DELETE ME THE PHILOSOPHIC UNDERPINNINGS OF TYRANNY: A LOOK AT THE PHILOSOPHY OF TYRANNY THROUGH A STUDY OF PEISISTRATID RULE
AMERICAN MILITARY UNIVERSITY
THE PHILISOPHIC UNDERPINNINGS OF TYRANNY:
A LOOK AT THE PHILOSOPHY OF TYRANNY THROUGH A STUDY OF PEISISTRATID RULE
HS 502: THE GREEK CIVILIZATION
PROFESSOR JOSEPH SCALZO
SEAN P. MCBRIDE
27 JULY 2008
Though tyranny was indisputably a seminal stage for the Greek poleis, this political
development remains deeply mysterious. Few accounts from the Archaic Age survive, making research
into Greek tyranny quite speculative. Despite their conjectural histories, the Greek tyrants have greatly
influenced the development of philosophy and political science through the writings of classical
scholars. Aristotle and Plato's interpretation of tyrants deeply influenced the works of Aquinas, Locke,
Kant, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Madison, Rousseau, Mill, Machiavelli, and Hamilton. This study uses a
variety of western philosophers as lenses to examine the rule of the most-famous and best-documented
ancient Greek tyranny: Peisistratid rule in Athens. The purpose of this study is to determine the degree
that Peisistratus and Hippias can be considered tyrants in the western philosophic sense, and to
determine the accuracy of the philosophic archetypes of tyrants when compared to a historic tyrant.
The result of this analysis suggests that Peisistratus and his son Hippias (prior to the assassination of
Hipparchus) cannot be considered tyrants. The popular support they enjoyed, their respect for
preexisting law, their benevolent rule, and their social reforms distinguish them from the various
philosophical archetypes of a tyrant. This analysis will use the philosophic lenses of Kant, Rousseau,
Hobbes, and Mill to examine Peisistratid rule until the assassination of Hipparchus, and the lenses of
Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Montesquieu, Madison, Hamilton, and Machiavelli to examine
Peisistratid rule thereafter.
Archaic Greece remains one of the most elusive periods for historians. Few sources have
survived the intense stasis of that era, forcing modern historians to rely on classical accounts.
Unfortunately, these sources offer a variety of scholastic problems. The weltanschauung of the
classical Greeks differed tremendously from that of their archaic ancestors. While the archaic Greeks
had complex views of their ruling tyrants, classical Greeks viewed tyrants as the evil leaders of
tyrannicide legends. Classical Athenians had already confused and forgotten much of the history of the
Peisistratid tyranny due to the popularity of the non-historical tyrannicide legend of Aristogiton and
Harmodius.1 Herodotus and Thucydides chided the Athenians for ignorance of their tyrants and sought
to correct the most egregious historical errors in the public consciousness.
The accounts of Herodotus and Thucydides are critical to the study of the Peisistratid tyranny
because they had far greater access to historical material than their contemporaries or successors. The
precise sources of these classical scholars have been greatly disputed. The ancient historian Hermippus
argued that Thucydides was actually related to the Peisistratid family, while some modern scholars
believe that Thucydides received information from the history of the rival Philaidae family.2
Herodotus was born a Persian subject, and likely had access to first-hand accounts or witnesses of the
Peisistratid family's exile in Persia. His time spent with foreign cultures exposed him to autocratic
forms of government, which helped him to compose a more realistic treatise on Athenian tyranny.
Other accounts of the Peisistratid tyranny were composed much later than those of Herodotus or
Thucydides, making their accounts less trustworthy. Barthold Niebuhr described Peisistratid
historiography as “unhistorical with regards to the minute narratives, but more correct in the indefinite
statements.”3 Niebuhr's statement reflects the necessity of historians to be highly skeptical of their
sources, seeking to corroborate a variety of classical accounts to establish the facts and developments
of the Peisistratid tyranny.
