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Whose Tyrant Are You?: The Installation of Tyrants in the Archaic and Classical Worlds

Marcaline J. Boyd

University of Delaware

One of the features noted of Greek and Persian relations in the so-called archaic “age of tyrants” is the concentration of tyrants who sprung up on the western frontier of the Persian Empire. It is generally held that the Persians imposed these tyrants over the subject Greek cities under a system of ritualized friendship (i.e. “rewarding benefactors with gifts and positions of power” (Austin 1990, 306; see also Luraghi 1998) and that these Persian-installed tyrants represented a phenomenon independent of the tyrannoi of mainland Greece (Andrewes 1956; Murray 1993; Lane Fox 2005; Cobet, s.v. “Tyrannis, Tyrannos” New Pauly). This paper broadens the conventional scope of investigation and considers tyrant-makers apart from the Persian king and after the archaic age. It argues that the Persians continued to install and support tyrants during the Classical period (when tyranny is usually held to have no longer existed) and that Macedonian kings, such as Philip II and Alexander the Great, and even Greek tyrants themselves operated as tyrant-makers.

The locus classicus of archaic Persian-installed tyrants is the episode at the Danube bridge in Book 4 of Herodotus’ Histories. Twelve tyrants are named and based on what Herodotus says elsewhere about several of them (e.g. Aeaces of Samos (6.22.1, 25.1) and Histiaeus of Miletus (5.11)), they were rewarded with these positions as “benefactors” (εὐεργέται) of the Great King. This practice of establishing tyrannies, however, was not coterminous with the Archaic Period. After Salamis (480 BCE), the Persians set up Theomestor as tyrant of Samos (Hdt. 8.85.3). We also find previously installed tyrannies on Chios and at Lampsacus in the fifth century (Hdt. 8.132; Thuc. 6.59). In the fourth century, the descendants of Demaratus (ca. 491 BCE) and Gongylus (470s-460s BCE), both of whom the Persian king had originally installed, were still in power in Aeolis (Xen. Hell.3.1.6). In the 330s BCE, the Persians set up tyrannies on the islands of Tenedos, Chios, and Lesbos (Arr. Anab. 2.1.1, 3.2.3, cf. D.S. 17.29). One of the best-attested cases from the late fourth century comes from the city of Eresos on Lesbos, where a dossier of inscriptions mentions two tyrants Eurysilaus and Agonippus whom the Persians installed in 333 BCE (IG XII526).

Just as the Persian king, Macedonian and Greek rulers also partook in the installation of tyrants. Philip set up tyrants in the Euboean cities of Eretria (Dem. 9.58; FGrHist 328 F 160; D.S. 16.74) and Oreus (Dem. 18.71; FGrHist 328 F 159) and at Sicyon (Dem. 18.48, 295; Plut. Arat. 13.2; Plin. NH 35.109). Alexander followed in his father’s footsteps establishing tyrannies at Messene and Pellene ([Dem.] 17.4, 10). Tyrants could also be active tyrant-makers. Pisistratus installed Lygdamis on Naxos (Hdt. 1.64.2), Dionysius I supported Aeimnestus at Enna (D.S. 14.14.7), and the Spartocid Satyrus I granted Sopaeus power in the Bosporus (Isoc. 17.3).

One noteworthy difference in the installation of tyrants by Persians vs. Macedonians/Greeks is language. There is a greater prevalence of the vocabulary of ritualized friendship in accounts of Persian-installed tyrants, but this is a result of the evidence rather than a fundamental change. One of our best sources about Macedonian-installed tyrants is Attic oratory where the typically anti-Macedonian outlook of the speaker denounces the role of the tyrant-maker as paymaster or bribe-giver (e.g. Demosthenes of Philip II (9.60)). This mercantile association, as conceived by the Greeks, rendered the ruler’s connections unseemly and base and thus precluded any genuine attributes of ritualized friendship. Nevertheless, among non-Greek and Greek rulers, installation offered a powerful tool for securing loyalty to the tyrant-maker and this technique would continue to prove instrumental, especially for leaders with expansionist aims. Rethinking the installation of tyrants beyond its archaic and Persian contexts reveals new tyrant-makers and brings the political realia of tyranny in the Classical period into clearer focus.

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Greek History

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