Did The People Of Greece Prefer Benevolent Dictatorship?

Did The People Of Greece Prefer Benevolent Dictatorship?

The notion of a people, let alone the civilisation that created democracy itself, being in favour of authoritarianism can be quite a perplexing proposition to modern society. This leaning towards authoritarianism is dependent on the world-view of the demos, so that if the military, social or political situation became critical, the Ancient Greeks were willing to sacrifice their democracy if it guaranteed stability in their society. My key argument is that the dynamics of cause and effect, within the framework of different governments, came about according to the context and contingencies of the time.[1] In order to develop my argument this essay will have three main section beginning with a broad view, the place of tyranny in the political cycle and a look at the cause and effect relationship of tyranny in political life. Firstly, in order to understand how the enlightened and democratic Greeks could live with tyranny I will examine the philosophies and worldviews of the time. Secondly, I will review how tyranny became an acceptable option for the Greek population to adopt. Finally, in order to show this ideology affected society, I will be using the example of 6th century Athens, where Solonian Democracy was transformed into a tyrannical regime.


The Greek Worldview


Philosophy and ideas of governance were paramount to the Greek mindset. Ideas of a ‘Just Society’ and a ‘the Good Life’ were often thought about and debated among the intellectuals of the day. While similar ideas are still important today the worldview of Ancient Greece was radically different from the Western world of today. The emphasis on this is in response to the tendency within academia to retrospectively project modern values and interpretations onto Classical and Hellenic Greece. The worldview of the Greeks was not ‘good versus evil’ but on the ultimate preservation of ‘balance’ and ‘order’. In Greek theology it was the balance between the Olympian religion and the Orphic religion. [2] In the political realm, as articulated in Aristotle’s Politics, where he said that every state is a community and is established with the view to do ‘good’. If all the citizens of a Polis aimed at doing good, the political community which is the highest of all which embraces all, would be able to achieve the greatest good.[3] What this passage indicates is the Greeks viewed socio-political unity or ‘order’, as the highest ideal, as it will ensure ‘the Good Life’. However, this Aristotelian ‘good’ does not fall within the binary of ‘good and evil’, but it is a ‘good’ in relationship to harmony, virtue, the aesthetic and sublime, both in the citizen and the Polis itself. In order to understand the cause and effect of tyranny, some time should be spent on looking at its relationship to other forms of governance. It was Plato who discussed the different possible forms of governance in The Republic, which was being a part of a cycle with each form evolving or devolving into the next. He asserted that the ultimate five types of regimes that are available to a People: Aristocracy, Timocracy Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny[4]. Although all are important to understand, as they are all inter-related to some extent, for the purposes of this essay, the analysis will focus on the last two forms of Government. The concept of democracy being a revolutionary force, projected on the psyche of an individual in the Polis can never be overestimated. Political emancipation was established in Athens, where it became axiomatic that one citizen was just as worthy than another, thus capable of holding office. Although democratic-idealism was realized, there were exemptions to the rule. Specialised functions such as finance, those responsible for water supply and high military were not open to the ‘average’ citizen[5]. It was Thucydides who praised Athenian demokratia during Periklles’ funeral oration:


“[Our constitution] has the name democracy (demokratia) because government is in the hands not of the few but of the majority. In private disputes all are equal before the law (pasi to ison); and when it comes to esteem in public affairs, a man is preferred according to his own reputation for something, not, as a whole, just turn and turn about, but for excel- lence, and even in poverty no man is debarred by obscurity of reputation so long as he has in him to do some good service to the state. Freedom (eleutheros) is a feature of our public life; and as for suspicion of one another in our daily private pursuits, we do not frown on our neighbor if he behaves to please himself or set our faces in those expressions of disapproval that are so disagreeable, however harmless[6]


It is interesting to note that in Plato’s schema Tyranny follows Democracy, as the Tyrannical Man arises from ashes of a failed democracy. Like his predecessor, he is born from excess, but unlike the Democratic Man who is conceived due to the excess of wealth, the Tyrant is created from the excess of freedom[7]. When Democracy is corrupted, it remodels itself into anarchy[8]. This observation finds validity in the works of Aristotle, where he states in Politics that it was when aristocracies become overbearing, did the demos rebel.[9] Once this occurs, a tyrant is allowed to come to power as a means to re-establish ‘order’ once again.


The Rise and Establishment of Tyranny


Aristotle actually categorized the causes that saw to the ascension of tyrannies and identified four types: the emergence of a demagogue, abuse of the powers of a regular office by an ambitious incumbent, deterioration of traditional kingship and the negation of time-honoured values or the autonomy of an individual who was previously beholden to an oligarchy. He concluded that a tyrant begins as a leader of a popular uprising against the elite of the day[10].


