What is Tyranny? - Definitions
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What is Tyranny?

Kritios Boy
Kritios Boy (ca. 500 BC Greece)

September 2016 - In Greece and West Asia, mainly in what is now Turkey, there was a period of time around 650-400 BC when tyrants ruled many city-states. "Tyrant" is probably a Lydian word, from West Asia. This is how tyrannies usually grew out of oligarchies: in an oligarchy, each of the rich men is always trying to get more power than the others. But the other rich men keep them from doing it.

But if one of the rich men thinks of asking for help from the poor people, he can get ahead that way, and may make himself tyrant. So a tyrant is like a king, but a king who does not have the law or religion behind him, and only rules because the poor people support him. Tyrants are something like Mafia bosses like the Godfather.

Naturally the other rich men hated tyrants, and tried to stop them and go back to an oligarchy again. In order to stay in power, the tyrant has to promise the poor people that he will do good things for them, so they will support him. Usually the tyrant promises one or two (or all three) of these things:

1) cancellation of debts
2) abolition of debt-bondage
3) redistribution of land.

You can see that tyrants are usually really good for the poor people, and only bad for the other rich men. In English today, tyrant means a bad king, but that is because the rich men hated tyrants, and in ancient Greece only the rich men could write.

One of the most famous tyrants was Pisistratus in Athens. His sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, became tyrants after him, and the other rich men murdered one of them. Another tyrant was Dionysos of Syracuse, whom Plato went to teach. In Rome, the Senate killed Tiberius Gracchus because they thought he might become a tyrant.

Learn by doing: watch the Godfather movie. How is he like Pisistratus?
More about Pisistratus
More about democracy

Bibliography and further reading about tyranny:

More about Pisistratus
More about republics
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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