Tyrant: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In modern usage, the word "tyrant" carries 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. 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 this in turn from the Greek τύραννος, týrannos, meaning "sovereign, master",[1] although the latter was not pejorative and applicable to both good and bad leaders alike.

In classical politics, a tyrant is one who has taken power by his or her own means as opposed to hereditary or constitutional power. This mode of rule is referred to as tyranny.


Historical forms

In ancient Greece, tyrants were influential opportunists that came to power by securing the support of different factions of a deme. The word "tyrannos" then carried no ethical censure; it simply referred to anyone, good or bad, who obtained executive power in a polis by unconventional means. Support for the tyrants came from the growing middle class 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 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 be classified as tyrants in the usual sense.



An aesymnetes (pl. aesymnetai) had similar scope of power to the tyrant, such as Pittacus of Mytilene (c. 640-568 BC), and was elected for life or for a specified period by a city-state in a time of crisis—the only difference being that the aesymnetes was a constitutional office and was comparable to the Roman dictator. Magistrates in some city-states were also called aesymnetai.

Archaic tyrants

The heyday of the Archaic period tyrants came in the early 6th century BC, when Cleisthenes ruled Sicyon in the Peloponnesus and Polycrates ruled Samos. 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 and Hipparchus, 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 BC.

Sicilian tyrants

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, Dionysius the Younger, and Agathocles maintained lavish courts and became patrons of culture.

Roman tyrants

Roman historians like Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, and Josephus 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.[2]

Niccolò Machiavelli, building on this opposition, conflates all rule by a single person (whom he generally refers to as a "prince") with "tyranny," regardless of the legitimacy of that rule, in his Discourses on Livy. He also identifies liberty with republican regimes; whether he would include so-called "crowned republics" (such as modern constitutional monarchies) is somewhat unclear from the text.

Philistine "Seren"

The term "Seren", frequently appearing in the Bible as the title of the rulers of the five Philistine city-states, is considered by some historians to be derived from or related to the Greek "tyrannos". In contemporary Israel, this is used as a military rank.

In the arts

Ancient Greeks, 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.

Modern forms

There are a number of rulers who loosely fit the definition of tyrant described above, 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. Robert Mugabe’s [3] harsh reaction to the rising tide of opposition in Zimbabwe or Alexander Lukashenko’s[4] treatment of Poles living in Belarus and his generalized lack of tolerance toward opposition make both leaders tyrants at particular points of time during their tenure, according to definition given here.

See also


  1. ^ tyrant, Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition; Eric Partridge in Origins suggests a variety of anterior etymologies in Indo-European and other languages
  2. ^ Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Julius Caesar 80
  3. ^ Kirchick, James (2007, 30 Sept). Mugabe: A Tyrant from the Start. LA Times
  4. ^ Hitchens, Peter (2008, 19 July). The comb-over Soviet-style tyrant who could soon be one of the West's favourite allies. Daily Mail UK

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

TYRANT (Gr. TUpavvos, master, ruler), a term applied in modern times to a ruler of a cruel and oppressive character. This use is, however, based on a complete misapprehension of the application of the Greek word, which implied nothing more than unconditional sovereignty. Such rulers are not, as is often supposed, confined to a single period, the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. (the so-called "Age of the Tyrants") of Greek history, but appear sporadically at all times, and are frequent in the later city-states of the Greek world. The use of the term "tyrant" in the bad sense is due largely to the ultra-constitutionalists of the 4th century in Athens, to whom the democracy of Pericles was the ideal of government. Thus the government which Lysander set up in Athens at the close of the Peloponnesian War is called that of the "Thirty Tyrants" (see Critias). The same term is applied to those Roman generals (really 18) who usurped authority locally under Gallienus.

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Simple English

A tyrant (pronounce: tie-rant) is a person who rules with absolute power. In its Greek origin the word has no negative meaning: we translate Oedipus Tyranos as 'Oedipus the King'. A tyrant usually rules a country, and he often got his position as powerful ruler by force, although some of them inherited their power.

Later, the word came to mean someone who ruled with cruelty and injustice. The rule of a tyrant is called tyranny. The adjective is tyrannical.

When someone has power over everybody else so that nobody is allowed to question it, this is called absolute power. A tyrant rules by oppression. The people are oppressed (cruelly treated). A tyrant takes no notice of the wishes of the people, or of any constitutions (laws about how laws should be made).

A dictator or despot is someone who rules with absolute authority, usually cruelly. It now has the same meaning as 'tyrant', whereas before, 'tyrant' meant something like 'ruler' or 'king'.

In the 10th and 9th centuries BC, Ancient Greece was ruled by monarchs. By the 7th century BC, they were ruled by groups of aristocrats. These aristocrats started to become unpopular. This gave cruel people the chance to get power for themselves, telling the people that they would be good rulers, but turning bad once they got power.

Around 650BC the tyrant Cypselus became powerful in Corinth. There were other tyrants in the Asiatic countries that were ruled by Greece. Cypselus’s son Periander was also a cruel tyrant who ruled for 40 years. The tyranny in Corinth came to an end after he died.

Many tyrants of ancient Greece were supporters of the arts, but they always wanted art to show how wonderful they were, and no one could be critical of them.

There have always been tyrants in the world. Although there are more democracies nowadays, there still are countries which are governed by tyranny.


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