It was in the Archaic period of the Old Greece, which saw the advancement of Hellenism that tyranny arrived as a legitimate force within Greek politics. Since Greece had recovered from the implosion of the previous Mycenaean civilization and therefore could participate in international trade.[11] Thucydides linked the rise of tyrants with the growth of prosperity throughout the developing commercial areas.[12] This theory was also supported by Aristotle, assigned his students to collect political-historical data that would explain the reasons for democratic breakdown. The evidence they gathered suggested that conflict between and within classes grew into complete splits. The greatest splits were between virtue and depravity and then between wealth and poverty[13]. The splitting of the ‘Order’ saw the rise of interest groups based on distinctions, which made these groups seek more than their fair share.[14] The two main types of government were oligarchy and democracy. He saw them both as deviant regimes, both inspired to only further their interests[15]. The effect of a tyranny on society did not essentially mean oppression. In fact, the people seems to have not problem abandoning the democratic principal. It would appear to be a ‘temporary tyranny by consent’ as dictatorship was tolerated as it managed to improve the society of the populace[16]. Due to the fact that Tyrants came to power it during an economic prosperous period, he had the opportunity to invest in public works and infrastructure, such as harbours and water supplies, policies to reduce taxation and polices to increase property rights.[17] An unforseen development of tyranny was, ironically, the development of democracy. By supporting a tyrant to see the enactment of popular reforms, the people began to realize, or at least remember, their political potential, and when the tyrant himself became ‘overbearing’, the demos had no conflict of conscious in overthrowing their ruler if need be. It appears that Greek politics functioned under a unified Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy. It was the cause and effect of Aristotle that functioned within the Platonic framework of transforming political systems. This means in order to achieve ‘the Good Life’, Greek demos held no particular form of government to be the ultimate and easily shifted their support to whichever system available, once the circumstances demanded it. I will now pursue this contention by analysing the period of time which saw Athens discard democracy for tyranny, only to later readopt the democratic principal once again.


An Athenian Tyrant: The Will of the People Fulfilled?


The best example of a people supporting the overthrow of a democratic government in favor of tyrannical governance can be found during Athens in 546 B.C. It was this period of time that the causes and effects actually transpired, as described above.


The causes of Athenian Tyranny can be traced to the fact that citizens had fallen into debt bondage, with many more of the dependent farmers, the Hektemoroi, being reduced to servitude. This created conflict between the land-owning aristocrats and the smallholders, along with infighting among the elite, aggravated the situation to the point of civil war[18]. It was the shadow of tyranny that made the aristocracy turn to the lawmaker Solon, who was tasked to the reestablish of Order. The Aristocrats had reason to fear the possibility of a Tyrant rising to power, as a number of Poleis during this period had adopted such a form of government such as Argos, Corinth and Megara[19]. Although Solon believed that the demos should not be trodden underfoot and merited recognition, he was not a democrat or an oligarch. In many eyes he was a traditional constitutionalist[20]. Being an Athenian patriot, he didn’t want the laws to be ‘Solon’s code’, but ‘The Code’[21]. He tried to steer a middle course between the demands of the rich to preserve their financial advantages and the call of the poor to redistribute land[22].


According to his view, the role of government was to be a servant of its people, not their master.[23] For instance he removed the shackles of obligations from farms whose ownership had become encumbered yet avoided redistributing any land. He liberated Athenian slaves and welcomed them back into society. In trying to establish ‘balance’ within society, he ranked male citizens into four classes according to their income. He constructed a constitution that had every section of society in its ‘rightful’ place, yet flexible enough to conform to changing circumstances[24].


As Plato warned Athenian democracy eventually became corrupted, and strife among the aristocrats developed as they became become ‘overbearing’. It was only thirty-four years since Solon re-established democracy, yet the people were already longing for a system to restore order. It was at this point in time, the aristocrat Pisistratus offered himself as tyrant to assist the upper class and the poor to see a more just society[25]. By 546 B.C. he managed to break the grip of the establishment and began to enact reforms such as making funds available to assist peasants acquire farm equipment create employment by building roads and major public building projects, such as a great Temple of Zeus and foundations to increase the supply of drinking water. These reforms where funded by an imposed a tax on agricultural production. He even arranged judicial officers to travel to the outlying villages of Attica to hear cases, thus saving farmers the trouble of traveling to the urban centre of the polis located in Athens. Not even the realm of culture was left untouched by his influence, as Athenian pottery began to be exported. Strangely, the Greek people, much like the Germany people during the 20th Century, had no qualms living under a Tyranny, but it was only when the office-holder overreached his authority and became despotic did the people rebel.


It was under the Tyrant Hippias, Pisistratus’s son, that the Athenians rediscovered their democratic power and saw to his overthrow. Having assumed power in 527 B.C. he quickly proved that he did not possess his fathers sense of nation building. He governed using the principals of nepotism and cronyism, yet intelligent enough to pacify the demos by allowing political rivals to hold office[26].


