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

The word derives from Latin tyrannus, meaning "illegitimate ruler", and this in turn from a non-Indo-European loan word in Greek, τύραννος, týrannos, meaning "sovereign, master", although the latter was not pejorative and applicable to both good and bad leaders alike.

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.


Historical forms Edit

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 BCE, 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 BCE, 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 BCE 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 BCE, 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 BCE wouldn't be classified as tyrants in the usual sense.

Aesymnetes Edit

An aesymnetes (pl. aesymnetai) had similar scope of power to the tyrant, such as Pittacus of Mytilene (c. 640-568 BCE), 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 Edit

The heyday of the Archaic period tyrants came in the early 6th century BCE, 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.

Populism Edit

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 BCE.

Sicilian tyrants Edit

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 Edit

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. 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" Edit

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 Edit

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 Edit

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 harsh reaction to the rising tide of opposition in Zimbabwe or Alexander Lukashenko’s 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.

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