Ancient History & Civilisation


Tyrants and Lawgivers

What I said I would do, I did with the help of the gods and I did not do anything else heedlessly – nor did it please me [to do] by force anything which a tyranny would do, nor that the ‘good men and true’ should have equal shares with the ‘bad’ in their rich land

Solon, F 34 (West)

Among their splendour, aristocrats did have an idea of a ‘just city’. Already, Hesiod’s poetry had imagined one for them, not a theoretical and utopian sort of place, but a city of ‘straight judgements’1 where peace rules and famine is absent. In it, the nobles would naturally rule, taking their freedom for granted. They did not write about this freedom in the few poems and inscriptions which survive because within their living memory they had not set themselves free and asserted it by taking power away from a previous king. Nor was a politically active lower class threatening to limit their freedom or subject them. The one slavery they feared was enslavement by an enemy in war, a danger to them as individuals and also to their communities as a whole.

Nonetheless, in the 650s BC the political monopoly of the aristocratic cliques began to be broken. The world’s first ‘age of revolution’ began in Greece at Corinth and spread to Corinth’s nearby communities.2 Aristocrats could be described as ‘monarchs’ (mounarchoi), but from the 650s a single ruler sometimes replaced them, a true ‘monarch’ in our sense of the word. Greek contemporaries called the new monarch a turannos, or ‘tyrant’, and for more than a century, these ‘tyrannies’ flourished in many Greek communities. They have left us some spectacular stories about their behaviour, the first surviving Greek gossip, and some significant relics of Greek architecture, bits of their huge stone temples. One of the biggest, to Olympian Zeus in Athens, was so huge that it was only completed by Hadrian, six and a half centuries after its beginnings c. 515 BC.

What Hadrian did not know was that turannos was a word which Greeks had adapted from the foreign Lydians in western Asia. There, in the 680s, a usurper, Gyges, had dared to kill the long-established line of Lydian kings. The gods did not punish him, and Gyges even consulted the Greek oracle at Delphi for advice. Within thirty years Greeks were applying a word of Lydian origin to similar usurping rulers who had taken power in states on their own Greek mainland.

Why, though, did the aristocrats’ monopoly ever break up? It has to be relevant that in the early seventh century, certainly by c. 670 BC, we have evidence of a famous change in Greek military tactics, to the long-lasting ‘hoplite’ style. ‘Hoplite’ infantrymen adopted a large shield, about three feet across, which was held by a double grip inside its rim and could protect the warrior’s left side from his chin down to his knees. In a massed line, the overlapping shield of each warrior’s neighbour helped to protect his right side and thus freed his right hand to use a thrusting-spear or a short sword at close range. Metal helmets and a metal or padded linen breastplate gave body-protection, as did metal greaves on the legs, at first an optional extra; they allowed a close-packed line to stand firm against enemy arrows and missiles. New styles of warfare developed against the previous style of warfare and, crucially, the prevailing Greek style of cavalry could not charge down this heavy-armoured line of infantry so long as the ranks stood firm. Noble horsemen became peripheral and henceforward were most useful in giving pursuit when the heavy infantry broke before their hoplite opponents. So too, noble champions and their individual duels diminished: they were no longer the main focus of most of the battles fought on foot.

In this change of infantry tactics, the crucial item was a double grip, positioned inside the shield, which allowed a warrior to hold such a big item of protection on one arm. Sufficient evidence links its introduction on the Greek mainland with Argos, where the new-style fighters were admired as the champion Greek ‘stings of war’.3 However, the new shield-grip and several items of armour may have begun earlier in western Asia as the equipment of non-Greek Carians and the neighbouring Ionian Greeks who served the Lydian rulers as infantry. Gyges may even have been the military leader of such soldiers. Among the Argives, too, the adoption of ‘hoplite’ tactics is convincingly ascribed to an individual, the former King Pheidon. An individual was needed for the innovation, because no aristocracy would have voluntarily introduced a new style of fighting which so obviously undermined its own aristocratic power. Pheidon of Argos, c. 670 BC, was a near-contemporary of Gyges and probably copied the eastern example. Once the Argives fought as hoplites, neighbours in Greece had no choice but to follow suit; similar constraints would later force the use of firearms on the reluctant military class of the Ottoman Turks.

