Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.10.21

James F. McGlew, Tyranny and Political Culture in Ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. ix + 234. $31.50. ISBN 0-8014-2787-8.

Reviewed by B.M. Lavelle, Loyola University of Chicago.

McGlew's work is divided into six chapters which trace the genesis, decease and aftermath of Archaic tyranny through this "language of representation." In "Tyrannus fulminatus: Power and Praise," McGlew, on the basis of a Flavian age declamatio, argues for a perceived Greek polarity between founders and tyrants and "the (post-tyrannical) city's mastery over their stories, both of which are basic to a polis's political identity and its conceptions of sovereignty" (50). (I shall return to this.) Chapter Two, "Justice and Power: The Language of Early Greek Tyranny," focusses on dike and its implication with rulers from Homer. Having no real concern for dike, Homeric kings were self-absorbed with honor and vengeance; leaders contemporary with Homer and Hesiod, on the other hand, were responsible for the community's welfare, most especially the preservation of justice. When these were deemed to have perverted justice, a way was opened for tyranny. The oracles involving Kypselos of Corinth (Herodotos 5.92b.2-e.2) demonstrate that his tyranny's claimed initial object was to correct the injustice of the city's leaders, an object shared by other tyrants. These claims established a right to rule, but, ultimately, the tyrant's dispensing of justice could itself seem arbitrary, unjust and in need of its own correction. In "The Lawgiver's Struggle with Tyranny: Solon and the Excluded Middle," (the book's best chapter in my judgement despite its treatment of the so-called Solonian laws on tyranny and stasis), McGlew argues that Solon, who diagnosed tyranny's causation and aimed to inure the Athenian polity, sought to preempt the tyrant's claim to possess sole authority to correct injustice and thus to short-circuit the process by inserting first himself, then the adamant rule of law. Solon's reforms failed because the Athenians rejected his solution, opting instead for the autocratic correction of Peisistratos. As "lawgiver," Solon occupied a mid-ground between "tyrant" and "founder," sharing the power of the former, but, unlike the latter, leaving only his laws as memorial. Chapter Four, "Master and Slave: The Fall of Tyranny," attempts to demonstrate that later Archaic tyrants dissembled for their constituents, striving to survive in a changing political environment. Increasingly unpopular, tyrants sought to preserve their autocracies by masking their power and reinventing themselves (in, say, the manner of Gelon [Diod. 11.26.5-6]): "... as their claims to be reformers of injustice became gradually less persuasive, tyrants joined their enemies at a costume ball of autocratic images: disguising themselves as founders or even liberators, they sought to prolong their power by pretending to be anything but what they were" (6). The case of Maiandrios, the successor of Polykrates, shows that the roles of "tyrant" and "liberator" were linked: poleis, acquiring the power of the former, appropriated the latter title (e.g., Athens through the "popular version" of the tyrannicide). In "Narratives and Autonomy: Greek Founders" (in many ways, a reprise of themes developed in Chapter One), we learn that foundation stories, invented for the most part, helped secure the polis' political existence. "Viewed as political analogy, the founder's quest to overcome domestic crime or illegitimacy articulated the colony's own distinct history of autonomy" (169). Such political language could serve both as a tool of self-rule or subjugation and so attracted tyrants who employed it for their own ends. A "founder's mask" could not, however, disguise a tyrant. Finally, in "Lovers of the City: Tyranny and Democracy in Classical Athens," McGlew argues that tyranny's freedom functioned at Athens as a conceptual model for the idea of citizenship. Indeed, personal and passionate as though based on eros (cf. Thuc. 2.43.1 [Perikles' Funeral Oration]), Athenian citizenship was conceived upon the "language of tyranny," as fifth and fourth century documents and literature (tragedy, philosophy) illustrate.

