BMCR 2006.04.18

Fame, Money, and Power: The Rise of Peisistratos and “Democratic” Tyranny at Athens

, Fame, money, and power : the rise of Peisistratos and "democratic" tyranny at Athens. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xiv, 370 pages) : illustrations, map. ISBN 9780472025817. $65.00.

The topic of archaic turannides remains, in the words of a recent commentator, “one of Greek history’s most challenging black holes.”1 Some might beg to disagree with this rather bleak assessment, not least the legions of scholars who have toiled so hard on the subject over the decades, apparently to little effect. But it is a fact that all of our narrative sources for early turannoi, the basis of most modern accounts, are classical or postclassical. And the more we realize just how riddled these texts are with anachronistic prejudices and assumptions, the more positively Sisyphean the task of filling the “black hole” seems to become.

After working on the Peisistratid “tyrants” of Athens for more than twenty years, Brian Lavelle (L.) is all too familiar with such problems. Indeed, not long ago, he wrote a book about them, The Sorrow and the Pity: A Prolegomenon to a History of Athens under the Peisistratids (Stuttgart, 1993).2 Noting parallels with the memory politics of postwar France, this earlier book argued that Athenian recollections of shameful “collaboration” with Peisistratid oppressors were systematically distorted or supplanted by purpose-built “myths” of resistance and non-compliance. Cultivated by powerful agencies like the Alcmeonid family and the demos-state itself, these “myths” ultimately insinuated themselves into our primary sources, seriously compromising their value as a result.

Undaunted, L. has now written a follow-up, in which he gamely tries to fashion a credible historical narrative from this same tangled web of lies, half-truths, and distortions. Consisting of five chapters and nearly one hundred pages of notes, the new work offers the reader a broadly coherent picture of the career of Peisistratus down to 546/5 BC, when, after two brief flirtations with power, he finally established a “tyranny” that would last until his death in 528/7. However, it is the central thesis of this second book, advertised in the subtitle, that most catches the eye, not least because it adds an intriguing twist to the scenario outlined in the first. Unlike their French counterparts, it seems, Athenian “collaborators” had little to be ashamed of after all. The “tyranny” of Peisistratus and his sons essentially conformed to the norms of “democratic” leadership that had prevailed in Athens at the time. By implication, there was no real need for any “myth” of resistance, since there had been no real oppressor.

In the relatively brief Chapter 1 (“Introduction”), L. recapitulates the findings of his first book, offering a candid appraisal of the sources and all their limitations. He nonetheless insists that his study “must” depend for the most part on these same highly problematic texts, since it is “a history,” and history, for L., demands a “source-critical approach” (8-9). Accordingly, “art, religion, and other cultural aspects of the period” are relegated to the status of “ancillary topics” (9). The case for a “democratic” Peisistratus is also summarized. In the author’s view, Solon’s poems reveal a political culture in which aspiring leaders could attain and exercise power only with the consent of the demos. For L., this constitutes “proof” that the Athenian state was already a functional “democracy” in the later seventh and early sixth centuries (3, 15-16).3 Under this regime, winning the all-important consent required several specific credentials: an ability to persuade, a record of successful military command, and, above all, the wealth necessary to remunerate non-elite supporters. And it was precisely by acquiring these various power credentials, during a lengthy, single-minded “campaign for the tyranny” (25), that Peisistratus was able to gain the requisite popular support and bring Athens firmly under his sway in 546/5. The course of this relentless quest for power is essentially the story that L. aims to reconstruct in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 2 (“The Path to Fame”) details the beginnings of this quest, offering a picture of a provincial “outsider,” or “new man” (29-30), whose martial exploits fuel a rapid rise from obscurity to celebrity. At some point, Peisistratus sought to avert attention from his humble origins by claiming direct descent from the glamorous Neleids of Pylos (18-30). But according to L., it was his extraordinary prowess on the battlefield that first brought him public acclaim. Herodotus, L.’s main source throughout these chapters, briefly notes that Peisistratus initially won fame for his capture of Nisaea from the Megarians and for other (unspecified) “great deeds” (1.59.4). Seizing upon this and sundry other ancient references to early clashes involving Athens and Megara, L. weaves an elaborate tale of a “great patriotic war” (39) between the two communities (30-65). Apparently, this epic confrontation began back in the mid-seventh century, if not earlier. More important, though, for L. is the end of this war, which came only when the parvenu Peisistratus managed first to recover Salamis for the Athenians and then to break the Megarians’ will with his bold assault on Nisaea. Thus, flush with political capital from these momentous victories, Peisistratus now began to harbor thoughts of “tyranny.”

In Chapter 3 (“Money, Persuasion, and Alliance”), our attention duly shifts to more familiar terrain: Peisistratus’s early bids for power in the period 561/0-556/5. And it is here, in a striking, revisionist reading of these events, that L. introduces us to his “democratic tyranny” thesis in its developed form. Consisting mainly of inferences from the poems of Solon, the premises for his distinctive take on sixth-century Athenian political culture are very briefly presented (73-76). Citing several Solonian passages (esp. fr. 5.1, 3), L. particularly insists that Herodotus misrepresents the principal source of political tension in 561/0 as a three-way power struggle between rival regional “parties.” The tension came rather from a longstanding binary opposition between two city “factions:” the “powerful and wealthy,” now headed by Lycurgus, and the “demos,” or “commons,” led by the Alcmeonid Megacles (76-82). Having thus redrawn the political map of mid-sixth-century Athens, L. embarks on a novel reconstruction of Peisistratus’s interventions in 561/0 and 556/5 (82-115).

On both occasions, it turns out, the real star of the show was Megacles, here boldly recast as “leader of the demos” and “kingmaker.” Without a ready-made constituency of his own, and lacking the all-important finances, the opportunist Peisistratus apparently threw in his lot with the wealthy Alcmeonid. The latter, in return, obligingly secured the imprimatur of the “commons” for his new ally’s first two “tyrannies.” On both occasions, in other words, Herodotus again seriously misrepresents the nature of the events he describes, primarily because his account is distorted by the “myths” of non-compliance that were later circulated by the Alcmeonids and the demos-state. In 561/0, the assembly was not actually tricked into awarding Peisistratus a bodyguard. Rather, under Megacles’ influence, it willingly bestowed “a kind of honor guard” (96) upon him. His subsequent occupation of the Acropolis was therefore no more than a “symbolic” gesture, “indicating the favor of the gods and the Athenians” (94). Likewise, in 556/5, the notorious Phye procession did not deceive the Athenians into believing that Athena herself had restored Peisistratus to “tyranny” after a brief period of exile. On the contrary, the demos fully understood the theatricality of the spectacle and, again with encouragement from Megacles, willingly welcomed back the “tyrant” (98-107). Thus in both cases, L. urges, the demos essentially “voted” (106) Peisistratus into power. Contrary to all appearances, these were “democratic tyrannies.”

Chapter 4 (“The Tide of Wealth and Power”) brings the book’s main narrative to a close with an account of Peisistratus’s various activities in the decade 556/5-546/5. The first half (116-34) tries to trace his movements during the ten-year exile, spent mostly in Thrace, that followed the collapse of his short-lived “second tyranny.” Since the sources for these movements are exiguous, much of this section is predictably speculative and inconclusive. But L. is surely correct to suggest that Peisistratus’s primary concern during these years was to acquire the wealth and the allies necessary to force a return to Athens. In the second half of the chapter (134-54), he then describes this return and the decisive victory at Pallene in 546/5 that would bring Peisistratus to power for the next eighteen years. Again, despite rather strong evidence to the contrary, L. claims that this “third tyranny” also rested on firmly “democratic” foundations. Even if Peisistratus did in fact use force to reclaim power, defeating a militia of Athenian citizens with a private army made up largely of non-Athenian allies, his cause had many supporters in Attica. Indeed, “[d]efections appear to have been numerous” (144, citing Hdt. 1.62.1). So here too, L. infers, we have a display of popular consent; the Athenians were in effect “voting. . .with their feet” (16) for another round of “democratic tyranny.” No less important, after ten years of fund-raising, Peisistratus now had a “pay box for his government” (143).