A superficial reading of classical philosophers yields the judgment of tyranny as the most
ineffective and corrupt form of government. This conclusion is heavily based on the biased accounts of
Aristotle, Plato, and their contemporaries. None of these philosophers personally experienced tyranny,
but relied on the biased tyrannicide legends to develop their frameworks. It is therefore critical to
balance classical theories against later philosophers (many of whom lived under autocrats) to gain a
1 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.1
2 George Grote, History of Greece (London: John Murray, 1847), 145.
Percy Neville Ure, The Origin of Tyranny (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922), 33.
3 Barthold G. Niebuhr, Lectures on Ancient History (London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly, 1852), 291
more complete view of the nature of tyranny.
Aristotle and Plato did not view all autocrats as equal, defining a 'king' as good because he rules
for the welfare of his subjects, and a 'tyrant' as bad because he rules for his own benefit.4 Additionally,
they considered a tyrant recognizable by his violation of existing laws and rule through personal fiat.
These qualifications were not considered exclusive of one another, meaning that absolute autocrats that
break existing law are by definition tyrants that ignore the welfare of their subjects. Aristotle and Plato
ignored the possibility of a ruler that both violates existing laws and supports the welfare of his
subjects, hereafter referred to as a benevolent tyrant. They also ignored the possibility of a ruler that
governs for his own benefit within the letter of the law, hereafter referred to as an oppressive king. By
avoiding these possibilities, Aristotle and Plato never considered whether the ends of benevolent rule
could justify the means of illegal usurpation of power. Though never answered outright, Aristotle
suggests the affirmative through his assertion that kings rule over, and are protected by, voluntary
subjects, while tyrants must protect themselves from their own subjects.5 This assessment empowers
the subjects as the ultimate judge of whether their autocrats are tyrants or monarchs. As the subjects'
opinions of their autocrat can change over time, autocrats that originally were considered tyrants due to
their usurpation of power could become monarchs by winning the support of their subjects. Some
autocrats usurped power as popular social reformers against corrupt laws or institutions, and therefore
could not be considered tyrants by this definition. Plato refuted the idea of an unlawful tyrant with a
popular mandate by charging that the people “can never be made to believe that any one can be worthy
of such authority.”6 This bold statement neglects historical examples such as the Athenians' voluntary
gift of absolute rule to Solon in order to redesign the constitution. Though not reflected by Aristotle or
Plato, many Greeks supported the rise of tyrants as the only way “the best laws and the best
4 Plato, Statesman, 1.276. Aristotle, Politics, 4.10.20
5 Plato, Laws, 3.697. Aristotle, Politics, 4.10.20
6 Plato, Statesman, 3.587. Aristotle, Politics, 4.10.20
constitution come into being.”7
Locke, Kant, and Montesquieu defined tyrants as rulers that held absolute power. Montesquieu
stated this definition as “a single person direct[ing] everything by his own will and caprice.”8 John
Locke expanded this concept to any form of government that used “absolute arbitrary power” to
“impoverish harass, or subdue” its subjects.9 Kant distinguished autocrats that monopolized all power
as tyrants, and those that merely retained the highest state office as kings.10 Though Locke, Kant, and
Montesquieu did not directly define tyrannical rule as malevolent, they clearly shared the assumption
of Lord Acton that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unlike classical conceptions, this new
definition did not rely on imprecise judgments of intent or legality, instead basing the classification on
the more demonstrable factor of concentration of power.
Over time, John Locke's expansion of tyranny to any absolute form of government gained
recognition. This thought greatly influenced Madison's Federalist Papers, which charged that “the
accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a
few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very
definition of tyranny.”11 The quintessence of tyrannic democracy was the Athenian Assembly due to
its absolute and unrestrained power in judicial and legislative affairs.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered the most accurate definition of tyranny to lay in the original
meaning and usage of the word by ancient Greeks. He disapproved of Aristotle's definition of tyrants
as bad monarchs and kings as good monarchs, charging that this would mean that “from the very
beginning of the world, there has not yet been a single king.”12 He instead applied it “indifferently to
7 Plato, Laws, 3.697
8 Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 2.1.
