Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants

Patrick Lynch - August 15, 2017

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.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Ruins of Corinth. visitloutraki

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.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Possible remains of Cylons supporters. Yahoo

2 – Cylon: Athens (632 BC)

The information relating to Cylon is a little more reliable than what we know about Cypselus. That is because he was one of the chief protagonists in the Cylonian Affair, the first event in Athenian history that is reliably recorded. Cylon was an Athenian nobleman and gained fame for his success in the Olympic Games. He was married to the daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara and in 632 BC; he attempted a coup with the support of his father-in-law.

According to Herotodus, Cylon consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was advised to seize power in Athens during the greatest festival of Zeus. Cylon interpreted the message to mean that he was to attempt his coup during the Olympic Games. However, the would-be tyrant misinterpreted the message; it meant that he should make his attempt during the feast of Diasia in March; it was celebrated outside the city of Athens.

Nonetheless, Cylon followed through on his plan and enlisted the help of Megarian soldiers (sent by Theagenes) and noble youths because he didn’t have the support of the people. When Athenians saw that Cylon was aided by foreign soldiers, he lost his last chance of gaining their support. Although he succeeded in taking the Acropolis, the quick actions of Lord Megacles, the chief magistrate in the city, ensured the coup was a failure. He ensured that the Acropolis was quickly surrounded and he promised Cylon’s followers clemency if they left the building and surrendered.

Meanwhile, Cylon and his brother managed to escape the fortress. Cylon’s supporters apparently tied a rope to the temple’s statue to ensure their safety when they came out. Plutarch wrote that the rope broke on the way out and Megacles took this as a sign that the goddess had turned her back on the accused. As a result, they were stoned to death. Thucydides and Herodotus wrote that the supporters were killed but made no mention of the rope.

Megacles and his men were exiled from the city because it was illegal to murder supplicants. In April 2016, archaeologists found a mass grave containing 80 bodies in a suburb of Athens; some of them were shackled. Carbon dating suggests the bodies came from the third quarter of the 7th century BC so they may be the remains of Cylon’s supporters. Although he was never technically the tyrant of Athens, Cylon’s actions paved the way for others to seize power in the city-state.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Harmodius and Aristogeiton also known as the Tyrannicides as they killed Hipparchus. Pinterest

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.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Ruins of Miletus. Wikimedia

4 – Aristagoras: Miletus (513- 499 BC)

Aristagoras was an important participant in the Ionian Revolt against the Persians which lasted from 499 to 493 BC. He was the son-in-law of Histiaeus, who was the tyrant of Miletus from 518 to 514 BC. The early years of Aristagoras’ reign are undocumented, so we don’t know how he governed Miletus. He was probably tyrant of Miletus for 14 years before the Ionian Revolt. Histiaeus was a Persian puppet, but they never trusted him fully. As a result, Darius called Histiaeus to Susa where he was placed under observation. Eventually, Histiaeus managed to send instructions to Aristagoras to orchestrate the Ionian Revolt.

It turned out that the Persians were planning to interfere with Miletus directly and the plotters hoped to use Greek anger at the Persians to incite an uprising in Ionia. Aristagoras failed in his attempts to gain the assistance of a major city state; Sparta refused to help, and Athenian assistance was half-hearted at best. Aristagoras knew that one Ionian city was about to be crushed, so he approached various cities to try and forge an alliance. He gave up his tyranny and persuaded his new allies to do the same.

However, while he apparently established democracy in the region, he insisted that other Ionian cities create a board of generals that had to report directly to him. There is no mention of voting in ancient texts, and a new sovereign state was formed with Aristagoras as the leader. Instead of selflessly stepping down, he had actually moved up. His new state had the power to levy troops and taxes, and he was the commander of the allied armed forces. Moreover, Miletus was the new capital of this state.

