Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.18

Loretana de Libero, Die archaische Tyrannis. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996. Pp. 479. DM 188. ISBN 3-515-06920-8.

Reviewed by Brian M. Lavelle, Classical Studies, Loyola University.

Helmut Berve's Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen is thirty years old this year. A truly excellent synthesis of evidence and opinion, Berve's study was quite broad in scope, ranging in time from the early Archaic to the Augustan periods, in place from the mainland of Greece to all points of the Mediterranean, and in topic from the earliest manifestations of Greek tyrannis to its Nachleben in later ancient literature. It is remarkable indeed that the author managed to render so much of such value into really only one volume.1 While Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen will remain a standard for those who study Greek tyranny, it must inevitably make room for necessary supplements which bring the subject up to date and into sharper focus even as Plass' much outdated (but still useful) Die Tyrannis in ihren beiden Perioden bei den alten Griechen made way for it.2

Loretana de Libero's Die archaische Tyrannis, a revision of her 1995 Habilitationschrift, aspires to be just such a supplement. A good deal narrower in scope than Berve's work -- its focus is the appearance of tyrannis in thirty three Greek cities approximately to the time of the Persian Wars -- it is nonetheless more intensive in individual cases than its great predecessor and more explicitly interactive with modern scholarship on the subject. The book is divided into three main sections, Der Tyrannis-Begriff in den Zeugnissen der Archaischen Zeit, Darstellung, and Systematik, whose intentions (in more specific subdivisions) are respectively to analyze the use of tyrannis (and its cognates) in the Archaic period, to consider its specific instances geographically by polis, and to establish more general categories based upon shared aspects of the individual cases, that is, essentially, to define Archaic tyrannis. Shorter general conclusions follow from this section, along with a brief excursus on Die perserfreundlichen Tyrannen.

The overall aim of the work is to correct views of Archaic tyrannis distorted, for example, by overapplication of the Athenian case, by other deficient analogies, by failures to take the peculiarities of specific cases into account, or by deterministic ways of thinking about tyrannis in order to clarify the problems associated with it and so its nature. L. seeks to accomplish this aim by presenting and evaluating the evidence for Archaic tyrannis comprehensively, in detail, and in a systematic fashion, observing local characteristics and distinctions; and, moreover, by framing the evidence in respect of current scholarly views and methods, especially social-historical ones. (Particularly singled out by L. as a guiding light is E. Stein-Hoelkeskamp's Adelskultur und Polisgesellschaft.) The aims certainly justify the work; the results, however, are at some variance with the expectations created in the Einleitung.

L. proceeds with the problem of tyrannis' meaning and application in the Archaic period by considering the very limited primary evidence available for the word. Surveying testimonia ranging in time from Archilochos' Gyges-fragment (19 West [W]) to the Harmodios-skolia (PMG 893-96), L. concludes that "der Tyrannis-Begriff in seinen verschiedenen Herleitungen sehr ambivalent ist": tyrannis was good or bad depending upon perspective (37). On the evidence, tyrannos appears not to have been applied as a title or tyrannis to describe an office in the Archaic period. A watershed of sorts, however, seems to have occurred between the times of Archilochos and Semonides, by whom the words were used apparently only in non-Greek contexts, and of such as Alkaios and Solon, who used them in Greek ones (On this see further below). Although treating Archaic tyrannis in context is a really good idea, none of what results from this section is particularly novel or consequential and, by its end, the unsatisfied reader may find him- or herself asking, precisely where have we gotten? What is new here? These are questions which, unfortunately, return too often as the reader proceeds.