In Chapter 5 (“Summary”), L. reiterates the book’s main findings and concludes with a brief attempt to suggest continuities in Athenian politics between the archaic and the classical periods. In particular, he proposes that we might see Peisistratus as a “prototype” or “model” (162-63) for later leaders, in so far as the likes of Miltiades, Cimon, and Pericles would also gain influence by exploiting their rhetorical ability, their military records, and their wealth. But then again, if some form of “democracy” had actually prevailed in Athens since the time of Solon, as L. claims, such continuities may not be so very surprising.

In a series of eight appendices, L. addresses a number of incidental historiographical, topographical, and prosopographical issues. For some reason, his only sustained discussion of “Peisistratos’ chronology” (and the not insignificant issue of the length of the first two “tyrannies”) is also delayed until this point (Appendix D, 210-18).

This book certainly has its virtues. The author is intimately acquainted with his chosen sources and commendably transparent in his handling of them. Given the great limitations of these materials, it is hard not to admire the passion that L. brings to his subject and the diligence with which he goes about the task of restoring tones and colors to our picture of Peisistratus’s early career. The result is a narrative that is about as rich and comprehensive as we could reasonably expect to have. The book is nothing if not a virtuoso exercise in source criticism. And one therefore expects that it will be most welcomed by those who share L.’s enthusiasm for this kind of approach and his fascination with biographical detail. Such readers will find much here that informs and stimulates.

However, those who are drawn to the book more by the promise of its subtitle may be less enthralled. The “democratic tyranny” thesis is no doubt the most original feature of the work, but it is also quite problematic. Archaic Greek history being what it is, one could of course vigorously contest just about every one of the many premises and inferences that inform the thesis. A few general comments will suffice.

One might note first that the thesis appears to be rooted in rather thin soil. In a work that is prepared to devote over 18 pages (116-34) to Peisistratus’s Thracian adventures, over 20 (134-54) to the battle of Pallene, and fully 35 (30-65) to the reconstruction of a war between Athens and Megara, it is surprising to say the least that the author spends barely a handful of pages (3, 15-16, 73-76) discussing the evidence for “democracy” in Solon’s poems, the premise on which the whole idea of a “democratic tyranny” seems to depend. If these texts offer such a full and straightforward account of historical actualities, one wonders why the nature of political culture in the time of Solon remains one of the field’s more contentious issues. L. may not be the only one to believe in a Solonian “democracy,” but his is hardly a majority position.4 It requires a much more robust defense.

And, in the absence of such a defense, it is all the more difficult to believe that intimations of a “democratic” Peisistratus can be found buried deep in the pages of Herodotus. While one marvels at the hermeneutic dexterity with which L. attempts to prove otherwise, readers may be forgiven for balking at some of the bolder leaps of faith that his method and his thesis demand. L. could have strengthened his case considerably, one feels, by taking fuller advantage of the material record and adopting a more synoptic, systemic approach, anchoring his account of political culture in analysis of contemporary ritual, iconography, votive practices and the like. This kind of approach is now commonplace in archaic Greek history after all. And as L. knows well, it has long been embraced by students of early turannides, who routinely explore how power played itself out on the planes of culture and consciousness.5 L.’s reluctance to do likewise is puzzling.6

That said, it is not entirely clear what kind of evidence or method one would need to verify the existence of a “democratic tyranny,” since the very nature of this novel form of authority remains somewhat elusive. L. himself argues precisely that Peisistratus was not a “tyrant” in any meaningful sense of the word, and one can readily agree with him.7 Similarly, he is prepared to concede that the pre-Cleisthenic regime in Athens was not quite a full “democracy”; his regular use of quote marks around the term indicates as much. And on the strength of the evidence presented, even this rather qualified position seems overoptimistic.8 It is certainly likely that Peisistratus procured some kind of broad consent for his authority. But if this authority still amounted to “rule” (e.g., 162) or “monarchy” (e.g., 158), as L. also suggests, the consent in question cannot easily be equated with any conventional form of demokratia. One would surely need to know much more about this process and, above all, its context before making even the most cautious comparisons between Peisistratus and fifth-century leaders. In the meantime, any apparent resemblances must be deemed superficial, unless, that is, we can visualize the likes of Cimon squiring “Athena” up to the Acropolis, or forcing his way back from ostracism with his own multinational horde of confederates.

