When he returned from traveling, Solon discovered that Athens had divided into regional factions, one of them controlled by Peisistratos, a popular general whom Solon suspected of planning to overthrow the government and set himself up as tyrant. In Ancient Greece, “tyrant” did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression. It had instead a narrower meaning of a populist strongman who, with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one-man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy.
Commoners had little power in the aristocratic system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles. Moreover, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants tended to be more equitable, rather than wildly skewed to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to be better off under tyrants, who usually encouraged activities such as commerce and crafts and manufactures, that had previously been viewed by the aristocracy as socially gauche, and even threatening insofar as they destabilized the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as or richer than their social betters.
A tyranny was thus often a predicate for democracy because it removed from its path the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had an interest in weakening the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries, so they adopted populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy.
Which is what happened in Athens. Its poorest and most populous region, the hill district whose impoverished residents got little from Solon’s reforms other than a meaningless vote, invited Peisistratos to make himself a tyrant. With their support, he marched on the city in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made a tyrant.
The other Athenians saw through the mummery and chased Peisistratos and his followers out of town. Fleeing, he bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece and got rich off their proceeds. Then, investing his wealth in mercenaries, returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well-equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and had himself proclaimed tyrant.
Championing the lower classes, his tyranny was a wild success. He suppressed the feuding factions, exiled his aristocratic enemies and confiscated their landholdings, which he broke up into small farms and redistributed to his followers, thus cementing their support. He also loaned small farmers money for tools; lowered taxes; standardized currency; enforced the laws even-handedly; promoted the growing of olives and grapes; encouraged commerce and craftsmen; funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia; promoted theater, culture, and the arts; built an aqueduct; implemented a public buildings program, and beautified the city.
By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.