L.'s treatment of tyranny in various "old world" Greek poleis -- she omits the tyrannies of Magna Graecia, Cyprus and Cyrene -- consists of categorical, albeit rather cursory treatments of the information preserved about them. The author begins with tyranny at Athens, which, not surprisingly, constitutes the longest series of such discussions in the volume. (The positioning of the series is somewhat puzzling, however, because, while L. seems to decry the overapplication of Athenian tyranny as paradigm in the Introduction, the chapter becomes, if only inadvertently, a "lens" for the other tyrannoi/tyrannides discussed in the book.) Subjects include, among others, Peisistratos' rise to tyranny, the means to his success and retention of power, Peisistratid foreign relations, cultural and cult programs and interests, and the events specifically related to the younger tyrants. Echoing a legion of predecessors, L. judges that Athenian tyranny was "ein aristokratisches Phaenomen," which possessed "einen rein aristokratischen Charakter" (133-34). (In fact, the reader quickly learns that Archaic Greek tyranny may be generally so understood and that that understanding is the binding thesis of the work.) Tyrannis was a goal sought by many aristocrats, but achieved and maintained by Peisistratos at Athens by means of his foreign Soeldner and his superior resources (derived from revenues from Pangaion mines [65-66, 81-82] and a Naturalsteuer imposed after his final return to power [85-86; cf. 117, n. 436]). Revenues subsidized the mercenaries (who became the doryphoroi) and helped the tyrant limit the possibilities of other aristocrats in the aftermath of Pallene. From then, Peisistratos was able to monopolize public affairs and, in so doing, circumscribe the possibilities of his would-be rivals. Indeed, after Peisistratos' final triumph, most of the formerly leading aristocrats either willingly departed Athens, were exiled, or remained but were stymied by Peisistratos' hostage-taking. At all events, the threat of competition was effectively neutralized and Peisistratos could maintain and enhance his position without much fear. The passivity of the Athenians through the long tenure of the Peisistratids is a testimonium to the effectiveness of their measures: curbing the aristocrats produced felicitous conditions which promoted prosperity. For all, Athenian tyranny was superimposed and maintained at the expense of an essentially overpowered citizenry, above all, der Adel.

Korinthian tyranny, on the other hand, was rather different -- at least to begin with. Having smashed Bacchiad rule, Kypselos was accepted and supported as monarch by most Korinthians, even by the aristocracy which had been oppressed by the Bacchiads. After all, Kypselos himself required neither bodyguard nor mercenaries, nor did he have to fear rivals once the Bacchiads were eliminated. Kypselos and his rule were basically aristocratic in nature: "Er führte das Leben eines hochangesehen Aristokraten" (177). His son Periandros, to the contrary, had to contend with a different generation of aristocrats who, wanting access to power for themselves, disputed his. The initiatives of these Periandros successfully suppressed by surrounding himself with a bodyguard and by taking ruthless measures against his enemies. For all of that, even though Kypselid tyranny had evolved from a nearly unanimously approved hegemony to a kind of slave state, Periandros, whose rule could be understood as tyrannis, was nonetheless firmly bound to the Archaic Adelswelt.

And so it goes, as we read much the same in what follows. L.'s conclusions ("Die archaische Tyrannis ist genuin aristokratische Herrschaftsform, die ihre Entstehung dem kompetetiven Ethos des Aristieideals verdankt" [412]; and "Die Geschichte der archaischen Tyrannis ist gleichzeitig eine Geschichte der griechischen Aristokratie" [400]) are in fact telegraphed from the beginning and apply as the work unfolds. Sikyonian, Argive, Megarian, Samian tyrants and tyrannies, etc. etc. are all aristocrats and/or aristocratic in ethos. In the main, triumphing in aristocratic staseis with aristocratic hetairoi established the tyrants, who were themselves ambitious aristocrats; enlarging their power through the exercise of power fortified their tyrannies. (The Athenian example appears to the reader to loom quite large in the work.) These pronouncements, however, come at the expense of such seemingly contradictory information as that Andreas, the father of Orthagoras of Sikyon, was a mageiros ("cook"), a hired man (Diod. 8.24; P.Oxy. 11.1365), and quite conceivably of humble stock (cf. R. Drews, Historia 21 [1972] 134): any bearing this might have on the nature of Sikyonian tyranny quickly evaporates in L.'s treatment of it (182 and nn. 9-10). Kleisthenes' designation as leuster ("stone-thrower") by the Delphic oracle (Hdt. 5.67.2), possibly a further knock against his family's base origins, apparently deserves no mention at all. Again, although the Megarian Theagenes warred upon the rich by killing their flocks and became the people's prostates, according to Aristotle (Pol. 1305 a, 21-27), one reads (226-27) that the information is not unlikely to have been based upon a combination of Aristotle's anachronistic political theorizing and local myth (Aias-motiv; see also below). Of the "highly esteemed" Kypselos, Herodotos says [6.92E] that "he drove many into exile, deprived many of their money, and very many indeed of their lives" and these, who must have been wealthy and/or politically powerful, do not appear to have been limited by Herodotos, as L. limits them (143), to Bacchiads. But then, how would such despotic actions have made Kypselos a "highly esteemed" noble among nobles?

