Peisistratus And The Peisistratids: Tyrants Of Athens Before Democracy

Peisistratus was a ruler of Athens during the 6 th century BC. Peisistratus was an absolute ruler, and seized power in Athens through trickery and force. Therefore, he is considered to be a “tyrant,” though this does not necessarily have the negative connotations that is attached to this title today. 

Although some of Peisistratus’ actions as tyrant would not be considered acceptable today, the tyrant also strove to strengthen Athens’ economy, and promoted cultural activities. The success of Peisistratus’ policies contributed to Athens’ pre-eminence in the 5 th century BC. Peisistratus had two sons, one of whom, Hippias, succeeded him as tyrant after his death. Peisistratus, Hippias, and his other son, Hipparchus, are usually considered collectively as the Peisistratids.

A portrait of Peisistratus, who was born around 607 BC in Attica. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Peisistratus Was Born To Famous Bloodlines On Both Sides

Peisistratus was born around 607 BC and was the son of  Hippocrates, a philosopher and teacher. Peisistratus is also known to have been related to the great Athenian reformer,  Solon, on his mother’s side. Peisistratus came from the eastern part of  Attica.

The future Tyrant of Athens is said to have been named after Peisistratus of Pylos, a character in Homer’s  Odyssey. The Peisistratus of the  Odyssey was the youngest son of  King Nestor , and a close friend of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Apart from these few pieces of information, however, little has been recorded about Peisistratus’ early life.

In the long run, the reforms of Solon led to the establishment of Athenian democracy. In the short term, however, they failed to resolve class conflict. Therefore, at the time when Peisistratus was growing up,  Athens was experiencing political instability. In fact, when Peisistratus seized power, he ended 20 years of unrest in the city state.

In any case, the two factions vying for control in this period of unrest were the Pedieis (or “people living on the plains”), led by Lycurgus, and the Paralioi (or “people living along the coast”), led by  Megacles. Naturally, this political instability was detrimental to the progress and development of Athens. 

Peisistratus’ rise to power began around 565 BC, during the war with the nearby city state of Megara. Peisistratus succeeded in capturing the port of Nisaea, thereby making a name for himself as a military commander. To compete with the two other Athenian factions, Peisistratos organized his own faction, the Hyperakrioi (or “people living in the hills”). This faction consisted not only of the nobles from Peisistratus’ own district, but also a significant portion of the growing population of the city of Athens. His faction outnumbered both the Pedieis and Paralioi, a clear indication of Peisistratus’ popularity as a leader.

According to Herodotus, once Peisistratus had formed his faction, he carried out a cunning plan that allowed him to seize power in Athens. The ancient historian wrote that Peisistratus “wounded himself and his mules and drove his cart into the city square.” Peisistratus, however, told the Athenians that he had been attacked by enemies who sought to kill him whilst he was on the way out of the city, but that he managed to escape from them.

He then asked the Athenians to provide him with bodyguards to ensure his safety. Given Peisistratus’ popularity and reputation as a military commander, the Athenians believed his words. The Athenians selected from its citizens men who would serve in this role. Interestingly, Herodotus notes that Peisistratus’ bodyguards were armed with wooden clubs.

Peisistratus became the Tyrant of Athens when he captured the Acropolis of Athens the first time and the next two times. (Steve Swayne /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Peisistratus Leads An Uprising, And Captures Athens Briefly

With the aid of his bodyguards, Peisistratus led an uprising, and captured the  Acropolis. Through his seizure of the city by force, Peisistratus became the Tyrant of Athens.

It should be noted that the concept of a tyrant in ancient Greece is a little different from ours today. In ancient Greece, a tyrant is not necessarily cruel, a trait that we would normally associate with such individuals in the modern world. In fact, according to Herodotus, “Peisistratus ruled Athens, but he did not interfere with the existing structure of offices or changed the laws; he administered the state constitutionally and organized the state’s affairs properly and well.” In contrast to the political chaos that gripped Athens in the previous decades Peisistratus’ tranny must have been a welcome change.

Unsurprisingly Lycurgus and Megacles were dissatisfied with Peisistratus’ rule since they had lost their power. Therefore, the two former rivals decided to join forces against Peisistratus. Although the tyrant had seized power, he did not have enough time to consolidate his position. Therefore, Lycurgus and Megacles succeeded in expelling Peisistratus from Athens.

