The Tyrants

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The Tyrants


Position of Power. Tyranny was a nearly universal phenomenon in the more significant states of Greece during the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.). The tyrants were sole rulers, autocrats or dictators, but the title did not carry the odious connotation of the modern usage. Tyrants were found in the Peloponnese, Athens, the Aegean islands, Ionia, and Sicily. The older view that the tyrants came to power as the champions of a new manufacturing and commercial class has lost its validity in the light of more-recent research. Another position, namely that as the gap between rich and poor widened the tyrants took the side of the discontented poor and promised to improve their condition, has also lost ground. The tyrants did come to power with the support of the commons, but for a different reason. They assumed power because the ruling aristocratic families proved incapable of maintaining law and order. The more-powerful nobles were engaged in constant struggles with each other for control of the government, ignoring the needs of their fellow citizens. Unable to keep order within their own ranks, these regimes brought their communities near to internal collapse. A graphic example of the infighting is the coup d’etat attempted in late-seventh-century Athens by one Cylon, a nobleman and Olympic victor. The attempt was put down by the aristocratic government in power, which executed Cylon without a trial.

Law Codes. This illegality, which was also a sacrilege, provoked a demand for declarative laws setting forth which acts were crimes and specifying the appropriate punishment for each. At Athens a man called Draco promulgated a law on homicide soon after the failed revolution of Cylon. Lawgivers appeared in other states as well, and their law codes were published in order to make them known to all, and so to eliminate arbitrary interpretation. Greece, in short, entered upon an age of codification of laws and the establishment of social norms, in the same way that coinage began to define the value of things. These processes formed a fundamental tendency of the Archaic Period. Without the work of the lawgivers, the

principal agents of this tendency, the life of the civic community could not be imagined. Draco and Solon at Athens were not the only legislators; there was the semilegendary Lycurgus at Sparta, Zaleucus in Italian Locri, Andromachus at Rhegium, and Charondas in Catana in Sicily. Despite their efforts the reformers and lawgivers were not entirely successful in ridding the polity of the anarchy created by the mismanagement of the oligarchs. While some people accused them of going too far, others maintained that they had not gone far enough.

Corinth. Thus, tyranny became the answer to the troubled conditions in many places. Although it did not prove permanent everywhere, the installation of strongmen reestablished order, and with order came an economic upswing resulting in greater prosperity. Corinth became a considerable exporter of goods, especially pottery, under its tyrants. The construction of a causeway across the Isthmus in the reign of the tyrant Periander (circa 625-588 b.c.e.) allowed the imposition of tolls on cargo hauled from the Aegean to the Gulf of Corinth. Such imposts added to the revenue of the city and remained a source of income for Corinth in the centuries to come. The Corinthian tyrants

also sought to promote trade relations with Egypt; it is probably no accident that Periander’s nephew and successor in the tyranny was named Psammetichus, after an Egyptian king.

Samos. On the island of Samos the tyrant Polycrates built up the harbor of the city for the benefit of the navy and merchant fleet. He commissioned an aqueduct to carry water to the city of Samos. Around 530 b.c.e. his engineer Eupalinus cut a tunnel through an entire mountain, an engineering feat of the first order, which must have given employment to many people for an extended period of time. Like his Corinthian counterpart, Polycrates took a strong interest in trade with Egypt, concluding a treaty with the pharaoh Amassis. The construction in stone of the colossal temple of Hera in the goddess’s sanctuary, like the tunnel of Eupalinus, also gave work to many, as did a naval building program.

Miletus. Little is known about the policies of Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus between 625 and 600 b.c.e. His successor Histiaios acquired Myrkinos, a place in Thrace, which the Persians gave him as a reward for collaborating with them. Histiaos may have been interested in the silver mines and the still abundant timber in Thrace.

Argos and Athens. In mainland Greece Pheidon of Argos fits the mold both of a strongman and of a regulator; he is reputed to have established standard weights and measures in the seventh century. More information is available about the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus and his sons Hippias and Hipparchus who ruled in the second half of the sixth century. The government of the Pisistratids proved beneficial to the economic development of Athens. Pisistratus retained the Solonian reforms and took steps to increase the socioeconomic well-being of his subjects. He improved the water supply and the road system of Athens, and made loans available to needy farmers to enable them to continue making a living from the land. As a result, landless residents in the city could return to the fields in rural Attica. As agricultural production increased, Pisistratus taxed it to gain more revenue. A more fair administration of local justice allowed farmers to settle disputes without losing time by going to court in the city.

Building Program. Equally beneficial was Pisistratus’s building program. Projects such as the construction of the huge temple of Olympian Zeus near the Acropolis provided work and wages for the dispossessed farmers in the city. (The remains of that temple and of some other edifices indicate that flourishing building trades existed in late sixth-century Athens.) Growing apace, too, were the production of sculpture and of fine pottery, especially the high quality Athenian black-figure vases.


Antony Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1956).

Andrewes, The Greeks (New York: Knopf, 1967).

Nicholas F. Jones, Ancient Greece: State and Society (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).