Although the Ionians fought bravely, they were unable to prevent the Persians from getting the upper hand in the war. Aristagoras knew the revolt was doomed to fail and began to search for places where he could execute a strategic retreat. He chose Myrcinus in Thrace but the Thracians attacked the invaders, and Aristagoras was killed in battle. Herodotus is scathing in his assessment of the tyrant and refers to him as a coward for fleeing when the revolt needed him most. Sometime in late 494/493 BC, the Persians won a naval battle at Lede and Miletus fell soon after.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Athenian Government. Guides at Brenau University

5 – The Thirty Tyrants: Athens (404 – 403 BC)

Although their reign was brief (13 months), the Thirty Tyrants gained infamy by murdering up to 5% percent of the Athenian population. In the spring of 404 BC, Athens surrendered to Sparta thus ending the Peloponnesian War. An oligarchic conspiracy took shape in Athens towards the end of the war so when the conflict had finally concluded, the oligarchs called for a meeting with Lysander, the Spartan general. Lysander forced the Athenian assembly to pass the Dracontides Decree (named after one of the conspirators). It gave power to a board of 30 men who were in charge of revising and codifying Athenian law.

The Thirty consolidated power by appointing trustworthy individuals as magistrates and swore in a Council of 500 filled with their supporters. This council functioned as a court of law, and the Thirty also chose the Eleven who was in charge of the prison and also supervised executions. There were probably up to 3,000 men selected to participate in the new government.

Critias, Theramenes, and Charicles were the main leaders of the Thirty Tyrants, and they began executing and exiling opponents of the regime. Critias was probably the cruelest member of the group, and he was determined to remake the city as per his vision regardless of the cost. At one stage, he believed that Theramenes was a threat to the new government, so he accused him of treason and forced him to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.

Overall, the Thirty killed thousands of Athenians in a short space of time, including approximately 1,500 of the city’s most important democrats. Wealthy Athenians were executed; their assets were shared amongst the Thirty’s supporters. The tyrants even created a group of 300 whip bearers who were charged with frightening the city’s residents. Although the majority of Athenians hated the Thirty Tyrants, there was little in the way of organized opposition at first. Most people had the choice of accepting the regime or fighting and risking execution.

After the death of Theramenes, the Thirty began taking steps to exile anyone, not in the group of 3,000 trusted members. One of these exiles, Thrasybulus, took just 70 men with him as he marched across the border from Boeotia and stormed the fortress of Phyle. The Thirty failed to defeat the rebels and were forced back to Athens. The Thirty then captured the towns of Eleusis and Salamis and, at a meeting of the Three Thousand; they decided to execute the male inhabitants of both towns.

Meanwhile, Thrasybulus’s resistance was gathering steam, and his army had now grown to 1,000 men. They seized the hill of Munychia and fought a battle with the Thirty there. Critias was killed in combat and the following day, the Three Thousand held another meeting; this time to agree to remove the Thirty from the government. A new group of Ten replaced the Thirty, but they continued to fight the rebels.

Eventually, the Spartans brokered an agreement between the oligarchs and the democrats which is known as the Amnesty of 403. Athenians were to swear an oath of reconciliation which meant they would not hold members of the Thirty to account for past misdeeds. Athens reverted to a democratic constitution which remained in place for the entire Classical period.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Dionysius I. YouTube

6 – Dionysius I: Syracuse (405 – 367 BC)

While many of the tyrants on this list were good rulers, Dionysius more than lived up to the version of ‘tyrant’ we’re aware of today. According to ancient historians, he was one of the cruelest and most vindictive rulers in the ancient world. Also known as Dionysius, the Elder, he was born sometime between 432 and 430 BC. He began his career as a clerk in a public office but soon made a name for himself in the war against Carthage in 409 BC. Dionysius was elected supreme military commander in 406 BC and used his position to seize power with the aid of Greek mercenaries.

It didn’t take him long to show his tyrannical tendencies. He faked an assassination attempt to receive increased protection. Dionysius initially had 600 bodyguards but increased the number to 1,000. He faced rebellions among those opposed to his illegitimate rule, but strangely enough, he enjoyed positive relations with Sparta. This is odd because the city state of Sparta was historically one of the most opposed to tyranny.