However once this was achieved, the two men reverted to their old ways, and were once again contending with each other over the control of Athens. According to Herodotus, Megacles was on the losing side, and therefore, he decided to form an alliance with Peisistratus by offering him the hand of his daughter in marriage and placing Athens under Peisistratus’s rule once more.   

After listening to Megacles’ offer, Peisistratus accepted it, and agreed to his terms. To bring Peisistratus back to Athens, the two men came up with a ruse that Herodotus described as “by far the most simple-minded one I have ever come across.”

Peisistratus becomes the Tyrant of Athens for the second time, this time accompanied by “Athena.” Here he is welcomed by the citizens of the city on his triumphant return and not his last. (M. A. Barth /  Public domain )

Basically, Peisistratus and Megacles found a woman called Phya, dressed her up in a full set of armor, and placed her in a chariot. Peisistratus and Phya then set out for the city, with heralds going before them, who made the following announcement, “Athena is giving Pisistratus the singular honor of personally escorting him back to your Acropolis. So, welcome him.” Quite astonishingly, the Athenians believed that Phya was indeed Athena, and welcomed Peisistratus back to the city. Some even offered prayers to this mortal woman.

The alliance between Peisistratus and Megacles, however, did not last for long. Although the tyrant had married Megacles’ daughter, he refused to have children with her. This was because he already had grown-up sons, and because of the believe that Megacles’ family, the  Alcmaeonids, was cursed. Therefore, Peisistratus “did not have sex with her in the usual way.” Initially, Peisistratus’ new wife kept this a secret. Later on, however, she told it to her mother, who in turn informed Megacles of the matter. Megacles perceived this as an insult and was furious with Peisistratus. Therefore, he made peace with Lycurgus, and prepared to take action against Peisistratus.

After being “kicked out” of Athens for the second time, Peisistratus retreated to Eretria, in South-eastern Greece, and for 10 years plotted his return with his sons. (Jebulon /  CC0)

Peisistratus Retreats To Eretria And Regroups For 10 Years

When Peisistratus, the tyrant, heard of the political maneuvers against him, he left Athens, and went to  Eretria, in South-eastern Greece, where he consulted with his sons about their next course of action. It was decided that they ought to return to Athens to seize power again. Therefore, Peisistratus began raising money from all the communities that were under some form of obligation to him.

Herodotus reports that the  Thebans were the most generous of all and contributed greatly to the Peisistratids’ war chest. With the funds they collected, Peisistratus and his sons assembled an army of mercenaries, and marched towards Athens. According to Herodotus, “They set out from Eretria and came home after ten years of exile.” This means that the Peisistratids spent a decade collecting funds and building an army to retake Athens.

The invading army took  Marathon and set up its basecamp there. Peisistratus was joined by his supporters who were still living in Athens, as well as “men from the country demes who found the rule of a tyrant more pleasant than freedom.” The rest of the Athenians, when they heard of Peisistratus’s return, prepared to defend the city against the tyrant. At the sanctuary of Athena in Pallene, the two armies met, took up positions on opposite sides, and prepared for battle. It was here that Peisistratus was met by Amphilytus of Acarnania, a seer, who delivered the following prophecy to the tyrant:

“The net has been cast, the mesh is at full stretch, And the tuna will dart in the moonlit night.”

Peisistratus understood the meaning of this prophecy and felt confident that he would be victorious. Therefore, he launched an attack on his enemies. At that time, the Athenians were having their lunch. Those who had finished their meal were either playing dice or sleeping. Therefore, Peisistratus’ attack came as a surprise and the Athenians were easily routed. Thus, Peisistratus established his tyranny in Athens for the third time.

In order to ensure that he would not be overthrown again, Peisistratus kept a mercenary army. This was bolstered by “a substantial income, partly gained locally and partly coming in from the Strymon River area.” The latter is presumed to mean  Mount Pangaeum , which is famous for its gold and silver mines. Peisistratus ruled Athens as tyrant until his death in 528/527 BC.

After the death of Peisistratus, his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, worked together and then fought each other to be the next Tyrant of Athens. The two were so famous that they became the fictional characters Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who became known as the famous Tyrannicides of Greece. And they were the first mortals carved in stone with state funds! (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

After The Death Of The Tyrant Of Athens, His Sons Take Over

After Peisistratus’ death, his eldest son, Hippias, succeeded him as tyrant. Hippias and his brother, Hipparchus, are best-known as the antagonists in the story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who became known as the famous Tyrannicides. A detailed version of the story is provided by Thucydides. Herodotus also mentions the story, though parts of the story are left out.

