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TYRANNUS (τύραννος). The word τύραννος has not yet been satisfactorily explained by a Greek etymology, and Boeckh's conjecture that it was a foreign word and came to the Greeks from Lydia or Phrygia, where it is found frequently in inscriptions, is extremely probable (Boeckh, Comment. ad C. I. G. n. 3438). The meaning the word conveyed to a Greek mind was that of a man who wielded absolute power, and a power not sanctioned by the ordinances of the state in which it was exercised. This is all that is essential to the notion; yet the later philosophic thought of Greece, combined with actual historical experience, developed an addition to the conception,--namely, that the rule of the τύραννος was exercised not in the interests of the subjects, but in that of the ruler. This was a natural consequence of the conception that the rule of the tyrant was always outside the pale of law (Eur. Suppl. 445), although it was a deduction not always justified by facts. Aristotle embraces every side of the idea when he defined tyranny proper as “that arbitrary power of an individual which is responsible to no one, and governs all alike, [p. 2.915]whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects, and therefore against their will” (Arist. Pol. iv. 10, 4 = p. 1295). The main point of separation between τυραννὶς and βασιλεία was the self-interested nature of the former government (Arist. Pol. 3.7, 5 = p. 1279; Eth. 8.10, 2), although the early kingships of Greece differed additionally from tyranny in having their privileges and their powers determined by custom (Thuc. 1.13, 1); and thus a king who, like Pheidon of Argos, overstepped the limits of his hereditary power, was accounted a tyrant (Arist. Pol. 5.10, 6 = p. 1310). It may be further noticed, in this definition of Aristotle and in the Greek conception generally, that tyranny proper implies individual rule.

Tyranny, while always answering in some degree to this general conception, yet had the particular form in which it manifested itself determined by the circumstances of the times and the stage of political development in Greece. We may distinguish two main periods of despotism, that of the 7th and 6th centuries on the one hand, and that of the 4th century on the other; the difference between the earlier and the later of these periods is the difference between symptoms of growth and symptoms of decay in the same nation: and while the former was a result of the natural course of internal development in the states and prepared the way for the free constitutions, the latter was a consequence of the downfall of the free governments and of the external causes which in the 4th century acted on Greek politics as a whole. The early tyrannies grew for the most part out of the oligarchical governments which succeeded the downfall of the monarchies. In Corinth and Thebes the monarchy fell about the middle of the 8th century: in Sparta, at a still earlier period, it had been saved by a limitation of its powers: in Athens it dwindled down to the limited functions of the archonship. Everywhere its power had been replaced by the rule of a nobility, whose special claims to honour were the exclusive possession of the sacrifices and higher religious rites of the state, the exclusive knowledge of its laws, and the sole possession of that political ἀρετὴ which resulted from higher birth and from inherited wealth and culture. But in the 7th century B.C. other classes were growing to power by the side of the old nobility,--the classes, namely, which had acquired wealth through commerce, and which were not only excluded from all participation in public affairs, but found their properties exposed to danger from the dynasties that ruled their towns. These formed the largest part of the discontented elements that fostered the despot, as in Corinth, where the revolution took the form of a reaction against the Bacchiadae, who had grossly misused their power and unscrupulously appropriated the profits of commerce (Ael. Var. Hist. 1.19; Strabo, p. 325): and the assertion of Thucydides that it was the growing wealth of Greece which gave rise to despotism (Thuc. 1.13) is illustrated both by this instance of Corinth and by that of the neighbouring town of Sicyon, which was renowned only next to Corinth for trade and manufacture (Strabo, p. 382). The tyrannies that developed out of oligarchies in Sicily and southern Italy, at Leontini, Gela, and Rhegium, during the close of the 6th century B.C. (Arist. Pol. 5.12, 13 = p. 1316), were probably due to the same assertion of their claims by the rich and unprivileged classes; in other states it was the poorest class, such as the Diacrii of Athens, on the championship of which the despot based his claim to power (Arist. Pol. 5.5, 9 = p. 1305; Hdt. 1.59); while at other times the element of race entered into the struggle, as at Sicyon, where both the tyrant and his supporters belonged to the Ionian Aegialeis, and the revolution took the form of a reaction against an oppressive Dorian nationality (Hdt. 5.68). Throughout Greece we see a period of