Skip to main content

Greek Tyrants and the Persians, 546–479 B.C.

  • M. M. Austin (a1)

The word ‘tyrant’ was not originally Greek, but borrowed from some eastern language, perhaps in western Asia Minor. On the other hand, tyranny as it developed in the Greek cities in the archaic age would seem to have been initially an indigenous growth, independent of any intervention by foreign powers. It then became a constantly recurring phenomenon of Greek political and social life, so long as the Greeks enjoyed an independent history.

Hide All

1 I am very grateful to Drs Amélie Kuhrt and Michael Whitby, and to Professor G. E. Rickman, for their careful scrutiny of an earlier version of this article. Their detailed comments have helped to improve the original substantially, though the responsibility for remaining imperfections is of course entirely my own.

2 Walser G., Hellas und Iran. Studien zu den griechisch–persischen Beziehungen vor Alexander (Darmstadt, 1984: Enträge der Forschung 209), pp. 2735, at 29, 34, plays down the implications of Herodotus' account and virtually ignores tyranny as a factor in the revolt, which is put down to internal political and leadership struggles in the Greek cities. Graf D. F., ‘Greek tyrants and Achaemenid polities’, in The Craft of the Ancient Historian. Essays in Honor of Chester G. Starr, ed. Eadie J. W. and Ober J. (1985), pp. 79123, at 80, 84, 86, goes further in denying that there was resentment against tyranny as such. This does not seem convincing, and his argument that Herodotus' presentation of the Ionian revolt is anachronistic and coloured by his own experiences at Halicarnassus in the 450s (pp. 97–9) is rather forced. Resentment against tyranny did not have to wait till after the Persian Wars to develop. For a recent view of the causes of the revolt, see Murray O. in CAH iv 2. 473–80, though contrast C. Roebuck, ibid. 452f. on the question of trade.

3 Berve H., Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen (Munich, 1967), i. 104, 118, notes the generally lenient treatment given by the Greeks in revolt to their tyrants; Coes of Mytilene was obviously a special case (Hdt. 5.38; see below). He remarks that individual tyrants may have enjoyed a strong personal following in their cities (this is clear at least in the case of Aristagoras at Miletus, a man of great wealth and local influence, cf. the implications of Hdt. 5.35–8, 99, 124–6). This may have been a further incentive to caution, and later in the revolt encouraged the Persians to believe that the Greeks under pressure might respond to conciliatory overtures from their former tyrants (Hdt. 6.9–10, cf. 13).

4 See especially Hdt. 5.36–8, 124–6; 6.9–10, 13, 22, 43; also 4.136–9 (the Greek tyrants at the Danube bridge in c. 514), which looks forward to the revolt, though probably anachronistically for the time. Aristagoras' attack on Naxos before the revolt can be read as implying that he felt his position in Miletus was already under threat, and needed strengthening vis-à-vis both Greeks and Persians by some conspicuous success (Hdt. 5.30–4).

6 See the writers mentioned by Graf (n. 2 above) p. 100 n. 1; see also Burn A. R. in Cambridge History of Iran, ii, ed. Gershevitch I. (1985), pp. 295f.

6 This is based on his Michigan Ph.D. dissertation Medism: Greek Collaboration with Achaemenid Persia (1979), which I have not seen.

7 T. Cuyler Young writes, referring to Graf (p. 68), ‘Since the conquest of Ionia under Cyrus it had been royal policy to rule the region through the local tyrants who were in power when the Persians arrived. Cyrus supported these tyrants not because he necessarily approved of tyranny, but because the Persians tried, where possible, to rule through existing forms of government. While in mainland Greece there had been a considerable swing away from such forms of government since Cyrus' time, in Ionia tyrants had continued to be supported in their rule by Persians.’

8 See CAH iv2.42f. on Cyrus.

9 See T. Cuyler Young, pp. 68f., O. Murray, pp. 476f., 486, M. Ostwald, p. 341 (cited in nn. 7, 24, 57).

10 Hereafter referred to by the author's name only, and H followed by a number refers to an entry in Hofstetter's prosopographical catalogue.

11 Exceptions are Gernet L., Anthropologie de la Grèce Antique (1968), pp. 182f. and (citing him) Briant P., Etat et Pasteurs au Moyen Orient Ancien (1982), pp. 90f., both discussing the important case of Syloson and Darius (below); Herman G., Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City (Cambridge, 1987), discussed in the next paragraph.

12 See Edel E., ‘Amasis und Nebukadrezar II’, Göttinger Miszellen 29 (1978), 1320 (I owe this reference to Dr A. Kuhrt).

13 See Wallinga H. T., ‘The ancient Persian navy and its predecessors’, in Achaemenid History, i, ed. Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. (Leiden, 1987), 947–77, at 59–66 for Amasis and Polycrates.

