Herodotus Book I, Continued: Democracy and Tyranny

Throughout his account of the Lydian kingdom and its expansion into the Greek world, Herodotus weaves in stories of the Greek tyrannoi, who came to power in the 6th century, often by popular acclaim and typically representing the poorer classes.  These tyrannoi, who were not necessarily tyrants, came to power in times of social conflict.  Greek cities had once been ruled by chiefs or kings—basileis—as we see in Homer, where some of the chiefs stand in some degree of subordination to the Great King in Mycenae.  After the Trojan War and the collapse of the Mycenaean citadels, kingship dwindled into aristocracies, ruled in some cases by families that claimed descent from the ancient kings.  As other families became wealthy, they contended for power—which is the case on Lesbos, as described by the great poet and faction-fighter, Alcaeus.  In that case, the people of Mytilene turned to a former ally of Alcaeus, Pittacus, who made himself “moderator.”  Although hated by Alcaeus, Pittacus was accounted one of the wise men of Greece, as was Solon of Athens, who reformed the constitution, freed those enslaved by debt, and resigned.

Other tyrannoi were not always so willing to relinquish power, and Herodotus describes two of them:  Periander of Corinth, who had inherited power from his father Cypselus, and Pisistratus of Athens.  By Herodotus’ time, tyranny had developed a bad name, and he his descriptions of their behavior constitutes a pragmatic manual to set beside Machiavelli’s The Prince.  Tyrants champion the poor and the weak particularly women and foreigners; they are lustful and prone to adultery and eccentricity—Periander was accused of having relations with his dead wife.  They maintain power by disarming the citizenry and oppressing anyone who is distinguished for birth, talent, virtue, or wealth.  I know, it sounds exactly like the Democratic Party today.

Pisistratus was accepted at Athens as protector of the hill-people who had no strong leader.  Pisistratus, after he faked an attack on himself, was given a bodyguard that put him in power until  the two conflicting parties, led by Megacles (the Alcmaeonid) and Lycurgus, joined forces and expelled.  According to the story, Pisistratus’ return to power was managed by a propaganda coup:  A tall beautiful woman, who was dressed up like Athena, instructed her people to take back their leader.  This was neither the first nor the last time that a religious fraud has been used to install tyranny.   Pisistratus, to consolidate his power, married the daughter of Megacles but, to avoid raising up an enemy to his sons—one that would be backed by the most powerful clan in Athens and knew the significance of marital alliances, refused to have natural relations with her.  Unnatural sex is one of the marks of the tyrant, and in this case it alienated the Alcmaeonid faction, who expelled the tyrant again.

The third time he came to power, Pisistratus relied on mercenaries and, by a trick, succeeded in disarming the men of Athens, who ere then powerless to resist him.  He who has ears, etc.

But two can play the religious fraud game, and the wealthy Alcmeonid clan took the contract for rebuilding the temple of Apollo at Delphi, which they did on a grander scale than the contract called for, thus earning the gratitude of the oracle, which always told the religious Spartans, whenever they consulted the Pythia, to expel the tyrant from Athens. 

Herodotus appears to have believed in the validity of the Delphic Oracle, and throughout holds the Alcmaeonid family in high esteem.  Nonetheless, if we take his tale literally, the Spartan-backed revolt of the Alcmaeonidae and their allies against the Pisistratids and their subsequent democratic reformation of the Athenian political system owed their success to bribery of the Oracle and, as we shall see in the next installment, to a successful plot to exclude rival clans from power.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    This is vintage Tom Fleming. Not many left in our old, tired, worn out world that can still sing it like they feel it. Kind of ironic it’s an old tired worn out man that still can

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Still beautiful

  3. Curtis says:

    Must be nice to live in city-state small enough to allow a few leading families to step in and reform a tyranny.

  4. Konstantin Solodov says:

    “They maintain power by disarming the citizenry and oppressing anyone who is distinguished for birth, talent, virtue, or wealth. I know, it sounds exactly like the Democratic Party today.”

    Today it looks more like a conflict between Populares and Optimates, than Paralioi, Diakrioi and Pedieis.