UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Studies in early Greek tyranny Ferngren, Gary Burt


In Chapter One, 'The Economic Basis of Tyranny,' the view is questioned that early tyrannies, especially those in the Isthmian states, were connected with the growth of commercial prosperity and were established with the support of a new class of merchants and artisans. It is argued that in Corinth and elsewhere in Greece economic conditions seem not to have been sufficiently advanced when the earliest tyrants came to power in the mid-seventh century B. C. to have created a new class powerful enough to challenge aristocratic control of the polis. Extensive trade in the Aegean, a trade in volume capable of bringing prosperity to a large number of people and sufficient to produce social and political change, began later than the rise of the earliest tyrants. Thus a connexion between the growth of prosperity and the rise of the earliest tyrants is difficult to maintain. In Chapter Two, 'The Hoplite Reform and Tyranny,’ it is suggested that the evidence argues against associating the rise of early Greek tyrants with the support of a new hoplite class. It is unlikely that there existed in the mid-seventh century a sufficiently prosperous class of non-aristocratic citizens to supplement the nobles in filling the ranks of the earliest hoplite armies. The earliest hoplite armies were probably composed of aristocrats, who were the only class of citizens able to furnish their own armour and the military skills required to form the earliest hoplite lines. There is no evidence to connect early tyrants with hoplite support and none to suggest that hoplites were a force in politics or even a separate political entity in the seventh century B. C. In Chapter Three, 'Aristocratic Factionalism and the Origin of Tyranny,' evidence is adduced to indicate that factionalism within early aristocracies especially amongst rival families was a recurring problem in the archaic polis and that in many cities tyranny arose from aristocratic stasis. Tyranny was often gained through the normal magistracies within the framework of aristocratic politics. It grew out of two features of the aristocratic constitution: the possession by magistrates of great and sometimes nearly unchecked power; and long tenure of office. The Cretan cities, Mytilene, and Athens are cited as examples of cities in which tyranny seems to have arisen from aristocratic factionalism. When aristocrats gained the tyranny their rule was often conservative and employed ordinary methods of aristocratic rule. Tyranny in archaic Greece was an aristocratic, not a popular, phenomenon. In Chapter Four, 'The Nature of Tyranny,' it is suggested that there is much evidence to contradict the view that early tyrants usurped power and maintained it by force. Many accounts that tell of tyrants who seized power in a coup d'etat are late, stereotyped, and suspect. Bodyguards granted to individuals were not private armies but had the official sanction of the poleis that granted them. It is likely that the grant of a bodyguard accompanied a magistracy or the assigning of special authority that eased the path to tyranny. It is doubtful that tyranny in early Greece was patterned after absolute monarchy as it existed in Lydia or anywhere else in Anatolia. Rather it denoted the assumption of great power by ah individual with long tenure in the context of familiar magistracies in the polis. The position of a tyrant was probably ambiguous in his own day. Extraordinary magistracies existed in the archaic polis for the granting of special power to individuals and these may have served as models for aspiring tyrants. Early tyrants seem for the most part to have based their rule on constitutional magistracies. Tyranny was a Greek, not an oriental, phenomenon.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.