CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
In this lecture, Professor Donald Kagan explores the rise, fall, and significance of tyrannies in the Greek polis. He argues that the various tyrannies in the Greek world had both negative and positive aspects, which need to be appreciated. For instance, on the one hand, tyrannies promoted economic, commercial and artistic advances. On the other hand, tyrannies ruled absolutely and curbed the freedom of the polis. Finally, Professor Kagan intimates that tyrannies in many ways were a necessary step in the development of the classical polis. In short, through tyrannies, the power and influence of the aristocracy was broken and the hoplite farmer grew greater in significance.
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 8 - Sparta
Chapter 1. Theorizing Why the Hoplite Phalanx Was Not Adopted by Others [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: Before I start on today’s topic, which is Greek tyranny, I have been asked to say a word on the subject — well, to answer the question really best I can, if the hoplite phalanx was so stunningly successful in the period of the sixth, fifth, fourth centuries B.C., why was it that other peoples, other than the Greeks, the ones who came in contact with them and saw it and were victimized by it, why didn’t they adopt it? Well, let me make it perfectly clear like all the other interesting questions in this course, I cannot give you a firm answer. I can only give you opinions. But that whole subject now is so wonderfully more controversial than it was probably ever before in history, because everything now in history that bears on the western world and its relations with some other world is part of a great political assault by those people who are eager to pull down anything that seems to be admirable or special, or positive about the West. And needless to say, they say that it really was bad or to say wasn’t so terrific, or it didn’t exist. So, that’s the context in which, not the students’ question, but the larger question is getting kicked around these days.
Well, I think part of the reason for unhappiness about it is that I think the answer lies in the character precisely of thepolis. The fact that it had an ethos, a set of values, which placed so powerfully at the center of the minds of the citizens, the notion that the combination of courage in a military setting which was the inheritance of Homer and the new ideology of devotion to the polis as the most important kind of commitment that a citizen could have. This produced an attitude which was that it was the job of a man who was a citizen of a polis, beyond anything else, to fight bravely in the ranks of his army. As it happened, they developed — I think this latter part of the story, is simply accidental — they happened to develop this technique which employed the weapons and defensive armor that they had and then because they had those things, and because this ethos was present, it was possible to put together this fighting unit which was the phalanx which depended so enormously heavily upon the commitment to the commonality, to the common cause that was characteristic of the polis.
Now, every state of every kind, every people, and every tribe has some degree of this kind of commitment to one another or else they wouldn’t exist as a unit. But there are really very sharp differences of degree in terms of how powerfully this commitment really affects people. You would find in the same people, at different times in their history, the power of this idea and this commitment and it’s beyond an idea somehow. It’s sort of really bred and trained into the bones of every Greek man in the polis beginning sometime, I would say, in the seventh century or earlier and carrying forward, so long as the polis remained an autonomous and independent unit. So, Greeks against Persians is the best case we have, because the Greeks fought the Persians more than they fought other non-Greek peoples and the Persians were very formidable. Let’s remember the Persians had defeated every other power there was in the world that they knew, and controlled and dominated a vast, vast empire by anybody’s standards, but certainly by the standards of the world in which they knew. So, for the Greeks to defeat the Persians, there was nothing routine about that; that was always going to be surprising and needing explanation. So really a way to focus the question that I’m addressing is how come the Persians didn’t do it?
There I think, in that case, the answer is not so very hard, because the Persian Empire was a composite unit made up of lots of places and vast numbers of people who had been conquered by the Persians, and whose relationship to the great King of Persia was really an almost technical sense, that of slaves. They needed to do, they had to do, they were expected to do, whatever the Persian king told them to do. Now, he was not fanatical and he did not make requests that typically were impossible for people to do. In fact, the Persian rule over their conquered peoples was, in many ways, easier and more generous and less intrusive than other peoples. For instance, in the realm of religion, the Persians did not bother; they didn’t interfere with people’s exercise of religion. Those of you who have read a book called, The Old Testament, will remember that the Persians show up at important places and they get treated very nicely. There’s a bad Persian or two here or there, but he gets put down, but the Persians treat and the Persians were among the people who treated the Jews very well, because they didn’t care what the Jews did in their religious life, so long as they did the two important and essential things that the Persians required, which was you had to do military service for the king at his demand and you had to pay taxes. If you did those things and made no trouble that’s all you had to worry about from the Persians.
Well okay, why didn’t the Persians then adopt it? Because the greater part of their army wasn’t Persian even. So, the kinds of allegiance that’s necessary for this kind of fighting wasn’t motivated by most of these people. A second reason was the Persians themselves and their Arian allies, the Medes, had achieved their success militarily as cavalrymen and that was their nature, and that was what they practiced and elevated to the highest levels, so that the best Persians fought in the cavalry. They had infantry and some of their infantry was relatively very good, but there wasn’t that kind of — all that matters in a polis basically, I’m exaggerating only very slightly, is how you fight in the infantry. Happily, that question isn’t so bad because when we get to the story of the Spartans, which comes after our story of the tyrants, I will read to you some of the poetry which was the material with which Spartans were trained, and you’ll quickly see why the Greek ethos, the Greek feeling of absolute commitment, voluntary absolute commitment, even at the risk of your life for the polis was the central most important force in society.
So, the answer is essentially a moral commitment, based upon training and belief. This is why the Greeks did the phalanx, and plus the historical accident of their having developed that technique. It should be pointed out that there were peoples in the Ancient Near East, before the Greeks ever came to be anything, who had closely ordered, armed infantry soldiers. The Assyrians are a very good example. But if you examine Assyrian fighting, it’s not quite the same thing as the Greek fighting, and if I knew more about Assyrian fighting I might be able to say still more. I don’t know how much is actually known in detail, but there was obviously an element in the Greek story which went beyond merely equipment, and order, and so on. It had to do with what was in their heads. I think if you know about warfare in the modern world, even today, so much of what determines whether armies succeed or fail in their missions has to do with what’s in their head. Every army, I think, let’s say every good army even, is good at certain things and they are trained, and their culture prepares if they are successful to do certain kinds of things. If you take them and make them fight in a different way, until they are able to make an adjustment which is sometimes never, they can fight with that same skill.
So, there is a very close union, I would say, and I’ll come back and I’ll say a smarter guy than I, said it long ago. There’s a close connection between the nature of the society that produces and uses the military force and the kind of fighting that military force can do. I’m really just giving you a little riff on a tune written by Aristotle back in his day, when he connects closely to character, which I think I mentioned that the other day. The character of a regime and the character of the fighting; I did tell you about that. You know if it’s going to be cavalry based, it’s going to be aristocratic or oligarchic. If it’s going to be navel based, it’s going to be democratic, and so on and so forth, so I hope that’s of some help in dealing with that question.
Chapter 2. How Greeks Understood Tyranny [00:10:34]
Let’s turn now precisely to this phenomenon which is Greek tyranny. Tyranny emerges in the seventh century B.C., maybe it might have — no I think it emerges, I would think, for many of the same reasons and in response to some of the very same developments that I described for you in talking about the great burst of colonization that began in the eighth century in the Greek world. All of those tumultuous, troubling, changing forces that were at work in society were at work in bringing about this new kind of regime, which lasted from one to three generations among the Greeks before it faded away. It was a transitional phase in Greek society, rather than one that lasted for a terribly long time, but it was not trivial, and, as I say, in some cases it went for three generations.
Okay, what is tyranny? Let’s begin with the word. The word tyranneia is tyranny, the word tyrannos is tyrant, and etymologically the word is not a Greek word. It was a borrowed word that the Greeks took from somebody else and then applied it to certain elements that emerged in their society. Chances are it was borrowed from Lydia, that kingdom in Asia Minor that was inland from the Greek settlements on the coast. The first Lydian king, of whom we hear that could fit as the first tyrant from Greek perspective was a man called Gyges, who ruled in Lydia from something like the years 685 to 657, something like that. The first time the word tyrannos or some version of it appears in Greek that we have comes in the fragments of the poet, Archilochus, and he is a fascinating character. We do have fortunately a few nice fragments of his poetry. In fact, for the first time in the last couple of decades, for the first time, since they were lost, we actually have a full lyric poem by Archilochus. But in any case he has this bit of poetry that is preserved in a late writer’s collection which says, “I don’t care for the wealth of golden Gyges, nor have I ever envied him. I am not jealous of the works of the gods and I have no desire for lofty tyranny.” This is where the word tyranny comes into the picture.
Even in that small collection of words, you get some idea of what the Greeks meant by tyranny. They were talking about tremendous power from their perspective and its golden Gyges, and that’s not an accident. They mean wealthy Gyges; tyrants are people who have lots of wealth and lots of power, and they also rule. One translation that poets give fortyrannidos is lofty despotism, that he rules not as an equal, he rules not as a legitimate king, he rules as a master ruling slaves is the implication of that. It comes from the Greek perspective, it comes from the east, it is not native to Greeks, it is something new in the Greek experience, they haven’t had kings like that even in their legends. So, that’s going to be a central idea that surrounds the concept of tyranny. The Greek word that comes closest to it, but it doesn’t do the same job is monarchos, our word monarch and that simply means a ruler who is one, a single ruler.
Well, you know you need a word for that in Greek because that’s not the natural thing in Greece. As you know already, every regime that we have discussed from the Homeric world on, post Bronze Age, shows multiple kings as in the Iliadand the Odyssey, yes there is the generalissimo, you remember Agamemnon, but everybody there is a king. There’s not just one king; so that’s the Greek way of looking at things, whereas, the rest of the world and if the Greeks had only known, any where you look in the rest of the world, the typical regime is monarchy of one kind or another, absolute power. Nobody in Greece has absolute power in the Greek point of view, but kings elsewhere do.
But there’s another sense that Greeks attach to the word tyrannos or tyranneia, and that is that the power is not legitimately acquired. The Greeks could understand that there’d be somebody called the basileus, and that reason he was basileus was that his father was, and that the regime of that state is royal and this is a perfectly legitimate regime. The Greeks, although they don’t practice kingship during the period that we study, they don’t regard that as an illegitimate form of regime. Kingship is legitimate; tyranny is not and I want to spell that out for you. But before we get to my spelling it out for you, let me just give it a few more of the characteristics that it comes to have by classical times in the minds of the Greeks. It is, as I say, despotically exercised. It is not legitimate and one aspect of its not being legitimate is that it is not responsible. A tyrannos does not have to explain himself and nobody would dare insist that he do. He need not consult anybody if he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t need to have the approval of anybody. All of that makes him illegitimate. Irresponsible is another I think that fits into the picture, because we shall see that certainly by the Classical Period the Greeks felt that any regime to be legitimate must be responsible in the technical sense. It must be answerable to somebody because all human beings, was the philosophical core of this idea, are not to be trusted by complete power. They will abuse it, they will abuse it with violence, and that violence will very often mean sexual violence, but it will take every other form as well.
Let’s go back to Archilochus’ few words which are so rich in telling us so much about it. He says, “I am not jealous of the works of the gods.” What’s that got to do with anything? Well, the Greek view of tyranny was that tyrants, and one of the things that’s wrong with tyrants, is that they see themselves as rivaling the gods, as thinking themselves to be divine, or at least thinking that they could act as though they were gods. And because they have the power and the wealth, and because they have no responsibility to anybody, presumably they can, and this is one of the things that makes them terrible. It’s this act of behaving as though they were gods that Greeks called hubris, this arrogant, this violent, arrogant kind of exercise of power. That is the way things looked fundamentally in the Classical Period. But even in the Classical Period there was a remnant of what I think, and most scholars I think would agree, was the special characteristic of the idea in its earlier days — which was not so much how evil tyranny was, because in the early days it’s not clear that they thought it was, but because of the fact that it was not legitimately acquired.
It was not part of the normal way things happened, and I’ve mentioned this to you earlier. A good example of that isOedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus the King. Notice that nobody translates it as Oedipus the tyrant. They are right not to do so, because it would mislead us. The way we use the word tyrant, it’s always bad. There’s no good tyrant. But you will often see it translated, Oedipus Rex, into the Latin, but Rex means king. So, Oedipus the King is okay. Actually, it’s not bad to say Oedipus Rex, because the Romans had this idea that kings were bad; so there’s a little bit of that glittering around the edge, but for the Greeks that’s not there at the beginning.
The contemporaries of Gyges and the tyrants that came after him in Greece probably didn’t use the term yet. It probably sprang up at a later time, but we can’t be sure of that. For the Greeks it originally meant something much more neutral, without this great moral baggage to carry with it. It simply meant more than anything else, two things. One man rule, well that would always raise an eyebrow, but you could imagine it being okay, and the fact that it was unconstitutional. It did not come about in a way that followed tradition, which was what Greek constitutions were, traditional sets of laws or customs.
Chapter 3. The Rise of Greek Tyranny [00:21:15]
Okay, that’s the general picture; let’s take a look at tyranny as it emerges in Greece, and we don’t know very much about it. Here’s another one of these cases where we are dependent on later sources, we have no — I think I’m right in saying nothing really contemporary at all that speaks about any tyrant and so that’s a problem, but we have to deal with that. Then there are very limited tales that are told about them, so that we have to piece together a lot of information and ask ourselves what it all means. In any case, the first tyrant named in the Greek tradition is a man called Pheidon of Argos, who is mentioned by Aristotle in his Politics, and he says some interesting things. I’ll come back in a moment, but here are some of the facts or alleged facts that surround Pheidon in the Greek tradition. He is the King of Argos, and Argos you know in the Homeric tradition is a very big, powerful, important place; Argos includes Mycenae and all of that. So, this would be a king of a large and important area.
The Argives and Pheidon as king of Argos, were engaged in a conflict with Sparta as to who would be the dominant force in the Peloponnesus, and they fought a battle at a place called Hysiae in the 668 in which the Argives in a fight undefeated the Spartans, and really defeated him; it wasn’t just a little skirmish. They were now the top dog, as proven by the following other alleged facts about what’s going on here. Pheidon got himself elected chairman, president of the Olympic Festival. That was a tremendous honor and it indicated deference to him and scholars suggest, if it really happened, it would have suggested that the Argives and Pheidon were the dominant force in the Peloponnesus. And there is further evidence, and this is really rather better evidence, I think even than that. It is the fact, I don’t hesitate to use that fact, that Pheidon or Argos apparently imposed a system of uniform weights and measures on the entire Peloponnesus and those remained the weights and measures employed in the Peloponnesus thereafter, so that they were called the Pheidonian measures. You don’t do that if you’re not in effective control of the region. Nothing is more basic than determining something like that. So I think that lends considerable plausibility to the general story.
It is also said that he was a leader of the army, which was a hoplite army, and that his success depended upon his successful leadership of the hoplite army. Well, that fits in with one general interpretation that scholars have used about the rise of tyrants. Nobody claims it’s universal, but one feature that seems to be plausibly present is that the new way of fighting in the hoplite phalanx, which was to turn out to be decisive, well that brought about the leaders who were very good leaders of hoplite phalanxes and should they decide to seize power in any state where they had been doing the leadership, they could typically count on their army, the army they had led to assist them — all which makes obvious sense if you’re going to get the fighting force around and they like you and you’re popular, and you want to be a boss, that’s your best shot. So, tradition also lends some small support to the idea that maybe that’s how Pheidon brought himself to the kingship.
Before I depart, I just feel it necessary to make one small point. I said weights and measures. There are elements in the ancient tradition that also say that Pheidon was the first man — I want to put it very carefully and literally, because it’s all part of the argument. He was the first man to strike silver coins on the island of Aegina. Coins have not been present in Greece prior to this time and the most well-informed and professionally skilled and capable people, and almost everybody who studies the subject says, this is false. There were no coins in the Greek world yet and there aren’t going to be any for a very long time afterwards. So, this is merely a myth. I’m sorry to say that in spite of the fact that I am not an expert, or a numismatist, and everybody’s against me, they’re all wrong. I won’t put you through the pain of listening to the argument, but just keep in the back of your mind one day somebody’s going to find hard evidence that I’m absolutely right about this, and so then you can tweak and say, aha because that’s it. But right now no sensible person that has any credit in the field at all believes me. There are about two or three people maybe, but that’s about it.
Another very interesting important element about Pheidon. Aristotle tells us he was a king who became a tyrant, and by now you know the Greek words, he was basileus, who became tyrannos. Now, how did he do that? You would think if a man was king and that implies legitimacy, how do you become an illegitimate thing like a tyrant? We can only speculate, but I think from what we’ve learned already about the early Greek kings in those towns that had any, that they were Homeric kings. They were not really monarchs; they were not really powerful rulers. They did not simply dominate everybody and give orders. They were maybe the most striking, or the best connected, or the best descended of a bunch of noblemen who were roughly equal. Well, if we imagine that’s the way Pheidon began and then — I’m just making up the story you understand — then he himself led the Argive phalanx to these tremendous successes, defeating the Spartans, establishing Argos as the president of the Olympic Games, giving weights measures and heaven help us maybe coins to the people of the Peloponnesus and then began to act as though he really was the boss, because he could, and people recognized that and said, you know he’s not just king anymore, he has made himself a tyrannos. Something like that would make sense of Aristotle’s statement.
Now, this raises the question, which is to be raised whenever we think about tyrannos coming to power in Greece. Okay, he wants to be king, he’s popular and all those things, but what does it take? Well, it takes military force because there are people who are going to resist and so I would suggest, again nothing original about this, that the positive connection with the hoplite army now emerging in these states has to be part of the story. Why would these hoplites support a tyranny? It doesn’t really accord with their own long range interest or the autonomy and the independence that are so clearly a part of what it is to be a hoplite farmer. Well, I think the best answer would be that that’s what had to be done to break the monopoly of power and influence of the old aristocracy, which would have been presumably resisting the changes in society that were part of that hoplite uprising, that development of hoplites, the movement towards a hoplite community and so they joined with a leader who had what it took to make it work and to destroy the power of the aristocracy and to create a new kind of state with a new kind of constitution. But the first step would have been a tyranny, because that’s the way they got to where they had to go in the first instance.
Now, this is easy to connect again, theoretically, because we just don’t have the kind of hard evidence that would make it possible to be sure — to join this hoplite development with other changes that are occurring in society, and that is to say, the economic change that means trade is becoming more and more important and so is simple industry. There are now people in society who by virtue of what they do to make a living, get ahead, don’t fit in to the traditional aristocratic system, who don’t have what they want in terms of influence, power, recognition, because there hasn’t been a place for such people before and the people who are in charge are not about to give it away very readily, and so they might very well also assist. Let us imagine, the hoplite farmers as being the guys who do the fighting for the most part, but joined and supported by these other elements in society who need a change for the same reason. That fits rather nicely with where we find the earliest colonies.
Argos is a special place but Argos, in addition to being a fine agricultural area, also from an early time had commercial activity. So, that would be good. But then on top of that, the next three towns I’m going to mention as being very active in colonization — you’re familiar with that from our last talk, Corinth and a little town that I haven’t mentioned before, but it’s right next to Corinth and surely was part of the same set of developments that we’ve described there, a place called Sicyon. It also has an early tyrannical family and Megara which is located — I should say Sicyon is sort of to the south and to the west of Corinth, and Megara is to the north and to the east or Corinth. It’s right on and around the Isthmus of Corinth that some of these early states that have tyrants come into being, just as these are states that are very, very active in the colonial movement. If we go away from the mainland, again, Miletus has a tyrant at a fairly early time, just as you would expect, because it fits into the whole picture.
You don’t have tyrannies very early, if at all, in places like Athens. We will have a famous tyrant, but that will come later. Thebes will not have a tyrant in spite of the mythology surrounding Oedipus. Sparta, of course, never has the tyrant so all of this is sort of reasonable support for the interpretation that most scholars take. So, you have all of this stuff, the pressure of a growing population, new groups challenging the aristocracy, hoplites among them. If you go to Corinth the story of the establishment of a tyranny there involves an individual called Cypselus, and the stories that are told about Cypselus fit pretty decently into what we’ve been talking about. He is specifically a polemarch, which means the wararchon, the war leader. He was commander of the army in Corinth, and at that time that would have been a hoplite army. But he was not a king like Pheidon; he was, according to the myth — I shouldn’t say myth, because it isn’t a myth. According to the legend — no, it’s not really even a legend; let’s say tradition. According to the tradition, Cypselus was a descendant from a mixed marriage between a patrician, an aristocrat and somebody who was not.
So, that’s a very sort of typical historical development; people who become revolutionaries and troublemakers are often people on the margin, but who have by birth some kind of a connection or think they have some kind of a connection with the higher ranks and are annoyed, irritated, angry, jealous and therefore likely to take the trouble to seize power. I mean, Napoleon descended from some kind of Corsican aristocracy. Of course, the French thought that that was — what is it when a word contradicts itself? What’s the word? No not paradox, oxymoron, that’s right. The French thought it was an oxymoron, a Corsican aristocrat; I mean ridiculous. But that was his feeling and that kind of French attitude helped, I think explain, the drive that he had to get ahead to the way he did. Anyway, Cypselus was one of that group. Corinth, I might point out, was an unusual polis before the emergence of the tyranny, because most polis as best we can figure it out, they had an aristocracy that consisted of many, many, many, many families, but Corinth had the narrowest of all aristocracies. One family who were called the Bacchiads completely monopolized the regime and so that meant it would be easier once you’ve started to make trouble, to find help against them from a rather powerful people who were in other states, likely to be part of the regime, but here were cut out.
So, Cypselus puts together a force of military folks with some folks who are discontented and finally attacks the Bacchiads, either killed them or drove them into exile and then he establishes his own regime, which is in fact, one of the most successful tyrannies, at least as judged by the most basic thing, how long do they last? Cypselus, in effect, died in bed leaving the tyranny to his son and then his son had another son who became tyrant and he was driven out finally, and he was the last of them. So the Cypselid tyranny is a very successful one and we know something about it. The colonization movement, which the Corinthians had already started, but it really took a real hold in the time of the Cypselus, and so Corinth is colonizing quite vigorously in the time of the Cypselid tyranny, mostly, out in the west, that sort of empty territory from a Greek point of view, and so you will see Corinthian colonies stretching out along the shore, the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth, and north shore is less Greek and more barbaric than the south shore which is the Peloponessus. Then if you go to the end of Greece as far west as you go, and make a right turn and head up into the Adriatic region — I’m sorry, the Ionian Sea and beyond that the Adriatic.
Corinthian colonies are right along in there and they suggest, and I think they’re supported by other archaeological evidence, that commerce was one of the things that was very important for Cypselus and Corinth is booming from a commercial economic point of view in the years of the Cypselid tyrants. None of that is surprising, all of this is very characteristic of this phase of Greek tyranny that we’re talking about. In addition to that, we know that Cypselus like just about all the tyrants used his power to do something that the Greek governments normally did not do, namely, collect taxes from their people. You have to understand that the idea of taxation being normal would have gotten a Greek foaming at the mouth. When there is no tyranny, there’s no taxes, no direct tax I should say. The normal form of taxation that existed in the Greek world, when it was in its independent polis phase, is simply customs duties on trade. But the hoplite farmer wasn’t going to be taxed. Paying taxes is what barbarians did to their kings, a very powerful feeling. People like that in America today used to be called republicans.
No surprise that Cypselus and his descendants, just like the other tyrants, were very wealthy. There was undoubtedly wealth they seized when they took power, but there was also wealth that they could enjoy from the tremendous income that would come from the booming commerce, and then finally taxation. Just put it right smack from somebody hands into theirs and so tremendous wealth is another picture that goes with this.
Chapter 4. Herodotus’s Story of Orthagoras at Sicyon [00:40:18]
If you go to Sicyon, another element comes into the picture, which may or may not have occurred in other tyrannical towns. We do know that it played a role in Sicyon. There, the founder of the tyranny was a man called Orthagoras, and again, one thing we are told about him is that he was polemarch, leader of the phalanx. So we understand that. Another story says that he was a cook and they didn’t mean an Escoffier, or anything like that. I mean that was not a high ranking position, and so I think the implication was he came from a very low source. We don’t know what to do with that; it sounds surprising, but maybe it’s true. Anyway, we get down to the point where one of his descendants is still tyrant; I think it’s his son, Cleisthenes of Sicyon. Well, now you want to keep that name in your mind and you want to keep it straight, there will be a descendant of that guy, who will be an Athenian, whose name is Cleisthenes, he will not only be later but thoroughly different; not a tyrant, quite different from that. So just remember this is Cleisthenes of Sikyon as opposed to Cleisthenes, the Athenian.
Well, the picture that Herodotus, who is one of our main sources here, the main source I guess, gives us in Sicyon, is one of political oppression of a kind that we haven’t run into yet because it is based on — really on ethnic origins and ethnic differences. Here we see, I think without any question, a case of the pre-Dorian Greeks who have been defeated and conquered by Dorians and these groups have been kept separate throughout the centuries, and one was top dog and the other was the underdog. So, what has happened obviously is that part of the tyrants coming to power must have been a reversal of that situation, because the leading forces are anti-Dorian, very powerfully anti-Dorian. They hate Argos, because Argos in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the great leader of the Peloponnesians, the wrong guys, and of course Argos in their day is a Dorian city. You don’t have to go back to the Iliad and the Odyssey. I should have — I mean back to the days of Pheidon, the Argives would have ruled Sicyon presumably if Pheidon was in charge. Well, they didn’t like that; they had achieved I presume, an overthrow of that. So, they’re anti-Argos, anti-Dorian and they introduced changes in the tribes. If you go to any Dorian town in the Greek world, there are three tribes, they have the same names in all Dorian towns and that’s the way the world is organized. So what did they do? These guys, the Orthagorids changed the tribes. That’s interesting too because we’ll see that Cleisthenes the Athenian does the same thing.
That’s amazing; that’s very rare. When you’re talking about changes in tribal things, you’re getting at the oldest possible memories, and traditions, and beliefs, and associations that primitive peoples have. So, when you’re fussing with that you’re really making a great problem, but you’ll see in a moment what’s driving this sort of thing. Instead of having three tribes thereafter, from once the Orthagrads got there, they had four, but they changed the names of the old three. The old three now were called — I’m translating the Greek words, ass men, pig men, and swine men whereas the non-Dorians were the archelaoi, leaders of the people. You can see very objective set of names and evaluations; so you’ve got vengeance here. You’ve got a group long annoyed, long angered, long feeling oppressed, taking out their hatred when the victory comes in. But once you’re past this peculiarity, this particular ethnic conflict in this town that had such an important effect, you find that the tyrants are pretty much like all the other tyrants. They have great wealth and we’ll come back in just a moment to indicate how striking that was. They engage in conspicuous display, which is what tyrants also do, and they are filled with a tremendous ego and a terrific sense of their own importance and self, and so the kind of thing that made Archilochus say, “I’m not going to try to vie with the gods the way these tyrants do.”
Well, the story that Herodotus tells and I think you will enjoy it, in his wonderful prose if you haven’t gotten to it yet. Cleisthenes of Sicyon now is in charge; we’re in the sixth century B.C., and he has a daughter and he wants her to have the very best husband that there was available in Greece. Just like your parents, he felt the same way as your parents do, but he was going to see to it that it was going to work out. By the way, he himself was a very significant figure, and this again makes him not so very unusual among the tyrants. He entered in the Olympic competition, and in those days, in probably forever in the Olympic Games, I mean the ancient Olympic Games, the most prestigious, the most important contest was the four-horse, horse race, the chariot race. For one thing, you couldn’t do that unless you were very rich. So, it meant that the noblest and wealthiest people were competing against one another in this. Well, he was the winner in the four-horse chariot race which made him an international celebrity on top of all the other things that he had going for him. So, he decides by God he’s going to have the best guy in Greece be his daughter’s husband. He invites all the best aristocratic, richest, handsomest, most athletic guys in all of Greece to come to Sicyon and spend a year, at his expense, and treated royally all that time to compete for the hand of his daughter and so they all are.
Herodotus reads off the names of all of these amazing young men who come to the competition, pretty much I think, copying Homer’s catalog of the ships in the Iliad and they come. Well, after the bulk of this year, it is clear two finalists are emerging. One of them is called Hippocleides and the other is called Megacles. Megacles, we better take seriously because he’s an Athenian and he will be the ancestor of Cleisthenes of Athens later on. But anyway, they’re competing in every respect, and we’re down to the last kinds of things and it looks Hippocleides has on the edge. He seems to be the number one candidate and he has quite a few belts at the party when we’re reaching the final stages of all this, and next he jumps on a table and he begins dancing wildly. I mean like beyond what is seen to be seemingly dancing, we expect a young nobleman to be a good dancer, but this guy is doing stuff that nobody ever heard of and this is making Cleisthenes a little nervous. I mean who is this guy? What’s happening here? Then he flips upside down and begins to dance on his hands, with his feet flipping around in the air, at which point Herodotus tells us. Cleisthenes speaks up and says, son of Tysander you have danced your bride away, he lost and Megacles got to marry Aragriste and the story goes on.
Well, what are we to believe of that tale? I don’t know, but this much I think is clear. Such a legend does not come from nothing. The picture is first of all of a man who is fabulously wealthy. Think of the kind of entertaining he is said to have done. Also, fabulously full of himself, just imagine saying my daughter will only marry the very best young man there is, and you will all have to go out there and compete for her hand and I’ll tell you who she’s going to marry. Who can then act the way he did. I think that’s a picture that he probably was extreme in all of these respects and that kind of situation was part of the tale.
Chapter 5. The Story of Gyges and Unconventional Power [00:50:25]
So, let me just sum up some things. Untraditional root to power is important. Gyges, perhaps you remember the story of Gyges. Gyges was sort of the prime minister of the King of Lydia and the king had this incredibly beautiful wife and he was terribly proud of her, and so he said to Gyges, you can’t believe how gorgeous my wife is, and Gyges says, of course she’s wonderfully beautiful. You can’t tell with her clothes on for God’s sake. He says, come on, come with me. Gyges says, no, no, no please your majesty. He says, come with me. So, there’s Gyges hidden behind a curtain and here’s his wife disrobing and indeed she was as advertised. The king goes out, and Gyges would have slipped away, but the queen spots him and, of course, she’s totally disgraced. She’s deeply embarrassed just to put it very, very mildly, and so she says to him, unless you do what I tell you I will tell my husband that you sneaked in and did this and he will kill you. But what I want you to do is to kill him and marry me. That’s how you can make it up. What could Gyges do?
So he did; that’s how he became king. This is not your normal constitutional procedure even in Lydia. So that’s Gyges; Pheidon I’ve talked to you about already. Theagenes of Megara I haven’t mentioned, but he comes to power by force, with the use of the soldiers and same thing is true of Cypselas. All these tyrants get there by means that are not traditional. They have personal power, whatever else is going on, they have control of the military, and the military gives them what they need in the way of command. They have to have skill — the founder of the dynasty at least has to have skill. In order to be a soldier he has to be a good talker to get people to go along with him. He’s got to have talent. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to overthrow a traditional regime and make yourself the boss. He would have had these qualities, but he’s got to have support out there from the various elements that I mentioned to you, prestige from some great deed, whatever it might be, military victory or athletic victory perhaps. When he has wealth, once he’s acquired wealth, he can use it further to strengthen his position and they typically do, because he introduces something new, mercenary soldiers.
It’s one thing to seize the power with the help of the hoplites, but to hold onto it you’re going to need something more solid than that. First of all, hoplites don’t stick around in uniform; they go back and work their fields. So, they’re not around to suppress anything that needs to be suppressed most of the time, but beyond that tyrants grow unpopular. This is one of the great rules of politics in any system. The one question that’s in the minds of all people who have anything to do with it, and that is what have you done for me lately? Any benefit that people might have achieved from the establishment of the tyranny gets to be taken for granted after awhile they ask why is this guy taking taxes from me? Why is he such a big shot and I’m not? That’s just going to be inevitable, and so if you’re going to keep your power and keep people down, you can’t just rely on the citizen body and so tyrants typically hire foreigners to serve as mercenaries for them.
Chapter 6. Features of Tyrannies [00:54:35]
Now, another thing is that while these tyrannies last, it is typical that they should accomplish very significant things that most anybody would agree were positive contributions to the life of the community they ruled. You find economic prosperity. This is one of the things that is characteristic of these regimes — diversified economies, because they support trade and industry, and sometimes even agriculture, the spread of wealth to new groups, because there’s much more money around, there are people who don’t fit into the old system in which the land was simply dominated by the aristocrats and where there was no other way to make any money, or gain any wealth. So, all of that is happening, and of course, many of the tyrants foster and engage in colonization, which has all the benefits I mentioned last time as well.
Now, there’s another thing that is characteristic of tyrannies. When they make themselves tyrant, they come to live, whether they did before or not, in what is the major city of that whole polis; the capital so to speak. It’s always been a place that would have a special place; it’s where the acropolis is and therefore where the worship of the gods takes place. There’s worship of the gods everywhere, but that’s a special place for them. There was always a special place, but now that becomes the center of the community, and as a result where the tyrant is, that’s where all the action is. People begin to move into that capital city if they leave the land of their fathers, and some number of them in fact do. If you’re going to conduct commercial activity, if you’re conducting factory work, and you’re going to be somehow involved in the various aspects of government and things that have to do with the tyrant, you want to be there, and the tyrants have courts, and so people come to be in the court of the tyrant. So, what you have is a kind of urbanization that is characteristic of this period. Well, if you’re going to have more people living in this town than ever did before, there’s all sorts of things you need. Number one, no question number one, water supply; how you supply people with enough water to meet their needs when they weren’t there before, and the answer is you have to bring water into the city by a variety of ways, any way that you really can. They do aqueducts of a certain kind, they dig wells and have fountains coming from those wells; they build fountain houses to cover those fountains. In short, they bring a water supply.
Also, if you’re going to have these common places where a lot of people live who didn’t live there before, drainage is essential or else you’ll have terrible disease breaking out. It’s not that they were scientists and knew about germs, it’s just that if you know when there’s a lot of people there and there’s a lot of water lying around, people seem to die, so you don’t have to be genius for that. There are sewer systems introduced by these tyrants which never existed before. Since they are trying to encourage trade, there was always a place — I shouldn’t say there was always, but at some point in the development of the polis, there emerged a kind of central place in the city called the agora which was a place that people came together for different purposes. It looks like, in the beginning, political meetings, meetings of the assembly, for instance, might take place in the agora. It pretty early seemed to have had some religious significance, and then over time, not at the beginning though but over time, they became commercial centers. If you use the word agora in Greece today, you’re talking about a shop because that’s how much that comes to be the thing. But we need to keep in mind that it is a religious center, it becomes a civic center, and it also of course was a commercial center as well. So the agorascome from these tyrannical periods.
Public buildings are created by the tyrant for whatever use he needs, but he might be building courthouses, he might be building places for magistrates to stay, things like that. But also, he has a tendency to try to make them very attractive, very impressive, so that people will be impressed with him for having done so. You know the phenomenon; people like to have their name on a building. I’m told they will actually give you millions and millions of dollars to put their name on a building. I’m told there are places where they will even give you lots of money to put their names on bathroom stalls, but only the tyrants in their day would have been rich enough to do the kind of thing we’re talking about, including, and this is a very large thing I believe, temples. The Greeks had been building temples I’m sure for a long time, but essentially out of wood. But now with people having the kind of wealth that were being accumulated by these tyrants, they begin to build them of stone and where possible of very fine stone such as marble, and I think we have to imagine the construction of such a building in an old town like any one of the Greek city states had, it would have had at tremendous impact. This is something I’d like to pass on to you, when you think about the Greeks. Here’s one of the places where they’re so stunningly different from us that we need to make an imaginative leap to understand what’s going on.
Remember this is a world that has next to no writing. There are a few people who know how to write, but it’s not part of life. Of course, there’s no paper. So, just get writing out of your life for the most part, but there’s no movies, there’s no television, there’s no radio, there’s no newspapers, there are very few buildings. Now suddenly up pops — let’s go to Corinth and suddenly up pops this incredible thing made of stone, a temple to the gods, decorated beautifully, painted typically blue and red, and gold with a big statue of the goddess and anybody in town can go by and look at that. That would have made a sensational experience and people would have been talking about it in various elements of detail forever and a day, and they would not forget, who it was that constructed that temple. So, that’s an example of what I’m talking about. Beyond that, the tyrants were patrons of the arts, by which I mean architects, sculptors, painters, painters of this, that, and the other thing, but vase painters as well, potters of a very special kind. But that’s not all — poets, singers, liar players, all of those kinds of entertainments, which had been monopolized by the aristocracy to the degree they existed at all, would now be more broadly available and the tyrants took pride in bringing the world’s best to their cities and allowing at least some of them to hear and see what was going on. When we get to Athens I’ll be more specific when we have more specific information about it.
So that is all part of a story that would have made the tyrannies much more widely supported and not so easy to knock over as you might think. People would have had many, many reasons for gratitude to the tyrants and would have been very pleased by much of what the tyrants were doing. Of course, the old aristocrats would have been typically very unhappy about everything they were doing, because they had been cut out. But if you go to everybody else, their feelings I think would have been mixed because first — I don’t know which came first, but they would be impressed and enjoy these positive things. But they would also be troubled by something that was counter to their own traditions and to central elements of their own beliefs and concerns. I keep thinking about those hoplite farmers, who have grown to be confident and independent, desired to be autonomous, didn’t want to be told what to do and yet there was somebody who was doing just that. So, this is the conflict that there is. In fact, what we see is a steady decline in the popularity of tyrannies from generation to generation. The founder of the tyranny, he’s probably still popular when he dies. He did it; most people are very conscious of what he achieved, and he’s a glorious figure. But his son is only tyrant because he was his son; it doesn’t come from his personal qualities and when the people become more and more aware of the shortcomings, fewer and fewer people are interested in the achievements even though they may do wonderful things. By the time you get to the third generation that’s the end. The third generation of tyrant gets thrown out if you’ve made it that far.