The author makes several useful points, albeit rather obliquely. He notes at the outset that tyranny cannot have been other than a partnership between rulers and ruled for as long as it lasted; it was not something worked out exclusively within the ranks of the aristocracy nor was it achieved or maintained merely by force. That is undoubtedly correct, for Archaic tyranny was commonly conceded. Second, tyranny unquestionably bequeathed many of its aspects to government and leadership subsequent to its dissolution, especially at Athens where tyranny and democracy were strongly linked. It is not for nothing that, among other things, Herodotos states that Kleisthenes redivided the Attic tribes in emulation of his namesake, the tyrant of Sikyon (5.67.1) (I shall return to this consequential point); that ostracism's initial victims were the "relatives" of the Peisistratidai, some of whom had achieved high political standing before Marathon (Ath.Pol. 22.4-6); that Perikles was likened by Thucydides to a tyrant (cf. 2.65.8); or that democracy's most significant political office was the strategeia (see below). "Tyranny," for all of the Athenians' official fear and loathing, was a sustaining pier upon which the edifice of Athenian "democracy" was founded: tyranny's "destruction" -- i.e., Marathon -- was also its recreation as a perpetual defining antithesis which provided ideological nourishment for the "democracy" as long as it lasted. Finally, McGlew shows that distinctions between "tyrant," "lawgiver," "founder," etc. were not infrequently blurred. (I also return to this.)

While the language involving tyrants/tyrannies is an important topic for investigation, McGlew's thesis of tyrants' "self-representation" is unconvincing because it is poorly based upon the evidence and mostly speculative. The author fails to confront head-on the problem of source-valuation, the thesis' basis and linchpin, and instead combines, excludes, interprets and omits without rating the evidence or stating a rationale; many of his interpretations and conclusions are dubious as forced or unsupported. He says, for example: "The popular story of the Cypselids' rise was reported in somewhat different versions by Herodotus and Nicolaus of Damascus, who borrowed from the fourth-century world-history of Ephorus" (61). Why is it the "popular story" and, if it is, why are there differing versions? Is it the "popular version" of the seventh, sixth, or fifth centuries? What, if any part, is factual? Why? Herodotos' testimony, accepted uncritically, will not do, for his accounts relied upon intermediary reporters whose information and views of tyranny and its purported "language" were, at the very least, "interested." At Athens, accounts of Peisistratid tyranny were filtered through an official hostility which can only have had a deforming affect upon the tradition about the tyrants. (Really, how are Herodotos' personal experiences with tyranny and Athens' collective attitude toward it in the fifth century to be excluded as influential of his reporting of tyranny in general?) Herodotos' political nuances are of the fifth century B.C. after all, not of the seventh or sixth. Nikolaos of Damaskos, even if he relied upon Ephoros, cannot do: he is no better than his sources, the best of which could not antedate the fifth century. These he seems to have altered anyway for the purpose of his own emphases and technique; his terminology in regard to "tyranny" may well have been his own.1 Why, after all, should we believe that any source later than the sixth century preserves even an approximately accurate memory of Archaic tyrannical "ideology"?

More to the point, what Archaic tyrant's "language of self-representation" have we? If as McGlew concedes, the post-tyrannical polis was the ultimate judge of tyranny, if it must exercise control over its "stories," then "tyranny" can only have been fundamentally affected by an inveterate revisionism which sacrificed truth to expediency. Even evidence deriving from "eye-witness" accounts requires circumspection. Solon and Alkaios are hardly "lenses" by which to view the overall relationship between tyranny and constituency in the Archaic period. (Was Solon categorically or momentarily opposed to tyranny and certain candidates? He is said ultimately to have made his peace with Peisistratos.) Apart from epinikian poetry, whose political content is problematical (cf. McGlew, 37, n. 48), we possess far more contaminating "reaction" than contemporary "representation." In fact, I cannot locate a single instance of a tyrant's "self-representation" in this study. McGlew's uncritical deployment of obviously affected source-material and omission or sidestepping of contrary or infelicitous evidence all but eliminates the thesis' credibility and undermines his somewhat contradictory conclusions. I surmise that this lack of critical method stemmed from an over-devotion to the theoretical superstructure of the work which subordinated the evidence to it: "... I attempt to show that the individuals who appear prominently here -- the Cypselids, Solon, the Peisistratids, Maeandrius of Samos, the Deinomenids, and the fifth century Athenians-believed and wanted others to believe that they were following a script..." (8). Perhaps that is why a full chapter is constructed upon a Flavian period declamatio, while the unprecedented, extremely significant use of the term tyrannis by Archilochos in the seventh century B.C. is accorded only a few perfunctory remarks. Yet even if the authority of contemporaneity were to be conceded to the "evidence" adduced, the power that McGlew claims for such artificial political language and its potential for successful misrepresentation defies credibility: actions made and sustained tyrants, not words; and the Greeks themselves made emphatic distinctions between erga and logoi. The "script," after all, is McGlew's.