The new hoplite tactics had social consequences which we can compare with the adoption of the thrusting-spear and massed line by the mighty Shaka Zulu in southern Africa only 150 years ago. They did not create a separate social order, ‘the army’: the new hoplites were the citizenry who mustered on call to take up arms. But now the smaller landowners among them could club together with weapons and a formation of their own so as to defend their property or ravage others’ without depending on aristocratic champions. They were not a new class, but an old class made newly class-conscious. For the new tactics were certainly a change to ‘safety in numbers’. The solid metal helmet greatly restricts a warrior’s view from side to side. The big shield, with its double grip, is also a very clumsy object to manoeuvre in single combat outside a formation. Reconstructions of this weaponry do persuade me that the new tactics required quite a big, solid formation for the armour to be effective. The first vase paintings which show hoplites do sometimes show them with one or two throwing-spears too: perhaps, at first, the front ranks used such missiles, but in my view they are only shown as an artistic convention. For the next three centuries, however, the massed hoplite line would be the dominant Greek form of battle by land. Its participants, the citizens, would exercise in their athletic gyms and wrestling-grounds, but, except in Sparta, their military training on parade grounds would be very limited. For the front ranks, nonetheless, a battle was a fearsomeexperience, culminating in ‘pushing and shoving’ (ōthismos) against the enemy’s opposed hoplite line (the details of a hoplite battle are nowhere fully described and so its usual course remains disputed).

Obviously, these new tactics had implications for a state’s structure of force and power. We cannot say that ‘wherever there were hoplites, then there were tyrants and a break in aristocratic rule’. What we can infer is that without this military change there would have been no tyrants at all. Nobody would have dared to kill off their community’s main fighting force, the nobility. Hoplites, therefore, were a necessary precondition of Greek tyranny, but they were not a sufficient one.

An accompanying cause of change was the increasing division and disorder among the aristocrats themselves. Aristocracies were notoriously vulnerable to faction. Why should one noble family give way to another, if noblemen in theory were all of a similar splendour? As life and leisure developed in the urban centres with their wrestling-grounds and council meetings and rooms for lengthy drinking-parties, there was increased scope for insults between competitive noble cliques and for resentful disappointment among those who had been denied an honour or a particular magistracy. As in medieval Italian towns, the rise of urban living promoted closer daily contacts between noble families, with a resulting rise in violence and faction. Nobles were free to say whatever they wanted, with no fixed laws as yet against slander or physical abuse. Even their male parties, or symposia, were intensified by the intoxicating, though watered, wine, and were heated by the recitation of poems of personal praise and blame. In the evenings groups of young party-goers would form into drunken revels, or kōmoi, like those for the god Dionysus. They would go off to find slave-prostitutes (hetairai) or even to serenade a desirable boy or lady outside the bolted doors of a house. Poems accompanied these noisy outings too, and brawls and quarrels could easily erupt along the way. Nobles formed groups of close ‘companions’, or hetaireiai, who dined and idled together, solid in their contempt for other hetaireiai in their city-state. Each noble family could also call on their loyal inferiors, members of the phratries which their clans dominated; these ‘brotherhoods’ would often be located round a noble family’s residences in the country-territory of their polis.

In the more accessible Greek communities, which were open to the sea, these sources of social tension were compounded by an economic effect of the ever-increasing Greek settlements overseas. Exchanges between Greek communities multiplied, both between the new settlements and between a settlement and its ‘home’ community. Most of the gains from the increased trading and raiding went first to the aristocrats who were usually the backers of such ventures. As a result, ever more fine luxuries and items of distinction entered into the social circuit. Some of the finest came from localized sources of supply abroad (ivory, flax or silver), while others were devised by craftsmen for the increased buying-power in their city-state’s upper class. New levels of luxury and display were highly divisive. No nobleman could afford to be seen as less magnificent than other noblemen for very long. At weddings or funerals, his family’s splendour was on public view and the more ‘luxurious’ the other nobles became, the more he must strive to keep up with them.

As faction and social competition intensified, the older ideal of a ‘peer group’ of nobles splintered into violence and disorder. This faction had wider consequences. Lowly citizens still looked to their noblemen for just judgements and wise arbitration, but faction and personal enmities would distort a nobleman’s conduct of public office or his verbal dispensation of justice. To keep up with his peers, he might also impose harsher terms on his local dependants and on those who turned to him for loans or help with a temporary crisis.

