, , , , ,

‘Tyrant’ is defined by modern dictionaries as both an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution and as a usurper of sovereignty. It is essential to the continuation of this paper that we assess the meaning of τύραννος for the Ancient Greek. Uses of ‘tyrant’ are varied and widely used in the Ancient World, however, they did not refer to a ruler that was inherently evil, but rather to one that was outside of the law. In our understanding of tyrant we place men outside of the law as inherently bad, for they oppose the system that was set up. To the Ancient Greeks, the system of law was an accumulation of traditions that applied only to individuals inside a clan or tribe. We shall later discuss how this system was formed, but it must be said that power was custom, identified as θέμις (traditional law),[1] and that before Draco, going against θέμις and usurping power was the realm of the tyrannous individual. Tyranny, as such, begins not as an individual who sought to rule a state, but rather an individual who sought to rule a group of families. The word ‘tyrant’ follows the same developmental path as the laws which, in the 7th century, changed at the hands of a jurist who saw the need for modernization. Tyrants went against customs in the early period before Draco, and again the laws of the period post-Draco; they existed on both sides of the historical period. Similarly, tyranny was not only a title, but a state of being, in early Greece. Poleis could be tyrannical,[2] and one could behave tyrannically. Hence, reputedly, it was Archilochus,[3] the most immediate poet to Homer in time according to Andrewes,[4] who writes, in the 7th century, about Tyrants. Archilochus wrote the word in the sense of a man (Gyges) who had taken power for himself while in league with the current king’s wife. Candaules, the old king, did not believe that Gyges actually understood the statement’s he had made about his wife’s beauty. Gyges thus is forced to hide and see Candaules’ wife naked against his wishes, which was against the law of his time. It is not in the breaking of this law, by which the queen’s person was made inviolable to the eyes, that Gyges becomes a tyrant, it is based on what he does next. Gyges, having been discovered by the queen, is now forced to enter into an allegiance with her and, together, they ensured Candaules’ death. When Gyges marries the late king’s wife he becomes a tyrant, although the reasons for his betrayal of the king was purely justified. The person of the king, usually inviolable, was made vulnerable by his request of another man of honor to break the code of law. [5] This story, one of the firsts in Herodotus, has been questioned by many historians, from Plutarch to (REFERENCE). Whether or not truth exists here, the tyrant Gyges is first forced to do that which is against the law.

The mere asking of Candaules is in direct breech of the law, a fact by which χρῆν γὰρ Κανδαύλῃ γενέσθαι κακῶς;[6] Herodotus condemns the man to κακῶς only after he has so thoroughly fallen in love with his wife’s beauty that he is doomed to ask Gyges to see her naked. Further, consider the statement μὴ δέεσθαι ἀνόμων,[7] the Middle/Passive Infinitive of Herodotus indicates the unwillingness of Gyges break that which is clearly νόμων. Gyges’ honor was on display, and it would have to be restored once he had broken the law. Gyges is not the bad man in Herodotus’ story, he is the hero; the keep of virtue and the regenerator of respect for the law. Tyrants, as we shall see below, find imbalance in a world that has been corrupted by some kind of hubris. As John Locke would say, when a leader has become evil, it is the duty of the responsible citizen to rise up against the established traditions and restore order. It was the hubris of Candaules that killed him, not Gyges; the latter took power because he had proven himself the better man.

Draco was also a tyrant, although in Athens. He was in his opposition of the law system of his time, the oral law that had guided Athenians since the loss of the Mycenaean Empire, he became tyrannical because he had realized that oral laws were only good while they remained within the confinements of a particular clan or family. However, in Draco’s time, Athens was uniting; its ancient clans had come together, and the laws which governed said clans for generations had been made invalid by virtue of their generalities and oppositions; a written code was necessary in order to codify hundreds of years of tradition. Further, we must recognize, the creation of the written law, in contrast with the existence of the oral system, was an action of tyranny that initiated the Democratic process of Athens. But first, before Draco can become a part of our conversation, we must find what system of governance guided the actions of the Greeks before the tyrant himself. The written laws set down by Draco and accepted by the Athenians catapulted Athens into the heights of democracy proper. We must accept, unreservedly, that before the laws, there were traditions, and these traditions, were law.

[1] Finley p.83, 111; Latacz p.282

[2] Thuc. 1.122; “τύραννον δὲ ἐῶμεν ἐγκαθεστάναι πόλιν”

[3] fr. 25; mentioned by Herodotus in I.12.2

[4] Andrewes, Anthony. The Greek Tyrants. N. p.: Brill, 1956.; p.20; his treatise on the word itself, present in the book, is fascinating if we look at the usage in the 6th and 5th centuries. Although I owe to him my references on Gyges and Archilochus, I defend the usage is far more relevant when we focus on the Dark Age-use of the word

[5] Herodotus I.7-13

[6] Herodotus I.8.2; for it must be that Candaules will be made to come into bad things.

[7] Herodotus I.8.4;