In Chapter One, as an example, McGlew adduces that Quintilianic oratorical exercise for schoolboys (post A.D. 902), in which the burial of tyrant struck by lightning in a city's forum (= agora), the founder's honored resting place and polis' center, is at issue. A diobletos should be entombed on the spot as religious convention required, but a tyrant's body must be cast beyond the borders because of violating polis law; to bury a tyrant proximate to a founder was unthinkable under normal circumstances because it defiled the city's sacred area, but also because it negated the positive values of citizens/citizenship. For McGlew, this debate depicts a polarity between founders (and their stories) and tyrants (and theirs) in which the polis' politically sovereignty is articulated. Foundation legends, he states, were likely retold in social and cultural contexts defined by cult,3 and contain conspicuous similarities (e.g., single founders,4 Delphic support, founder's city becomes the colony's metropolis5) which are central to a city's sense of political identity. In retelling these stories, the city could safely recall autocratic power without affirming its political viability and, in so doing, define itself as beneficiary. The tyrant, to the contrary, could not be so honored, since that would pervert the city's narrative self-representation by causing it to yield control over its history and sovereignty. For the tyrant must needs be classed "happy" in the event, his public purpose fulfilled, but the polis' identity confounded. In a subchapter on Pindar, Bacchylides and their patrons (more aptly titled "Spin-doctors of Antiquity"?), McGlew contends that epinikian poets ("praise merchants") appropriated the power of praise from the community and asserted control over their audiences' judgement of their patrons. The poets' methods and assertions betray the tyrant's fragility, who despite such efforts could not in fact control the polis' ultimate decision. In a narrative reversal, the founder and tyrant ultimately changed places: the former, though unhappy in life, was deemed happiest in death; the latter, securing happiness only fleetingly, was "rewarded" with execration.

McGlew's scheme of ultimate "happiness" and "wretchedness," is contradicted by several examples; tyrants were in fact prominently buried intra fines: the world of the declamatio is unreal, the polarity imagined. Herodotos (5.92.2z) notes that Kypselos, olbios by prophecy, "finished the web of his life well." Unless he invented it, that information will have derived from -- and so abided with -- the Corinthians of the third quarter of the fifth century6 (see below on Periander). The same "good fortune" is implied in Peisistratos's case who is said to have "died an old man still tyrant" (Thuc. 6.54.2): again, the memory, preserved by the Athenians of the fifth century, implies that he, too, was "happy." In fact, the Athenians' recollection of Peisistratos as war-hero (Hdt. 1.59.4), descended through at least two generations officially hostile to tyranny, suggests that P. was remembered and appreciated more for his role as general than condemned for being tyrant: cf. Hdt. 1.59.6 and below. Neither ended his life "as the image of injustice" (172). To the contrary of McGlew's thesis, Archaic, even Classical Greek attitudes toward tyrants are very unlikely to have hardened into the dramatic, indeed, the structuralistic opposition he suggests: tyrants were recognized as "founders" in fact and entombed in agorai and their powers remembered. Battos of Kyrene (Hdt. 4.155 ff.) was acknowledged by the Kyrenaians as founder and ruler, was not imagined or "projected ... into (the founder's) space" (174), did not "appropriate" the image: his tomb was in the agora (Pind. Pyth. 5.93) and his royal prerogatives (TA\ GE/REA), used optimistically by a descendant as a basis to claim the same, were initially conceded to him by the original colonists and then, for some time, to his progeny by their descendants.7 The same status was accorded Miltiades III, oikistes of the Thracian Chersonnese, who was chosen (elected?) tyrannos by his fellow citizens (Hdt. 6.36.1) and whose prerogatives were passed intact to Stesagoras II and then to Miltiades IV: his founder's cult will have recollected his autocratic rule (6.138.1). How then is it possible summarily to deny that there were other oikistai who functioned simultaneously as tyrants (and not merely in a "tyrantlike" way)? McGlew glosses Battos' dual role as founder and monarch in fact (cf. 173); his inadequate explanation of Miltiades (cf. 179, n. 50) omits consideration of Herodotos 6.34.2 wherein Miltiades was designated oikistes, by the Pythia (though inexplicitly), but not by himself. He was recognized as such by the Dolonkoi and the accompanying colonists well before his departure for the Chersonnese and, of course, afterward in perpetuity, when they formally established his cult.

