Peisistratus (sometimes transliterated Peisistratos Psistratus, Peistratus, Pesistratusor or Pisistratus, Greek: Πεισίστρατος, in English) (ca 6th c BCE – 527 or 528 BCE) was a tyrant of Athens from 546 to 527/8 BCE. His legacy lies primarily in his institution of the Panathenaic Festival and the consequent first attempt at producing a definitive version for Homeric epic.
A long conflict with the Megarans over the disputed territories of Eleusis
ended when the Athenian army under Peisistratus routed the Megarans in 565 BCE. This victory opened up the unofficial trade blockage
that had been contributing to the food shortage in Athens during the past several decades.
In the period after the Megarans were defeated, several political factions competed for control in the government of Athens. These groups were both economically and geographically partitioned.
- Pedieis - Lycurgus led the Pedieis, referring to the population that resided on the plains. These landowners could grow grain, giving them leverage during the food shortage.
- Paralioi - Paralioi referred to the population living along the coast. Led by Megacles, an accursed Alcmaeonid, the Paralioi party was not as strong as the Pedieis primarily because they did not have the same ability to produce grain as did the plainsmen. With the Megarans patrolling the sea, much of the import/export possibilities were limited.
- Hyperakrioi - The last group of people who were not previously represented by formal party dwelled primarily in the hills and were by far the poorest of the Athenian population. Their only products that could be bartered were items like honey and wool. Peisistratus organized them into the Hyperakrioi, or hill dwellers. This party was grossly outnumbered by the Plain party (even when combined with the Coastal party).
His role in the Megaran conflict gained Peisistratus popularity in Athens, but he did not have the political clout to seize power. Peisistratus staged an attempt on his own life, and in the chaos that followed, he persuaded the Athenian Assembly to issue him bodyguards. Peisistratus, much like his predecessor, Cylon of Athens, used his bodyguard to capture and hold the acropolis. With this in his possession, and the collusion of Megacles and his party, he declared himself tyrant.
Periods of Power
Peisistratus was ousted from political office and exiled twice during his reign. The first occurrence happened circa 555 BC after the two original parties, which were normally at odds with each other, joined forces and removed Peisistratus from power. The actual dates after this point become hazy. Peisistratus was exiled for 3 to 6 years during which the agreement between the Pedieis and the Paralioi fell apart. Peisistratos returned to Athens and rode into the city in a golden chariot accompanied by a tall woman playing the role of Athena. Many returned to his side, believing that he had the favor of the goddess. Differing sources state that he held the tyranny for one to six years before he was exiled again. During his second exile, he gathered support from local cities and from the Laurion silver mines near Athens. After 10 years he returned in force, regained his tyranny, and held his power until his death in 527 BC.
As opposed to the contemporary definition of a tyrant
, which is a single ruler, often violent and oppressive, Peisistratus was the ideal of a classical tyrant, which was a non-heritable position that a person took purely by personal ability. Peisistratus often tried to distribute power and benefits, rather than hoard them, with the intent of releasing stress between the economic classes. The elites, who had held power in the Areopagus
Council, were allowed to retain their archonships
. For the lower classes, he cut taxes and created a band of traveling judges to provide justice for the citizens of Athens. Peisistratus enacted a popular program to beautify Athens and promote the arts. Under his rule were introduced two new forms of poetry: Dithryamb
and Tragic drama
, and it oversaw the growth of the theater arts and sculpture.
Peisistratus died 527 or 528 BC. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Hippias. Hippias and his brother, Hipparchus, ruled the city much akin to the way that their father did. After a successful murder plot against Hipparchus conceived by Harmodius and Aristogeiton
, Hippias became a largely paranoid and oppressive ruler. This change in attitude caused the people of Athens to hold Hippias in much lower regard. Though Peisistratos had exiled Megacles and the Alcmaeonids, his sons allowed them to return. Cleisthenes
, a descendent of Megacles
, helped dethrone Hippias and erected a democracy
based on the overturned reforms of Solon
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