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.


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.

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.

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.

Theseus the Democrat

Just as modern theatre, film and costume drama can contain elements of anachronism, whereby storylines are adapted and/or jazzed up to produce a contemporary resonance (or provocation), so the same could be true of the very earliest theatrical productions in fifth century Athens. A good example of one such anachronism occurs in Euripides’ Suppliants, a play first performed in 423 BC.

The play itself tells a largely sorry story. The king of Thebes, Creon, has refused burial rites to warriors from another city, Argos, who have been slain outside his city gates. The families of the dead warriors (the ‘suppliants’ of the title are their mothers) are distraught. They regard a third party, Theseus – the king of Athens, as the only figure who might be able to prevail upon Creon to change his mind, so they approach him and ask him to do so. Theseus agrees to do so but is unsuccessful and, with Creon thoroughly stirred up, battle between Athens and Thebes ensues. Theseus’ Athenians successfully overpower Creon’s Theban army; we then learn that Theseus manages to recover the corpses of the slain warriors. Theseus receives the gratitude of the warriors’ relatives and the lasting respect of Argos: the Argives promise that, in recognition of Theseus’ accomplishments on their behalf, they will never attack the city of Athens.

The plot of the play plays out in mythical pre-history. The remote past of Athens seems to have been a topic of some fascination to the city’s fifth century inhabitants: this was a past in which they could find, among other things, their bearings in the present. What better way for a playwright to evoke this past for a fifth century audience, then, than to present it in ways which addressed matters of contemporary (fifth century) relevance?

Euripides self-consciously adopts just this approach in the Suppliants. The clearest case in point is an interaction between Theseus and a herald who has been dispatched by Creon from Thebes. The central matter at issue in this interaction is the topic of democratic governance – and herein lies the anachronism.

Democracy was a relatively recent development for the Athenians of the 420s BC. The central practices and institutions of what would only later come to be called ‘democracy’ had been a staple feature of Athenian politics only since the reforms of Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BC. Certainly the earlier figure of Solon also stands tall in what would turn out to be the Athenian move toward democracy. But Cleisthenes (depicted below) was the really decisive figure.¬†All of which is to say that, in the context of the mythical pre-history that is depicted in the Suppliants, democracy is but a figment of the fictive world Euripides recreates for his audience.


In suggesting that Theseus, king of Athens, stands for democracy, Euripides is creating not just an anachronism but an additional awkwardness. For is not Theseus a king? And isn’t fifth century Athenian democracy characterised precisely by its lack of (autocratic) monarchy? This self-evident wrinkle is not something that Theseus’ Theban interlocutor aims to exploit, in spite of the fact that Theseus himself surprisingly argues along the following lines:

‘There’s no heavier burden for a city to bear than a monarch. To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all its citizens’.

And this from a monarch, no less! Clearly, in the Euripidean vision of early Athens, things are a bit complicated and can involve a degree of doublethink on the part of its democratic monarch.

In any case, inserting a debate about the pros and cons of democracy into the Suppliants allows Euripides both to rehearse arguments for democracy and to air scathing criticisms of it. To what extent the playwright himself sympathises with these criticisms, we are left to wonder.

For the Theban herald, one noteworthy danger of democracy is that it can slip into the control of the eloquent but self-serving trickster. A democracy may have

‘men who speak well but who then destroy everything…men who [then] lie to hide all the damage they’ve caused and with those lies escape justice’.

Democracies, he continues, should be criticised for three further reasons. First, they are ruled by ‘mindless herds’. Such herds rush to quick decisions, where it is self-evident that patience and wisdom are required.

Second, many citizens of democracies are far too occupied with mundane affairs and staying economically productive to take a serious interest in governing their city. It is inefficient and unnecessary that such citizens should have a serious political role.

And third (a most objectionable complaint by modern standards), there is the ‘problem’ that humbly born citizens may rise – on account of their capacity to make eloquent political speeches – and surpass even a city’s nobles in their political influence.

Theseus’ response to these arguments is to dismiss them as ‘irrelevant little words’, without in fact directly countering any of them. Instead he extols what he presents as democracy’s attractions.

These include the equal treatment of rich and poor alike before the law; the right of the poor man to speak up in his own defence; the right of any citizen to air ‘good ideas for the city’ to see if he can gain praise for them; and, finally, the opportunity for everyone to flourish and thrive in pursuit of excellence, without fear of offending the ego of an envious autocrat. Under an autocracy, he avers, will not a man’s daughters be always at risk of being involuntarily co-opted into a relationship with a ruling figure? Will not his sons always be at risk of being culled?

It bears repeating that these words are spoken not just anachronistically, but by a monarch. This was an awkwardness Euripides was clearly ready to put up with when writing the play. The debate between Theseus and the herald, with its contemporary fifth century political slant, would certainly have registered with his audience.

Speaking to the deep-seated ideas and thoughts of this audience mattered: for each play Euripides wrote was designed to impress a panel of fellow citizen-judges, with the fundamental aim of winning an annual competition. And ‘doing politics’ in an interesting way, as the devisers of many modern-day productions can surely attest, is one well-trodden route to attracting the plaudits you seek.

  • the featured image is of a 6th century kylix (wine cup) which illustrates Theseus slaying the Minotaur.