As "tyrants" functioned as "founders" in fact and not simply in "word," so were "tyrants" (recalled as) "lawgivers." The "father of Athenian democracy," Kleisthenes, a "lawgiver" (cf. Ath.Pol. 22.1), could nonetheless be likened by Herodotos, a friendly source, to his tyrant-grandfather in the very act of formulating the democracy. We are obviously invited to make comparisons as Herodotos had certainly been, for he had obtained the information on Kleisthenes from Athenians, perhaps even the Alkmeonids. Thus was Kleisthenes "represented" to Herodotos by Athenians of the fifth century and to us as tyrannical by Herodotos; that is how his actions seemed to the historian. What political power then attaches to the "language" of tyrants if, well into the fifth century, the relatives of the creator of Athenian democracy, the "first citizen" of the democracy, noted his tyrannical ancestry and thus invited comparison of democracy's founder to a tyrant? McGlew glosses this, saying Kleisthenes "... reformed Athens neither as a tyrant nor a lawgiver..." (120), which is to ignore the implications of both sources and the Athenian memory of him as grandson of the tyrant of Sikyon.8 Such inveterate blurring of distinctions (not "limited crossovers" as McGlew, 182) was not confined to Athens, for Greeks generally seemed to have had mixed memories of and feelings about tyrants and tyranny, not unexceptionably negative ones. Several tyrants were, as McGlew points out, noted for wisdom: Periander and Pittakos were ranked among the Seven sophistai not by themselves, but partially because of their perceived roles as lawgivers like Solon (on Periander: cf. Diog. Laert. 1.40-42; Salmon, 197 ff.; on Pittakos: Diog. Laert. 1.76 -77).9 Periander's "depravity" was part of a hostile tradition, yet a cenotaph remained in Corinth apparently through the Classical period (in which he is called prytanis, not tyrannos) marking his grave there: Diog. Laert. 1.97 (= Anth. Pal. 7.619); cf. also [Simonides], Anth. Pal. 13.26; Larcher II, 176-77. Pittakos was an Homeric-type hero in his fight against Phrynon (Strabo 599-600; Plut. Mor. 858a-b). Notwithstanding his "membership" in the Seven Sages and popular election, Pittakos was the object of negative doggerel, dating, it would seem, to his own time (Plut. Mor. 157d-e); retiring, he successfully "got down from tyranny" and, when he died, the Mitylenaians apparently consecrated his homestead holy ground (cf. Plut. Mor. 858b; Diog. Laert. 1.75). A mixing of traditions, reflecting the Greeks' contradictory (not neutral) regard of tyranny, varying by source, time, and circumstance, surely accounts for all of this.10