transition, during which pressing difficulties, national or social, called for settlement; and the adjustment that ensued took the form either of a constitutional dictatorship or of an unconstitutional monarchy. In the former case the contending factions combined in appointing an individual for the settlement of their difficulties who bore the title of αἰσυμνήτης. Such an office was held by Pittacus in Mitylene, Zaleucus in Locri, and Solon in Athens; it was the only constitutional form of despotism in the Greek world, and Aristotle describes it as an “elective tyranny” (Arist. Pol. 3.14, 8 = p. 1285), and as combining the characteristics of βασιλεία and τυραννίς (ib. 4.10, 3 = p. 1295). The aesymnetes was given a body-guard of sufficient force to enable him to carry out his work of renovation (ib. 3.15, 16), and held office either for life or for a term of years or until certain duties had been performed (ib. 3.14, 9). In the later period of tyranny we find an aesymnete, Iphiades of Abydos, who made himself despot (ib. 5.5, 9 = p. 1305; Plaes, Die Tyrannis, ii. p. 89); and in some states, such as Teos, Cyme, Naxos, and Megara, the aesymnesia developed into a standing magistracy [AESYMNETES]. But such a legitimised despotism was rare in the Greek world. More frequently the reins of government were seized by a man who constituted himself the champion of a section of the people. The demagogue who united military prowess with zeal for the popular welfare was the most ordinary type of despot; this character is found chiefly exemplified by the pretenders who in the 7th and 6th centuries rose to the throne through opposition to the ruling oligarchies, such as Orthagoras at Sicyon, Cypselus at Corinth, Theagenes at Megara, Pisistratus at Athens (Arist. Pol. 5.5 and 10; Hdt. 1.59); but this type perpetuated itself even in the 4th century: Dionysius of Syracuse was one of the great historic instances of the demagogue-despot (Arist. Pot. 5.5, 10), and both Plato and Aristotle affirm this championship of popular causes to be the most settled element in the growth of tyrannies (Plat. Rep. 8.565 D, τύραννος ἐκ προστατικῆς ῥίζης καὶ οὐκ ἄλλοθεν ἐκβλαστάνει: cf. Arist. Pol. 5.10, 4 = p. 1310). But it was in the earlier tyrannies that this phenomenon was of most importance, as inaugurating a new and necessary phase of political life; they effected, as no other power could have done, the unity of the nations which they governed, and in many cases, as at Athens, their rule first created a national spirit (Hdt. 5.66); they were thus the precursors of the democracy, and even where democratic [p. 2.916]institutions did not follow their overthrow, yet a juster and more equable rule replaced, as at Corinth, the dynastic government of the older oligarchies. The demagogues who made their way to the throne were sometimes sprung from the oppressed classes whom they championed, as Orthagoras of Sicyon, who belonged to the weaker Ionian element of the state, and is said to have been a cook (Diod. 8.24); in other cases they were members of the oligarchies they overthrew, and made the great powers which they possessed as, magistrates a stepping-stone to the crown. It was thus that Phalaris rose to be tyrant of Agrigentum (Arist. Pot. 5.10, 6); Lygdamis of Naxos belonged to the old nobility (ib. 5.6, 1); at Miletus a tyranny arose out of the office of prytanis (ib. 5.5, 8), and according to one account Cypselus of Corinth rose to power by the mode in which he exercised the office of πολέμαρχος (Nicol. Damasc. Frag. 58). When once he had risen to power, the despot was sometimes enabled to retain his position through popular support; thus Cypselus of Corinth was a popular man who during the whole time of his rule never had a body-guard (Arist. Pol. 5.12, 4); and men like Gelo, who based their power on a victory over the national foes, could dispense with the support of armed force (Diod. 11.23, 26, 48); but as a rule the band of ἐπίκουροι, for the support of which the subjects were taxed, was the invariable accompaniment of tyrannis (Arist. Pol. 3.14, 7); this body-guard was usually composed of foreign mercenaries (ib. 5.10, 10), such as the Argive soldiers of Pisistratus (Hdt. 1.61). Even when the first steps to power were due to popular support, the rise to the tyranny was often effected by a coup d‘état, as in the case of Pisistratus. Sometimes, even in the older tyrannies, the despotic rule was wholly acquired by the use of armed force. It was thus that Polycrates and afterwards Syloson gained the throne in Samos (Hdt. 3.120; Polyaen. 