The virtues of the work are clear enough. L. presents an impressive compilation of primary material and scholarly bibliography. The style of presentation is unadorned; there are few distractions. The scheme of considering Archaic Greek tyranny by polis is a good one and L.'s series are logically arranged and (for the most part) economically expressed. The approach is mostly specific to the ancient texts and readings are generally literal (One may say, in some cases, much too literal: see below). Needless to say, this presentation produces very few surprises, with what is obvious from the sources rephrased or what has already been stated before in secondary works interpreting the source-material accounting for most of what is to be read. The result is not far from what we might call a "current orthodoxy" about Archaic Greek tyranny, albeit restated, at length, in some detail, and repeatedly. (One notable departure from "current orthodoxy" is L.'s resurrection of Beloch's thesis [after Herschensohn; cf. G. Pesely, Athenaeum 83 [1995] 46-48.] that there was no intermediary tyranny between Peisistratos' first and last ones. The thesis, more fully presented in Hermes 122 [1994] 114-16, is not recapitulated in the present work, although it figures in L.'s reconstruction of the events surrounding Peisistratos' rise.)

The weaknesses of the work, which, I regret to say, are fundamental and eclipse its strengths, devolve for the most part upon a lack of careful source-interpretation or -criticism and, not surprisingly, an overreliance on secondary sources. More to the point, evidence is included or excluded, made much of or dismissed without adequately stated reasons. This is not only merely to return to old, ultimately barren formulae for the reconstruction of Archaic history and interpretation of Greek tyrannis, but pointedly contravenes L.'s aim of correction. Although Quellenanalyse is promised in the Introduction, although L. cites flawed handling of sources, although she has seen clear to attempt to establish guidelines of contemporary usage in the book's first portion, apparently grasping the necessity of scrupulously separating out ancient evidence, and even though there is some circumspection and caution expressed by the author about evidence as things progress (and even at the end), the treatments of the tyrannies, really the justification for the work, consist of evidence superficially or otherwise insufficiently evaluated and/or argued, introduced or omitted without due regard to particular merits or faults. The conclusions which are drawn from all of this rest upon quite unsure grounds.

The cipher for L.'s method, treatments and conclusions, is apparently the work's theoretical superstructure: evidence corroborating aristocratic tie-ins appears to be admissible; the rest suspect at best, disregarded at worst, but for the most part, dismissed on a good deal less than convincing grounds. For example, the decree of Aristion, an "aristocratic adherent (of Peisistratos)" (57 and n. 78), which called for a bodyguard for the tyrant-to-be (Ath.Pol. 14.1) is "in," despite the nearly insuperable problems involved with accepting it (cf., for example, P.J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia [Oxford, 1981] 200). L. does not confront those problems apparently because an aristocratic Aristion backing Peisistratos supports the main thesis. Conversely, Aristotle on Theagenes or Pheidon are "out," since these testimonia do not fit into the superstructure (see below). After all, it appears that the the author's locked-in theses have dictated the way the evidence is evaluated and presented instead of the reverse.

A major omission from this work is a section precisely devoted to valuation of (at least the most important) literary sources extant for Archaic tyranny, especially Herodotos, and what they say of tyrants and tyrannis. We need to know exactly why sources should be included in or eliminated from serious consideration, for the texts, their sources, and what influenced them constitutes the absolute bedrock for construing Archaic Greek tyranny. Until these are given due appraisal in context, we shall probably end up with the same or similar, essentially tendentious results over and over again ad infinitum. What is remarkable here is that L. appears to acknowledge the need for careful source-evaluation, but then abandons it, subordinating evidence to theory anyway:

