Peisistratos (6th century – 527/528 BC; also spelled Pisistratus; Greek: Πεισίστρατος) was a tyrant, who ruled in Athens during the most part of the period between 561 and 527 BC. His legacy lies primarily in his institution of the Panathenaic Festival and the consequent first attempt at producing a definitive version for Homeric epics. Peisistratos' championing of the lower class of Athens, the Hyperakrioi, (see below) can be seen as an early example of populism. While in power, Peisistratos did not hesitate to confront the aristocracy, and he greatly reduced their privileges, confiscated their lands and gave them to the poor, and funded many religious and artistic programs.1
A long conflict with the Megarans over the disputed territories of Eleusis and Salamis ended when the Athenian army under Peisistratos routed the Megarans in 565 BC. This victory opened up the unofficial trade blockage that had been contributing to the food shortage in Athens during the past several decades.
- Pedieis - Lycurgus led the Pedieis, referring to the population that resided on the plains. These landowners could grow grain, giving them leverage during the food shortage.
- Paralioi - Paralioi referred to the population living along the coast. Led by Megacles, an Alcmaeonid, the Paralioi party was not as strong as the Pedieis primarily because they did not have the same ability to produce grain as did the plainsmen. With the Megarans patrolling the sea, much of the import/export possibilities were limited.
- Hyperakrioi - The last group of people who were not previously represented by formal party dwelled primarily in the hills and were by far the poorest of the Athenian population. Their only products that could be bartered were items like honey and wool. Peisistratos organized them into the Hyperakrioi, or hill dwellers. This party was grossly outnumbered by the Plain party (even when combined with the Coastal party).
His role in the Megaran conflict gained Peisistratos popularity in Athens, but he did not have the political clout to seize power. Peisistratos staged an attempt on his own life, and in the chaos that followed, he persuaded the Athenian Assembly to issue him bodyguards. Peisistratos, much like his predecessor, Cylon of Athens, used his bodyguard to capture and hold the acropolis. With this in his possession, and the collusion of Megacles and his party, he declared himself tyrant.3
Peisistratos was ousted from political office and exiled twice during his reign. The first occurrence happened circa 555 BC after the two original parties, which were normally at odds with each other, joined forces and removed Peisistratos from power. The actual dates after this point become unclear. Peisistratos was exiled for 3 to 6 years during which the agreement between the Pedieis and the Paralioi fell apart. Peisistratos returned to Athens and rode into the city in a golden chariot accompanied by a tall woman playing the role of Athena. Many returned to his side, believing that he had the favour of the goddess.4 Differing sources state that he held the tyranny for one to six years before he was exiled again. During his second exile, he gathered support from local cities and from the Laurion silver mines near Athens. After 10 years he returned in force, regained his tyranny, and held his power until his death in 527 BC.
|Didrachm of Athens, 545-510 BC|
|Obv: Four-spoked wheel||Rev: Incuse square, divided diagonally|
|Silver didrachm of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratus, 545-510 BC|
|Obol of Athens, 545-525 BC|
|Obv: An archaic Gorgoneion||Rev: Square incuse|
|An archaic silver obol of Athens of heraldic type from the time of Peisistratus, 545-525 BC|
As opposed to the contemporary definition of a tyrant, which is a single ruler, often violent and oppressive, Peisistratos was the ideal classical tyrant, which was a non-heritable position that a person took purely by personal ability often in violation of tradition or constitutional norms. We see this in remarks by both Herodotus and Aristotle. Herodotus, in his Histories, wrote that Peisistratos, "not having disturbed the existing magistrates nor changed the ancient laws… administered the State under that constitution of things which was already established, ordering it fairly and well",5 while Aristotle wrote that "his administration was temperate…and more like constitutional government than a tyranny".6 Peisistratos often tried to distribute power and benefits, rather than hoard them, with the intent of releasing stress between the economic classes. The elites, who had held power in the Areopagus Council, were allowed to retain their archonships. For the lower classes, he cut taxes and created a band of traveling judges to provide justice for the citizens of Athens. Peisistratos enacted a popular program to beautify Athens and promote the arts. He minted coins with Athena's symbol (the owl), although this was only one type on the so-called Wappenmünzen (heraldic coins), and not a regular device as on the later, standard silver currency. Under his rule were introduced two new forms of poetry, the dithyramb and tragic drama, and the era also saw growth in theater, arts and sculpture. He commissioned the permanent copying and archiving of Homer's two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the canon of Homeric works is said to derive from this particular archiving.
