BMCR 2004.03.13

Popular Tyranny: Sovereignty and its Discontents in Ancient Greece

, Popular tyranny : sovereignty and its discontents in ancient Greece. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xxvii, 324 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0292797826 $50.00.

The book comprises nine essays on the nature of Greek tyranny. Although most originated as papers presented at an explicitly Athenocentric conference at UCLA in 1998, there is a curious distancing from that in the introduction: the focus of the current collection is said to be the “conceptual (and ‘foundational ideological’) force” of tyranny in ancient Greece. The majority of the essays, however, do have to do with Athens and, in particular, with the Athenians’ view of tyranny in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.1

In the lead-off essay, (“Imaginary Kings: Alternatives to Monarchy in Early Greece”), Sarah Morris contends that “the specter of tyranny … does not exist against any plausible background of a native, legitimate version of absolute hereditary power” (1). Morris adduces, for example, a notable lack of archaeological data for historical monarchies of a “conventional kind” in prehistoric Greece, particularly in representations in Bronze Age art. The Achaean wanax is associated primarily with ritual activities; military, economic, and judicial powers were in the hands of others. Thus, when tyranny arose, it was no reversion to Bronze Age autocracy nor was it a symptom of democratic evolution, but rather it came about from the accumulation of power and wealth within the governing elite. Tyranny “recalls struggles for power among earlier Bronze Age chieftains or those that led to the formation of early Mycenaean society” (9). In fact, small groups of elite-equals, keeping power among themselves, were the seeds from which the Greek polis sprang.

Carolyn Dewald (“Form and Content: The Question of Tyranny in Herodotus”) focuses on the author who supplies the oldest and most extensive information about Archaic Greek tyrants. Herodotus’ testimony is problematic because he seems both to approve and disapprove of tyrants. D., who essentially tries to define what Herodotus means by “tyrant,” finds that, while despotism, particularly of the imperial, eastern variety, structures Herodotus’ narrative about monarchy and is negatively portrayed for the most part, Greek tyrants are treated more as individuals, not really sharing the traits that accord with the general picture of despotism. Thus “…the foregrounded portraits of tyrants in the individual logoi and the diachronic, larger thematic patterns about monarchical autocracy do not carry the same message, although Greek tyrants figure in both.” (26)

In “Stick and Glue: The Function of Tyranny in Fifth Century Athenian Democracy,” Kurt Raaflaub examines the ideologization of tyranny through the fifth century B.C.E. at Athens. After firmly establishing that the Athenians negatively valued tyranny officially, R. argues that the concept of tyranny helped to define what the Athenians were and were not and so acted as a force of political cohesiveness (hence “glue”). Furthermore, because commonly negatively understood, the concept could be used as language (especially by politicians) to channel the Athenians and their opinions (hence “stick”). R. disagrees with the view, notably espoused by Connor,2 that the Athenians were ambivalent toward tyranny, both admiring and detesting it.

Richard Seaford (“Tragic Tyranny”) takes up the implication of tyranny and Athenian tragedy and considers tyranny’s representation in various tragic texts. S. finds that the tyrants’ impiety (leading to abuse of ritual), his distrust of philoi (resulting in extreme cases in the killing of family members), and his greed are not just character defects, but instruments of (and to) power: these practices/themes are central to tragedy and tragic characters (as, for example, in the Agamemnon). In fact, tragedy reflects the Athenians’ sensibilities about tyranny; and tragic tyrants reflect Athenian anxieties about the “autonomization” of individuals especially through money. S. also argues, against Knox ( Oedipus at Thebes), that Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus refers to contemporary Athens and Athenians not so much in specific as in generic terms.