9 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 18.201
10 Immanuel Kant, The Science of Right, 51.
11 James Madison, The Federalist, 47.
12 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, 3.29.
good and bad princes whose authority was not legitimate.”13 Thus Rousseau viewed the legality of
obtaining power as the chief determination of tyranny, making any individual or body that illegally
usurps power a tyrant.
Thomas Hobbes considered the connotations associated with the word 'tyranny' to be empty
rhetoric that developed from Greek and Roman foolishness. He defined 'tyranny' as a synonym for the
word 'sovereignty' because he believed that sovereignty must be absolute to be effective. Because life
in a Hobbesian state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” the lack of absolute
sovereignty would lead to “perpetual war of every man against his neighbor.”14 Hobbes considered
hatred of tyranny the result of individuals' unwillingness to sacrifice their selfish interests for the good
of the commonwealth, therefore classifying it as treasonous and self-destructive.
John Stuart Mill considered tyranny justifiable if it acts to prepare a people for freedom. He
accepted that certain conditions make tyranny “the best mode of government for training the people in
what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization.”15 Regarding tyranny, the
ends of a people prepared for self-rule therefore justified whatever means necessary. The archetype of
this type of rule was Solon, who voluntarily accepted absolute power to solve Athens' political
gridlock, and upon its solution relinquished power back to the sovereign body.
Despite the variety of definitions of tyranny, philosophers have universally agreed on the
methods tyrants use to maintain their rule. Hamilton's charge that unwarranted searches and seizures,
ex post facto crimes, and the arrest and punishment of men without trial are the “most formidable
instruments of tyranny” reflected similar thoughts from Plato.16 Both Machiavelli and Plato noticed
that tyrants typically surround themselves by foreign mercenaries, which seems to agree with John
13 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, 3.10.
14 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 20.18.
15 John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 18.11
16 Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 84.
Locke's description of tyrants as at war with their subjects. Machiavelli's The Prince advised tyrants to
maintain power by using “the methods of the lion and the fox.”17 Aristotle similarly noted that most
tyrants kill or humble all competition, burden their subjects with excessive taxes, and use influence and
rewards to get individuals to inform and turn on each other.18 The fact that all of these scholars cited
force as the key to maintaining tyrannic rule conveys that a tyranny cannot remain indefinitely popular.
Eventually all tyrants must decide to abdicate or use harsher unpopular means to enforce their will.
Solon's drastic reforms and sudden departure heightened the destructive factionalism between
the merchants, the aristocrats, and the disorganized poor caught between them. No party was satisfied
by the Solonic reforms, and the poor were disappointed when Solon refused to become tyrant and rule
in their interests. Without Solon to overcome the various factions, Athenian political life degenerated
into anarchia and the failed attempt of the Archon Damasias to make himself tyrant.19
Peisistratus rose to power by creating a third faction composed of rustic farmers, thetes,
foreigners, and miners to overcome the competing aristocratic and merchant factions. His credibility
was based on his fame as a successful general, his ancestral ties to the former Athenian kings, and his
generosity to the poor.20 Having grown up at Marathon, Peisistratus had early exposure to the plights
of the poor and rustic farmers of that region, and gradually gained a reputation as a philanthropist and
campaigner for social justice.21 Once his supporters were thoroughly organized, Peisistratus showed
the Assembly self-inflicted wounds in order to support his charge that his enemies had attempted to kill
him. To protect his life, the Assembly authorized him to muster a bodyguard.22 While gathering his
force of fifty 'club men,' Peisistratus likely asked his supporters to protect his life, and their interests, by
17 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 19.16.
18 Aristotle, Politics, 5.11.15.
19 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 13.