Other criticisms might be levelled by chapter, but I shall keep to Chapter Two as characteristic: 1) judges are BASILH=ES (not BASILH=S as McGlew [57]) in Hesiod (Erga 38-39) and gerontes in the Iliad's "Shield-scene " (18.503-6); Nestor is both a geron (1.286) and a basileus (2.54) as apparently are other Achaian chiefs (cf. 2.53), yet McGlew denies any (including, I presume, implicit) presence of Homeric kingship in the "Shield-scene" in order to force distinction between Homeric kings and Homeric/Hesiodic ones.11 2) Archilochos F 126 W hardly "transforms Hesiod's dike into a personal code of honor" (60): his statement possesses an Homeric overtone (cf. McGlew , 59). 3) In view of the prophesied tenure of Kypselos' dynasty (Hdt. 5.92e.2), it is to be demonstrated why the Kypselid-oracles, as the argument of Sokles (not "Sosikles" [sic McGlew 61 ff.]: cf. OCT apparatus; Macaulay; Powell; Marg; etc .) against Hippias' return (Hdt. 5.92.a1-h5), could not have been invented any time up to their appearance in Herodotos.12 4) "An undiscriminating, arbitrary, and apparently senseless force" for McGlew (65), the olooitrochos that is Kypselos will, according to the Greek, fall precisely upon the "monarch-men," no others. 5) Doubt about Pittakos' formal election as aisymnetes (80) conspicuously disregards the testimonium of that very Nikolaos of Damaskos who reported the "popular story of the Kypselids' rise," in which he describes a voting procedure involving Epimenes, elected tyrant of Miletos (FrGrHist 90, 53): AI)SUMNH/THS U(PO\ DH=MOU XEIROTONEI=TAI. (The Athenian demos' vote of a bodyguard of astoi to Peisistratos and the Megarians to Theagenes rendered them de facto aisymnetai and, taken altogether, suggest that the procedure involving Pittakos was not unique. The Athenians' memory of their vote is, of course, quite significant.) 6) "Youthful judge" (or "noble youth who is the measure of his fellows") appears to be simply tendentiously wrung from KOU=ROS AI)SUMNH/THR (Il. 24.347) (80-81): Aristarchos understood aisymnetes to be equivalent to basileus (cf. Erbse, 581-82), a synonym for tyrannos.13 7) Peisistratos could hardly "have begun his tyranny with conspicuous acts of retribution" (77), since a) his main enemies survived in strength to oust him a short time later, b) the korunephoroi were astoi and their minions anyway, and c) the Athenians recalled Peisistratos as conspicuously law-abiding. 8) A SKH=PTRON (OT 811) is not a "club" (cf. McGlew 76, n. 53), but, perhaps, a "walking stick" (sic McGlew 78, n. 58), which, while it might be used to club (76, n. 53), was neither a korune nor a rabdos, as the author implies.14 9) McGlew interprets the prophecy of Hipparchos' (not Hippias' [sic McGlew, 84]) dream completely disregarding other, stronger possibilities: cf. How and Wells, II (1912) 25): "... apparently Hipparchus is encouraged to bear his fate with fortitude, sure that his murderers (not himself: sic McGlew) shall pay the penalty for the evil deed."

In my view, McGlew's most significant omission is the role of war-leadership in tyranny's genesis. As a rule, early Greek tyrants played critical roles in military affairs, facts repeatedly underscored in our sources. Pheidon and Pittakos were war-leaders; Kypselos' rise may be connected with Pheidon's expansiveness towards Corinth, with the loss of Kerkyra or perhaps with ongoing hostilities with Megara; Theagenes became tyrant while Megara warred with Athens. Peisistratos' success in that war is cited by Herodotos as an immediate cause for his popularity and for the award of a bodyguard, which lead forthwith to his first tyranny (Hdt. 1.59.4; cf. Ath.Pol. 22.3). Miltiades was asked to come to the Thracian Chersonnese and was made tyrant because the Dolonkoi were "especially hard pressed by war" (Hdt. 6.34.1). Successful war-leadership, one imagines, might have been parlayed into titles and images ("shield" or "city-preserver" or such like) and a reputation for military success implying redoubtability once established could, with scant effort, be transformed into one of indispensability, though the crisis had evaporated. The concession of tyranny for war-leadership by politai, aristoi and demos concurring, is thus more in line with Sarpedon's manifesto on prerogative (Il. 12.310-21; cf. McGlew, on Gernet) and with the prehistoric political shifting of leaders sketched in Athenian myth (Ath.Pol. 3).15 (Perhaps that is why the subject is avoided: McGlew [72] actually redefines Kypselos' polemarchy [Nik. Dam. FrGrHist 90 F 57], implying that its nature was fundamentally civilian.) The main indication of the abiding political importance of the strategeia is its investiture with supreme political power after the foundation of democracy at Athens.