With Peisistratus' successful invasion and capture of the Megarian port of Nisaea, he was able to attain great political standing in his assembly. He initially met with resistance from nobles such as Megacles, the son of Alcmaeon, and Lycurgus, the son of Aristolaïdes who had shared power between them. Megacles came over to Peisistratus' side and, with his help, Peisistratus was voted in as tyrant by the Athenian assembly in 561 only to be ousted soon thereafter. Herodotus explains his exile “Not much later, however, the supporters of Megacles and those of Lycurgus came to an understanding and expelled him”.
He soon had a second chance. Megacles invited him back in 556 on condition that he marry Megacles' daughter. Peisistratus returned in triumph accompanied by a tall, local woman named Phye, whom he passed off as Athena. The awestruck Athenians thus gave him his second tyranny. Peisistratus, however, refused to impregnate Megacles' daughter, which ended their coalition. Peisistratus was forced to leave Attica entirely. During his nearly ten-year exile, he was able to create an alliance with powerful allies, and accumulated great wealth. With his powerful personal army, marched to Marathon and from there to Athens. His popularity soared and many locals supported him. Thus, in 546 BC, he began his third and final tyranny.7
Peisistratos died 527 or 528 BC. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Hippias. Hippias and his brother, Hipparchus, ruled the city much akin to the way that their father did. After a successful murder plot against Hipparchus conceived by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Hippias became paranoid and oppressive. This change in attitude caused the people of Athens to hold Hippias in much lower regard. The Alcmaeonid family helped to depose the tyranny by bribing the Delphic oracle to tell the Spartans to liberate Athens, which they did in 508 BC. The Peisistratids were not executed, but rather were mostly forced into exile. Afterward, Cleisthenes, a descendent of Megacles, helped erect a democracy based on the overturned reforms of Solon.
- Shanaysha M. Furlow Sauls, The concept of instability and the theory of democracy in the "Federalist", p. 77who?when?
- Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Part 13
- Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Part 13; Herodotus, The Histories, 1.59; Plutarch, “Life of Solon”, in Plutarch’s Lives (London: Printed by W. M'Dowell for J. Davis, 1812), 185.
- Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Part 14; Herodotus, The Histories, 1.60.
- Herodotus, The Histories, 1.59.
- Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, Part 16.
- Lavelle, Brian (2010). ""Pisistratos"". Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome.
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- Borthwick, Edward K. “Music and Dance.” Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean World: Greece and Rome. Eds. Grant, Michael and Kitzinger, Rachel. 3 vols. New York: Scribner’s, 1988. Vol. 1, 1507-8.
- Cahill, Thomas. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
- French, A. “The Party of Peisistratos.” Greece & Rome. Vol. 6, No. 1, March 1959. 45-57
- Garland, Robert. “Greek Spectacles and Festivals.” Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean World: Greece and Rome. Eds. Grant, Michael and Kitzinger, Rachel. 3 vols. New York: Scribner’s, 1988. Vol. 1, 1148.
- Hornblower, Simon and Spawforth, Anthony eds. “Peisistratus.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Lavelle, B. M. Fame, Money and Power: The Rise of Peisistratos and “Democratic” Tyranny at Athens. The University of Michigan Press, 2005.
- Lavelle B. M. “The Compleat Angler: Observations on the Rise of Peisistratos in Herodotos (1.59-64). The Classical Quarterly. New Series, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1991. 317-324.
- Thucydides. “Funeral Oration of Pericles.” The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Benjamin Jowett, 1881. Ed. Paul Brians. December 18, 1998. <http://katie.luther.edu/moodle/mod/resource/view.php?id=68564>
- Roisman, Joseph, and translated by J.C Yardley, Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011) ISBN 1-4051-2776-7