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tyrant

tyrant, in ancient history, ruler who gained power by usurping the legal authority. The word is perhaps of Lydian origin and carried with it no connotation of moral censure. With the growth of the constitutional, democratic form of government, especially at Athens, in the 5th cent. B.C. the word took on its negative sense. Many tyrants ruled well and with benefit to their subjects. Greek tyranny was in the main an outgrowth of the struggle of the rising popular classes against the aristocracy or plutocracy. The usual procedure was for a leader to win popular support, overthrow the existing government, and seize power for himself. The 7th cent. B.C. saw the rise of the tyrant Cypselus and his son, Periander, of Corinth, and the 6th cent. B.C. was the time of the tyrants Cleisthenes of Sicyon in the Peloponnesus, Polycrates of Samos, and Pisistratus of Athens, followed by his sons Hipparchus and Hippias. The tyrants of Sicily were the products of more or less the same causes as those in Greece, but tyranny was prolonged by the threat of Carthaginian attack, which facilitated the rise of military leaders with the people united behind them. Such Sicilian tyrants as Gelon, Hiero I, Hiero II, Dionysius the Elder, and Dionysius the Younger maintained lavish courts and were patrons of culture. The Thirty Tyrants were not tyrants in the usual sense.

See P. N. Ure, The Origin of Tyranny (1922); A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (1956, repr. 1968).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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