore many tyrants were also associated with constitutional reform that bettered the lives of some of their citizens, for example, Perisitratus and Athenian lawcourts ([Aristotle] Athenian Constitution 16.5)

‘It is a device of tyranny…the people being busy with their daily affairs may not have leisure to plot against their ruler. Instances of this are the pyramids in Egypt and the votive offerings of the Cypselids, and the building of the temple of Olympian Zeus by the Peisistratids and of the temples at Samos, works of Polykrates (for all these undertakings produce the same effect: constant occupation and poverty among the subject people).’

However, the main accusation made against tyranny is the violence that came with it. Periander of Corinth, described by Herodotus, as “less violent than his father…to begin with…but soon surpassed him in…savagery” (Hdt 5.92)

‘To begin with, Periander was less violent than his father [Cypselus], but soon surpassed him in bloody-mindedness and savagery. That was the result of correspondence which he entered into with Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus. He sent a representative to the court of this despot, to ask his opinion on how best and most safely to govern his city. Thrasybulus invited the man to walk with him from the city to a field where the corn was growing. As he passed through this cornfield, continually asking questions about why the messenger had come to him from Corinth, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until the finest and best part of the crop was ruined. In this way he went right through the field, and then sent the messenger away without a word…

  • Typically tyrannies last generations – a couple?
  • Cut off the people that reach your ‘height’ – political power

Herodotus (Hdt 5.92) on Periander of Corinth. “Thrasybulus recommended the murder of all the people in the city who were outstanding in influence or ability. Moreover, he took the advice, and from that time forward there was no crime against the Corinthians that he did not commit; indeed, anything that Cypselos had left undone in the way of killing or banishing, Periander completed.’

Particularly negative portrayal that tyrannical power was associated with wanton violence. Thus leading onto the ‘typical’ reception of tyranny in Archaic Greece. There was such a thing as a typical reaction to tyranny by the Greeks. The reputation they held

Democracy was of paramount importance; they even changed Athenian law to make it so that a member of the assembly can be forcibly removed each year, while it may have turned into people removing those they dislike or find annoying, it was intended to remove those who seem to be seeking power within the assembly.

However we cannot straightforwardly believe all stories about tyrants. (LTI, Hermaneutics). Yet again looking at Cypelsos of Corinth, according to herodotus he “exiled many corinthians and deprived many of their property, and a lot more by far of their lives”, however Nicolas of Damascus portrayed Cypseos in a vastly different matter, opposing herodotus by arguing he “neither imprisoned nor put any citizen in chains, but accaccepted the guarantors of some and let them go, and became the guarantor of others himself.” While there are some shared elements to both accounts of Cypelsos such as perhaps he did consider the oracle as a form of a rubber stamp as colonisation was risky, therefore divine legitimisation from the oracle may be required or preferred. However how violently he behaves is what differs.

This begs the question about how wildly different accounts of tyrants came to be, as with most evidence we collect, people develop their own narrative based on whether or not they have prospered or lost. This then leads to polarisation, which in turn leads to opposing desires of how a community will wish to remember their history.

The negative reaction to tyranny, however is more predominant, as the Athenians, for example, remain paranoid that it will return. (Thyd. Bk 6) The Athenians produced a law that allowed for the killing of anyone who is thought to be plotting tyranny, known as the law of Eukrates in 338BC. (Death to tyrants)

Once Athens became a democracy, and the view that society improved overall for the common man meant that to the Athenians it was vital that the idea of tyranny remain an entirely negative event and thus the portrayal of tyranny but the Athenians is likely to be more extremely negative in comparison to the portrayal from other areas within Greece.

Thucydides continues (6.54-6.59) on the Peisistratids; describing a tyranny that was almost entirely positive in its effects on its people, as the leaders believed in speech and intelligence, thus refined the arts, and even lowering taxes which were spent on the city itself which grew in splendour until an assassination attempt occurred on the son of the tyrant Hippias, after which “tyranny pressed harder on the Athenians” and thus scared the tyranny into ridding Athens of any potential citizen opposition or rebellion. Thus it could potentially be argued that the people misunderstood tyrants who were merely responding to a series of events.

In conclusion, while there have been different stories about the violent or oppressive nature of tyrants throughout archaic Greece, the portrayal of the types of actions they engage with, their background and how they gained power, remains to the majority undisputed. Public opinion to any event will almost always have opposing sides dependent on personal experiences with the events, which still occurs to this day, and thus makes the question of their exact character more difficult to answer, however we can say that overall there was a ‘typical’ tyrant figure.

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