In other words, the “democratic tyranny” thesis remains more suggestive than persuasive. L. makes a good case that Peisistratus did not in fact violate the political norms of the day. But he struggles to convince us that these norms were in any meaningful sense “democratic.”

With this engaging, compendious narrative of the early career of Peisistratus, L. has certainly helped to fill that gaping “black hole.” With a stronger central thesis, he might have helped fill it even a little more.


1. R. Lane Fox, “Theognis: An Alternative to Democracy,” in R. Brock and S. Hodkinson eds., Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece (Oxford, 2000), 38.

2. The arresting title is a reference to Marcel Ophüls’ film, Le chagrin et la pitié (1971), a documentary which examines social memory of the Nazi occupation of France, starkly exposing the less edifying realities that lay behind the myth of heroic national resistance. Readers may also recall this film as the grotesquely inappropriate “date movie” that Diane Keaton is forced by Woody Allen to endure in Annie Hall (1977).

3. It should be noted that L. almost invariably uses quotation marks when referring to any putative, pre-Cleisthenic “democracy,” and I follow his lead throughout the review. On the implications of this practice for L.’s central thesis, see the discussion below.

4. The fullest recent case for a “democratic” Solon is R. W. Wallace, “Solonian Democracy,” in I. Morris and K. A. Raaflaub eds., Democracy 2500? Questions and Challenges (Dubuque, Iowa, 1998), 11-29. For the view that politics in Solonian Athens was still essentially an elite preserve, see e.g., L. Foxhall, “A View from the Top: Evaluating the Solonian Property Classes,” in L. G. Mitchell and P. J. Rhodes eds., The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece (London, 1997), 113-36; L. G. Mitchell, “New Wine in Old Wineskins: Solon, arete and the agathos,” in L. G. Mitchell and P. J. Rhodes eds., The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece (London, 1997), 137-47; G. Anderson, The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C. (Ann Arbor, 2003), 57-76; S. Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece (Princeton, 2005), 90-101.

5. See e.g., F. Kolb, “Die Bau-, Religions- und Kulturpolitik der Peisistratiden,” JdI 92 (1977), 99-138; M. Stahl, Aristokraten und Tyrannen im archaischen Athen (Stuttgart, 1987); H. A. Shapiro, Art and Cult under the Tyrants in Athens (Mainz, 1989); E. Stein-Hölkeskamp, Adelskultur und Polisgesellschaft (Stuttgart 1989); L. de Libero, Die archaische Tyrannis (Stuttgart 1996); H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg ed. Peisistratos and the Tyranny: A Reappraisal of the Evidence (Amsterdam, 2000).

6. Evidently, this reluctance does not arise from any great discomfort with material culture. L. seems to be well acquainted with the relatively ample archaeological record from sixth-century Athens (briefly discussed e.g., at 1-2, with notes), and he readily draws upon physical evidence in his treatment of certain incidental issues, like the site of the deme Philaidai (171-79).

7. For an argument that an archaic turannis was no more than an amplified form of conventional oligarchic leadership, see G. Anderson, “Before Turannoi were Tyrants: Rethinking a Chapter of Early Greek History,” ClAnt 24 (2005), 173-222.

8. As L. himself rather candidly admits at one point (4): “Precisely how ‘democratic’ the Peisistratid regime was we cannot say.” Perhaps L. will clarify matters in his sequel volume on “the tyranny of the younger Peisistratids” (promised at 306 n. 163).