6.45), that Aristodemus gained the throne in Cumae (Dionys. A. R. 7.2 to 11), and that Cylon attempted to make himself tyrant of Athens (Hdt. 5.71; Thuc. 1.126). The first exercise of the despot's power was usually the banishment of the more powerful members of the faction, which it had been his declared object to resist. Thus the Bacchiadae were expelled from Corinth by Cypselus (Dionys. A. R. 3.46; Strabo, p. 325; Hdt. 5.92), and even Pisistratus of Athens, in spite of his otherwise mild rule, found it necessary to banish some of the nobles (Hdt. 6.103; cf. Arist. Pol. 5.10, 12). But by the wiser despots no violent change was made in the machinery of government. The Orthagoridae and Pisistratus ruled in accordance with the existing laws (Hdt. 1.59; Thuc. 6.54, 6; Arist. Pol. 5.12, 1), the latter taking the precaution of having the great offices in the state filled by members of his own family (Thuc. l.c.). When radical changes were introduced, these had more of a social than a political character, and were calculated either to raise the position of one class of the population at the expense of others, or to unite the peoples by means of common festivals, or to give an impulse to democracy by substituting the universal, and, popular cults for the aristocratic and exclusive worship of the nobles. The first of these changes we find brought about in Sicyon, where the struggles which raised the Orthagoridae to power had an ethnic significance; the hatred of Cleisthenes to the memory of Adrastus, his suppression of the Homeric recitals and his alteration in the tribenames, were all intended to elevate the Ionic element in the state at the expense of the Dorian (Hdt. 5.67 and 68). The aim of uniting the people by festivals may be illustrated by Pisistratus' cultivation of the Panathenaea (Schol. Arist. p. 323); and that of superseding the aristocratic worship by the encouragement given by Cleisthenes of Sicyon and by Periander of Corinth to the popular cult of Dionysus (Hdt. 1.23, 5.67). A further object of the despots' policy was to strengthen their position by adding a lustre to their courts. To effect this they patronised arts and letters, as was done by Periander, Pisistratus, and Hiero, and some, like Polycrates of Samos, maintained an almost Oriental splendour (Sayce on Hdt. 3.39); they raised great buildings, such as the temple of Olympian Zeus originated by the Pisistratidae, and the great monuments at Samos built by Polycrates (Arist. Pot. 5.11, 9=p. 1313; Hdt. 3.60), and sent rich offerings to the religious centres of Greece, such as those dedicated by Cypselus and Periander of Corinth, and by Myron of Sicyon at Olympia (Plut. Sept. Sap. Conv. 21; Paus. 5.17 to 19, 6.19, 2). Aristotle attributes these buildings and offerings of the despots to the desire to impoverish their subjects and give them no time to hatch conspiracies (Arist. Pol. l.c.); but the more probable object was the desire of personal distinction in their own states and in Greece: and even amongst the later despots we find the revival of this cultivation of Greek art and letters by. Maussolus of Halicarnassus and Evagoras of Cyprus (Plin. Nat. 35.49; Isocr. in Evag. 20 and 21). The necessities of internal administration showed the true evils of tyrannis. Aristotle characterises the maxims which the despot must employ to preserve his power as being, to create a slavish feeling in the subjects, to create mistrust amongst them, and to allow no prominent men in the state (Arist. Pol. 5.11; cf. Hdt. 5.92); while the inevitable influence of flatterers and parasites and the system of espionage were other evils that accompanied their rule (Arist. l.c.). But there was probably no positive oppression of the general mass of the citizens. Some despots, like Dionysius of Syracuse, might have taxed their subjects heavily (Arist. Pol. 5.11, 10); but the Pisistratidae, we are told, only collected one-twentieth of the products of the soil. The artisans, who were not landowners, would thus have been wholly untaxed, and it was to the interest of the despot to provide the lower classes with material for work, and so keep them contented and employed (Ael. Var. Hist. 9.25; Nicol. Damasc. Frag. 60). The external policy pursued by the early despots was at once vigorous and prudent. Thucydides, indeed, says that, with the exception of the tyrants of Sicily, the policy of those of Greece generally was characterised by a regard for selfish interests and by an absence of any great foreign activity (Thuc. 1.17); but this judgment is scarcely applicable to despots like Cypselus, who founded some of the most important colonies of Corinth (Strabo, pp. 270, [p. 2.917]388), or Periander, who, besides founding Potidaea (Nicol. Damasc. Frag. 60), holding Corcyra and capturing Epidaurus (Hdt. 3.50 and 53), is also credited with the institution of the Isthmian games (Duncker, Hist. of Greece, ii. p. 371, n. 2), and certainly raised Corinth to a greater height of power than she attained before or after him. Pisistratus of Athens, too, subdued Naxos, purified Delos (Hdt. 1.64; Thuc. 3.104), and pushed his arms as far as Sigeum in the Troad (Hdt. 5.94); while Polycrates of Samos founded a maritime empire, and mingled in the politics of Egypt and Persia (Hdt. 3.39 and 44). More manifest, however, was the greatness of the life and works of the early despots of Sicily--of Gelo and Hiero in particular. The power of Gelo of Syracuse was almost commensurate with his aims. These were a union of all the Sicilian Greeks against the barbarian, which he so far effected as to be himself described by the historian as “despot of Sicily” (Σικελίης τύραννος, Hdt. 7.163, cf. 100.157).

