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Popular Tyranny

Popular Tyranny
Sovereignty and Its Discontents in Ancient Greece

This collection of essays examines the extraordinary role that the concept of tyranny played in the cultural and political imagination of Archaic and Classical Greece through the interdisciplinary perspectives provided by internationally known archaeologists, literary critics, and historians.

August 2003
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352 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w illus. |

The nature of authority and rulership was a central concern in ancient Greece, where the figure of the king or tyrant and the sovereignty associated with him remained a powerful focus of political and philosophical debate even as Classical Athens developed the world's first democracy. This collection of essays examines the extraordinary role that the concept of tyranny played in the cultural and political imagination of Archaic and Classical Greece through the interdisciplinary perspectives provided by internationally known archaeologists, literary critics, and historians.

The book ranges historically from the Bronze and early Iron Age to the political theorists and commentators of the middle of the fourth century B.C. and generically across tragedy, comedy, historiography, and philosophy. While offering individual and sometimes differing perspectives, the essays tackle several common themes: the construction of authority and of constitutional models, the importance of religion and ritual, the crucial role of wealth, and the autonomy of the individual. Moreover, the essays with an Athenian focus shed new light on the vexed question of whether it was possible for Athenians to think of themselves as tyrannical in any way. As a whole, the collection presents a nuanced survey of how competing ideologies and desires, operating through the complex associations of the image of tyranny, struggled for predominance in ancient cities and their citizens.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Kathryn A. Morgan)
  • Imaginary Kings: Alternatives to Monarchy in Early Greece (Sarah Morris)
  • Form and Content: The Question of Tyranny in Herodotus (Carolyn Dewald)
  • Stick and Glue: The Function of Tyranny in Fifth-Century Athenian Democracy (Kurt A. Raaflaub)
  • Tragic Tyranny (Richard Seaford)
  • Dêmos Tyrannos: Wealth, Power, and Economic Patronage (Lisa Kallet)
  • Demos, Demagogue, Tyrant in Attic Old Comedy (Jeffrey Henderson)
  • The Tyranny of the Audience in Plato and Isocrates (Kathryn A. Morgan)
  • Tyrant-killing as Therapeutic Stasis: A Political Debate in Images and Texts (Josiah Ober)
  • Changing the Discourse (Robin Osborne)
  • Conclusion (Kathryn A. Morgan)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Kathryn A. Morgan is Associate Professor of Classics at UCLA. Her previous publications include Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato.


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The papers collected together here originated as series of talks presented at the conference "Popular Tyranny: Sovereignty and its Discontents in Classical Athens," held at UCLA in the spring of 1998. This volume, therefore, possesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of collected conference papers. The strength is the vigorous debate occasioned by bringing together a group of historians, archaeologists, and literary critics to discuss a topic that exerts a lively fascination for audiences both ancient and modern. A potential weakness is unevenness of coverage. This volume does not, for example, contain treatments of the theme of tyranny in Attic oratory or provide even coverage of the Thucydidean material. Nevertheless, I made the decision not to try to extend the coverage of the volume by inviting extra contributions (with the exception of the concluding paper by Robin Osborne). The reasons for this decision were twofold. First, I am doubtful whether complete coverage is possible in a single volume, even given the focus of the majority of papers on the world of Athens. Second, I was anxious to retain the lively interaction of the original participants without dilution. The reader is left to judge the success of this decision.

The collection, for the most part, focuses on the conceptual force of tyranny rather than on historical instances of it. Although much interesting work on archaic and classical tyrants continues to be done, the ambition of the UCLA conference was to examine tyranny as a foundational ideological force. Although not every essay focuses on Athens (indeed, one of our most important conclusions is that an overly Athenocentric approach impoverishes), all encompass themes that are crucial in our evaluation of classical Athenian—and Greek—culture. The nature of authority and rule is a persistent worry in the construction of ancient ideology. The figure of the king or tyrant and the sovereignty associated with him provides a powerful source for political speculation and historical analysis. If tyrants had not existed, we and the Greeks would still have had to invent them as an indispensable tool for political analysis and construction.

Thus this volume starts with "Imaginary Kings: Alternatives to Monarchy in Early Greece." This is Sarah Morris' lively attack on the notion of Bronze and Iron Age kingship, in which she forces us to reconsider the strategies by which we construct an originary past. In "Form and Content: The Question of Tyranny in Herodotus," Carolyn Dewald explores the productive tension between a foundational despotic template associated with the Persian East and the stories of individual Greek despots, whose individualism seeks to escape the narrative template. This tension between an anti-tyrannical template operating at the level of ideology and the unruly behavior of individuals and even citizen bodies is fundamental. It provides the best way to understand the conflicts and inconsistencies explored in the later essays. Kurt Raaflaub then surveys the centrality of tyranny for official fifth-century Athenian ideology in "Stick and Glue: The Function of Tyranny in Fifth-Century Athenian Democracy." This essay presents the hard-line anti-tyrannical stance of the demos, and creates a standard against which later contributions will compare different visions of the nature of democratic authority.

