Peisistratus the Athenian Tyrant

The idea of tyranny today is of a negative government based on one person who often abuses power and people. A recent example of tyranny in the modern sense would be Saddam Hussein. This modern view is at odds to the ancient perspective of tyranny. A tyrant was a person who by various means elevated themselves to a position of power. They usually did this by finding favour with the people, which meant treating the masses well.

Peisistratos (also known as Pisistratos or Peisistratus) was a tyrant of Athens during the 6th century BC. He ruled c550-520 BC although this was not a continuous rule. Peisistratos was the son of Hippokrates (Hippocrates) and according to Herodotos (Herodotus) he was advised by the Spartan Chilon to never marry and have children. He ignored this advice and later Peisistratos was born.

Athens during the 6th century BC was a split city. The Alkmaeonid (Alcmaeonid) family had great influence over the coastal parts of Attica and Megakles (Megacles) the son of Alkmaeon led the coastal inhabitants against their rivals the inland inhabitants led by Lykourgos (Lycourgus). The coastal faction wanted an oligarchy (rule of the few over the many), while the inland factions wanted a more moderate system of government. Peisistratos understood that such strife could lead to a power vacuum that he could fill. He devised a new faction of the Attic population called the Hyperakrioi (the men over the hills). He used deception and favourable treatment towards the poor of society to gain power. He pretended that he had been attacked by his enemies and that they might be violent towards the city. His good works towards his followers, combined with his previous military service for Athens convinced the rest of the Athenians that he should be protected from further harm. They armed themselves and took him up to the Acropolis. As soon as he reached the Acropolis he assumed power of the city. Herodotos says that this initial period of Peistratos’ rule as continuing the traditions and laws of the Athens and treating her citizens with respect.

This period came abruptly to an end when the two factions under Lykourgos and Megakles came together to expel him from the city. Soon after, infighting and unrest drove Megakles to ask Peistratos for support. He promised Peisistratos to restore him to power as long as he married the daughter of Megakles. Peisistratos agreed to Megakles’ offer, however to ensure that his rule was welcomed he devised a plan to win over the Athenians. He went to the village of Paeania and recruited a girl known a Phye. She was nearly six foot tall and was dressed as Athene in armour and helmet. He then drove into Athens on a chariot with Phyle at his side. The Athenians believed that Athene herself was endorsing the rule of Peisistratos and welcomed him into the city of Athens. He then married the daughter of Megakles, however he refused to sleep with her in the normal way and thus stop her having any children. At first nothing was said about this, however Megakles was soon informed by his daughter of Peisistratos’ deception. Megakles reunited with his political enemies to determined to overthrow Peisistratos.

This time, the tyant left Athens and went to the island of Eretria to consult with his two older sons Hippias and Hipparchos (Hipparchus). They spent time collecting money and forces from all towns that they had influence over, including Thebes and Naxos under the authority of Lygdamis, as well as mercenaries from Argos. When everything was ready, Peisistratos marched on Athens. He attacked Marathon and won many followers there. His army finally came face to face with the Athenian army at the temple of Athene Pallenis. He then heard a prophecy from the prophet Amphilytos (Amphilytos). The prophecy went as follows:

The net is cast and the meshes of it are cast wide,

In the moonlit night the tunnels will come darting through the sea.

Peisistratos advanced towards Athens and attacked the city while the inhabitants were enjoying their midday siesta. Many Athenians fled, however Peisistratos caught up with those fleeing the city and managed to persuade them to return to the city. Peisistratos now had a firm foundation to base his power. The Almaeonids fled the city and Peisistratos recruited a bodyguard. From this time on, Peisistratos would remain the tyrant of Athens until his death. His sons would take on the family tyranny that would end with their overthrow by the tyrant slayers Harmodius and Aristogeiton at the end of the 6th century BC.

Source by Jane Sproston