(1) One reads in the first section's conclusions that tyrannis for Archilochos and Semonides of Amorgos was basically a non-Greek concept, but that that had changed by the time of Alkaios, Solon, et alii (37). The reasoning? Semonides appears to be distinguishing between tyrannos (non-Greek) and skeptouchos (Greek) when he uses both in the same line (F 7, 69 W): skeptouchos is used of Homeric basileis and Archilochos employs tyrannos/tyrannia of Lydians (27). But Aristotle (Pol. 1310b, 26-28) makes Pheidon of Argos, by the reckoning of many scholars, a near contemporary of Archilochos and Semonides, a basileus-become-tyrannos of Argos. In this case, the two terms seem to be interchangeable. (The question of Pheidon's dates and the fact that many scholars place him c. 675 is not explicitly, let alone effectively dealt with by L. in her treatment of him inasmuch as she essentially falls back on Gehrke's early dating, i.e., the mid-eighth century B.C. [cf. 208, n. 3]. One would think that Pheidon's, the first example of Archaic tyrannis that we know of, would be most assiduously considered and carefully treated in any such work as L.'s, even if it is not considered first. As it is, the reader must accept Pheidon's dating almost entirely on L.'s assertion.) What Aristotle says about Pheidon however -- and whatever oral or other tradition it might have been based upon -- is brushed aside by L. because it does not agree with "what we know of kingship in the Geometric period" (214). But what do we know of Geometric (or even early Archaic) kingship so securely as to eliminate the possibility that Pheidon was actually a basileus-turned-tyrannos or, more to the point, that Aristotle's source did not possess and transmit accurate information? Indeed, upon what could his source's information have been possibly based? Why can't the terms basileus and tyrannos have been interchangeable, connoting either a Greek or non-Greek monarch even in the mid-eighth century B.C., and imply no such distinction in Semonides' line? Furthermore, how may we prudently conclude that Archilochos never applied tyrannos to any Greek ruler, since we have so few of his fragments? Archilochos seems to urge a Greek woman to "hold a tyrannia" (F 23, 20 W) for a Greek audience, so possibly referring to something which Greeks were already exercising politically: he makes the command redundant for the imperative anasse after all. But all of that is dismissed as another reference to Lydian tyranny (25). The judicious reader is open to persuasion, but that must depend upon reasonable proof and argumentation -- or at least direct confrontation with the evidence. That is really not offered here, as the questions mentioned above apparently did not exist for the author; instead, rather insecure interpretations become the basis for conclusions.

(2) About Theagenes of Megara, the destroyer of the wealthy's flocks, one reads that he undoubtedly came from leading aristocratic stock (225). The proof, it seems, is that his daughter was married to Kylon, himself a noble of Athens (after Oost [CP 63 (1973) 186 ff.], et alii: see 225, n. 2). Furthermore, Theagenes was probably not awarded a bodyguard of Megarian citizens, as Aristotle says (Rhet. 1357b, 31-33), but instead surrounded himself with bodyguard hetairoi (226). Victimized by his own later theorizing on the nature of tyranny, Aristotle would seem to have anachronized this information (226-27). The theoretical superstructure of the work which appears all-conquering in the face of apparent contradictions once more explains the interpretation of evidence. The Megarian poet Theognis, whom many scholars take to be a contemporary of Theagenes says that esthloi and deiloi had reversed positions in his city in his time (57-58 W) and that an esthlos aner wouldn't mind marrying a kake provided there was gain in it (185-86 W). (He also talks about monarchy impending for the city [cf. 39-40 W].) Under these circumstances, in lieu of other information about Theagenes, why may he not be classed with the upstarts mentioned by Theognis? Indeed, for the noble Kylon of Athens, perhaps not unlike Megarian aristocrats, "(Theagenes') acquired power could certainly have compensated for any deficiency in his pedigree" (R. P. Legon, Megara: The Political History of a Greek-City to 336 B.C. [Ithaca, New York, 1981] 95). But for L., "Theagenes war tief verwurzelt in der archaischen Adelswelt" (230); and Theognis does not figure. As to the citizen-awarded bodyguard, why should the reader believe that Aristotle invented rather than borrowed the information about Theagenes or that the information isn't valid as it stands? Once again, the judicious reader is open-minded, but for L., things appear predetermined: "Für die Zeit des Theagenes dürfte noch davon auszugehen sein, daß die aristokratischen Staseis fast ausschließlich außerhalb der sich gerade entwickelnden Polisinstitutionen ausgetragen wurden" (226).