It would seem that Plato was inaccurate in simply stating that one system devolves into another. It is my impression that the Greek World did not believe in causality. What I mean by this, it’s that their behaviour did not function in a lineal way, as perhaps a modern world-view would presume. It is because of this unpredictable permutations rather than a linear progression that a Greek government could devolve from democracy to tyranny, only to reclaim democracy again or even convert to an oligarchy. This is supported by my claim that the Polis responded to the circumstances and contingencies of their time.




In conclusion, tyranny within the context of Ancient Greece was not necessarily intolerable. Provided that the tyrant acted as an enlightened despot, meaning the socio-economic and political problems of the time were remedied and therefore order and stability was maintained, the Greek people had no problem with living under a tyrant. However as seen within the Athenian case study, if the Tyrant became dictatorial, the Greek people had no qualms of overthrowing him and readopt democracy. If the Tyrant remembered his duties and acted accordingly, the demos were content to tolerate tyranny.


Bibliography – 


Articles in Refereed Journals


Cleary, J, John. “Aristotle’s Politics.” The Classical Review 50, no.2 (2000): 424-426.


Kalyvas, Andreas. “The Tyranny of Dictatorship: When the Greek Tyrant Met the Roman Dictator.” Political Theory 35, no.4 (2007): 412-442.


Mogens Herman Hansen. “The Tradition of The Athenian Democracy A.D. 1750-1990.” Greece & Rome 39, no. 1 (1992): 14-30. Lecture


Deligianni, Efrosini. “Creation myths: the ‘first generation of gods”: Lecture 3,” ARTS 2542: Gods, Heroines and Heroes, (Sydney, University of NSW, January 29, 2014). In-Class Lecture.


Primary Sources


Aristotle, Politics, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, United Kingdom.


Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics, Penguin Group, United Kingdom.


Reliable Online Resources


Perseus Digital Library.www.perseus.tufts.edu.


Secondary Sources


Fleck, R, How Tyranny Paved the Way to Wealth and Democracy: The Democratic Transition in Ancient Greece, Clemson University, 2012.


Forrest, G, W (1966) The Emergence of Greek Democracy, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, United Kingdom


Osborne, R (2000) Classical Greece, Oxford University Press, United States




Kagan, D (2010) The Problems in the History of Ancient Greece, Prentice Hall, United States


[1] I draw this opinion from state religion of the time, which was in the form of Zeus, who was maniacal, captious and tyrannical.

[2] Efrosini Deligianni, “Creation myths: the ‘first generation of gods”: Lecture 3,” ARTS 2542: Gods, Heroines and Heroes, (Sydney, University of NSW, January 29, 2014). In-Class Lecture

[3]Aristotle 1.1.1a: Politics.

[4]Plato. 9.1.4a: The Republic.

[5] John J, Cleary, “Aristotle’s Politics.” The Classical Review 50, no.2 (2000): 509.

[6] Mogens Herman Hansen, “The Tradition of The Athenian Democracy A.D. 1750-1990.” Greece & Rome 39, no. 1 (1992): 15.

[7]Plato. 8.9.2c: The Republic.

[8]Plato. 8.9.1e: The Republic.

[9] Robin Osborne, Classical Greece (United States, Oxford University Press, 2000), 120.

[10]Aristotle iv.10.1295a Politics.

[11] Robert FleckHow Tyranny Paved the Way to Wealth and Democracy: The Democratic Transition in Ancient Greece (Montana State University, 2012), 4. [

12] Robert FleckHow Tyranny Paved the Way to Wealth and Democracy: The Democratic Transition in Ancient Greece (Montana State University, 2012), 46.

[13] Robin Osborne, Classical Greece (United States, Oxford University Press, 2000), 120.

[14] Osborne, Classical Greece, 120.

[15] Osborne, Classical Greece, 121.

[16] Andreas Kalyvas, “They Tyranny of Dictatorship: When the Greek Tyrant Met the Roman Dictator,” Political Theory 35, no.4 (2007): 412-422.

[17] Robert FleckHow Tyranny Paved the Way to Wealth and Democracy: The Democratic Transition in Ancient Greece (Montana State University, 2012), 24.

[18] Donald Kagan, The Problems in the History of Ancient Greece (United States, Prentice Hall, 2010), 95.

[19] Kagan, The Problems in the History of Ancient Greece, 95.

[20] W.G.Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy (United Kingdom, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966), 175.

[21] Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 175.

[22] Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 176.

[23] The Reforms of Solon, in the Perseus Digital Library, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0009:chapter=6&highlight=solon(accessed May 16, 2014).

[24] Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 175.

[25] Tyranny at Athens,in the Perseus Digital Library, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0009:chapter=6&highlight=solon(accessed May 16, 2014).

[26] Tyranny at Athens,in the Perseus Digital Library,https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0009%3Achapter%3D6%3Asection%3D28(accessed May 16, 2014).