But, however powerful the individual tyrant might make himself, it was not in the nature of the tyrannies to last long. They marked a period of transition in Greek politics, and, when their work of destruction and preparation had been effected, there was no further reason for their continuance; they were rarely inherited, and, even when transmitted, fell rapidly through the degeneracy of the holders, who sought to maintain their power by force, and sometimes through quarrels in the ruling house, such as proved the ruin of the earlier and later despotisms at Syracuse (Arist. Pol. 5.10, 31). The Orthagoridae ruled at Sicyon for a hundred years, the Cypselidae at Corinth for seventy-three years, the Pisistratidae at Athens, exclusive of the period during which Pisistratus was banished, for thirty-five; and Gelo, Hiero, and Thrasybulus at Syracuse for eighteen years (Arist. Pol. 5.12; Hdt. 1.60; Eratosth. ap. Schol. Aristoph. Wasps 502), but these periods of duration were exceptional (Arist. l.c.). The actual overthrow of a tyranny was sometimes due to a general rising of the people, such as that which deposed Thrasybulus of Syracuse (Diod. 11.67 sq.), sometimes to conspiracies inspired by private revenge (Arist. Pol. 5.10), but was not unfrequently effected by external force. Thus the Lacedaemonians drove out the Pisistratidae and are credited with having put down other tyrannies (Thuc. 1.18; Hdt. 5.92; Arist. Pol. 5.10, 30); and similarly the Syracusans, after the death of Thrasybulus and after that of the younger Dionysius, put down despotisms in the other Sicilian states (Arist. l.c.; Diod. 11.68, 16.82; Plut. Tim. 34).

The earlier despotisms in Greece proper, belonging to a dim period of history, became at an early period obscured by legend and coloured by the later Greek conceptions of tyranny. From these legends was developed the idea of a normal type of despot, which was usually embodied in the person of Periander. He was the standing illustration of the mode in which the true despot preserved and exercised his power (Arist. Pol. 5.11), while the events of his life were modelled after that conception of the internal state of the despot, which was such a favourite subject of Greek speculation (Hdt. 5.92; cf. Plat. Rep. ix. p. 580; Xen. Hiero, passim). The so-called “tyrants” of the Greek cities in Asia Minor in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.--such as Daphnis of Abydos, Aeaces of Samos, Aristagoras of Cumae, and others (Hdt. 4.138)--cannot be classed with the despots of the early period in Greece proper, Italy, and Sicily. They were merely native princes who governed the Greek dependencies of Persia, and who were kept in their position by Persian support; and in their dependence on external aid they bear a greater resemblance to the later despot of the 4th century.

This later despotism differed essentially from the earlier, in that it was not a natural growth and did not arise from internal changes in the Greek communities, but was a product of the general degeneration and of the ever-growing influence of mercenaries. The causes which raised these despots to power were sometimes the influence of the political clubs, but more often the ease of raising mercenaries or of seeking the protection of some strong foreign master (Plaes, Die Tyrannis, ii. pp. 38-40). The exceptions to the general rule were the later despotism of Sicily and the government of the Tagi of Thessaly. Dionysius of Syracuse was, like the earlier despots, a demagogue; and with the rule of Jason of Pherae Thessaly began a new life, became a united nation, and took her place among the powers of Greece. But on the whole these despotisms were not the sign of a healthier phase of political life. Many of them were due to the power of Macedon, which sought, like Persia, to rule its dependent states through despots; and most of them were a sign of the impossibility of the continuance of free civic life in Greece.

(H. G. Plaes, Die Tyrannis in ihren beiden Perioden bei den alten Griechen, Bremen, 1852; Drumann, De tyrannis Graecorum, Halle, 1812; Wachsmuth, Hell. Alterth. 1.493 ff., 2.72 ff., 688 if.; Schömann, Griech. Alterth. i. pp. 169 ff.; Gilbert, Handb. der griech. Staatsalth. 2.277 ff.; Iwan Müller, Handb. der classisch. Alterth. Wissenschaft, 4.1, 36 ff.; Duncker, History of Greece, Bk. iv.; Grote, History of Greece, Pt. ii. ch. 9; on the Sicilian tyrants, Holm, Gesch. Siciliens in Alterth. 1.212 ff., 2.77 ff.)


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  • Cross-references from this page (36):
    • Aristophanes, Wasps, 502
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.23
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.68
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.26
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.48
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.67
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 16.82
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.59
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.61
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.120
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.60
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.138
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.66
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.67
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.68
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.71
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.92
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.94
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.103
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.163
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.23
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.60
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.64
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.39
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.50
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.17
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.126
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.13
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.17
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.18
    • Thucydides, Histories, 6.6
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 35.49
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.104
    • Thucydides, Histories, 6.54
    • Plutarch, Timoleon, 34
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