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Greek Tyranny

A notable phenomenon in the history of archaic Greece was tyranny. The terms "tyrant" and "tyranny" are derived from the linguistic basis of the Lydian language. Essentially, in the city-state (polis), power was seized by a usurper who disregarded the laws and the will of traditional institutions such as the council, the popular assembly, and others. The social and political crisis that many cities in Asia Minor experienced, such as Miletus, Ephesus, the Aegean region cities like Lesbos, Chios, Samos, influential city-states like Megara, Corinth, Athens, Syracuse, and others, culminated in the establishment of personal rule. The methods of tyrants' rule included populism, policies that appealed to the demos by enacting popular measures against the luxury of the wealthy, demagogic advocacy for the rights of the less fortunate, and notable divisions of confiscated land. Often, tyranny was the simplest way to resolve conflicts with political opponents. Those defeated were exiled, and their property contributed to the treasury. As a result, the term "tyranny" acquired a negative connotation through the realpolitik employed, as seen in later historians' writings. The main goal of tyranny, which was to weaken the aristocracy of noble birth, was successfully achieved by renowned rulers such as Polycrates, Cypselus, Periander, and others.

Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (second half of the 6th century BCE), relied on the artisan and merchant classes and implemented a broad social program that led to the creation of a powerful fleet and a developed system for city construction. During Polycrates' rule, Samos saw the construction of an aqueduct with a unique underground structure and scale, an earthen mole in the sea (360 meters long), and the magnificent and famous Samian temple. Among the merits of Polycrates' short-lived tyranny was his active policy of unification towards the island states of the Aegean Sea and an attempt to expand into the Black Sea region. The tyrant is credited with patronizing the fine arts and poetry (famous poets Anacreon and Ibycus were notably recognized). The polis of Samos was renowned for its energetic trade and foreign economic policy, which gradually triggered retaliatory actions from surrounding states. According to legendary accounts, even the Egyptians envied the power of the tyrant and the prosperity of his polis. However, the brief period of Polycrates' rule ended with the intervention of the Persians, who had interests in those territories, as if history wanted to highlight the weakness and transitional nature of this form of government. In the mid-7th century BCE, the Corinthian demos supported the tyrant Cypselus. The Bacchiad clan was expelled, and the lands and property of the defeated were divided. Periander, his son and successor (627-585 BCE), left a significant impact on the development of Corinth.

Acropolis of Athens

As a result of the reforms, a powerful state was created, with its territory stretching from the islands of the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic. In order to improve trade and commerce, the monetary system was replaced and canals were dug. Periander strengthened the authority of the landowners, reinforced their positions in the representative government, and formed a new council. It was he who elevated the agricultural cult of the god Dionysus to a state level. Public buildings were constructed in the city, and the arts were encouraged. It was during this period that the famous Corinthian vases were created. In terms of social structure, the Corinthian tyrant followed the path of displacing the aristocracy and promoting the interests of the lower and middle classes. This led to the emergence of territorial phylae and a limitation on the number of slaves. Periander, the Corinthian tyrant, was the son of Cypselus and Cratea. Like his time, he had a contradictory and complex nature. His laws were aimed against fleeing the country, idleness, and luxury. Ancient tradition included him among the "Seven Sages." He is attributed with the saying, "Rulership is everything." Under Periander, Corinth established colonies in the Adriatic, and Potidaea was founded on the Chalkidiki peninsula. Overall, the fragility of the social base led to the downfall of the Corinthian tyrannical regime after Periander's death. Tyranny was the result of internal political struggles, and therefore, this phenomenon was characterized by its drawbacks. Tyranny elevated the authority of individuals, but as a political expedient during a crisis, it soon ceased to meet the needs of society. The long-lasting tyrannies in Sicyon, Corinth, and Athens were explained by their populist nature and strict adherence to the laws of the city-state. In Athens, tyranny began with a widespread movement of the poorest peasants. At the head of the demes, as a leader (prostates), stood Pisistratus. He captured the Acropolis of Athens and consequently seized power in 562 BCE. A mandatory episode in this uprising was the presence of a guard (consisting of 300 people). Support for the demos during Pisistratus' tyranny was extensive: to ensure public works, city beautification projects were carried out, including the construction of aqueducts, fountains, new temples, port facilities, and porticoes in the agora, the main life center of the early Greek city. Almost all city-states in ancient Greece went through a phase of tyranny, and the manifestations of this system were quite diverse. The emergence of tyrannies was inevitable even in oligarchic city-states. Non-citizens revolted against the oligarchy. In Leontini, in the 7th century BCE, the oligarchy was overthrown under the leadership of Panetius. In Eretria, there was a grouping of the demos led by Diagoras. Oligarchic city-states were forced to adopt laws against the concentration of power in the hands of a small circle of officials, close relatives, and those who held office for a long time. There is evidence of one such law that was adopted in the second half of the 7th century BCE in Drepana and concerned the occupation of the position of kosmos. Tyranny did not emerge in weak agrarian regions. It was a prerogative of city-states with an industrial and commercial orientation, where trade and economic factors generated significant material wealth and individuals advocating for the redistribution of power. The Athenian city of Doson provides a vivid example, where the destabilizing moment of the participation of newcomers in political struggles was particularly evident. Aristotle's model of the ideal tyranny envisioned a modest lifestyle for the ruler and the presence of intermediaries called aisymnets, who were chosen by the people. However, in the practice of known tyrants, contradictions were embedded, which led to the downfall of tyranny. Thucydides' position on tyranny conveyed a skeptical view of the overall consequences of tyrannies in Hellenic states. Contrary to specific facts, the historian draws a general conclusion about the unworthy goals of tyrants, who pursued the well-being and security of their own positions, reducing the welfare of the people to their own benefit.