20 Herodotus, Histories, 1.65.
21 Thomas Keightly, The History of Greece (New York: Leavitt, Trow, and Company, 1848), 70.
Evelyn Abbott, A History of Greece: Part I (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1888), 450.
22 Herodotus, Histories, 1.59. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 14. Plutarch, Solon, 65.
helping him seize the acropolis. The 'bodyguard' likely burgeoned beyond fifty men and armed heavily
before seizing the acropolis to gain Peisistratus de facto control of Athens.
Peisistratus allowed the Solonic constitution to continue normally with him as an unofficial
executive. After five years, a coalition of aristocrats and merchants drove him from the city, but
without the tyrant, factionalism gradually reasserted itself, and the coalition broke down.23 Megacles,
the leader of the merchants, asked Peisistratus to return as tyrant on the condition of marrying his
daughter. Peisistratus agreed to the marriage, but secretly refused consummation because he had grown
children and believed that his new wife's family was cursed by the gods.24 This news caused Megacles
to recreate the alliance with Lycurgos, the leader of the aristocrats to banish his son-in-law. Peisistratus
fled Attica with his sons and founded a country in the Thracian country of Rhaecelus. He gained
control of the mines near Mt. Pangaeus, and used the wealth to consolidate his political connections
and hire mercenary bands.25 After a ten year exile, he combined an army of mercenaries and foreign
allies with his local supporters at Marathon, and defeated the opposing Athenians in the Battle of
Pallene.26 His subsequent rule was temperate and humane, and his system of reforms gradually
strengthened and unified the polis. Peisistratus encouraged religion, education, and the arts among
poor citizens with the aim of fostering a more egalitarian society. He died peacefully and politically
secure, and was succeeded by his son Hippias.
After years of benevolent rule under Hippias, a quarrel between Hipparchus (brother of
Hippias) and some private citizens led to an assassination attempt on the Peisistratid brothers. Hippias
survived, but the murder of his brother deeply changed his political outlook. This traumatic event
coincided with several external threats to Athens, including the loss of important mines to the Persians,
23 Herodotus, Histories, 1.60. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 14.
24 Herodotus, Histories, 1.61.
25 Herodotus, Histories, 1.61. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 15.
26 Herodotus, Histories, 1.63. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 15.
and the attempted return of the exiled Alcmaeonid family by violent means.27 Hippias became much
harsher, torturing and executing many Athenians, and generally increasing the financial burdens on the
polis. He amassed wealth, made foreign contacts, ensured the loyalty of the colony of Sigeum under
his other brother, and began to build a fortress along the sea.
After failing militarily, the Alcmaeonids bribed Delphi to have the priestess command the
Spartans to end the Peisistratid tyranny.28 The first Spartan expedition was wiped out by Hippias and
his allies, but the second Spartan force drove Hippias into the Acropolis. He attempted to sneak his
children out of the country, but they were caught by the Spartans, driving Hippias to agree to evacuate
within five days.29 Hippias used his contacts to seek refuge in Persia, whose help he hoped to use to
reestablish Peisistratid rule. Years later, after persuading Darius to invade Athens, Hippias
accompanied the Persian expedition to Marathon.30
Rousseau applied the label of tyrant “indifferently to good and bad princes whose authority was
not legitimate.”31 Therefore, one must establish whether Peisistratus' authority was legitimate to
determine whether he would qualify as a tyrant. It is indisputable that Peisistratus seized power in
violation of existing laws. Peisistratus never was the de jure ruler of Athens, but executed de facto
control through his supporters, his foreign alliances, and his mercenary army. Though this extra-
governmental basis of power would definitely have led Rousseau to define him as a tyrant, Rousseau's
concept of the Social Contract complicates the matter. The Social Contract implies that the people hold
the sovereignty of the state, and unlike the aristocrats or merchants who justified their authority through
their heritage or wealth, Peisistratus justified his power through his support of poor Athenians. The fact
that he seized power easily three times, and that it required a union of aristocrats and merchants to
27 Herodotus, Histories, 1.62. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 19.
28 Herodotus, Histories, 1.63. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 19.
29 Herodotus, Histories, 1.64. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 19.
30 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.19.
