For the ancient Greeks, the word “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 aristocracy-dominated system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles.
Additionally, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants was usually fairer, rather than heavily stacked up to benefit the nobles. Economically, commoners also tended to do better under tyrants, who usually encouraged commerce and crafts and manufactures – activities viewed as socially gauche by the aristocracy. The aristocrats also feared that such commercial activities would destabilize the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as, or richer than, their social betters.
6. The Poor of Athens Invited an Enterprising General to Seize Power and Rule the City as a Tyrant
An ancient Greek tyranny was often a predicate for democracy because it removed from its path the barrier of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had a strong interest in weakening the power of the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries. So when they seized power, tyrants usually 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.
That is what happened in Athens. Its path to democracy was paved by a tyranny that weakened the power of the city’s aristocrats, who had monopolized power for centuries. Athens’ poorest and most populous region, the Hill District, teemed with impoverished residents. They received little benefit from recent reforms that had averted a civil war, other than a meaningless vote. So the Hill people invited an enterprising general named Peisistratos to make himself tyrant. With their support, he marched into Athens 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 tyrant.
5. If a Fake Goddess Doesn’t Work, Try Again, This Time With an Army
Peisistratos’ mummery with the fake goddess did not work. The other Athenians saw through it, and chased him and his followers out of town. In exile, Peisistratos bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece, and got rich off their proceeds. Investing his wealth in mercenaries, he 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. Peisistratos suppressed the feuding factions, and championed the lower classes. His tyranny was a wild success.
Peisistratos exiled his aristocratic enemies. He confiscated their land holdings, broke them up into small farms, and redistributed them to his followers, thus cementing their support. He also loaned small farmers money for tools, lowered taxes, standardized currency, and enforced the laws even-handedly. He promoted the growing of olives and grapes, encouraged commerce and craftsmen, built an aqueduct, implemented a public buildings program, and beautified Athens. Culturally, he funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia and promoted theater and the arts. 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.
4. An Enterprising Ancient Athenian’s Scheme to Free His City From Tyranny
Cleisthenes, born circa 570 BC, is known as “The Father of Athenian Democracy” for creating the system that, with incremental reforms, governed Athens during the Classical era. Before that, Athens had been governed by two tyrants, Hippias and Hipparchus, brothers who had inherited the position from their father, Peisistratos. The siblings governed Athens competently and with a light hand, until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC in a private feud stemming from a romance that went bad. After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive, and wellâ¦ tyrannical.
Hippias lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined, and his descent into violence eroded the popularity the tyranny had enjoyed since the days of Peisistratos. The number of victims and exiles forced to flee Athens grew, and they included Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny. Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well-equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they sought to enlist the help of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens. To secure Sparta’s help, Cleisthenes came up with the enterprising idea to bribe the gods.
3. Bribing the Gods to Put in a Good Word For One’s Cause
To induce help from the Spartans, who were known for their piety, the enterprising Cleisthenes bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. For centuries, Ancient Greeks had turned to the Oracle for answers, and it typically replied to petitioners with cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. Once Cleisthenes bribed Delphi’s priests, however, every Spartan petitioner who showed up received the very clear and not at all cryptic answer: “LiberateAthens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home.
Left to govern themselves, the Athenians immediately split into rival camps. Oligarchs, led by Isagoras, wanted the government returned to the hands of the wealthy. Populists, led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy. Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled.
2. An Enterprising Solution to Geographic and Nepotistic Tribalism
Cleisthenes and democracy’s supporters did not stay exiled for long. They armed themselves, returned to Athens, and the population rose up in revolt. The city’s aristocratic faction and the Spartan garrison that was there to support them soon found themselves besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels’ beef was not with Sparta, so they allowed the Spartans to leave and return home. The aristocratic anti-democracy Athenians were shown no similar mercy: Cleisthenes and his supporters massacred them to a man. Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy.
The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens. Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself to factionalism. He replaced it with an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. Each tribe thus contained a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions. That reduced the incentives for parochialism because no tribe had cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole.
1. Ancient Athens Adopted a Creative Method to Get Rid of Unpopular People Without Killing Them
In addition to creating at-large tribes whose members were drawn at random from the citizens of Athens, Cleisthenes continued his enterprising reforms by creating a new council, the boule. It was a democratic body, in which all of Athens’ citizens had the right to speak and voice their opinions on public matters and the affairs of the day. Cleisthenes thus eliminated the parochialism that had plagued Athens for generations, and granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy.
Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism. An annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person, whose name he wrote down on bits of broken pottery known as ostra, whom he thought was too dangerous or was becoming too powerful. The citizen receiving the most votes would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms were made in future years to transform Athens into a direct democracy.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading