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Tyrants and Popular Support

As in the case of the Cypselid tyranny at Corinth, most tyrannies needed to cultivate support among the masses of their city-states to remain in power because their armies were composed primarily of non-aristocrats. The dynasty of tyrants1 on the island of Samos2 in the eastern Aegean Sea, for example, who came to power about 540 B.C., built enormous public works to benefit their city-state and provide employment. They began construction of a temple to Hera3 meant to be the largest in the Greek world, and they dramatically improved the water supply of their urban center by excavating a great tunnel connected to a distant spring. This marvel of engineering with a channel eight feet high ran for nearly a mile through a 900-foot high mountain. The later tyrannies that emerged in city-states on Sicily4 similarly graced their cities with beautiful temples and public buildings.

By working in the interests of their peoples, some tyrannies, like that founded by Cypselus at Corinth, maintained their popularity for decades. Other tyrants experienced bitter opposition from aristocrats jealous of the tyrant's power or provoked civil war by ruling brutally and inequitably. The poet Alcaeus of the city-state of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean, himself a rebellious aristocrat, described such strife around 600 B.C.: “Let's forget our anger; let's quit our heart-devouring strife and civil war, which some god has stirred up among us, ruining the people but bestowing the glory on our tyrant for which he prays.” In short, the title tyrant in Archaic Greece did not automatically label a ruler as brutal or unwelcome, as the use of the same word in English implies. Greeks evaluated tyrants as good or bad depending on their behavior as rulers.

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