Therefore, examining the power base of these regimes, we find that the relationship between the tyrant and the demos was built with the active participation of hired guards. Hired bodyguards or freed slaves protected the tyrant's stronghold, which was usually located on the acropolis. Herodotus' testimony that the Delphic Oracle responded to Cypselus confirms the fragility and transience of concentrated power in the hands of sole rulers. They played their role, and slave owners seized power. By destroying the dominance of the aristocratic clans, ancient Greek society faced the need to introduce state institutions in the form of republican rule or slave-owning democracy with the participation of free citizens. The second path, which led to the power of the most influential slave owners, was slave-owning oligarchy. Like the biographies of tyrants in general, the information about Cypselus and Periander is inspired by oral stories, accounts by Herodotus, Aristotle, and so on. The dating of the Corinthian tyranny remains a subject of debate to this day. Traditionally, the rule of Cypselus is considered to have lasted from 657 to 627 BCE. His birth was preceded by prophecies from an oracle, which claimed that the child, when grown, would overthrow the ruling Bacchiad dynasty, after which the rulers ordered the killing of the infant.

However, the messengers appointed for this purpose succumbed to their emotions and were unable to carry out their mission. The next time, the mother saved her son by hiding him from the intruders, so in the end, the prophecy came true, and the grown-up Cypselus, after a series of dramatic events, finally came to power in Corinth. Strabo mentions a golden statue of Zeus brought by Cypselus to the Olympic sanctuary. He also founded the treasury at Delphi, where untold riches accumulated over a long period of time. Thus, the tyrant demonstrated his concern for the divine consecration of his actions and decisions, as from that moment, the Delphic Oracle became particularly favorably disposed towards him. The biography of Cypselus that has come down to us in the works of ancient authors bears narrative similarities to other folkloric works, such as the myths of Perseus or Oedipus. The folkloric origins can also explain the name of the Corinthian tyrant. According to legend, the mother hid her son in a vessel called a kypsēlē. The fact that these myths circulated in Corinth and could indeed have influenced the legendary biography of the local tyrant is indirectly confirmed by the depictions of these characters on the Kypselus chest, where Perseus and the sons of Oedipus were crafted by Corinthian artists of the Kypselid era. There is also a hypothesis that Cypselus received his name in connection with some relation to hounders or pottery production, which had significant development in Corinth. In any case, archaeological research has shown that kypsēlai were widely used among the Corinthians and were made of both clay and wicker. Thus, based on the folk origins of the tyrant's name, one can conclude his democratic roots and that Cypselus himself came from the social lower classes of ancient Corinthian society. However, most researchers do not accept this explanation, pointing out that none of the ancient authors doubted Cypselus' aristocratic origin. As for his legendary biography, it is undoubtedly a tale that echoes the traditional advice about a good and initially persecuted king, with a parallel totemistic line and scattered information about the initiation ritual woven into the plot.

Related topics

Ancient Greece, Athens, Peisistrati Dynasty, Aristotle