14 Mazzarino S., Fra Oriente e Occidente (Florence, 1947), pp. 191252.

15 Page D. L., Sappho and Alcaeus (1955), pp. 226–34, at 231.

16 Mazzarino (n. 14), esp. pp. 191f. (Lydians and Greek tyranny), 244f. (contrast between Lydians and Persians).

17 Thus Berve i.89f.; Roebuck C., CP 50 (1955), 38 n. 29, citing Mazzarino; Hornblower S., Mausolus (1982), p. 18, citing Roebuck.

18 See Hornblower S., Mausolus (1982), pp. 17f., 142f., 158.

19 See Salmon J. B., Wealthy Corinth (Oxford, 1984), pp. 224–6.

20 cf. Herman, pp. 88f.; a young Athenian noble (possibly an Alcmaeonid) was called after Croesus, cf. Jeffery L. H., BSA 57 (1962), 143f. no. 57, and Davies , APF, p. 374.

21 Note also the activity of Thales of Miletus as an engineer in the service of Croesus (Hdt. 1.75), reminiscent of Greeks in Persian service later (below).

22 He does not mention (for example at 1.77, 79, 81, 83), the (clearly well known and long-remembered) story of Eurybatus of Ephesus (H 110), who was given money by Croesus to recruit mercenaries, but went over to Cyrus with the money.

23 Thus Berve i.90, 100.

24 Thus Huxley G. L., The Early Ionians (1966), p. 121: ‘Already under Cyrus the Persian policy of supporting tyrants in the subject Greek cities had begun’ and he goes on to mention the case of Pytharchus of Cyzicus, discussed below; 144: ‘After the conquests of Harpagus the Persians imposed tyrants on the Greek cities of Asia and ruled through them’. Also Ostwald M., CAH iv 2.341: ‘the appointment of Persian henchmen as tyrants, as had happened in Ionia after the Persian conquest of Lydia’, and O. Murray, ibid. p. 486 writes of ‘fifty years of Persian-backed tyranny’ (sc. in Ionia by 499).

25 See also Young T. Cuyler in CAH iv 2.68 (following Graf), who presents Cyrus as supporting already existing tyrants, not imposing them.

26 1.100 and 2.577.

27 On this institution see for example de Ste Croix G. E. M., The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (1972), pp. 3740; Briant P., ‘Dons de terres et de villes: l'Asie Mineure dans le contexte achemenide’, REA 87 (1985), 5372; Herman, pp. 106–15.

28 1.85f.; Herman, p. 111, seems to conflate the different cases, but see Briant's discussion (previous note).

29 Hegesistratus, a son of Peisistratus, was set up by him at an unknown date as tyrant in Sigeum after its capture from Mytilene (Hdt. 5.94; H 133). Berve i.88 conjectured that he must have submitted to the Persian king soon after the fall of the Lydian monarchy and have become a vassal of the Persians, but there is no specific evidence for this, though Hofstetter repeats the suggestion. Hdt. 1.169 mentions that the Ionians in the islands submitted to Cyrus out of fear after Harpagus had reduced the mainlanders, but no further details are known, and in practice this was probably no more than a token surrender without effects on the internal affairs of the Greek cities.

30 Cambyses had sent back unharmed to Cyrene Ladike (H 188), the Cyrenaean wife of Amasis (Hdt. 2.181; see above), and this may have influenced the Cyrenaean submission.

31 The Cypriots submitted to Cambyses before his expedition to Egypt and participated in it (Hdt. 3.19), but no further information is available about the role of trie individual rulers in the various cities.

32 See Shipley G., A History of Samos, 800–188 B.C. (Oxford, 1987), pp. 80, 96f.

33 Cook J. M., The Persian Empire (1982), p. 71 notes Darius' inclination ‘to work through responsible individuals or bodies’ and also notes (p. 75) Darius' clemency towards such individuals.

34 Herman, pp. 28f., 128–30, notes the wide range of services that friends might expect from each other.

35 For a particularly sceptical view, see Griffiths A., ‘Democedes of Croton: a Greek doctor at Darius' court’, in Achaemenid History, ii: The Greek Sources, ed. Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. and Kuhrt A. (Leiden, 1987), pp. 3751.

36 See CAH iv 2. 201–3.

37 See Momigliano A., The Development of Greek Biography (1971), pp. 29f., 33. See also on him Hornblower S., Mausolus (1982), pp. 20f.

38 The story is dismissed by How and Wells , A Commentary on Herodotus, i (1912), p. 298; Herman , Friendship, p. 41 describes it as ‘picturesque and apparently fictitious’. See Shipley G., A History of Samos, 800–188 B.C. (1987), pp. 103–7 for a narrative of events.

