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Tyranny at Corinth

The most famous early tyranny arose at Corinth1, a large city-state in the northeastern Peloponnese, around 657 B.C. in opposition to the rule of the aristocratic family called the Bacchiads. Under Bacchiad rule in the eighth and early seventh centuries B.C., Corinth had blossomed into the most economically advanced city2 in Archaic Greece. The Corinthians had forged so far ahead in naval engineering3, for instance, that other Greeks contracted with them to have ships built. Corinth's strong fleet helped the Bacchiads4 in founding overseas colonies at Corcyra5 in northwest Greece and Syracuse6 on Sicily, city-states which would themselves become major naval powers.

The Bacchiads became unpopular despite the city's prosperity because they ruled violently. Cypselus7, himself an aristocrat whose mother was a Bacchiad, readied himself to take over by becoming popular with the masses: “he became one of the most admired of Corinth's citizens because he was courageous, prudent, and helpful to the people, unlike the oligarchs in power, who were insolent and violent,” according to a later historian. Cypselus engineered the overthrow of Bacchiad rule with popular support and a favorable oracle from Delphi. He then ruthlessly suppressed rival aristocrats, but his popularity with the people remained so high that he could govern without the protection of a bodyguard. Corinth added to its economic strength during Cypselus' rule by exporting large quantities of fine pottery, especially to markets in Italy and Sicily. Cypselus founded additional colonies along the sailing route to the western Mediterranean to promote Corinthian trade in that direction.

When Cypselus died in 625 B.C., his son Periander8 succeeded him. Periander aggressively continued Corinth's economic expansion by founding colonies on the coasts both northwest and northeast of Greek territory to increase trade with the interior regions there, which were rich in timber and precious metals. He also pursued commercial contacts with Egypt, an interest commemorated in the Egyptian name Psammetichus he gave to one of his sons. The city's prosperity encouraged flourishing development in crafts, art, and architecture. The foundations of the great stone temple to Apollo begun in this period can still be seen today. Unlike his father, however, Periander lost the support of Corinth's people by ruling harshly. He kept his power until his death in 585 B.C., but the hostile feelings that persisted against his rule led to the overthrow of his successor, Psamettichus, within a short time. The opponents of tyranny thereupon installed a government based on a board of eight magistrates and a council of eighty men.

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