There was also a slight diffusion of riches. Aristocrats could not continue to monopolize the gains from foreign trading or to contain the effects of their own magnificent spending. In turn, they created new rivals to their own pre-eminence. As they spent freely to enhance their prestige, their spending passed down through the social pyramid by the ‘multiplier effect’ familiar to modern economists. Not only did non-nobles also engage in trade: the nobles’ demands enriched owners of skilled slave-craftsmen or the suppliers of precious new ‘luxuries’. As the nobles’ spending diversified, non-noble rich men began to emerge, perhaps a few dozen families at first in each community, and certainly not a commercial ‘middle class’. But if they, too, could prosper by their own skill, why could they not hold a prestigious civic magistracy as well as anyone in the noble caste?

Sixty years earlier Hesiod had exhorted his local nobles not to give crooked judgements for fear that the god Zeus would send a thunderbolt against the entire community. Homer had described the storms of autumn as the gods’ punishment for violence and crooked rulings in the public meeting-space (agora). But now that military tactics were changing, repeated injustices and factional disorder could be met by human means. After a particular outrage, a fellow aristocrat, perhaps a commander in war, could urge the citizenry to take up the new style of ‘hoplite’ arms, eject their most troublesome aristocrats and install himself as their ruler instead. He would stop faction, ‘set things to rights’ and preside over high society’s spiralling competition. Tyrants, therefore, are the first rulers known to have passed laws to limit competitive luxury. The main reason was not that the costs of such luxury would be better diverted to public use for the community’s good. Luxury was divisive in the upper class and a threat, too, to the tyrant’s own pre-eminence.

‘Undeserved’ office in the community was also a source of grievance and disruption. There were not many jobs of any distinction in an archaic Greek community but as riches filtered downwards, there were more people who thought themselves competent to hold them. Disappointed candidates, as always, were one source of trouble and excluded but confident ‘new men’ were another. So tyrants opened up high offices in the community and the ruling council to more families, including rich and able non-nobles. They became the arbiters of much social honour and preferment and also, ultimately, of civil judgements. Meanwhile, political elections to magistracies could be quietly fudged into ‘selections’. At home, troublesome rivals had to be killed or exiled, but abroad, tyrants were wary of gratuitous border-wars against other tyrants: they brought the risk of military failure.

In short, tyrants helped to stop spiralling ambition and faction by an ultimate act of ambitious faction: their own coup. Usually, it involved bloodshed, and, as tyrants regarded their rule as the inheritable asset of their family, their dominance passed on to a second generation. Inevitably, some of these heirs were much less discreet or able than their fathers. Amazing stories circulated about Periander, the second tyrant of Corinth (how he made love to his wife’s corpse, how he threw brothel-keepers into the sea), or Phalaris in Sicily (how he roasted his enemies in a big bull of bronze: the story was probably inspired by one of the tyrant’s surviving bronze sculptures). Tyranny had a basic illegitimacy, and observant citizens were well aware of its drawbacks. Within decades of the first tyrants some of the Greek communities were already trying to find an alternative way of resolving tensions. Their preferred option was the use of law, prescribed by contemporary lawgivers.

Among the aristocrats, there had already been individual lawgivers, but the social and political crisis of the mid-seventh to sixth centuries BC gave them a new scope. From Dreros, on Crete, we have our earliest inscribed Greek law (probably c. 650 BC). It limited unduly prolonged tenure of the main civic magistracy, just the sort of ‘disorder’ which might result in a tyranny. In Athens, in the 620s, faction-fighting broke out after the foiled coup of a would-be tyrant acting with foreign backing. To restore social harmony, laws were set out and displayed in writing by the Athenian nobleman Draco, of harsh ‘Draconian’ fame. In 594 BC, again at Athens, a tyranny was within easy reach of Solon, another aristocrat. However, Solon preferred to ‘call the people together’,4 as the chief elected magistrate of that year, and then to write down wide-ranging laws which regulated anything from boundary disputes to excessive display at weddings and funerals, provocative insults of a man’s dead ancestors and the due sacrifices in the year’s religious calendar.

