When we think of tyrants in the modern era, we focus on cruel and oppressive despots. In Ancient Greece however, turannos or ‘tyrant’ was the phrase given to an illegitimate ruler. These usurpers overturned the Greek polis and often came to power on a wave of popular support. While Greek tyrants were like the modern-day version insofar as they were ambitious and possessed a yearning for power, not all of them were butchers or psychopaths.
The term ‘tyrant’ was first used in Greek in around the 7th century BC, but it didn’t have negative connotations for at least half a century. In this piece, I will look at 7 notable Greek tyrants; they ruled different city states including Athens, Corinth, and Megara.
1 – Cypselus: Corinth (657 – 627 BC?)
As social structures and trade relations became more complex, Greek city-states became more likely to overthrow their priest-kings and Corinth, one of the wealthiest states, was among the first to have a tyrant in ancient Greece. In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the Bacchiadae ruled Corinth, but the people of the state ultimately grew tired of their ineffectual leadership. Telestes was the last Bacchiadae king, and when he was murdered, executives from the former royal house took turns to rule the state; each man was in power for one year.
In approximately 657 BC, Cypselus usurped power and exiled the Bacchiadae. As is the case with most of ancient history, we have to take Herotodus’ account of Cypselus with a veritable bag of salt. His reign was probably not 30 years; it is more likely that Herotodus merely rounded up the figure. Apparently, Cypselus narrowly avoided death as a baby at the hands of the authorities in Corinth. This close brush with death in infancy is seemingly the hallmark of great leaders; the same fate almost befell Cyrus the Great of Persia.
It seems as if Cypselus held the important military position of polemarch and used his influence to expel the ruling classes and assume power. Despite being a usurper, Cypselus didn’t have the same crazed tendency as modern tyrants. Although he expelled his enemies, he let them set up colonies elsewhere in Greece. Also, he increased trade with colonies in Sicily and Italy and by all accounts, the state of Corinth prospered under his leadership.
Cypselus’ family followed in his footsteps and became tyrants all over Greece. When he died in 627 BC, his son, Periander, took over and is considered as one of the greatest rulers Corinth had. Under his leadership, the state became one of the wealthiest in the country, and he is also known as one of the Seven Sages of Greece; men revered for their wisdom. Gorgus, Cypselus’ second son, became tyrant of Ambracia and his son, Periander, took over the mantle upon Gorgus’ death.