Tyranny and Political Culture in Ancient Greece is neither history, historiography, nor hard political science. It might best be considered a structuralizing meditation on the nature of early Greek tyranny, which presents some interesting ideas pertinent to the subject of Archaic Greek politics. And the author is to be commended for his zeal and ingenuity: the language involving Archaic tyranny is certainly an important topic. His lack of rigor in respect of source-evaluation, however, renders his treatment of the subject unsound, his thesis and conclusions implausible and unpersuasive. In stating a methodology for the study of Archaic tyranny, which, unfortunately, he abandons at the outset, McGlew succinctly summarizes the book's shortcomings : "Only by sifting with minute precision through the large bulk of lore that attached to tyrants and the biased assessments of those who followed them is it possible to discover the rational" -- and I would add "and the irrational" -- "basis of their support" (2). As a study of representations of and responses to early Greek tyranny, self-aware of the perspective and attitude of its sources, allowing its thesis to unfold from careful evaluation of the evidence available instead of apparently superimposing it, this might have made a substantial and lasting contribution.


  • [1] M. Toher, "On the Use of Nicolaus' Historical Fragments," CA 8 (1989) 159-172; cf. J. B. Salmon, Wealthy Corinth (1984) 190.
  • [2] M. Winterbottom, The Minor Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian (Berlin, 1984) xv.
  • [3] The "likelihood" is not supported by evidence. McGlew further asserts that foundation legends "suppress more information than they preserve about colonization" (18). If these were of the significance claimed by the author, we should expect more rather than less information. Its absence argues against foundation legends' centrality in the collective memory and for non-ritual preservation of such stories (perhaps by gene: cf. Hdt. 4.162.2).
  • [4] In his list of plural founders recollected, contradicting his "rule" of "one founder-one city" (pp. 18-19 and n. 8), McGlew omits Akragas (2: Thuc. 6.4.4) and Himera (3: 6.5.1); he mentions Trachinian Herakleia (3: Thuc. 3.92.5) on the following page.
  • [5] McGlew's conjecture, that the Athenian origin of Theokles, oikistes of Sicilian Naxos, was invented "to support fifth-century Athens's interest in extending hegemony westward" (21, n. 14), is groundless, but also contradictory. How did his name intrude into the tradition so as to exclude the legitimate founder's?
  • [6] I am unsure what weight should be attached to Nik. Dam. FrGrHist 90, F 60 describing the punishment of the Kypselids, since it corresponds to Athenian formulae for punishment for capital or polluting crimes (cf. Thuc. 1.126.12; Plut. Sol. 12.4; Mor. 834a-b). Nikolaos' account of the rise of Kypselos shares other Athenian features, suggesting that these may have become generic in later works about tyrants a) in lieu of information about tyrannies elsewhere and b) in view of Athens' strongly anti-tyranny tradition. The author (131-32) accepts Nikolaos without comment.
  • [7] I. Malkin, Religion and Colonization in Ancient Greece (Leiden, 1987) 205, interprets the further lines of Pindar to mean that the other kings of Kyrene were also buried inside the city, an extraordinary honor, which while not the agora is still extremely auspicious.
  • [8] Cf. W. Eder, "Political Self-Confidence and Resistance: The Role of the Demos and Plebs after the Expulsion of the Tyrant in Athens and the King in Rome," in T. Yuge and M. Doi, edd. Forms of Control and Subordination in Antiquity (Leiden, 1988) 470; T. Rapke, "Cleisthenes the Tyrant Manque," AHB 3 (1989) 47-51.
  • [9] Salmon (1984) 200, notes the similarity between the sumptuary laws of these "tyrants" and the "lawgivers," Solon, Zaleukos, and Charondas.
  • [10] Cf. Eder (1988) 469: "One may say that Peisistratus could well have been regarded as a second Solon in the eyes of the demos. ... Both of them actually provided tyranny."
  • [11] One cannot say categorically that war-leaders are not implicitly present in the "Shield-Scene": we note that the Nestor is sometimes submerged in his account of warfare between Pylians and Epeians (Il. 11.670-736).
  • [12] Cf. McGlew, 70: "... the consistent presentation of tyranny in all three oracles is more important than their date and attribution...".
  • [13] On aisymneteia see D. Hegyi, "Der Ursprung der Aisymneteia," Acta Classica 13 (1977) 7-10.
  • [14] According to Pausanias (5.18.2), Dike strikes Adikia with a R(A/BDOS, not really a club (cf. McGlew, p. 77) and possibly even as light as a switch.
  • [15] Of course, war-leadership is fundamental to Roman dictatorship.