39 The provision of military support was one of the services expected from a friend (Herman, pp. 97–105).

40 On the functions an d usefulness from the Persian point of view of the Greek (and other) tyrants they backed, see Berve i.85 with ii.569; Herman, pp. 39f., 74f., 102. To call them ‘tyrants’ is of course to see them from the perspective of the Greek cities. From Darius' point of view they were dependable friends; indeed, the Persians could be said never to have understood the spirit of the Greek polis (Herman, p. 80).

41 On the function of this institution in the Persian empire see Wiesehöfer J., ‘Die “Freunde” und “Wohltäter” des Grosskönigs’, Studia Iranica 9 (1980), 721, esp. 16f.; Briant P., Etat et Pasteurs au Moyen Orient Ancien (1982), pp. 8894 and in Achaemenid History, i, ed. Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. (1987), pp. 23f. and ii, ed. A. Kuhrt and H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, pp. 5f. See also H , Sancisi-Weerdenburg , Historia 37 (1988), 372–4.

42 See for example Finley M. I., The World of Odysseus (2nd ed. 1977), pp. 64–6; Herman, index s.v. ‘reciprocity’.

43 Herman repeatedly emphasizes the international character of relationships between members of the élite, pp. 8, 12, 31–4, 44, 72, 74f., 106, 128, 130, 162.

44 Darius Behistan i.20–2 and iv.65–7 respectively, cited from Kent R. G., Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (New Haven, 2nd ed. 1953), pp. 119, 132.

45 Thus Chamoux F., Cyrène sous la monarchie des Battiades (1953), pp. 147–51.

46 Mitchell B. M., ‘Cyrene and Persia’, JHS 86 (1966), 99113, at 99–103 with suggested chronological table p. 103, further defended in JHS 94 (1974), 174–7.

47 It is hard to believe that Arcesilas could have done this without at least the tacit acquiescence of whoever was in control of the island then, but Herodotus (4.163) is silent on who that may have been.

48 Davies , APF, p. 452.

49 The many chronological and political problems associated with the career of Miltiades cannot be discussed here. See most recently Shimron B., ‘Miltiades an der Donaubrücke und in der Chersonesos’, Wiener Studien 100 (1987), 2334, though his reconstruction is not followed here. He dates the sending of Miltiades by the Peisistratids to the Chersonese to c. 508, i.e. after the Peisistratids were expelled from Athens and moved to Sigeum (pp. 29–32), and is even inclined to doubt whether Miltiades was tyrant in the Chersonese at the time of the Scythian expedition (pp. 32–4). If this is correct, the distortions in Herodotus' account are so deep as to be beyond viable analysis.

50 Graf , op. cit. (n. 2), p. 84.

51 cf. Seibert J., Die politischen Flüchtlinge und Verbannten in der griechischen Geschichte, 2 vols. (Darmstadt, 1979), i.392–4; Herman, pp. 43f.

52 Athenian tradition may have retrospectively magnified the role of Hippias in promoting the first Persian invasion, and obscured the significance of the Athenian disavowal of their envoys' offer of earth and water to Artaphemes in 507. In Persian eyes, the Athenians then compounded their offence by giving support to the Ionians in revolt. See Kuhrt A., ‘Earth and water’, in Achaemenid History, iii: Method and Theory, ed. Kuhrt A. and Sancisi-Weerdenburg H. (Leiden, 1988), pp. 8799, esp. 91–3, 98f. on Athens and the Persians.

63 See Hofstetter, pp. 192–4 for a complete list.

54 On both see Briant P., REA 87 (1985), 62–4.

55 See already How and Wells , Commentary on Herodotus ii.80.

56 See for example How and Wells (previous note); Berve i.105f. and ii.581; Burn A. R., Persia and the Greeks (2nd ed., 1984), p. 222; Hornblower S., Mausolus (1982), p. 22 and n. 128.

57 Especially Young T. Cuyler, CAH iv 2.68f.: ‘[after the Ionian revolt] there was a marked change in the imperial attitude towards the tyrants […] Henceforward we witness the rather ironical fact that the despotic Persians became the staunch supporters of democratic government for the Asia Greeks’. Also O. Murray, ibid. p. 490, who accepts without comment or qualification Herodotus' account of Mardonius' action; Hornblower S., Mausolus (1982), p. 18: ‘a partial return to Lydian conditions’.

68 Cook J. M., The Persian Empire (1982), p. 96.

59 On the hereditary nature of personal friendships, cf. Herman, pp. 16f., 69f., 152.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 105 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 468 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.