31 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, 3.10.
force him from the acropolis, speaks to the support he received from the Athenians.32 Aristotle wrote
that Peisistratus received the support of “the majority alike of the upper class and of the people.”33 If
the Athenian people were indeed sovereign, then the Solonic constitution was insufficiently democratic.
A new meritocracy joined the old aristocracy, but this still excluded the vast majority of the Athenians.
By usurping power as a social reformer, and ruling benevolently to make Athens more egalitarian,
Peisistratus was a far better expression of the Athenians' sovereignty than their previous rulers.
Locke, Kant, and Montesquieu considered the absolute concentration of power as the defining
characteristic of tyrants. Locke claimed that a tyrant executes “absolute arbitrary power.” 34
Montesquieu defined a tyrant as “a single person direct[ing] everything by his own will and caprice.”35
One must therefore examine Peisistratus' style of rule to determine if Locke, Kant, and Montesquieu
would have considered him a tyrant. Kant's differentiation between autocrats that restrict themselves to
the highest political office (allowing other officials political power) and those that monopolize all
political power is central to this examination.
The ancient authors described Peisistratus as mild and respectful of the Solonic constitution.
Herodotus wrote that he maintained the “existing magistrates” and the “ancient laws,” and
“administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established.”36
Thucydides wrote that Peisistratus and Hippias left the city “in full enjoyment of its existing laws,
except that care was always taken to have the offices in the hands of some one of the family.”37
Aristotle described his rule as “more like a constitutional government than the rule of a tyrant,” noting
that he observed the law and did not give himself “any exceptional privileges.”38 Aristotle and
32 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 16.
33 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 16.
34 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 18.201
35 Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 2.1.
36 Herodotus, Histories, 1.59.
37 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.19.
38 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 16.
Plutarch described that when Peisistratus was accused of murder before the Areopagus, he peacefully
appeared in person to make his defense.39 These descriptions demonstrate that Peisistratid rule was
not absolute. By maintaining existing magistrates, Peisistratus allowed other public officials to
continue to execute the government under his paternal guidance. He merely served as an unofficial
executive alongside the constitutional legislative and judicial bodies. By maintaining existing laws,
Peisistratus established that all Athenians were subject to the supremacy of the law. His appearance at
the Areopagus to defend himself as a private citizen showed that even the tyrant was not above the law
or institutional checks on his power. Peisistratus therefore did not meet Locke or Montesquieu's
qualification of absolute arbitrary power, but Kant's addendum of autocrats that hold the highest office
without monopolizing power.
The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill used the term tyranny in a broader capacity than his
contemporaries. He redefined tyranny as anything that infringed on individual liberty, creating new
varieties such as social tyranny and tyranny of the majority. Under this high standard, nearly all
governments throughout history would have been tyrannical. Mill did not consider these governments
universally odious. He felt they were justified if they trained “the people in what is specifically
wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization.”40 To determine whether Peisistratid rule was
justified, one must therefore examine how it prepared its subjects for democratic rule. Many historians
have considered the Athenian tyranny an essential step towards democracy. Niebuhr claimed
Peisistratid rule was as beneficial for Athens as Solon's laws, and likened the Athenian tyranny to
“placing thorn bushes around young trees to protect them against ill-usage while they are acquiring
strength.”41 This analogy argues that Peisistratid rule protected Athens from the ill-usage of
destructive stasis or war, and helped the polis acquire economic, cultural, political, and international
39 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 16. Plutarch, Solon, 68.
40 John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 18.11
41 Barthold G. Niebuhr, Lectures on Ancient History (London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly, 1852), 278.