According to Thucydides, Hipparchus had been interested in Harmodius, Aristogeiton’s lover. When the young man rejected Hipparchus’ advances, however, the latter decided to humiliate the former. Consequently, Harmodius and Aristogeiton conspired to kill both Hipparchus and Hippias during the  Great Panathenaea . Herodotus records that Hipparchus was warned in a dream of his imminent assassination, though the tyrant’s brother decided not to follow through in the end.

On the day of the Great Panathenaea, Harmodius and Aristogeiton succeeded in killing Hipparchus, but failed to assassinate Hippias. As a result of this incident, Hippias became increasingly paranoid, and his rule became more oppressive. Thucydides summarizes the whole episode as follows, “it began with a lover’s resentment, and the final desperate act was the result of a last-minute failure of nerve. The consequence for the people of Athens was that the tyranny now entered a more oppressive stage.” Nevertheless, Harmodius and Aristogeiton were later hailed as the Tyrannicides, and credited with the overthrow of the Peisistratids.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton were honored with a pair of statues, which were famous in the ancient world. The statues of the two men were created by a sculptor named Antenor and were the first statues of mortals to have been paid for by the state.

When the Achaemenids captured Athens in 480 BC, the statues were sent to one of their capitals, Susa. Therefore, the Athenians commissioned Critius and Nesiotes to create a new pair of statues. According to one version of the story, when Alexander the Great captured Susa, he had the statues sent back to the Athenians. Another version states that it was Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals, who returned the statues. A Roman copy of Critius and Nesiotes’ statues was made, which has survived till this day.

In spite of all this, Harmodius and Aristogeiton did not overthrow the Peisistratid tyranny. On the contrary, they made it more oppressive, and the Athenians suffered under the harsh rule of Hippias for four years. Moreover, Harmodius and Aristogeiton wanted to kill Hippias and Hipparchus for personal reasons, rather than for the sake of Athenian democracy.

The Peisistratid tyranny was only overthrown in 510 BC, when Athens was invaded by the Spartans under Cleomenes I. According to Herodotus, it was the Alcmaeonids (who had been exiled by Peisistratus) who sought the aid of the Spartans. Apparently, the Oracle of Delphi was bribed to advise any Spartan who came to the temple to liberate Athens. In any case, after the invasion, democracy was established by Cleisthenes, a member of the Alcmaeonids. Still, for possibly political reasons, the Athenians chose to honor Harmodius and Aristogeiton as national heroes.

To conclude, the Peisistratids, Peisistratus, Hippias, and Hipparchus, were tyrants. This, however, does not imply that they were oppressive rulers. In fact, Peisistratus was a popular ruler, and managed the affairs of the city state well. Hippias too was a capable ruler, though he became more oppressive after the conspiracy by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, which succeeded in killing his brother. It was thanks to the Spartans that Hippias was deposed, thereby bringing an end to the tyranny of the Peisistratids. Following the reign of Peisistratus and Hippias, democracy was established in Athens.   

Top image: Though the followers of Peisistratus, including his sons, managed to rule Athens for a long time as “tyrants,” in the end they fell to the Spartans and democracy was born!         Source:  Massimo Todaro  / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                      

References

Herodotus, The Histories

[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 2008.  Herodotus’ The Histories . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Kutter, M., 2015.  The Peisistratid Tyranny At Athens: Conflicting Sources And Revisionist History At Work.  [Online] 
Available at:  http://aleph.humanities.ucla.edu/2015/07/17/the-peisistratid-tyranny-at-…

Lendering, J., 2020.  Harmodius and Aristogeiton.  [Online] 
Available at:  https://www.livius.org/articles/person/harmodius-and-aristogeiton/

New World Encyclopedia, 2016.  Athenian Civilization.  [Online] 
Available at:  https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Athenian_Civilization

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

[Hammond, M. (trans.), 2009.  Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Starr, C. G., 2019.  Peisistratus. [Online] 
Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peisistratus

www.hellenicaworld.com, 2021.  Peisistratus. [Online] 
Available at:  http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Greece/Person/en/Pisistratus.html

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