The word Ancient Greek tyrants find its roots from the Latin word Tyrannus, implying an “illegitimate ruler.” In politics, a tyrant can be defined as a person who illegally seizes and controls a governmental power in a polis.

Ancient Greek Tyrants

Tyrants were a group of individuals who took over many Greek poleis during the uprising of the middle classes in the sixth and seventh centuries BC thereby ousting the aristocratic governments.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

Plato and Aristotle also defined a tyrant as, “one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics — against his own people as well as others.

“Thus, under common usage, the word “tyrant” carries within itself the connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of a small oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls. However, in Ancient Greek Tyrants were not considered to be negative.


In ancient Greece, tyrants were influential opportunists who came to power by securing the support of different factions of a deme. The word “tyranny”, then carried no ethical censure and merely referred to anyone, good or bad, who obtained executive power in a polis by unconventional means.

Support for the tyrants came especially from the growing middle class and from the peasants who had no land or were in debt to the wealthy landowners.

Though it is true that they had no legal right to rule yet the people preferred them over kings or aristocracy. The Greek tyrants stayed in power by using mercenary soldiers from outside of their respective city-state.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

In Corinth, growing wealth from colonial enterprises, and the wider horizons brought about by the export of wine and oil, coupled with the new experiences of the Eastern Mediterranean brought back by returning mercenary hoplites employed overseas allowed Cypselus, the first tyrant of Corinth in the 7th century BC, to overthrow the aristocratic power of the dominant yet unpopular Bacchiadae, who were killed, executed, driven out and exiled in 657 BC.

Corinth prospered economically under his rule and Cypselus managed to rule without a bodyguard but when he managed to bequeath his position to his son, Periander, whose position was less secure, required a bodyguard of mercenary soldiers personally loyal to himself.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

Nevertheless, under Cypselus and Periander, Corinth not only extended but also tightened its control over her colonial enterprises, resulting in the flourishing exports of Corinthian pottery.

However, tyrants rarely succeeded in establishing an untroubled line of succession. Periander’s successor was less fortunate and was expelled, Corinth was ruled by a dull oligarchy, and was concealed by the rising powers of Athens and Sparta.

In Athens, the inhabitants first gave the title of a tyrant to Peisistratus, a relative of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, who succeeded in 546 BC, after 2 failed attempts, to install himself as a tyrant.

Supported by the prosperity of the peasantry and landowning interests of the plain by virtue of thriving from the rise of olive exports, and his clients from Marathon, he managed to achieve sovereign power.

Through an ambitious program of public works like for instance, by fostering the state sect of Athena, by encouraging the creation of festivals and supporting the Panathenaean games, in which prizes were jars of olive oil, and in his support of the Dionysia which eventually led to the development of Athenian drama, Pisistratus managed to maintain his personal popularity.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

Democracy Definition Greek

He was succeeded by his sons, and with the subsequent growth of Athenian democracy, the title “tyrant” took on its usual negative connotations. The murder of his son, the tyrant Hipparchus by Aristogeiton and Harmodios in Athens in 514 BC marked the commencement of the so-called “cult of the tyrannicides” that is the killers of tyrants. Contempt for tyranny characterized this cult movement.

What is meant by Demokratia

Despite financial help from Persia, in 510BC, the Peisistratids were barred by a combination of intrigue, banish and Spartan arms. The anti-tyrannical attitude became all the more prevalent in Athens after 508 BC, when Cleisthenes reformed the political system so as to resemble Demokratia.

Oligarchy in ancient Greece

Which was the ancient concept participant democracy, unlike the modern representative democracy?The Thirty Tyrants whom the Spartans inflicted on a defeated Attica in 404 BC, however, cannot be referred to as tyrants in the usual sense as they were in practice an oligarchy.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

An Aesymnetes also experienced similar scope of power to the tyrant, such as Pittacus of Mytilene between 640 to 568 BC, and was elected for life or for a specified period by a city-state in a time of crisis; the only difference being that the Aesymnetes was a constitutional office and were comparable to the Roman dictator. Magistrates in some city-states were also called Aesymnetai.

Rise of Tyrants in Ancient Greece

The glory days of the Archaic period Ancient Greece Tyrants came in the early 6th century BC, when Cleisthenes ruled Sicyon in the Peloponnesus and Polycrates ruled Samos. During this time, revolts overthrew many governments in the Aegean world.

Chilon, the ambitious and capable ephor of Sparta, built a strong alliance amongst neighboring states by making common cause with these groups seeking to oppose the much disliked tyrannical rule.

By superseding against the tyrants of Sicyon, Corinth, and Athens, Sparta thus came to assume Hellenic leadership prior to the Persian invasions. Simultaneously Persia first started making inroads into Greece, and many tyrants sought Persian help against forces seeking to remove them.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

Greek tyranny in the main grew out of the struggle of the popular classes against the aristocracy or against the kings where archaic traditions and mythology sanctioned hereditary rights to rule. Popular coups generally installed tyrants, who often remained popular rulers, at least during the early part of their reigns.

The tyrannies of Sicily came about due to similar causes, but here the threat of Carthaginian attack prolonged tyranny, thereby leading to the rise of military leaders with the people united behind them. Such Sicilian tyrants as Gelo, Hiero I, Hiero II, Dionysius the Elder, Dionysius the Younger, and Agathocles maintained lavish courts and became patrons of culture.

Ancient Greece Tyrants

Thus, Ancient Greek Tyrants as a concept gained high popularity in the ancient Greek society and were mostly supported by the commoners as they were basically against the kings or aristocratic rule per se.

As a result of this, the conflict between the commoners and the kings reached to such an extent by which the common people actually accepted another person who was not the legal ruler to rule them which ultimately paved the way to tyranny.

Decline of Tyrants

After the end of the Archaic Age, and the beginning of the classical Age, people now became aware of the drawbacks of entrusting power to the hands of one single person. Many Tyrants became corrupt and started oppression of the people.

In this situation, many chose to go back to oligarchies and many now wanted to have more power over the masses. Sensing the rising discontent among the people, Cleisthenes in Athens, reformed the existing system to give more political power to the masses and made it a system of direct democracy in Athens. Many states had their tyrants overthrown and established popular assemblies where people could vote on issues, debate, and voice their opinion. Although it was not as democratic as in Athens most states had to cede certain powers or listen to the opinion of the citizens, which led to the decline of the tyrants.

After this, there were continuous changes between democracy and tyranny in the Greek states. Especially in a period of wars, people found democracy to be slow in action and choose to follow a certain commander or leader as a Tyrant but most prosperous states choose to end their support for tyranny.