Solon is the best-known and most admirable lawgiver in early Greece. He was also a poet and he defended his reforms in vigorous verse. To Solon, we owe the first surviving statement that the conflict leading to tyranny was ‘slavery’: freedom, therefore, was a value for citizens to prize and fight for, not just against foreign enemies, but also within their own community.5 Tyranny sharpened men’s sense of what they had lost. To avoid it, Solon installed a second council beside the nobles’ monopoly of the Areopagus council, and opened magistracies to the rich in Attica as well as to the nobly born. Famously, he abolished the ‘dues’ which had been payable to noble overlords by lesser landowners throughout Attica. In return for a noble’s ‘protection’, landowners had been paying one-sixth of their harvest; the non-nobles did own the land in question and could buy and sell it, but the ‘charge’ remained attached to the land, whoever bought it. Graphically, Solon describes in verse how he set the ‘black earth’ free by uprooting the markers on which this ancient ‘due’ was recorded.6 The earth, too, had been ‘previously enslaved’: now, thanks to Solon, it was free.

These ‘dues’ had probably been exacted by the nobles in Attica since the turbulent years of the ‘dark ages’. By 594 BC many who paid them were the new hoplite-soldiers and so they no longer depended on their nobles for their military safety. The payments had become unjust, and even the nobles acquiesced in their ending. For them, the crucial point was that Solon had not gone on to redistribute lands from the rich to the poor: the nobles’ own properties were left intact. What he did do was to ban the bad practice of creditors who demanded their debtor’s free person as security for his debts. Most of these debts would be small and short-term, but they brought the debtor the accompanying risk of default, real or alleged: there was no idea of ‘collateral’ and as the security (a person) was so much more valuable, it was tempting for a creditor to foreclose unjustly. Debts thus led to the unacceptable enslavement of one Athenian by another. Solon also enlarged the process of justice by extending the right to prosecute offenders to third parties outside the particular crime. Solon promoted ‘active citizenship’, while believing in abstract, impersonal justice which was sustained by written law, not by his personal tyranny.

Earlier scholars of this period, who were familiar with the Old Testament prophets in Israel, ascribed this Greek concern with ‘justice’ and ‘fair play’ to Greece’s prophetic centre, the Delphic oracle. Prophetic Delphi, it was believed, inspired this new ‘rule of law’ and the moral revulsion from tyranny. In fact, Solon probably joined a ‘Sacred War’ in order to rid Delphic Apollo of a priesthood which was declared to be unjust and too partisan. Lawgivers like Solon did not claim divine inspiration or the gift of prophecy from the gods. Rather, they addressed social crises in the belief that human laws would avert them and that by giving up some of their interests, the protagonists could cohere in a new, sustainable order.

Solon’s legislation had a scope and detail which certainly qualify it as a ‘code’. We can compare it with our best-attested collection of laws for an early Greek community, those which were publicly inscribed in the Cretan city of Gortyn, c. 450 BC.7 Some of these laws were new or recent, but others were much older, contemporary with Solon’s. They had not grown up year by year, as if each year’s magistrates routinely added to the laws which they inherited: in Greek city-states, the annual magistrates did not publish their year’s judgements as a body of laws when they left office. They had surely been collected up into a single text by a public decision. In Gortyn, special ‘law commissioners’ had, in my view, been appointed to collect up existing laws and publish whatever they could find.

These Cretan laws address vexed questions of inheritance which also concerned Solon in Attica: bequests are a source of social inequality and potential tension, especially within an upper class. Throughout, the laws’ penalties for offences vary hugely according to social class. If a free man raped a household slave, he had to pay a fine about a hundred times smaller than the fine for a slave who raped a free person. The laws at Gortyn accepted the existence of semi-free ‘serfs’ (called woikeis) and inferiors (apetairoi) who were excluded from the dining-groups of the free citizens.8 The codification of these laws did not bring freedom or equality for everyone who came within their scope.