Dionysius subdued several Greek city states in eastern Sicily; then he started a war with Carthage for control of Sicily. After relying on Greek mercenaries for a few years, Dionysius embarked upon a complex program that involved creating weaponry, warships and siege engines in 399 BC. His investment paid off within a few years as he used his new war machine to defeat Carthage at Motya in 396 BC. The battle included the use of the first artillery machines in recorded history; catapults powered by mechanical tension.

However, the Carthaginians launched a successful counteroffensive. At one stage, they even managed to put Syracuse under siege. The Syracusans caught a lucky break when the Carthaginian army was decimated by plague. Dionysius defeated his enemy and negotiated an advantageous treaty in 392 BC. Syracuse defeated the Italiote League in 389 BC, and two years later, it captured Rhegium which gave it control of southern Italy; the tyrant sold the inhabitants as slaves. Dionysius renewed hostilities with Carthage in 383 BC but suffered a decisive defeat at Cronium in 378 BC and had to sign a peace treaty.

Overall, despite being a military innovator, Dionysius’ protracted wars ultimately weakened the Syracusan position in Sicily. He started yet another war with Carthage in 368 BC, but this time, he didn’t live to see the end of it. There are different versions of Dionysius’ death in 367 BC. According to one tale, he drank himself to death. However, others suggest that his son instructed physicians to poison the tyrant.

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Government in Sparta. Ancienthoplitikon

7 – Nabis: Sparta (207 – 192 BC)

In 222 BC, Cleomenes III was defeated at the Battle of Sellasia. This event resulted in a power vacuum that was ultimately filled by a child named Pelops. Machandias was one of Pelops’ regents and was probably the first tyrant of Sparta as he seized power illegitimately in 210 BC. However, his reign didn’t last long because, in 207 BC, he was killed in the Battle of Mantinea. Nabis was the next regent, but he soon overthrew Pelops and assumed power.

Nabis saw himself as a legitimate king, but ancient historians such as Livy and Polybius claim he was a tyrant. Cleomenes III had hoped to bring forth various reforms during his tenure, and Nabis followed suit. However, he appeared to go to extreme lengths. For example, he exiled wealthy citizens and divided their land up amongst the poor. He freed a large number of slaves and made them citizens. It was a calculated move, designed to increase the number of citizens he had available for his army. Polybius was not a fan of Nabis and described the tyrant’s supporters as a group of “murderers, burglars, catpurses and highwaymen.”

For all his reforms, Nabis was apparently a bloodthirsty ruler who executed all the descendants of the two remaining Spartan royal dynasties. Polybius claims that Nabis would not only exile wealthy men, but he would also take their wives and force them to marry his supporters. Rich landowners were summoned to meet the king and forced to pay money. Refusal meant torture and possible execution. It is important to remember that ancient historians such as Livy and Polybius had their own biases so we can’t accept their word as fact.

Nabis was also keen to expand Sparta’s military might, so he reconquered much of Laconia although he failed to take Megalopolis in 204 BC. The tyrant also signed a peace treaty with Rome at the Peace of Phoenice in 205 BC. Nabis fortified the city of Sparta and rebuilt its fleet. His invasion of Messene ended in defeat at Tagea in 201 BC. He also came into conflict with the Achaean League, and while he was defeated by the superb general Philopoemen on numerous occasions, he remained a threat.

Later in his reign, Nabis took Argos and entered into another alliance with the Romans. However, the Achaeans managed to persuade a Roman Proconsul named Flamininus to deal with Nabis. He ordered Nabis to return Argos to the Achaeans or face war. Nabis refused, and the Romans invaded Laconia. In 192 BC, Nabis appealed to the Aetolian League to help fight the Achaeans, and while they agreed at first, it was a setup. The Aetolians assassinated Nabis while he was outside the city drilling his army. Philopoemen marched on Sparta with a large army and persuaded it to join the Achaean League.