Richard Seaford's examination of "Tragic Tyranny" criticizes the majority of critics of tragedy for failing to understand the way tyranny operates within tragedy. This failure results from identifying the tragic tyrant with the interests of the polis and interpreting his downfall as a disaster for the community. Seaford's insistence on the aetiological importance of the tyrant as opposer of the community's best interests therefore falls into line with the ideological position staked out by Raaflaub. The two following papers, however, map out a different route over fifth-century terrain. "Dêmos Tyrannos: Wealth, Power and Economic Patronage" by Lisa Kallet argues that the conspicuous use of wealth by the Athenian demos on a "tyrannical" scale reflects an aspect of tyrannical practice which the people would have found attractive and to which they could aspire. Jeffrey Henderson, too, suggests that the "acquisition of arguably tyrannical powers was considered by the majority of the Athenian demos to be a justifiable, even a legitimate ambition." His essay, "Demos, Demagogue, Tyrant in Attic Old Comedy" examines how conjuring with the figure of the tyrant in Attic comedy helped to strengthen radical democracy and imperialism and create its ideology. Both these papers, although acknowledging the strength of anti-tyrannical ideology, suggest that the demos was happy to act and talk in a fashion inconsistent with that ideology. It escapes from, even while manipulating, the despotic template.

My own paper, "The Tyranny of the Audience in Plato and Isocrates," traces the process by which Plato and Isocrates pointed out and critiqued the demos' tyrannical desire for power and pleasure (despite its professed hatred of tyranny) in order to create new models of political and literary authority. Josiah Ober ("Tyrant-killing as Therapeutic Stasis: A Political Debate in Images and Texts") concentrates on the resonance of tyrannicide as a model of therapeutic civil conflict and on how this model was used both in democratic ideology and in critical political thought (which sought to redefine the tyrant as the demos). Both essays trace how a dissident tradition capitalized upon competing ideologies of autonomy, desire, legitimate authority, and upon the tensions that existed between these ideologies and political practice. The very freedom, however, with which accusations of tyranny can be hurled as rhetorical bombs in fourth-century political discourse indicates that the metaphor of tyranny was losing its specificity. Thus Robin Osborne's concluding contribution "Changing the Discourse" proposes that the discourse of tyranny at the start of the fourth century was losing touch with political reality. Although this distancing of ideology from reality may have facilitated rhetorical manipulation by people like Plato and Isocrates, it was unhelpful in solving the constitutional problems faced by the Athenians, although the topos of the tyrant did enjoy a long and fruitful rhetorical afterlife.

In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I want to move out from Sarah Morris' scene-setting essay and expand on some of the issues that draw this volume together: the construction of authority and of constitutional models, the importance of religion and ritual, and the autonomy of the individual. Even though interpretation of Greek and Athenian ideologies varies in individual essays, these themes recur repeatedly—unsurprisingly since they are at the center of life in a community.

Morris' contribution performs two functions. It introduces some of the major themes of this volume, and is itself an innovative contribution to the debate on the nature of bronze and iron age systems of authority. She argues that scanty evidence for bronze age kingship has been over-interpreted in line with preconceptions, both ancient and modern, about development from monarchical to more democratic systems of government. The rise of tyrannies in the Archaic period should not, therefore, be interpreted as a reversion to earlier constitutional forms, but as a result of increasing tensions among local elites caused by the accumulation of wealth. At least on the Greek mainland proper, monarchical tendencies were always a veneer upon a stronger system of communitarian government. This essay will doubtless spark spirited debate among ancient historians and archaeologists, especially in the case of the Bronze Age material, for it encourages fundamental questioning of our assumptions, even though it does not provide all the answers. How robust does the authority of an individual have to be before it counts as a monarchy? What is the nature of this authority? Does a ritual king have it?

But if the kings of the Bronze Age were imaginary kings, what relevance does this have for the chief focus of this volume, the world of the fifth and fourth centuries, particularly in Athens? Here, the qualification "imaginary" becomes important, since it is largely constructions of tyranny that form the focus of the remaining essays. In the admittedly meager evidence provided for the Bronze Age and the Archaic period by myth, art, and archaeology, we can nevertheless discern elements that resonated in the ancient imagination and may have helped to form it. This essay concentrates on four areas: the importance of construction in our assessment of constitutional models, of ritual and cult, of regional geographic variation, and crucially, of the tension between communitarian and individualistic models.

