In modern usage, a tyrant is a single ruler holding absolute power over a state or within an organization. The term carries modern connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of a small oligarchy over the best interests of the general population which the tyrant governs or controls. However, in the classical sense, the word simply means one who has taken power by their own means as opposed to hereditary or constitutional power (and generally without the modern connotations). This mode of rule is referred to as tyranny. Many individual rulers or government officials are accused of tyranny, with the label almost always a matter of controversy.
The word derives from Latin tyrannus meaning "illegitimate ruler", and ultimately from Greek τύραννος tyrannos, meaning "sovereign, master, or despot", although the latter was not pejorative and applicable to both good and bad leaders alike.
In ancient Greece
, tyrants were influential opportunists that came to power by securing the support of different factions of a deme
. The word "tyrant" then carried no ethical censure; it simply referred to anyone who illegally seized executive power in a polis
to engage in autocratic
, though perhaps benevolent, government, or leadership in a crisis. Support for the tyrants came from the growing class of business people and from the peasants who had no land or were in debt to the wealthy land owners. It is true that they had no legal right to rule, but the people preferred them over kings or the aristocracy
. The Greek tyrants stayed in power by using mercenary soldiers from outside of their respective city state.
Cypselus, the first tyrant of Corinth in the 7th century BC, managed to bequeath his position to his son, Periander. Tyrants seldom succeeded in establishing an untroubled line of succession. In Athens, the inhabitants first gave the title to Peisistratus of Athens in 560 BC, followed by his sons, and with the subsequent growth of Athenian democracy, the title "tyrant" took on its familiar negative connotations. The murder of the tyrant Hipparchus by Aristogeiton and Harmodios in Athens in 514 BC marked the beginning of the so-called "cult of the tyrannicides" (i.e. of killers of tyrants). Contempt for tyranny characterised this cult movement. The attitude became especially prevalent in Athens after 508 BC, when Cleisthenes reformed the political system so that it resembled demokratia (ancient participant democracy as opposed to the modern representative democracy).
The Thirty Tyrants whom the Spartans imposed on a defeated Attica in 404 BC wouldn't class as tyrants in the usual sense.
An aisymnetes (pl. aisymnetai) was a type of tyrant or dictator, such as Pittacus of Mytilene
(c. 640 -568 BC), elected for life or a specified period by a city-state in a time of crisis. Magistrates in some city-states were also called aisymnetai.
The heyday of the classical Hellenic tyrants came in the early 6th century BC
, when Cleisthenes
in the Peloponnesus
, and Polycrates
. During this time, revolts overthrew many governments in the Aegean
world. Simultaneously Persia
first started making inroads into Greece, and many tyrants sought Persian help against forces seeking to remove them.
Greek tyranny in the main grew out of the struggle of the popular classes against the aristocracy
or against priest-kings where archaic traditions and mythology sanctioned hereditary and/or traditional rights to rule. Popular coups
generally installed tyrants, who often became or remained popular rulers, at least in the early part of their reigns. For instance, the popular imagination remembered Peisistratus
for an episode - related by (pseudonymous)Aristotle
, but possibly fictional - in which he exempted a farmer from taxation because of the particular barrenness of his plot. Peisistratus' sons Hippias
, on the other hand, were not such able rulers and when the disaffected aristocrats Harmodios and Aristogeiton slew Hipparchus, Hippias' rule quickly became oppressive, resulting in the expulsion of the Peisistratids in 510
The tyrannies of Sicily came about due to similar causes, but here the threat of Carthaginian
attack prolonged tyranny, facilitating the rise of military leaders with the people united behind them. Such Sicilian tyrants as Gelo
, Hiero I
, Hiero II
, Dionysius the Elder
, and Dionysius the Younger
maintained lavish courts and became patrons of culture.
Roman historians like Suetonius
often spoke of "tyranny" in opposition to "liberty". Tyranny was associated with imperial rule and those rulers who usurped too much authority from the Roman Senate. Those who were advocates of "liberty" tended to be pro-Republic and pro-Senate. For instance, regarding Julius Caesar
and his assassins, Suetonius wrote:
- Therefore the plots which had previously been formed separately, often by groups of two or three, were united in a general conspiracy, since even the populace no longer were pleased with present conditions, but both secretly and openly rebelled at his tyranny and cried out for defenders of their liberty.
In the arts
, as well as the Roman Republicans
, became generally quite wary of anyone seeking to implement a popular coup. Shakespeare
portrays the struggle of one such anti-tyrannical Roman, Marcus Junius Brutus
, in his play Julius Caesar
- Tyrant by Jona Lendering at livius.org.