Peisistratus strove to protect Athens from internal stasis and external threats. As the de facto
ruler, he forced the various political factions to acknowledge the Solonic laws as supreme. He also
insulated Athens from foreign threats with a conservative foreign policy of close relations with the
ideologically-friendly tyrants and the power-broker Spartans. As the tyrants were internally focused,
Peisistratus and Hippias' few military operations were Bismarckian, calculated to provide the most gain
at the least risk to internal order. These conservative measures provided Athens the protection it
needed to internally develop.
Peisistratus' economic policy focused on increasing the overall prosperity and equality of
Athens. He increased prosperity by legislating against laziness and loitering in the marketplace.42 He
limited the number of Athenians authorized to live in the city, and established the surplus population as
farmers or laborers. By confiscating the property of the nobility that fled Athens, Peisistratus provided
plots of land to many of the urban poor.43 The remaining workforce was responsible for building an
enormous temple to Olympian Zeus, a series of aqueducts and fountains, vast improvements on the
acropolis, and a gymnasium in the academy.44 Peisistratus increased equality by creating employment
and a rudimentary social system. He provided direct loans, financial aid, and “opened his gardens to
the poor.”45 Peisistratus established a pension for wounded veterans and the families of fallen
soldiers.46 These measures redistributed income by taxing the rich and middle classes to provide
government aid and employment to the poor.
Peisistratus desired to enrich and democratize Athenian cultural life. To these ends, he and his
42 Plutarch, Solon, 31.
43 Sir Charles W. C. Oman, A History of Greece (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1905), 195.
44 Charles H. Weller, Athens and its Monuments (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1913), 32.
45 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 16.
46 George Willis Botsford, The Development of the Greek Constitution (Ithaca: Ginn & Company, 1893), 189.
sons supported artists and intellectuals from throughout the Greek world.47 These scholars were active
at the Peisistratid court, and were especially engaged in the beautification of the acropolis and the
production of an authoritative version of Homer to be read at state festivals.48 Peisistratus sought to
provide poor Athenians greater access to cultural and intellectual events. He established the first public
library in the Greek world to promote literacy and education among the poor.49 He also democratized
cultural life by elevating Dionysus (hitherto associated with poor and rural Athenians) with a new
national festival deeply associated with the arts. This Dionysia was instrumental in the development of
Greek drama. Through these measures, Peisistratus established Athens as the cultural and intellectual
capital of Greece, whose benefits every sector of Athenian society enjoyed.
Peisistratus' foreign policy laid the groundwork for Athens' future empire. He strengthened the
claim of Athens as leader of the Ionians by religiously purifying the holy island of Delos, restoring the
Delian festival, and using the Homeric epics to stress Athens as the mother of Greek Asia Minor.50
Peisistratus' expansion in the Hellespont secured the Athenians grain, and demonstrated the potential
benefits of overseas possessions. Though archaic Athens remained primarily associated with land
power, the addition of overseas territory increased the importance of the Athenian navy, and
Peisistratus' close relations with the Thracians provided timber for the construction of ships.
These accomplishments prove that Peisistratid rule was tremendously beneficial for Athens, but
it has yet to be established whether these measures prepared Athens for democracy, which would justify
Peisistratid rule under the philosophy of Mill. Most of these accomplishments did indeed prove
instrumental to the later Athenian democracy. Peisistratus reduced stasis by weakening the aristocracy
and bourgeoisie, and strengthening the poor and the rural farmers. Universal subjugation to the
47 Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 16.
48 Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 6.17.
49 Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 2.17.
