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Ancient Greek Tyrant: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:02 Tyrants in Ancient Greece
  • 1:13 Pisistratus Wants to be a Hero
  • 1:45 Dangerous Prosperity
  • 2:31 Tyrannical Aid
  • 3:34 Tyrannical Influence
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dirk Yarker
This lesson will help you understand who the Ancient Greek Tyrants were, the events leading up to their rise and decline to power, and finally their significance in the course of history.

Tyrants in Ancient Greece

Typically, when we think of the word 'tyranny', we don't have a warm and fuzzy feeling about it. We generally think of an oppressive rule by an individual. However, in the Ancient Greek world, a tyrant might be a savior or a symbol of hope for a better life. Tyrants were typically aristocratic citizens of the polis. Aristocrats were powerful political figures, but also wealthy land owners. A polis was a town or city with independent political and economic control over the surrounding countryside. However, these tyrants viewed themselves as heroes, similar to those in the Iliad, who were shaping their polis for the better.

The Iliad was an epic poem describing the Trojan War with tales of fascinating heroes and gods. With the aid of common citizens, the tyrant would use force to take over or kick out the unpopular aristocrats. Once in power, they would provide public works projects, pay off unpaid debt, and build infrastructure. At times, they would even establish trade or alliances to further improve stability and prosperity throughout Ancient Greece. Tyrants were looked upon favorably by the population, rather than feared or disdained. Tyrants would usher in a new period of political rule that would shape the Western world and beyond. Let us see how this fascinating time period came to be.

Pisistratus Wants to be a Hero

I would like to introduce you to Pisistratus. Pisistratus was a wealthy aristocrat living in Athens, Greece. Much like many of the citizens of Athens, he had a strong sense of community to defend and expand the honor or reputation of his polis. This feeling was heavily influenced by the epic poems of the Iliad. Within these poems, there were depictions of heroes who defend the honor of their home, family, and themselves for the betterment of society. Pisistratus yearned to be like the heroes of Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus. How could he possibly become a hero like Achilles?

Dangerous Prosperity

Pisistratus observed many problems in his hometown of Athens. There was a great divide between the wealthy and the poor. At the same time, Athens was experiencing a great amount of prosperity through trade. Many citizens gave back to their polis by becoming trained soldiers, expanding the architecture of temples, and experimenting with art. Despite this prosperity, Pisistratus' fellow aristocrats were getting wealthier, and the poor were unable to pay their taxes. Many of the farmers were forced to work off their debt by becoming slaves. Pisistratus observed the state of Athens was becoming weaker by the status quo. Athens would face a food and soldier shortage, which would allow the rivalry with other city-states to take advantage of their situation. Pisistratus' opportunity to become a hero had revealed itself.

Tyrannical Aid

Pisistratus recruited his fellow aristocratic friends and many common poor to his cause. He promised to change the status quo and improve the lot of everyone in Athens. In 546 B.C.E., Pisistratus established sole control over Athens. He had succeeded in his quest for glory! He would go down in history as a hero! Pisistratus set to work by providing funds to workers to build roads, temples, and fountains. He bought farming tools and supplies to facilitate continued farming. His efforts provided the poor to have stability, and Athens received an economic boom from his efforts. Pisistratus would remain in charge until his peaceful death in 527 B.C.E.

Pisistratus' son, Hippias, would take over his rule. Hippias would continue many of the reforms and efforts of his father, but he would create a divide by placing his friends in positions of power. Jealousy and resentment would sow their seeds. Eventually, the Alcmaeonids aristocratic family would overthrow Hippias due to his unpopularity. Not many tyrant families would survive two generations.

Tyrannical Influence

It can be clear why tyranny and tyrants may now be looked upon as a scourge upon society. However, how did these events change and shape society? What we saw in Greece were commoners and aristocrats alike working together to form a better life, but also fix complicated issues. At first, the rise to power of tyrants seemed to fix the issues of debt, providing work and improvements to the polis. However, the main issue of land ownership was not rectified.

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