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Tyrants of Ancient Greece: Contributions, Impact & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Greece had their fair share of tyrants, but that may not mean what you think. In this lesson, we'll explore the Greek concept of tyranny and see how it impacted Greek history.

Tyranny in Ancient Greece

History is full of tyrants. If you had said this to someone in ancient Greece, they would have agreed with you. They just may not have agreed that this was a bad thing. The Greeks defined many of our ideas about government structures, including democracies, oligarchies, and monarchies. One of the government models embraced by the politically inventive Greek city-states was the tyranny. A tyranny was a government run by a single ruler who didn't have constitutional authority to rule. It wasn't something evil or bad, it was just a different way of running the government.

Greek Tyrants

In the Greek world, a tyrant was not a malicious or evil person. A tyrant was the leader of a tyranny, just as a monarch ruled the monarchy. Since they weren't elected (as democratic rulers were) and didn't fall within traditions of hereditary succession (as monarchical rulers did), tyrants often had to find creative ways to justify their power. The general trend was that tyrants were aristocrats who seized control of a city-state in the name of security or general welfare. Historians have identified four main types of tyrannies (and tyrants) in Greek history.

Greek tyrants ruled alone, and without traditional authority
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1. Aristocrats who seized control with wealthy non-aristocrats who had been excluded from power. These tyrants overturned established aristocracies or oligarchies, and established new ones. Since their power was based on elevating the excluded members of society, these tyrannies sometimes led to democracy. This was common in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

2. In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Greek military leaders in southern Italy established tyrannies by amassing large armies of mercenaries. They then founded miniature empires, expanding power beyond the traditional boundaries of the city-states.

3. That model was emulated across Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, as new tyrants emerged by creating military states. These tyrants maintained control by expanding the spheres of power controlled by their city-states.

4. The last model was what we call the eastern tyranny, popular in Asia Minor from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. These tyrants were actually intermediaries who controlled a city under the control of the Persian Empire. They were technically under Persian authority, but had complete jurisdiction within their cities.

Examples

Tyrants could wield power in different ways, and Greek cities had many different experiences with tyranny. Here are some notable tyrants, who can demonstrate the range of experiences.

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