by Ben Potter
Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz
depicting the Athenian politician
delivering his famous funeral oration
in front of the Assembly.
Greece, 'turannos' or 'tyrant'
was the phrase
given to an illegitimate ruler.
and often came
on a wave of
tyrants were like
insofar as they
and possessed a
yearning for power,
not all of them
were butchers or
The lead-up to the Second World War was often referred to (in its
own time) as the Age of the Great Dictators.
The idea being that, even though the fledgling American experiment
was going rather well, not all democracies were pulling their weight
in the war of ideologies.
Emerging dictatorial governments in,
...were getting their
respective nations back on track as Europe strived to recover from
its self-destructive, turn of the century warmongering.
The fact that these were dictators, men of the people, for the
people, instead of privileged, hereditary monarchs in charge of the
ship of state seemed like a natural and sensible step in the right
Though I hear the cry going up from all corners of cyberspace:
What's this got to do with the Classics?"
Pray beat still,
The point is that, as hard as it is for us to imagine now,
dictatorships haven't always been seen as 'bad'.
It was only after the
fact that it was considered to be an undesirable form of government,
regardless of the personnel involved, and universally reviled
throughout civilized parts of the world.
And indeed this was true also in the ancient world.
Though it should be stressed that between then and now someone left
a red sock in with the 'dictatorship' wash and what came out in the
end wasn't exactly what went in.
For Romans, a dictator ('one who leads') was a politician/general, a
magistratus extraordinarius, who was given temporary, and not
quite absolute, power to perform a specific task, e.g. putting down
But such a power was considered too dangerous to grant for any
conflict outside Italy, as a dictator would then be able to do as
they pleased away from the beady eye of the Senate.
Thus, as Rome expanded her empire and the Italian peninsula became a
land under no imminent threat, dictatorship fell by the wayside.
Though in 83 BC, after a 120-year hiatus, the victorious general
Sulla revived the power for a single year before retiring from
The purpose of this
was to re-codify the constitution following a series of civil
This move was roundly
mocked by the next man who took up the dictatorial gauntlet...
Gaius Julius Caesar.
As it became increasingly obvious that Caesar was not only the
dominant figure following the civil war of the 40s BC, but a cunning
and ruthless politician as well as a fine military strategist, the
Senate deemed it expedient to appoint him dictator... and
dictator again... and then dictator for ten years... and
finally, dictator for life.
However, life didn't last very long, only until 15th
March 44 BC, or the Ides of March.
Despite going on to take many further powers and titles, Octavian
Augustus, the first truly absolute ruler of this new Rome, did
not dare to call himself 'dictator':
the word had by then
And while the Romans had
a long history of viewing tyranny as an unpleasant
form of government (hence the Republic), it wasn't that way in
pre-Classical Greek thought... and
the memory of past Tyrants is illustrative of this.
tyrant of Corinth who came to power in 657 BC after ousting an
aristocratic family, was a popular and dynamic leader who
consolidated Corinthian interests abroad and made Corinthian
pottery dominant in the Greek marketplace.
Cleisthenes ruled Sicyon from c.600-560 BC and is
remembered best for his enduring tribal reforms rather than
Polycrates of Samos (ruled c.538-522 BC) was a popular
and enlightened tyrant about whom Herodotus speaks well. His
public building works included aqueducts and temples which
reflected both his benevolence and piety.
Herodotus also suggests he may have been pretty humble
(well, for a tyrant anyway). Supposedly he threw his prized
possession, a bejeweled ring, into the sea in the hope of
avoiding the hubris of the overly successful. However, ill-omen
struck when a fish turned up with the ring inside it.
Polycrates and the Fisherman,
Salvator Rosa, 1664
Maybe not surprisingly, it was in Athens, the bastion of enduring
Greek thought, that tyranny finally developed the stigma it has
Though, again, this was not initially the case.
Peisistratus, a relative of the much-lauded lawgiver Solon,
initially managed to install himself as tyrant in 561 BC, but was
only able to make the title stick in 546 BC.
From that point on a string of populist and cultural policies helped
to underpin his power.
He initiated a public building program, extended or created
festivals (including the dramatic festival, the Dionysia and an
Athenian 'Olympics', the Panathenaic Games), codified the works of
Homer and championed the causes of peasants and landowners.
Copper engraving of
Indeed, Peisistratus was considered a model tyrant with almost no
connotations of the violent oppression the word conjures up.
Aristotle said of him:
was temperate... and more like constitutional government than a
This is high and
significant praise indeed, as Aristotle and Plato
helped to popularize the idea that,
was a base and unsatisfactory form of government in and of
had that luxury so few tyrants enjoy, to die a peaceful death.
Though the same cannot be
said of his son and joint-heir, Hipparchus.
He, along with his brother Hippias, continued their father's
work, but were met with strong opposition in the form of
Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original Tyrannicides.
These men succeeded in killing Hipparchus in 514 BC, but Hippias
escaped the assassin's blade.
Vase depicting the
death of Hipparchus
Hippias' sole reign was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the
circumstances, violent and oppressive and many believe he became the
source of all our negative connotations associated to the word
For the Athenians this was certainly true.
Fortunately Hippias was removed from power in 510 BC, allowing the
noble Cleisthenes to initiate the reforms that gave birth to
Tyranny never recovered...
From this point on
merely accusing someone of being tyrannical was enough to slur
them, it was no longer necessary to state why that was the wrong
way to be.
Thus a few final words on
the pitfalls of such a form of government shall be given to the two
men who, perhaps, did more than any other to show that tyranny's
dark underbelly was more than merely suspicious, but destructive and
And here I've saved the best, or at least most alarming, quote for
"The tyrant must be
always getting up a war... in order that the people may require
"Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of
the monarch only."
"A tyrant, as has often been repeated, has no regard to any
public interest, except as conducive to his private ends; his
aim is pleasure."
"Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most
aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme