A tyrant is a ruler who has absolute power in a state. Tyrants generally come into power by means other than the orderly and lawful transfer of leadership. Nowadays the term tyrant has a negative connotation—associating tyranny with cruel and oppressive leadership. Some of the Greek tyrants of the 600s B.C. and the 500s B.C., however, were benevolent* rulers, and their reigns marked important stages in the development of the Greek city-state*.
One of the earliest Greek tyrants was Kypselos of Corinth, who seized power in the middle of the 600s B.C. With the support of some Corinthians, he overthrew the aristocracy* that had governed the city and placed himself in charge. Tyrants took over almost every Greek city in a similar manner. Among the larger and more important city-states, only Sparta and Aegina escaped the experience of tyranny.
* benevolent kind or generous toward others
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* aristocracy rule by the nobility or privileged upper class
Tyrannies appeared during a period of Greek history when the old way of governing was beginning to erode. For a long time, clan* leaders and other nobles held the power in the developing city-states, believing that it was their right to provide orderly government. Because the nobles had defended the community against outside threats, the people accepted them as their rulers.
By the early 600s B.C., however, the armies of the city-states consisted of large numbers of hoplites, the soldiers who could afford to equip themselves with weapons and armor but who did not belong to the aristocracy. The hoplites had much of the responsibility for defending their city but little political power. They began to resent the aristocratic control of government and public life.
The men who became tyrants used this restlessness and discontent. These ambitious individuals used the support of the nonaristocratic citizens to overthrow the ruling councils. They then placed themselves in power. The sons of some tyrants inherited power from their fathers. By the third generation, however, many people grumbled that too much power was in the hands of a single ruler. The tyrants, sensing their loss of popular support, began to use force to control the people. By the 400s B.C., the term tyrant had much the same negative association that it has today.
Few tyrannies lasted as long as three generations. The tyrants who had overthrown the nobles were often overthrown themselves, and the period of Greek tyrannies did not last long. Tyranny remained a common form of government only in the Greek cities of Asia Minor, where local tyrants ruled their cities under the supervision of the Persian Empire.
During their time in power, the tyrants reshaped life in the city-states. They spent large sums on public buildings, festivals, and the arts to maintain their popularity and power. By the time of the philosophers* Aristotle and Plato, in the 300s B.C., tyranny was seen as the worst form ofgovernmentoutside the law, unaccountable, and out of control. (See also Democracy, Greek; Government, Greek; Polis.)
* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science