It took Peisistratos three tries to become tyrant

This past week was the first anniversary of January 6, a day on which a crowd of people stormed the capitol building to disrupt the peaceful transition of power between presidential administrations. Increasingly, evidence is revealing that this was not the spontaneous action of an enthusiastic mob, but the result of coordinated action on the part of people who wanted to undermine American institutions.

I let the anniversary pass without much attention. For one thing, I have been attending a virtual conference while also trying to get my syllabuses together for classes that start on Monday. For another, there have been more incisive reflections than anything that has come to me.

But also, for as terrible as that one day was, I am having trouble balancing in my mind remembrances of January 6 for the events of that day and that the events of that day are a particularly violent reflection of an ongoing crisis. This is not to say that people aren’t talking about the latter. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos profiled the right-wing radio host Dan Bongino who frames his show in terms of information warfare and there is a congressional committee looking into the events of that day—to say nothing of the talk about a so-called “national divorce.” The division also manifested in the contrasting comments made by politicians, including from John Cornyn who thinks that the day shouldn’t be memorialized at all.

My thoughts are complex, perhaps because this is my first time living through an attempt to overthrow the government, constitutionally or otherwise.

The events of this week, combined with the salient reminder in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything that premodern people were, well, people, and my preparations to teach Greek history for the first time in a few years has had me reflecting on coups and coup attempts in ancient Greece.

There are a lot.

Perhaps the most poignant from Classical Athens occurred in 411 BCE when conspirators established a new government and dissolved the democratic institutions (Thucydides 8.65–73), which temporarily created two Athenian power centers when they failed to sway the fleet then at Samos. In fact, a parallel attempt at Samos resulted in the execution of thirty conspirators and the exile of three others (Thucydides 8.73). Seven years later, another coup established the notorious Thirty Tyrants in Athens when the men chosen to revise the constitution unsurprisingly just empowered themselves (Xenophon Hellenica 2.3). Attempts like these allegedly led to the creation of an ancestral law at Athens to disenfranchise those who attempt insurrection. However important these coups are, though, I keep coming back to events from an earlier epoch of Athenian history.

At the risk of making a banal observation, it took Peisistratos three tries to secure his tyranny in Athens.

Peisistratos was born in Athens in the late seventh century BCE, a time when Athens was divided by deep, regional divisions (despite the reforms of Solon). He was prominent enough to become strategos and won popularity in a war with Megara before carving out his own faction, the Diacrioi, from the people who lived in the Northeast of Attica. He hailed from this region and claimed to speak to their grievances, the core of which were that their isolation from the political processes taking place in Athens itself (1.59). Of course, Herodotus says, his real ambition was absolute power.

In 561, Peisistratos made his first attempt at power. The story Herodotus provides is that rushed into the Athenian agora covered with self-inflicted wounds and with a story that he had survived an attack. The Athenians decided he deserved a bodyguard. Peisistratos armed his guards with clubs and proceeded to capture the Acropolis, the easily-defensible ritual precinct that also served as the symbolic center of the city.

Other than Herodotus’ dramatic retelling of the story, the details of this plot are not that unusual. Less than a century earlier, the Olympic victor Cylon had attempted something similar at the urging of his father-in-law, the tyrant of Megara (Thucydides 1.126). Cylon’s followers seized the Acropolis where they were besieged by the other Athenians and killed. The people responsible for killing them in the sacred precinct, the powerful Alcmeonid family, were forced into exile on the grounds that they had committed sacrilege. They were allowed to return during the period of the Solonian reforms a generation later and members of this lineage would provide some of the most famous names in the Athenian democracy. For my part, I am more interested in how Peisistratos initially lost the tyranny, which happened four or five years after he first claimed it (Herodotus 1.60):

Not long thereafter, the partisans of Megacles and Lycurgus collaborated to drive him out. Thus Peisistratos first had Athens and, because his tyranny did not have strong roots, lost it.

μετὰ δὲ οὐ πολλὸν χρόνον τὠυτὸ φρονήσαντες οἵ τε τοῦ Μεγακλέος στασιῶται καὶ οἱ τοῦ Λυκούργου ἐξελαύνουσί μιν. οὕτω μὲν Πεισίστρατος ἔσχε τὸ πρῶτον Ἀθήνας, καὶ τὴν τυραννίδα οὔκω κάρτα ἐρριζωμένην ἔχων ἐπέβαλε.

Herodotus adds a note to say that Peisistratos ruled well during his first stint as tyrant, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure had done nothing to blunt the grievances that had brought him to power in the first place. Thus, it was not much later that the same Megacles who had driven him from power offer him a daughter in marriage and political power again. Peisistratos again turned to political theater to gain entry to the city. This time, Herodotus reports, he had a tall woman, Phya by name, dressed as Athena carried toward the city in a chariot with heralds declaring that Athena herself was carrying Peisistratos back to power.

Once again, things broke down. Peisistratos married Megacles’ daughter, but refused to have children with her, and when the stories of their “irregular intercourse” (whatever that means, ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον) got back to Megacles, he patched things up with Lycurgus and drove Peisistratos from the city (Herodotus 1.61). Not to be denied, Peisistratos spent a decade building support from his friends around the Aegean before returning to Athens in 546. This final attempt culminated in a battle between his supporters and opponents at Pallene, but when his enemies broke, Peisistratos ordered his sons to chase the fleeing Athenians and tell them to return to their homes. The ensuing tyranny only ended in c.510 when the Spartan king Cleomenes I invaded Attica and forced Peisistratos’ son Hippias into exile, prompting another round of political upheaval before the Cleisthenic constitution established a new status quo.

Political theater cosplay notwithstanding, the rise of Peisistratos and the contemporary moment are not directly analogous. That is not the way of history. But there are two broad points worth considering.

First, Peisistratos did not go quietly into retirement when one attempt at a coup failed. He regrouped and returned, finding new friends and adapting whatever systems he could to his advantage.

Second, in that final coup, Peisistratos took pains to convince people that it was in their interest not to cause a stir. To his credit, Peisistratos allowed the Athenian constitution to continue to function, so much so that Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians describes it as “more constitutional than tyrannical” (πολιτικῶς μᾶλλον ἢ τυραννικῶς, 14.3). (Tyrannos in Greek refers to an extra-constitutional ruler, which may or may not entail suspension of the constitution, though Aristotle seems to suggest that suspension was the norm.) The virtue of a democracy, at least in theory, is transparency and accountability, both of which are lost under a tyranny. Peisistratos’ moderation might have made it more tolerable to many among the landed classes of Athens, particularly because he consciously eschewed the violence that often accompanied these ancient coups. But neither did that make his rule less tyrannical.

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