The Definitions of Typical Tyranny in Ancient Greece

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Within the archaic Greek world, before the rise, and perhaps resulting in the rise, of democracy, tyranny was seemingly common place, according to the evidence we have today. There are clear signs that the idea of a ‘typical’ tyrant was common in the Greek world with the stories we have amassed, but there is ambiguity in the nature of the evidence we hold, therefore I will argue that there was such thing as a ‘typical’ tyrant, however we cannot be certain of its legitimacy.

The terminology for ‘tyrant’ did not exist within the Homeric world, even though such figures did exist. Today a tyrant wholes unlimited power used unfairly and cruelly, which could be said for many of the tyrants of Ancient Greece, however are not their only characteristics, nor their only shared characteristics. There was a typical way in which they gained power & typical background they all shared. They usually come about at a time of strife, presenting themselves as champions of the people within the democracy as well as coming to power illegally.

Aristotle discussed the nature of tyrant rise to power as starting within politics itself. Many tyrants, such as Cypseos of Corinth, originated from wealthy aristocratic families and thus already maintained a political standing and connections within the political world. They established themselves as anti-elite, regardless of their status. They often had existing political title and access to power “nearly all tyrants started out as popular leaders who were trusted because they spoke against the distinguished.”[footnoteRef:3] Using the examples of Pheidon of Argos who “set up tyrannies from an existing kingship; a number of Ionian tyrants and Phalaris did so from magistracies; and Panaitios in Leontinoi, Kypselos in Corinth, Peisistratos in Athens, and Dionysius in Syracuse, as well as others in the same way, got their start from being popular leaders.’ Herodotus also described the “oligarchic” that made up Corinth, where the ruling family kept rule by “marry[ing] amongst themselves” they believed only those born within the family are worthy of maintaining power, already displaying the oppressive, power-hungry character of the tyrant definition we hold today.

The Activities of the Tyrants

Recognised by the way they reformed societies, and not all negative. Many tyrants displayed religious piety in the way of temple foundation or building, such as the temple of Zeus in Athens by Samian Heraion, as well as dedications to the gods. However, while appearing as piety, could also be another way to display power and wealth. Improvements to interstate commerce, such as Polycrates, which enabled the boom of city state building as well as the building of infrastructure, such as the tunnel of Eupalinos, Samos, an aqueduct system that not only showed off wealth but also acted as selfless in the betterment of citizen lives. Through their aristocratic and/or political background, they also hold ties to other Greek families of similar backgrounds and aristocrats from Persia and Egypt etc. Many tyrants were also associated with constitutional reform that bettered the lives of some of their citizens, for example, Perisitratus and Athenian lawcourts , but at the same time it is argued by those like Aristotle, that tyranny is used to oppress the less fortunate. ‘It is a device of tyranny…the people being busy with their daily affairs may not have leisure to plot against their ruler.” Citing the events of the pyramids of Egypt, the temple of Zeus by the Peisistratids and the temple at Samos by Polykrates, thus occupying the people.

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However, the main accusation made against tyranny was it’s violence. Periander of Corinth, described by Herodotus, as “less violent than his father…to begin with…but soon surpassed him in…savagery”. As he took on the advice of Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, who “kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see” as a recommendation to cut out the people who were were of the same or similar political power, after which “there was no crime against the Corinthians that he did not commit”. A particularly negative portrayal that tyrannical power was associated with wanton violence. Thus leading onto the ‘typical’ reception of tyranny in Archaic Greece. Thus leading onto the ‘typical’ reception of tyranny in Archaic Greece. Furthermore, through philosophic exploration of human emotion, such as shame, Tarnopolsky attributes tyranny to the shameless, just like perverts.

Furthermore, fury and jealousy are often associated with the old idea of the ‘typical’ tyrant, as was depicted by Homer within his Iliad, where Agamemnon, is willing to go to the brutal lengths of sacrificing his daughter to maintain his power on the thrown, but also to maintain power of his state against the trojans. Again, even in the fictional work of the period, we are presented the same view of the barbaric tyrant. There was such a thing as a typical reaction to tyranny by the Greeks. The reputation they held

Democracy was of paramount importance. However we cannot straightforwardly believe all stories about tyrants. Yet again looking at Cypelsos of Corinth, according to herodotus he “exiled many corinthians and deprived many of their property, and a lot more by far of their lives”, however Nicolas of Damascus portrayed Cypseos in a vastly different matter, opposing herodotus by arguing he “neither imprisoned nor put any citizen in chains, but accepted the guarantors of some and let them go, and became the guarantor of others himself.” While there are some shared elements to both accounts of Cypelsos such as perhaps he did consider the oracle as a form of a rubber stamp as colonisation was risky, therefore divine legitimisation from the oracle may be required or preferred. However how violently he behaves is what differs. This begs the question how wildly different accounts of tyrants came to be, as with most evidence we collect, people develop their own narrative based on whether or not they have prospered or lost. This then leads to polarisation, which in turn leads to opposing desires of how a community will wish to remember their history.

The negative reaction to tyranny, however is more predominant, as the Athenians, for example, remain paranoid that it will return.[footnoteRef:12] The Athenians produced a law that allowed for the killing of anyone who is thought to be plotting tyranny, known as the law of Eukrates in 338BC.[footnoteRef:13] Likely to be more negative than other areas of Greece. Thucydides continues on the Peisistratids; describing a tyranny that was almost entirely positive in its effects on its people, as the leaders believed in speech and intelligence, thus refined the arts, and even lowering taxes which were spent on the city itself which grew in splendour until an assassination attempt occurred on the son of the tyrant Hippias, after which “tyranny pressed harder on the Athenians” and thus scared the tyranny into ridding Athens of any potential citizen opposition or rebellion. Thus, it could potentially be argued that the people misunderstood tyrants who were merely responding to a series of events. 

In conclusion, while there have been different stories about the violent nature of tyrants throughout archaic Greece, the portrayal of the types of actions they engage with, their background and how they gained power, remains to the majority undisputed. Public opinion to any event will almost always have opposing sides dependent on personal experiences with the events, which still occurs to this day, nonetheless, with the evidence we have amassed, a ‘typical’ tyrant did exist.


  1. Aristotle, Politics
  2. Herodotus, The Histories
  3. Austin, M. M. “Greek Tyrants and the Persians, 546-479 B. C.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 2, 1990, 289–306.
  4. Newell, W. R. Tyrants: Power, Injustice, and Terror. Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  5. Tarnopolsky, C. Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants. Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame. Princeton University Press, 2010.
  6. Teegarden, D. Death to Tyrants!. Ancient Greek Democracy and the Struggle against Tyranny. Princeton University Press, 2013.
  7. Parker V., ‘Tyrants and lawgivers’ in H.A. Shapiro ed. The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece, Cambridge 2007, 13-39
  8. Connor W.R., ‘Tribes, festivals and processions; civic ceremonial and political manipulation in archaic Greece’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 40-50 (Adapted from Ancient Greece (2010), accessed 28 November 2019)
  9. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus: Cambridge University Press
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