Texts in Context:
The Age of the Tyrants

By Gabriel Blanchard

Archaic Greece saw the politics and culture of their society bloom, to a degree easily equalling the Late-Medieval Renaissance.

This post is part of a series on the historical context of our Author Bank; it includes introductory posts on historiographyperiodization, and pseudohistory.

The New Things of Old Greece

In our last-but-one post, we gave a sketch of the peoples of Archaic Greece, which may be dated1 from the institution of the Olympic Games in 776 BC to the Ionian rebellion of 499 BC (to which we shall be returning). Despite its official name, the Archaic Period was one of immense vitality and innovation. Greek pottery increased in sophistication, with Geometric and Orientalizing art designs eventually giving way to the famous black-figure technique and its successor, the still more dramatic red-figure pottery (which arose only a few decades before the beginning of the Classical Period proper). Archaic sculpture followed Egyptian models, and the first life-size sculptures in Greece date to this period. These were part-and-parcel with a newly-increased trade network, a partial revival of the interconnected Mediterranean of the Bronze Age: Greek vessels from the Archaic Period can be found all over the greater Mediterranean, having been purchased by the Gauls of southern France, the Taurians and Colchinians of the northern and eastern Black Sea coasts, the Etruscans of northern Italy, and the Punic people of Carthage in Africa, opposite Sicily.

And yes, “purchased”—not “bartered for”—is the word. Though barter was still the order of the day in the first half of the Archaic Period, around 650 BC, coins were invented in Anatolia. Everybody liked precious metals, which made them a good medium of exchange; unfortunately, lugging bullion around is an immense pain in the neck. Eventually, someone2 had the bright idea of taking a small amount of said metals, stamping a symbol on it to show how much it weighed (so people didn’t have to check for themselves every time it was used), and making that the way in which precious metals could be spent. The practice caught on quickly, by ancient standards: in a century, the island of Ægina (southwest of Athens) was minting its own coins, and within a few decades, the people of Athens, Corinth, Sicily, and Thrace were all doing the same.

Tunc Ubique Tyranni3

This was also an age of political upheaval. Many city-states had originally been ruled by kings. During the seventh century, as populations grew and, with it, inequality between the poor and the wealthy, power struggles began in various places. In some places, like Athens, hereditary monarchies were replaced with some kind of oligarchic or aristocratic rule, which may seem as if it runs counter to tyranny at first glance; however, insofar as this encouraged and ossified the divisions between the poor and the wealthy, it may instead have created the conditions for tyranny to look appealing. The thing is, Archaic tyrants (as well as Classical and Hellenistic4 tyrants after them) were like modern dictators only in seizing power through illegal means. This was more or less the defining trait of a tyrant back then; the word had no inherent reference to oppression: tyrants were adjudged bad or good according to their conduct while in power, which might be benevolent, and in fact was in a surprising number of cases.

Cypselus of Corinth was one of the first tyrants, possibly the very first, taking control of the city in 655 BC and expelling the Bacchiadæ, a noble family who had hitherto ruled Corinth and succeeded handily in making themselves exceedingly unpopular. Attempts of the same kind were made in the later seventh and sixth centuries in cities all over the Ægean basin; however, popularity was the key. Cylon of Athens (no, not that kind) took a swing and missed around the year 636. According to the probably-embroidered account of Plutarch, when the Athenians promised him his life, he was convinced to stand trial for his revolt after he took refuge in the temple of Athena, and he tied a rope to himself with the other end around her altar to assure his sanctuary; unfortunately, as he went on his way, the rope broke of its own accord, which the populace interpreted as an omen that Athena had rejected her suppliant, and Cylon was stoned to death.5

In no government can power be abused long. Mankind will not bear it.

Tyrants in the Attic

But Athens had another go at the tyranny game, a little less than a century later. After the reforms of Solon, a revered Athenian sage of the early sixth century BC, a relative of his named Peisistratus took power in 561. He was so good at taking power, in fact, that he did it again in 559 BC, and yet again in 546 BC. (The fact that he had also lost power in the years 561 and 556 probably isn’t significant. After all, who among us has not had our control of Athens overthrown a couple of times?)