Lisa Kallet (” Demos Tyrannos : Wealth, Power and Economic Patronage”) takes a rather different line from Raaflaub, in effect reviving Connor’s thesis. K. asserts that, in spite of the “official” line of antityrannism in fifth century Athens, the conception of demos as tyrant was more ambiguous. K. adduces the Athenians’ spending, especially on civic monuments, like those on the Akropolis, that advertised Athens’ wealth and power but also recalled tyrant’s expenditures — and glory. The ordinary citizen, taking pride in Athens’ enviable wealth, the sumptuous buildings that it allowed, and the power that it portrayed — all of which suggested tyrannical status — would not find the collective identification of Athenian demos -as-tyrant unappealing. The demos was set apart from and superior to other citizens in other cities. The opposed conceptions could co-exist among the Athenians as “official” (consistently negative) and unofficial (ambiguous ranging from resistance to identification to open acceptance).

In “Demos, Demagogue, Tyrant in Attic Old Comedy,” Jeffrey Henderson traces references to tyranny in Athenian Comedy through to the end of the fifth century and finds that comic poets involved themselves in the battle between populist political leaders ( sc. demagogues) and the elite leaders who were their enemies. A constant theme in Old Comedy is that, while the Athenian demos deserved tyrannical power at home and abroad, the demagogues who persuaded the demos usurped it. Cleon is all but named a tyrant; yet, demagogues like Cleon fanned the flames of demotic fear of tyranny by implicating the elite-becoming-the-oligarchic as potential tyrants. Thus, in the battle about Athenian political leadership depicted in Attic comedy, “the ambivalent ideology of tyranny was one of the weapons” (159).

Kathryn Morgan’s “The Tyranny of the Audience” explores the relationship between Plato and Isocrates and their “tyrannical” audiences and discusses how the two confound the political, constitutional and ethical in order both to establish authority over political discourse and to obtain the reasoned consent of those to whom they spoke. Isocrates creates a rhetorical strategy to speak to multiple audiences (i.e., democrats, oligarchs, monarchs and even tyrants) by adapting, but also standing up to them and also by blurring political distinctions. (This expansion of reception beyond the polis, M. terms the “move out.”) The “move in” traces the continuum between civic and psychic politics, specifically in Plato’s Gorgias and the Republic. For Plato, the establishment of an ethical (= “aristocratic”) agenda for the soul cancels excesses and errors. As for the soul, so for the city: “aristocratic” rule should prevail in poleis, especially Athens, the sovereignty of whose demos is currently tyrannical but which could transform itself into a self-regulating aristocracy. Both Plato and Isocrates abandon the mass audience, blocking its reactions, and seek instead to communicate with individual readers or small groups of listeners.

Josiah Ober (“Tyrant Killing as Therapeutic Stasis: A Political Debate in Images and Texts”) traces the “contest” between democratic ideology and “dissident sensibility,” adducing “notable moments” in Athenian thinking about tyranny, such as the tyrannicide monument. The model of tyrant-slaying, equated by the Athenians with defending the democracy and so becoming a “therapeutic” kind of stasis, remained ideologically potent through the fifth century. Fourth century dissidents, however, sought to redefine and redirect thinking about tyranny and stasis. Plato, for example, who harbored powerful elitist and (so) dissident sensibilities, described a spectrum of political possibilities quite outside the democratic polarity of tyranny and anti-tyranny. Dissident response may in fact be found at the level of text, iconographic representation, or of political action, or perhaps all in combination. (We may nonetheless resist the temptation to view the Dexileos Monument primarily as “a metaphoric overthrow by the aristocratic cavalryman of the democratic tyrannicide heroes and so, one might suppose, the overthrow of democracy itself” [242]. Better, as O. suggests later, to think of the monument as communicative on multiple levels.3) At the essay’s end, O. cites the complications of the “web of references” and observes the possibility of catching only some relating to the Athenians’ “thinking the tyrant” (245).