50 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 3.11. Herodotus, Histories, 1.64.
autocrat gradually lessened the differences between factions, and universal subjugation to the law
ingrained respect for the Solonic constitution. Peisistratus' building program provided public forums
that united and educated Athenian citizens, and art and architecture that fostered pride in the polis. The
expansion of Athenian cultural life stimulated moral debate among the Athenian citizen body, indirectly
preparing them to deal with the moral dilemmas they would confront under the democracy. Even the
steps toward empire fostered democracy by providing revenue to subsidize Athenians' participation in
public affairs. These measures assisted the development of democracy, thereby justifying Peisistratid
The classical writers and those most influenced by their philosophies cannot be considered fair
judges of Peisistratid rule prior to the assassination of Hipparchus because their views on tyranny were
a reaction to the oppression of Hippias' last years. However, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas,
Locke, and Montesquieu are appropriate lenses for this final traumatic period. Hippias became
distrustful of his subjects following the assassination of his brother, driving him to rule for his own
benefit (and survival) through personal fiat and without respect for the law.51 During this short period,
Hippias' actions fit the central qualifications of Plato and Aristotle's definition of tyranny. A central
example was Hippias' attempt to appropriate the external staircases of every building and resell them to
their original owners.52 He likely carried out these measures through personal fiat, as the historical
accounts do not mention the Assembly in any capacity, and it is difficult to imagine that a democratic
body would voluntarily vote so irrationally against their interest. Hippias therefore attained the
absolute unquestionable concentration of power that Locke, Kant, and Montesquieu associated with
tyranny. Aquinas' assertion that a tyrant incites discord and sedition, and Locke's charge that a tyrant
impoverishes, harasses, and subdues both accurately characterize the paranoid Hippias, who taxed
51 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.19. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 19.
52 Aristotle, Economics, 2.2.5.
heavily to amass wealth, and banished or killed any citizens he suspected of treason. John Locke's
conception of a tyrant waging war against his subjects appropriately illustrates Hippias' situation, as his
subjects increasingly resented his heavy-handed tactics. Mirroring Hamilton's later charge against the
British, Hippias repressed his subjects through “unwarranted searches and seizures, ex post facto
crimes, and the arrest and punishment of men without trial.”53 His actions were also in line with
Aristotle's classification that tyrants kill or humble all competition, burden their subjects with excessive
taxes, and use rewards and influence to encourage individuals to police themselves.54 Hippias'
methods could also be considered the archetype of Machiavelli's “methods of the lion and fox.”55
This study demonstrates the philosophical and historical complexity of tyranny. In many ways,
the historical accounts of the Peisistratid tyranny challenge the tyrannic archetypes of western
philosophers. Peisistratus lacked the malevolent nature of Plato and Aristotle's conception of tyranny,
and the absolute concentration of power of Locke, Kant, and Montesquieu's conception. This does not
necessarily invalidate these philosophies. Plato and Aristotle lived in an era when the bitter memories
of Hippias' final years remained strong, blinding them to the possibility of a benevolent tyrant. Locke,
Kant, and Montesquieu may not have properly understood Peisistratus, but their generalization that
tyrants hold absolute power was likely correct. Peisistratus' historical circumstances were unique, as he
seized power shortly after Solon's significant overhaul of the Athenian constitution. Other tyrants rose
to power earlier and without any constitutional base, making it likely that their rule was much more
absolute. Rousseau, Mill, and Hobbes would classify Peisistratus as a tyrant, but their definitions lack
the negative connotations of the other philosophers. For Rousseau, Peisistratus was a usurper, but his
popularity among the Athenians was potentially justified by the Social Contract. For Mill, Peisistratus
violated personal liberties, but he was justified by his inadvertent preparation of the Athenians for
53 Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 84.
54 Aristotle, Politics, 5.11.15.
55 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 19.16.
democracy. For Hobbes, Peisistratus was a tyrant, and therefore the best form of sovereignty. Despite
the dramatic differences between these philosophies, the final years of Hippias' rule closely resemble
each philosophic archetype. This is likely because the tyrannicide legends, which heavily influenced
the classical philosophers' view on history, only describe the final repressive years of tyranny. Due to
their limited historical basis, modern readers must read such philosophic views with substantial
skepticism. Despite the speculative nature of the Archaic Age, historians cannot be satisfied by the
archetypes of later philosophers. Though part of a broader historical trend, each tyrant was unique, and
therefore requires separate historical treatment.
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