Tyranny and the Problem with Peisistratos

There is no greater tyranny, wrote Montesquieu, than the one that is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice. I wonder what Montesquieu would have made of the career of the ancient tyrant Peisistratos, who ruled over the city of Athens for a period of more than 30 years, from 562 to 527 BC.

It is difficult, perhaps, for citizens in contemporary democratic societies to conjure an image of life under any tyrant – particularly an ancient political tyrant – as anything other than harsh, brutal, and repressive, as well as marked by the non-existence or withdrawal of essential freedoms. For several reasons, however, we need to do better than this when it comes to assessing the tyranny of Peisistratos at Athens.

First, because of the very nature of our evidence; second, because of the political features of Athens that we are told Peisistratos left intact; and third, I would argue, because of the sheer length of time he managed to hold sway in the city despite the continuing existence of potential threats to his personal power. Moreover, there is no real sense in the surviving source materials that Peisistratos managed to cling to power through special harshness or brutality: the relative stability of his tyranny invites other possible explanations.

montesquieu
Montesquieu

To assess Peisistatros’ tyranny at Athens, it is important to remember that this was a tyranny that took place in the aftermath of some momentous reforms at Athens: the reforms of Solon, which seem to have been introduced in 594/3 BC. These reforms served, in the words of one scholar, to ‘reboot’ whole areas of Athenian society – its politics, its economy and its laws.

Among numerous changes he introduced, Solon enabled debtors to cancel significant debts: men who had had to sell themselves into slavery were able to gain their freedom as a result. On a similar theme, Solon outlawed the possible enslavement of anyone unable to pay back their debts (those who fell into financial ruin had often found that enslavement was the simplest way to ‘pay back’ what they owed). He created 4 new political classes that were defined by the annual income of their members: members of the top three of these classes, moreover, were eligible to participate in a range of civic roles at Athens. This marked a significant change from the more aristocratic system which had preceded the reforms, in which members of the well-born (the eupatridai) dominated the significant offices of state. And among Solon’s legal reforms was a crucial one: he introduced the right to appeal – not to the long-established Council of the Areopagus, which was run by the aristocrats of Athens – but to a separate body (the Heliaia), which was manned by Athenian citizens from a cross-section of the city’s population.

Solon’s reforms created a period of unrest and political uncertainty at Athens. Solon himself left the city soon after introducing them. Before leaving, Herodotus records, he made the Athenians swear an oath that the reforms would not be undone. The chief opponents of the reforms, unsurprisingly, were Athenian aristocrats: they had lost something of the tight grip they had previously had over Athenian civic life, and their capacity to recover debts from their fellow citizens had been seriously undermined.

Solon.jpg
A portrait of Solon by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853)

In the aftermath of Solon’s departure from Athens, a period of protracted wrangling between various power factions eventually culminated in the instalment of Peisistratos as tyrant of the city in 562. The transition to tyranny was not seamless, however: twice in the early years of his reign Peisistratos was thrown out of office, and twice he managed to regain power. It is clear also that competition for power among Athens’ aristocrats continued throughout the period of the tyranny too.

In view of the sustained period of political uncertainty which followed Solon’s reforms, and indeed the acrimony with which they were greeted by many of Athens’ leading citizens, it would be easy to suspect that Peisistatos would wish to make it a priority to undo what Solon had done. As an aristocrat himself, it would hardly have been surprising if Peistratos had wished to re-introduce the old privileges of the pre-Solonian settlement. This is not, however, what he did. Instead, our authorities tell us, he sought to keep in place and shore up the reforms Solon had inaugurated. The same approach was adopted, moreover, by Peisistratos’ son, Hippias, when he took over as the city’s tyrant after his father’s death in 527.

So Peisistratos didn’t abolish Solon’s reforms. By leaving the reforms intact, he instead preserved a feature of Athenian politics that many historians – both in antiquity and since – have seen as a crucial pillar in the development of the Athenian democracy.

Yet the period of Peisistratos’ tyranny is not of interest simply because Solon’s reforms remained effective throughout its duration. It is interesting also because, on what is now a pretty conventional view among scholars, so much else seems to have flourished at Athens during the period of his tyranny.

Yes, there is an absence of sustained historical narrative in our surviving accounts dealing with the period. Ancient authors (like Herodotus and Aristotle) who traced the ‘rise’ of Athenian democracy were more interested in talking up the careers of the great ‘democratic’ reformers, Solon and Cleisthenes, Ephialtes and Pericles, than they were in celebrating the likes of Peisistratos and his sons – and this leaves something of a gap in what they wrote when they turned their attention (briefly) to the careers of the latter.

At the same time, there are some clear signs in the surviving evidence that there was a kind of cultural efflorescence at Athens during the period of Peisistratos’ tyranny.* Provisions were made, for instance, for the reorganisation of the main festival of Athena, goddess of Athens: the Panathenaia. A racetrack was constructed and impressive, large vases were created as prizes for winners of races at the festival.

Peisistratos seems also to have had a significant hand in the building of religious sculptures and buildings for Athena on the Acropolis. A new building was also constructed for the celebration of the famous Mysteries at Eleusis, near Athens, during his reign. And the City Dionysia festival, dedicated to the god Dionysus, was also reorganised under Peisistratos’ auspices. The first Greek tragedies, it seems, were performed in the context of this festival – not at the height of Athens’ period of democracy, but under Peisistratos’ tyranny. (So often, the development of theatre at Athens is understood as a paradigmatic symbol of the city’s democracy, later in the fifth century: the origins of theatrical performance in the context of tyranny sit in interesting tension with this perception).

Finally, in addition to all the religious activity that characterised the tyranny of Peisistratos, much artwork of lasting note was also created during this period: stunning Attic black and early red figure vase paintings, for instance, were created by some of the biggest names in Athenian pottery and painting: Nearchos, Euphronios and Euthymides.

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Attic black figure vase from c. 530 BC

It is easy to see, then, why contemporary historians find it easy to assess Peisistratos’ tyranny as a period of rule notable for cultural and religious achievement at Athens.** Certainly this tyranny serves as a stark reminder that democratic governments – whether ancient or modern – have not been the only ones to sponsor and give rise to influential cultural developments. It also represents an important interruption in the succession of ‘great men’ – from Solon to Cleisthenes, and on into the fifth century, to Ephialtes and Pericles – who brought democracy to Athens. It thus serves as an important reminder of the complex and historically unpredictable character of the emergence of democracy at Athens – both in terms of the city’s democratic institutions and of the key figures who laid the ground for them.

*I rely here on the excellent summary of Oswyn Murray, Early Greece p270f.

**This remains the dominant perspective in spite of recent attempts to probe the evidence – as, for example, in Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, ed. (2000), Peisistratos and the Tyranny: A Reappraisal of the Evidence.

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