First: construction. This topic resonates in both ancient and modern contexts. For it seems that the scholarly model of development away from monarchy in most of the Greek mainland is rooted in an overly uncritical acceptance of fabricated king lists and of the relevance of the Roman and eastern models for Greek practice. This acceptance stems from a desire to credit ancient Greek accounts of their own past, but also from a modern prejudice that traces a teleological development from monarchy to various forms of republicanism. The construction of mythico-historical kings satisfies a desire for tidy origins, as well as for an original focus of authority from which subsequent developments are diffused. We must, then, always ask whose interests are served by a model of original kingship and hereditary descent of authority. If aristocratic elites in the Archaic and Classical period fantasized about royal descent, this served the dual purpose of reinforcing their elite status and communicating to non-elites the (relatively) more egalitarian nature of elite influence in the polis. Thus attempts at dominance by powerful members of the elite can be cast as reversion to a superseded past. The contrast between legitimate hereditary kingship and illegitimate and tyrannical usurpation of power may thus be seen as a contrast between a quasi-official historical construction and the harsher reality of authoritarian government.

Second: ritual and cult. If Morris' emphasis on the chiefly ritual importance of the wanax is sustainable (even if it is not the whole story), the centrality of cult is a major area of continuity between Bronze Age and later notions of monarchic rule. Ritual kingship casts a shadow down as far as the Athenian archôn basileus and the heroic honors paid to ancient city founders. In most later conceptions, it is the gap between the human and the divine that is significant, as we see in much of the poetry of Pindar, and also in the vase paintings cited by Morris. Religious and temporal power do not coincide. Yet the figure of the tyrant complicates this divide. Sicilian tyrants such as Gelon and Hieron were anxious to become city founders, by fair means or foul, and the Emmenids of Acragas may have used their hereditary priesthoods as a springboard for the acquisition of temporal power. Peisistratus' charade as favorite of Athena, escorted into the polis by the goddess in her chariot, is also relevant here. We start, it seems, with a ritual king who does not embody our conception of monarchic rule. While this tradition continues, we are also presented with an authoritarian ruler (the tyrant) who attempts to draw to himself the trappings of religious legitimation. This change of emphasis lies behind the Zeus-like powers of the tyrant in tragedy and comedy, as detailed by Seaford and Henderson. The Prometheus Bound shows that if a tyrant can be conceived as a god, a god can also be conceived as a tyrant.

Morris' focus on cult is chiefly picked up by Seaford's treatment of the tyrant in tragedy. For Seaford, one crucial aspect of the tyrant is his perversion of ritual. We see this both in the stories associated with historical tyrants such as Polycrates, and in the abuse of ritual by tragic characters such as Clytemnestra. The abuse of the sacred forms part of a larger pattern in which the destruction of the royal family and the institution of polis cult becomes a structuring principle in Greek tragedy. The contrast with Morris' picture of the Bronze Age situation is instructive. There, kingly authority is ritual authority. In the later period, however, ritual becomes a tool in the pursuit of power, and is often perverted by that pursuit. Seaford's tragic tyrant exists in a problematic relationship with ritual, and successful polis cult is only possible once the tyrant has been expelled. Thus religious legitimation and power has been detached from the king and attached to the polis. It seems reasonable to consider this a symptom of the considerable transformation in governmental structures after the Bronze Age. Even if, with Morris, we find traces of communitarian government in the earlier period, it is clear that there has been a reconfiguration of attitudes towards the individual figure of authority. But the area in which the tension between individual and community is played out remains constant, and that area is ritual.

Another important characteristic of tyrannical power is wealth. Seaford points out that tyrants are greedy for money and the power it allows them to exercise. Yet tyrannical greed may have a positive counterpart in lavish expenditure, and here again, the importance of religious factors is striking. As Morris notes, the capacity of sanctuaries in the Archaic period to attract tyrannical largesse and the concomitant power and influence wielded by such sanctuaries, reminds us of the religious significance of kingship in the prehistoric period. Historical tyrants, both Greek and foreign, seek legitimation and negotiate power in their relationships with these sanctuaries. Just as tyrannical greed is intimately connected with impiety in the world of tragedy, so tyrannical expenditure upon offerings and religious building projects attempts to realign the tyrant and re-embed him in the religious sphere. In the tragic imagination, as Seaford suggests, the use of money may mark a failure in reciprocity, but on a pragmatic level it enables successful diplomatic exchange and marks pre-eminence. Thus it is that the Athenian demos engages in quasi-tyrannical expenditure with its massive use of public moneys, a phenomenon analyzed in Lisa Kallet's fascinating essay. The demos both taxes and spends in a demonstration of its pre-eminent power; its role as economic patron forestalls challenge from members of the elite, who do not have the resources to match it. The symbiotic relationship of tyranny, wealth, and expenditure (studied by Kallet and Seaford), taken together with the implication of the king or tyrant in religious concerns (as we see in the essays of Morris and Seaford), goes far to explain the extraordinary magnificence of the fifth-century building program on the Athenian acropolis. While Kallet rightly sees this as an instance of public patronage, it is significant that this patronage, to use Morris' words, marks "the convergence of polis and shrine."