Finally, in “Changing the Discourse,” (not originating as a paper at the UCLA conference), Robin Osborne argues that the Athenian demotic agenda was fundamentally changed by the events of 412/11 and (especially) 404/03 B.C.E. The potent ideological opposition of tyranny and democracy was broken down by the onslaught of oligarchs and oligarchic constitutional theory, things really absent from the Athenian political picture theretofore. 403 was the real watershed, by which time the Athenians realized that “doctrinaire radical democracy” did not work. The events of the late fifth century changed political discourse about democracy and political theory, no longer dominated by the stark, now voided polarity of “democracy” and “tyranny.” Fourth century political foci were constitutions, not individuals — very different from the political fixations of the Athenians in the fifth century.

The collection contains some notable essays, of which I mention a few. Dewald’s is a significant contribution to studies involving both Herodotos and Greek tyranny. Among other things, D. provides a welcome corrective to views that Herodotus’ Histories are dominated rather more by the author’s concern for themes and patterns than his desire to record actual data.4 Raaflaub establishes once for all that the official Athenian attitude toward tyranny through the fifth century was uniformly negative and so provides ample grounds for questioning the attractiveness of the concept of tyranny to fifth century Athenians. Kallet, however, offers some good counterpoints and introduces what must be regarded in any future debate about the Athenians’ view of tyranny in the fifth century BCE, that is, fluctuation in the unofficial attitude of the Athenians through the period. Seaford’s distillation of practices/themes concerning tyranny and his explication of their use in tragedy make the Athenians’ disquiet about tyranny’s imagined possibilities in the fifth century quite evident. Osborne’s and Ober’s chartings of the manifest change in political thinking at Athens from fifth to fourth centuries and their differences of opinion will stimulate further enquiry.

For all of this, there is nonetheless an unsatisfying sense of non-arrival at the collection’s end (cf. “Afterword”). Perhaps this is because, to paraphrase Raaflaub, the way the Athenians thought about tyranny unofficially (my italics) through the fifth century remains “elusive” (82).5 It is more likely to be the problematic nature of the evidence available, which simultaneously promotes interpretation, controversy, and inconclusiveness. It is thus possible that scholarly arguments about the Athenians’ attitudes toward tyranny in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. will remain mostly tentative, guarded or speculative. In any event, while many of the essays provide clarifications and so prepare the ground for further enquiry, at the collection’s end, the reader may conclude really only that the attitudes of fifth and fourth century Athenians toward tyranny were complex and ambivalent.


1. The editor in one sentence seems by turns to disown Athenocentricity (“an overly Athenocentric approach impoverishes…”) and embrace it (“all [essays] encompass themes that are crucial in our evaluation of Athenian — and Greek — culture”). “Athenocentric” historians are that primarily because of the condition of the major sources affecting ancient Greek history and not, I dare say, from mere predilection.

2. W.R. Connor, “Tyrannis Polis,” in J.H. D’Arms and J. Eadie, eds. Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of G.F. Else (Ann Arbor, 1977) 95-109.

3. Isokrates and Plato aside (cf. Morgan), Herodotos is certainly communicating on at least two levels and so to at least two audiences in the Peisistratos- logos of Book 1.59-64, that is, both to a more general audience and, more specifically, to “those in the know”: cf. B.M. Lavelle, The Sorrow and the Pity: A Prolegomenon to a History of Athens under the Peisistratids, c. 560-510 B.C. (Stuttgart, 1993) 66, n. 36 and 95 and n. 24; and “Herodotos and the ‘Parties’ of Attika,” C & M 51 (2000) 83 ff.

4. E.g., V. Gray, “Reading the Rise of Pisistratus: Herodotus I.56-68,” Histos 1 (1997) online and unpaginated; cf. also J. Moles (“Herodotus and Athens,” in E.J. Bakker, I.J.F DeJong, and H. van Wees, eds. Brill’s Companion to Herodotus [Leiden, 2002] 37) who simply and uncritically follows Gray.

5. Raaflaub (79) also acknowledges that “comedy probably represents a degree of contemporary ambivalence about tyranny…”.