). The word
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
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
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
); 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
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;
); 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
(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
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;
); 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.
8.565 D, τύραννος ἐκ
προστατικῆς ῥίζης καὶ οὐκ ἄλλοθεν ἐκβλαστάνει
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.
); 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
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.
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
); but as a rule the band of ἐπίκουροι,
for the support of which the
subjects were taxed, was the invariable accompaniment of tyrannis (Arist.
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
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
11), and that Cylon attempted to make himself tyrant of Athens (Hdt. 5.71
). 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.
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
; Arist. Pol.
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.
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
). 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.
5.11, 9=p. 1313; Hdt.
), 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
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.
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
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.
9.25; Nicol. Damasc. Frag.
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
); 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]
Periander, who, besides founding Potidaea (Nicol. Damasc.
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,
, 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
), 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
; 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
; 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
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
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,
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
Bremen, 1852; Drumann, De tyrannis
Halle, 1812; Wachsmuth, Hell.
1.493 ff., 2.72 ff., 688 if.; Schömann,
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
Pt. ii. ch. 9; on the Sicilian tyrants, Holm,
Gesch. Siciliens in Alterth.
1.212 ff., 2.77 ff.)