Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

the Greek tyrants

Prof. Dr. Nino Luraghi


Political leaders whom the Greeks called turannoi (usually translated as ‘tyrants’) are an endemic presence in the political landscape of the polis, from the second half of the seventh century BCE all the way to the final Roman conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean, and beyond: as long as there were poleis, there were turannoi. With some variation, scholars agree in describing Greek tyrannies as autocratic regimes without a constitutional framework, typically emerging from situations of civil strife and often unstable and short-lived. The direct impact of the turannoi on the development of Greek political institutions is agreed to have been non-existent, to the extent that tyranny never became an office integrated in the constitution of any polis. In spite of the high frequency of the phenomenon, modern research has not shown a particularly strong interest in it (compare the volume of research on Greek tyrants with that on Greek democracy – only oligarchy fares worse). In part, this must be a consequence of a bias that is clearly visible in the writings of ancient Greek authors, especially political thinkers, who regarded the turannos as a psychological syndrome but were not really interested in tyranny as a kind of political regime. Accordingly, modern scholars have not been very successful in coming to grips with Greek tyranny, to the point that many have concluded that it is futile or even counterproductive to attempt a comprehensive understanding of the Greek tyrants, because turannos was nothing more than a generic negative epithet that could be applied to leaders of the most diverse sorts.

The modern tendency to dissolve Greek tyranny into an inventory of individual cases that have little in common with each other flies in the face of Greek political thought. Even Aristotle, who was quite aware of differences between earlier and later Greek political practice, saw Greek tyrants as a specific form of political power – although one that did not deserve a proper political analysis. Clearly, from as early as we can tell to as late as we can tell, Greek political thinkers had no problem in understanding tyranny as an essentially unitary phenomenon (this applies, as far as we can tell, also to Hellenistic authors like Polybius). In modern terms, this means especially integrating Hellenistic tyranny into the picture – a task that is made all the more urgent by recent scholarship that has seriously questioned the old communis opinio that the Hellenistic polis was not a locus of political activity any more. The traditional view of Hellenistic tyranny as a function of international politics and not as a product of the Hellenistic polis itself is heavily predicated on the now superseded understanding of Hellenistic polis. It is time for Hellenistic turannoi to be reintegrated in the general study of Greek tyranny, and the same is true of the few but macroscopic cases of turannoi of the classical age. Once archaic turannoi are not seen any more in isolation from their classical and Hellenistic successors, a new interpretation of Greek tyranny as a political regime becomes possible. These considerations, together with the fact that the last attempt at dealing with Greek tyrants in a comprehensive fashion is now over forty years old, form the general rationale of my project.

There is a further reason that makes a new examination of the evidence for Greek tyrants particularly necessary, and it has to do with fundamental changes in the way in which, since the last decades of the last century, historians of the ancient world have come to regard the Greek and Latin literary sources they largely rely upon. While scholars such as Berve and Andrewes (author in 1956 of the last comprehensive monograph on Greek tyrants in English) used to mine ancient authors for factual information that they then extrapolated and used for their own narratives, there is now a widespread awareness among historians, brought about especially by the linguistic turn and associated trends, of the need to treat ancient literary evidence as a cultural artifact in its own right and decipher carefully its meaning in order fully to exploit its historical potential. Nowhere is such trend as important as in the study of Greek tyrants, who show a strong tendency to become characters of anecdotal narratives that resemble folk-tales much more than modern-style factual history. Excellent case studies point to a method that needs to be applied in an extensive way to the ancient sources. A clearer understanding of the role of the tyrant in Greek imaginaire is both an important scholarly pursuit in its own right and a necessary premise for a study of tyranny as an aspect of the social and political history of the polis.

My goal is to produce a comprehensive and integrated interpretation of ancient Greek tyranny as a political regime and of its roots in the political practice of the polis, from the late seventh century BCE to the first half of the second. This will be a work of synthesis, drawing upon my own research and that of other scholars. Above and beyond a reconstruction of the events associated with the various turannoi, I hope to reach a better understanding of the role of tyranny in the history of the polis in order to be able to attempt a more precise typological definition of Greek tyranny as a form of power and to understand how and why it could be considered legitimate – as opposed to legal, which it certainly never was – by at least a part of the citizen body. Traditional sociological analyses of power, especially that of Weber, with more recent developments, will offer the conceptual instruments for this part of the project. Ultimately, the analysis will converge into a new definition of the nature and historical function of Greek tyranny as a political regime.