Solon, too, accepted and upheld the distinctions of social class. However, all Athenians were declared free by him, and the legitimate slaves in Attica would henceforward be foreigners only. What, though, of relations between the Athenian ‘people’ and the new ‘upper class’ of nobles and rich men which Solon had recognized? Solon denied the hopes of those Athenians who wanted ‘equal shares’ in the land of Attica and a redistribution of property. The ‘people’, or dēdemos, he tells us, did have its ‘leaders’, but they were probably not drawn from the very poor, as if they were engaged in a straight class-conflict with the rich. They are more likely to have been lesser landowners, men from the newly armed hoplites, the sort of people who had supported a tyrant elsewhere. Traditionally, even before Solon the citizens of Attica had been categorized as those who owned a horse, those who owned a ‘yoke’ of two oxen and those (the thētes) who owned neither but worked for others. The Attic hoplites were the oxen-owners, people with lands from about ‘seven acres and two cows’ up to about twelve to fifteen acres.9 They were, by modern standards, very small freeholders. Solon freed such people from paying an outdated ‘due’ to the nobles, but he did not redistribute land or assets to them or give the lowest classes (the thētes) a full share in political power. It was not appropriate, he considered, to their station.

Like tyrants, therefore, lawgivers were not the active promoters of a unified lower class. They restored ‘order’ and ‘justice’, but the dominant culture in their communities remained the culture pursued by aristocrats. During the continuing age of tyrannies in Greece, the scope for noble, competitive glory actually increased. By 570 BC four further great festivals of athletic games existed to rival the Olympics. The Pythian Games at Delphi began in 590 as a gymnastic contest financed by war-booty, probably from the recent Sacred War; they then included a famous musical contest too. The Isthmian Games (in 582) probably celebrated the ending of tyranny in Corinth. The surviving tyrant in nearby Sicyon then rivalled them by founding local Pythian Games of his own (also in 582); his enemies in nearby Cleonae, helped by the men of Argos, then founded Nemean Games too (in 573). All across the Greek world, a culture of the ‘celebrity’ began, not a culture of great warriors but one of great sportsmen, poets and musicians. By contrast, there are no ‘celebrities’ in the world described in the Old Testament or in the Near Eastern monarchies. For their athletes, the Greeks invented the victory parade, our ‘red carpet’. Cities welcomed and rewarded their returning victors, and fine stories were told about these celebrities’ prowess and then their sad decline (from old age, not narcotics). The all-in wrestler, Timanthes, would prove himself daily by drawing a huge bow, but when he fell out of practice, he could no longer do it and there was nothing left but suicide. And yet he killed himself, it was said, on a bonfire, like the great hero of wrestling, Heracles.10

Victors in these games were proclaimed in the names of their home cities. Audiences from all over the Greek world heard their moment of glory, and it was mortifying for a city’s tyrant that he could not command such success for himself. It was a young man’s business, and the aristocratic poets dwelt on the short-lived glories of youth. It was also beset with risks, but risks were something which no nobleman professed to fear. In politics or in war, at the games or on the seas, there was a constant flow of winners and losers in the archaic age. In a temple on his home island of Lesbos, the lawgiver Pittacus, a ‘wise man’, was said to have dedicated a ladder, symbol of life’s inevitable ups and downs of fortune.11

The families of tyrants did have one advantage: they controlled much greater revenues than almost any other noble rival in their community. The same tyrants who legislated against disruptive luxury could afford to build grand temples in the newly devised styles of stone architecture, copied from Egypt. Not all of their temples were sound projects: one of the biggest, on Samos, was begun, but never finished, on very unstable ground. But at Corinth or Athens, the tyrants’ temples and buildings are the earliest which still impress us. In suitably placed city-states, tyrants also developed that earlier invention, the trireme, and built bigger fleets. Naval service, in due course, would add to the morale and shared sense of identity of their citizenry. While regulating extravagant weddings, tyrants also held the most magnificent contests among suitors for their own daughters in marriage. Unlike some of the aristocrats, they were not known for writing poetry, but they did patronize poets and artists and their own cities’ festivals. They kept striving to outdo each other in the style of the old aristocrats, whose motto was ‘anything you can do, I can do better’. To be secure, tyrants needed to outshine the nobles among whom they still lived; this pre-eminence was more important to them than fostering ‘civic identity’ for non-noble members of their city-states. Before tyrants existed, aristocrats had already patronized poets, craftsmen and the naval adventures of trading and raiding. While lacking a popular programme, tyrants strove to achieve even more of the same. As a result, the first era of political revolution was not the era of a new ‘people’s culture’: rather, the aristocrats’ values outlived their political monopoly.

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