Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants
Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants

Cruel and Oppressive: 7 Noteworthy Ancient Greek Tyrants

Patrick Lynch - August 15, 2017

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.