3 – The Peisistratids: Athens (546 – 510 BC)
The Peisistratids is the term given to Peisistratos and his sons Hipparchus and Hippias. They were consecutive tyrants of Athens for approximately 36 years. Peisistratos came to prominence for his role in the capture of the port of Nicaea in Megara. It was part of a coup that occurred in 565 BC, and unlike Cylon almost 70 years previously, Peisistratos had the support of the people and the Men of the Hill. Despite his popularity, he didn’t have the political connections to seize power, so he deliberately wounded himself in order to receive protection.
With the support of the majority of the people, Peisistratos needed the bodyguards for his next step; seizing control of the Acropolis. With the aid of important nobleman Megacles and his party, Peisistratos declared himself tyrant sometime in the late 560s BC. Although his rise to power was almost meteoric, things didn’t go smoothly for Peisistratos during his reign. In around 555 BC, the two original political parties put aside their differences to oust the tyrant.
After a few years in exile, Peisistratos returned to Athens riding a golden chariot with a beautiful woman by his side. She is said to have resembled the goddess Athena, and this was enough to regain popular support. His second reign lasted anywhere between one and six years depending on the source, but ultimately, he was exiled again. However, Peisistratos refused to go away and returned once more, this time with the support of local cities. He probably regained power for the third and final time in 547 BC.
Once again, Peisistratos did not rule in the same way that modern tyrants do. According to Herodotus, he tried to distribute power and benefits instead of hoarding them. He cut taxes for the lower earners in Athens and promoted the arts. Peisistratos died in 528/527 BC and was succeeded by his son Hippias. Along with his brother Hipparchus, Hippias ruled Athens in much the same way as his father. When Hipparchus was murdered in 514 BC, Hippias became more oppressive and lost the support of the people. The tyrant was deposed between 510 and 508 BC when the Spartans invaded Athens. The Peisistratids were forced into exile. An interesting footnote is that Hippias helped the Persians with their attack on Marathon by acting as a guide.