26. The Rise of Tyranny in Athens
When Solon returned from traveling, Athens had divided into regional factions. One of them was 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, of course. 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.
Commoners also tended to do better economically under tyrants, who usually encouraged activities such as commerce and crafts and manufactures. Such activities would have been viewed by the previously ruling aristocrats as 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 first step towards democracy, because it removed from its path the barrier and stranglehold 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. That is what happened in Athens.