His efforts were, in the end, more effective than thwarted, and he instituted a large number of legal reforms, reducing the privileges of the Eupatridæ6 and redistributing their wealth considerably. In—arguable—contrast with modern dictators, and despite his means of taking power, Peisistratus does not appear to have been militaristic on the whole; his foreign policy seems to have been focused on winning allies rather than defeating rivals. Most of his achievements were domestic and cultural. He instituted or increased the importance of various festivals, such as the Dionysia—Dionysus being the god of the theater, and all the ancient dramas we have from Athens’ “big three” (Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) were written for the Dionysia. He also improved the Athenian economy, ramping up trade and encouraging the farming of olives, a cash crop that was also highly useful at home as a foodstuff, an ingredient in soaps and perfumes, a ritual and funerary good, and a fuel for lamps. However, his third, last, and longest period in power, from 546 to 527, was also marred by nepotism and vindictive exiling of opponents.

Peisistratus died in 527 BC. After this, his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, succeeded to power; if all had gone smoothly, it is possible Athens would once again have become a monarchy under this Peisistratid dynasty. However, thirteen years into their reign, a pair of would-be assassins, Harmodius and Aristogeiton (later celebrated as symbols of liberty), made an attempt on the tyrants’ lives. Only Hipparchus was killed. Hippias now shifted away from the mostly-benign example of his father. The assassins were killed—that much was to be expected; what was not was that Aristogeiton, unlike his partner, was tortured to death. From this point on, Hippias’ rule of Athens became cruel and arbitrary, involving high taxes and numerous executions and exiles. After just a few years, the Athenians bribed the oracle at Delphi to tell the Spartans, the leading military power among all Hellene city-states, to march north and deliver Attica from the tyranny of Hippias. The pious Spartans complied: in the year 510, they invaded and beat Hippias handily, ultimately trapping him on the acropolis (the hill-fort in the center of the city). He was allowed to leave Athens with his children and his life; he traveled east, to the court of Darius I, ruler of the Achæmenid Persian Empire.7 The Athenians were now free to set up a new government, which they did, of an innovative form; we will be returning to this.

But there has been a careless omission in the above discussion of Archaic innovations. In addition to artistic, commercial, and political revolutions, there was an intellectual revolution in the Archaic Period. Unless “revolution” is the wrong word; one might instead refer to it as an intellectual genesis. To understand it, we must go eastward, across the sea from Athens where we stopped today, to the little region of Ionia …

1Deciding how to cut history up into study-able bits can be highly controversial, since the stakes are so low. Some modern historians fold the first phase of the Persian Wars into the Archaic Period, so that its end falls in 480 BC; others might push it back as early as the expulsion of Hippias in 510 BC.
2Herodotus tells us simply that it was “the Lydians,” over whom the famously wealthy Croesus ruled. Aristotle reports a different tradition, in which Queen Hermodike II of Cyme, sometimes held to be the wife of King Midas of Phrygia, which neighbors Lydia, struck the first coins.
3This is a pun on the Latin phrase sic semper tyrannis, “thus ever to tyrants,” a motto supposedly originated by Brutus at the assassination of Cæsar in 44 BC (and used by both Confederates and Unionists during the Civil War). Tunc ubique tyranni means “there were tyrants everywhere then.”
4Hellenistic Greece (from Alexander’s death to the dawn of the Roman Empire) followed Classical.
5The rope breaking of its own accord is the detail historians find too just-so to be plausible. Much as in a Christian church, deliberately spilling human blood in a pagan temple was a grave act of sacrilege.
6The Eupatridæ were the Athenian aristocracy, equivalent to the patrician class of ancient Rome.
7This is the Darius of the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel.

Gabriel Blanchard, our archaic albeit non-Greek editor at large, is also a proud uncle of seven nephews: Stephen, James, Joseph, Caleb, Levi, Matthias, and Elias. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Thank you for reading the Journal! If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our series on the Great Conversation; or, for something more practical, take a look at our posts on the topic of planning for and applying to college.

Published on 13th May, 2024. Author thumbnail of the painting Sisyphus by Franz von Stuck (1920).

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