(3) About Peisistratos, the reader learns that his Soeldnerheer was the central prop of his tyranny (and, it seems, of L.'s interpretation of its nature) (65 ff.). Peisistratos originally attracted mercenaries by means of his control over the Pangaion mines; even after Pallene, the revenues kept coming in, ensuring Peisistratos' ability to pay his troops and then his doryphoroi (81-82). How is that ability explained? L. adduces Hdt. 1.64.1 and Ath.Pol. 15.2, neither of which pertains to Peisistratid finances after Pallene. In support, she also adduces Thucydides 5.23, in which the historian acknowledges his own possession of gold mining rights in the area of Daton-Philippi (some distance from the Strymon). But Thucydides acquired the rights by inheritance, the fact that he was descended from the Thracian king Oloros (Markel. Vita Thuc. 2; Gomme, Commentary, III, 578; Hornblower, Commentary, II, 335) and he exercised them in the (later) fifth century under very different conditions from Peisistratos, who had no such Thracian ties that we know of and whose sphere was apparently restricted to the river region, at some distance from the mines which were then in hostile Thracian hands. (While the author of the Ath.Pol. does indicate that Peisistratos enriched himself [chrematisamenos] in the Pangaion area, he does not say how he did so, even though another passage cited by L. [Hdt. 4.105.1] suggests there were many resources and so many ways to enrichment in the area.) None of this is treated by L. who opts instead for the a priori opinion of scholarly predecessors: at 1.64.1, Herodotos refers to how the tyranny of Peisistratos was maintained. In fact, epikouroisi and chrematon synodoisi, the pivotal words for construing the passage, attach grammatically to the aorist errisdose; they fit the context of the passage describing Peisistratos' build-up leading to Pallene and its immediate, not long-term aftermath; they help to explain how the tyranny was "rooted" once for all, not how Peisistratos ruled thereafter. If the Greek is to be read otherwise, the reader needs to know it. As it is, although L. translates the passages, she does not to construe the Greek. While there is no evidence to show that Peisistratos ever had, let alone kept the revenues from Thracian mines, there is evidence to suggest that he never possessed the mines near Pangaion (cf. Hdt. 7.112). Indeed, the Wappenmuenzen, which most scholars take to be the coins of Peisistratos' last tyranny, are fairly impoverished and rather inconsistent in respect of content: they do not point to rich or steady supplies of ore coming from one source to the Athenian tyrant to pay mercenaries or otherwise to underwrite his tyranny. For L., however, Peisistratos owned mines, kept them through his last tyranny, and paid foreign mercenaries (doryphoroi) with their proceeds -- a very old view of the nature of that tyranny, but without any real support in the primary sources.

In sum, L.'s Die archaische Tyrannis must be judged essentially as a dissertation, entailing all of the limitations and flaws which accompany that "genre," but also some possibilities. It is the first major work of a young scholar, whose impressive compilation of evidence and bibliography will supply a good basis for further, one would hope, more profound disquisition on the subject. In the meantime, it can provide students of Archaic tyrannis with a serviceable reference. However, until questions involving sources for Archaic Greek tyranny are at least posed and problems with them confronted straightforwardly, unless a better context for appraising tyrannis is developed thereby, those seeking real help and insight on the subject of Archaic Greek tyrannis are best directed to the standards. Indeed, despite its age and some of its own faults, there are still no shadows on Berve's Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen.3

Some bibliographic omissions noted: M.H. Chambers, Aristoteles. Staat der Athen (Berlin, 1990); D. Hegyi, "Der Ursprung der Aisymneteia," ACD 13 (1977) 7-10; J. Molyneux, Simonides: A Historical Study (Wauconda, Illinois, 1992); R. Littman, Kinship and Politics in Athens, 600-400 B.C. (Bern, 1990); A. J. Podlecki, The Early Greek Poets and their Times (Vancouver, British Columbia, 1984); R. Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1989).

The book is a handsome, no-nonsense production.


1. The second volume, of course, contains only notes, bibliography, etc., pertaining to the first.

2. A. Andrewes' admirable The Greek Tyrants should not be overlooked, since, page for page, it is still the best shorter work on the subject.

3. See also n. 2. For Archaic tyranny, the collected studies in Kinzl's Die Ältere Tyrannis bis zu den Perserkriegen are also essential.