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The Thirty Tyrants (Ancient Greek: οἱ τριάκοντα τύραννοι) were a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. Contemporary Athenians referred to them simply as "the oligarchy" or "the Thirty" (Ancient Greek: οἱ Τριάκοντα); the expression "Thirty Tyrants" is due to later historians.1 Its two leading members were Critias and Theramenes.
The Thirty severely reduced the rights of Athenian citizens. Imposing a limit on the number of citizens allowed to vote (limiting the franchise for example to the wealthiest citizens) was a standard move on the part of wealthy people who objected to being subject to the votes of the "rabble" in a broad-based democracy where all free adult males could vote. Participation in legal functions—which had previously been open to all Athenians—was restricted by the 30 to a select group of 500 persons. Only 3,000 Athenians were granted the right to carry weapons or receive a jury trial.
The Thirty Tyrants forced many Athenians into exile and threw their leaders into jail.
The Thirty began a purge of important leaders of the popular party during the Peloponnesian War. Hundreds were condemned to execution by drinking hemlock, while thousands more were exiled from Athens. One of the most famous men who escaped from Athens during this reign of terror was the wealthy Lysias, who was mentioned in Plato's Republic.
In Plato's Apology, Socrates recounts an incident in which the Thirty once ordered him (and four other men) to bring before them Leon of Salamis, a man known for his justice and upright character, for execution. While the other four men obeyed, Socrates refused, not wanting to partake in the guilt of the executioners. By disobeying, Socrates knew he was placing his own life in jeopardy, and claimed it was only the disbanding of the oligarchy soon afterward that saved his life (Apology 32c-d).
As a result of the Phyle Campaign the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown. A group of exiles led by the general Thrasybulus after setting out from Thebes in 403 BC ended their regime of just over a year. After the Thirty had been overthrown in a coup that killed Critias, Lysias accused Eratosthenes of the murder of Lysias' brother Polemarchus.
Plato, in the opening portion of his Seventh Letter recounts the rule of the thirty tyrants during his youth, when he was around 23 years old. He portrays them as taking over as a result of revolution, and him having high hopes, then becoming disillusioned, as they failed to manage the affairs of the state, making the previous era look like a golden age. He also mentions how Socrates refused to cooperate in the execution of a citizen, thus putting himself in danger.2
Cicero in his treatises about aging, friendship and duties, mentions that Socrates was condemned to death "at a time when Athens had more tyrants than a tyrant has bodyguards".
- Aeschines of Athens, of the Kekropis tribe (not the famous orator)
- Aristoteles (also a member of the Four Hundred and mentioned in Plato's Parmenides)
- Charicles, son of Apollodorus
- Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes
- Erasistratus of Acharnae
- Sophocles (an Athenian orator, not the playwright)
- Theramenes, son of Hagnon, of the tribe Pandionis, in the deme of Steiria
- Bultgrighini, U. Maledetta democrazia: Studi su Crizia (Alessandria, 1999).
- Németh, G. Kritias und die Dreißig Tyrannen: Untersuchungen zur Politik und Prosopographie der Führungselite in Athen 404/403 v.Chr. (Stuttgart, 2006).
- Rhodes, P. A History of the Classical Greek World: 478-323 BC (Blackwell, 2006).
- Usher, S. 'Xenophon, Critias and Theramenes' in: JHS 88 (1968) 128-135.