Ancient Greek Tyrants

One day Pisistratus appeared suddenly in the market-place covered with blood and cried out that the nobles had sought to kill him as the friend of the commons. Instantly these commons decreed that they would form a bodyguard to protect him. With this guard to help him Pisistratus gradually assumed power over everything, and became "tyrant," the first tyrant of Athens (560 B.C.).

The career of this tyrant Pisistratus was picturesque and varied in the extreme. He seems to have been a wise and good and powerful ruler. Athens prospered under him as she had never done before. Nevertheless, the nobles were, naturally enough, always plotting against him. The Alcmaeonidae, after all the fuss of getting them out of the country, had been allowed to return. Their leader, Megacles, a grandson of that Megacles who had brought the curse upon them, headed an uprising which drove Pisistratus out of Athens. But Megacles quarrelled with his party and formed an alliance with the exiled tyrant, who married a daughter of Megacles, and so won his way to power a second time.

Again he lost his position, and yet again by a sudden invasion of the city he recaptured it. At length he made himself so powerful, and so honored also, that he ruled in peace by general consent. When he died in 528 B.C. he had started Athens on her career of wealth, opening the city to the trade of the world, and also on her career of artistic and philosophic splendor, welcoming learned men to his home and beautifying the city with many noble statues and stately buildings.

He was succeeded, as quietly as a regular king might have been, by his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus. But they assumed a tone of regal superiority which their shrewd father had avoided. They insulted people, and became true tyrants in our modern sense of being savage and unjust. At length two men whom Hipparchus had wronged determined to avenge themselves and free the city. These men, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, planned to slay the two brothers together; but fearing that their plot was betrayed, they rushed suddenly on Hipparchus, whom they most hated, and slew him in his brother's absence. The assailants were themselves both killed. In after days the Athenians looked back to Harmodius and Aristogeiton as national heroes, the first martyrs to the cause of democracy, thinking of them as the Romans thought of the first Brutus.

After this assault, the surviving brother, Hippias, became bitter and suspicious. He slew all whom he suspected of being in the plot, and imprisoned and tortured many of the Athenians for evil reasons. Tyranny showed itself in its natural colors.

It was the Alcmaeonidae who rescued Athens from Hippias. They had withdrawn from the city in fear of Pisistratus; but they were always seeking an opportunity to return. They made friends with the Delphic oracle and so worked upon its priesthood that every time the powerful Spartans sent to consult the oracle they got but one answer: "Athens must be freed." Seeing no other way of getting their own religious affairs attended to, and being averse to tyrants anyway as representing an illegitimate form of government, the Spartans finally sent a small force against Athens. It was defeated, and then their whole army came under their great king, Cleomenes. Of this expedition you have already heard. Many of the Athenians aided the Spartans. Hippias and his immediate followers were besieged on the Acropolis. Their children were captured by a lucky stroke; and to ransom the little ones, Hippias agreed to leave the country.

To the Spartans it seemed obvious that the overthrow of the tyrant meant the restoration of the oligarchy. But this was not the Athenian view of the situation. True, the Alcmaeonidae and other nobles returned to the city, and most of the government passed temporarily into their hands. But many of the nobility themselves now favored a democracy; and when the head of the Alcmaeonidae, Cleisthenes by name, stood forward as leader of the people's party he easily overruled the few nobles who clung to the ancient system. These reactionaries, as we would call them now, appealed to the Spartans for aid, and again Cleomenes took possession of Athens.

He came this time as a friend and adviser. He insisted that for the old religious reason the "accursed Alcmaeonidae" must be expelled. To this the Athenians agreed. But Cleomenes then went on to exile seven hundred other families pointed out to him by the reactionaries as leaders of the popular party; and he placed the nobles in control of everything.

Suddenly and desperately the Athenians rebelled. They had been too long in freedom to consent to go back to the old days of serfdom to a haughty oligarchy. Cleomenes and his small force were besieged with their Athenian friends upon the Acropolis. They were without provisions and surrendered. The Athenians let Cleomenes and his Spartans return home in peace, but his Athenian adherents they slew as traitors to the city.

In such sudden and violent manner did democracy assume the ascendant in Athens. The people expected a war with Sparta; they summoned home Cleisthenes and the other exiles. But you will recall how the vengeance of the Spartan king against Athens was checked by the growing spirit of nationality among the Greeks.

Two of the smaller Grecian states, urged on by King Cleomenes, did attack the Athenians, but were severely defeated. Athens in the new vigor of a united democracy had "found herself." At one stride she stepped forward to a position of power in Greek affairs second only to that of Sparta. And even with Sparta she had shown herself ready to fight, if fight she must. To the Greek world a new lesson was taught--the strength which inheres in every true democracy, because its people feel that they are fighting, not for a king or a few nobles who will seize all the profit, but for themselves, their own homes and happiness. A new power was revealed, the power of patriotism.

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