When the tyranny is overthrown, the typical successor to the tyrannical regime is an oligarchy. I would say it would include many of the old aristocrats who had the best land and the greatest wealth and indeed the chances are those people would be the leaders of the new regime. But they would very quickly, because it was not a monarchy of any kind, would very quickly form into factions that would be competing with one another, based on all kinds of different things, which would compete with one another the leader of each faction, for becoming the leading faction, the dominant figures in the state. But also, and this is much more important, the really fundamental thing is typically, almost always, the hoplite class of independent farmer would have participated in this regime. He would have been a full fledged citizen. Fighting would be done chiefly by the phalanx, with these folks doing the fighting. These men would be the economic backbone of the community, turning out the grain and the wine, and the olive oil and whatever else, vegetables that they had to produce and being the independent fellows that they were.
Finally, they would have played a part in the political life of the city. Here, it would vary from town to town. You might have a relatively narrow oligarchy in which the council was what counted and that would be typical, the council would count but it might be very narrowly defined, or it could be very broadly defined, where it might include all the hoplites, or something in between. But not ever until we get to Athens would you get a democracy, the definition being that every adult male who is born of native parents is a citizen and who has some significant political rights. That doesn’t come yet. You have an oligarchy meaning short of that, but with the variations I’ve indicated. Corinth, for instance, after they get rid of the tyrant finally, becomes famous in the Greek tradition for the moderation and therefore the longevity and peacefulness of its oligarchic regime. I think we should imagine that the Corinthians became a hoplite city — Not that they didn’t have aristocrats who had wealth and importance, but that the hoplites really played a central part in the picture.
Chapter 7. Consequences of Tyranny to Greek Life [01:08:23]
Just to raise the question, I remember I raised it about colonization; let me raise it about tyranny. What were the contributions made by this development in Greek history to the life of Greece and they were many. Obviously, economical growth in the way I’ve pointed out, social change up to a certain point, but certainly doing away forever with the aristocracy of birth as the normal basis for citizenship and participation in the state. I would go further. I would say that by destroying that and substituting for some kind of an economic basis for what role you play, they actually opened the door for a form of government that didn’t come in many places, but did come in some, and I’m talking about a Greek democracy.
Let me revert finally to the question of how did Greeks think about tyranny after tyranny was gone? It played a terrific role in Greek thinking and had a lot to do with the way the Greeks felt about their relations with foreign powers and their own regimes. One thing I’ll just say in passing, and come back to it next time. Sparta, because of its behavior in the sixth century and a little bit into the fifth, developed a reputation as being the state that was the enemy of tyranny. They never developed a tyranny, and indeed, they often fought against tyrants. When tyranny was gone, that was seen to be a great credit to them and helped explain how it happened that Sparta emerged and rose to the level as the leader of the Greeks which they certainly were at the time of the Persian Wars. Beyond that though, the picture that comes down to us will be a double picture, in which opposite elements exist but certainly the dominant one is negative. Tyrannies are arbitrary, they are violent, tyrants are arrogant, they do not permit free speech, which by the way the Greek democrats placed in a very central place in the important things that are necessary for a man, a Greek, a citizen, a person who is not a barbarian, the ability to come forward into the center of political life and speak your mind. When you didn’t have that to some considerable degree, you were a slave and tyrants didn’t permit that. There was no true political life for citizens, they were de facto subjects of this tyrant who himself was an irresponsible, not responsible to another body, and therefore, potentially dangerous and very easily could become a despot, which is a Greek word.
Herodotus uses tyranny critically — well, you know, by and large, he depicts the King of Persia, who finally invades Greece first in 490 and then another king in 480, these men are tyrants, because they fit precisely the categorization of tyranny as the Greeks know it. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, Zeus himself is seen to be a tyrant and the word is used of him by characters in the play for the same reason. He is punishing Prometheus for his good deeds towards men, which make men more divine than they would otherwise be. Zeus is very angry. That’s because he gave him fire; Zeus is very, very angry with him and he locks him up, chains him to a rock in the Caucus Mountains while birds are pecking away at his liver forever and ever, a typical Greek hell of the worst kind. And we are led in, what we have of that play, to think that Zeus is doing terrible things. He is behaving tyrannically, that is, not good even for the king of the gods. Plato, of course, will regard tyranny later on as a terribly evil thing and because of his anti-democratic prejudices, will say tyranny is the natural outcome of democracy because people can’t rule themselves. They’re not competent to do so, and it’s only a matter of time before some strong, violent, selfish man makes himself a tyrant.
It is a distinguishing feature in Greek thought. Tyranny or monarchy, these are not appropriate for free men. That is to say Greeks; Greeks, they felt were by nature free and they couldn’t be free so long as there was tyranny. But tyranny was in fact a natural way of life for barbarians, who were not by nature free men. So it’s helpful. And this is a form of ethnocentric stuff, but the Greeks spelled it out very carefully, thought about it very carefully, and if you had said, well why do you say that? Well, they would; deep down they might hold what we would call a sort of racial prejudice, but I think they would have made a better case for it. They would have said, to be a free man as Aristotle said, you need to live in a polis, because that’s the only place where it’s possible to live as a free man. So, because Greeks chose to live in polis, they are free. People who choose to live as the slaves of monarchs and tyrants, that’s because they are natural slaves. And that prejudice is very deep, and so when the Greeks end up having to fight the Persians, there’s a lot more going on than just we’re being invaded and we have to defend our land. Next time I’ll look at the great exception to all of the things we’ve been talking about: Sparta, the state like no other Greek state.
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