The third area where Morris' treatment of kingship is significant for this volume as a whole is that of regional geographic variation. This concern manifests itself in the remaining essays in two ways. It emerges as an awareness that we can best understand Athenian developments in light of a broader Greek context. Thus we note that robust forms of kingship established themselves chiefly on the margins of the Greek world, while the communitarian model had greater force in the heartland. Nevertheless, a network of economic, military, and diplomatic relationships ensured lively exchanges between widely varying constitutions. My own essay explores the notion of "constitutional slide" as a function of the close proximity of differing forms of government. The richness of constitutional variation allows both Plato and Isocrates to criticize democratic tyranny and construct political structures based on ethics rather than on the number of people in whom power was vested. Regional variation mandates an awareness of multiple audiences and permits the development of "amphibolic" readings of texts as diverse as Isocrates' Panathenaicus and the funerary monument of Dexileos, the object of an unsettling analysis by Josiah Ober. Ober rightly points out that tyranny in the Classical period was a concern to poleis other than Athens. Our tendency towards Athenocentrism often predisposes us to ignore this wider context, but to do so is to ignore an important area of cultural exchange. Tyranny could remain a concern in Athens because the Athenians had frequent contacts with kings and tyrants in a politically unstable world. But it was an exportable concern, as Ober's investigation of the Erythrae decree concerning repairs to the statue of a tyrannicide shows. Athens liked to export democracy to the subject cities of its empire, but its hatred of tyranny, and the concomitant iconography of resistance to tyranny was just as real an export.

The most important geographic variation was, of course, the one to the east. As several contributors remark, the very word tyrant seems to come from the east, and early forms of royal iconography may have been eastern imports. For the historical period, the presence of the Persian empire and the unsuccessful attempt of that empire to take control of Greece in the early fifth century was decisive. The Persian Great King represented the most significant form of tyranny known to Greeks in the Classical period, and the figure of the Persian tyrant is memorably instantiated in the Xerxes of Aeschylus' Persians and of Herodotus. Consequently things eastern, especially eastern luxury, became suspect, at least officially. It is clear, however, that the official story is not the whole story, for the rule of the Great King, or indeed of any successful tyrant, could be viewed as a the pinnacle of human achievement and happiness (a view that Plato combats energetically). Kallet's interpretation of Pericles' statement in Thucydides' Funeral Oration that the Athenians "love beauty with economy" suggests how Athenian imperial power and the luxurious perquisites that came with it could be seen as an example of eastern excess—an interpretation that Pericles wants to suppress. Similarly, the evocation of eastern luxury in the figure of rejuvenated Demos in Aristophanes' Knights, and the Persian garments of Philocleon in the Wasps intimates a complicated Athenian love-hate relationship with the trappings of tyrannical eastern power.

It is in Herodotus, however, that the significance of what Carolyn Dewald calls the eastern "despotic template" is most pronounced. Her essay documents a bifurcation in Herodotus' narrative structure. On the one hand, his researches use the activities of eastern monarchs to establish a despotic template of abuse of power, distance between ruler and ruled, and an inherent momentum towards violence. On the other hand Greek despots, despite cruel acts, are very much like other "ferocious and highly intelligent" individuals. In this picture the Greek tyrant represents the desires of the individual writ large, a representation consistent with the popular beliefs about the happiness of tyrants we see expressed gnomically in tragedy and in the mouths of ambitious supermen in the making like Plato's Callicles. We might be inclined to see here, in the narrative tension between system and individual, a reflection of Greek individualism versus an imagined collectivist eastern mentality, but this would be an oversimplification, for it would fail to take into account the context in which Herodotus writes. We must imagine a world in which the archaic imagination of tyranny and historical memories of elite opportunists are modified by the events of the Persian wars into creating a model of the eastern tyrant. This image is then further modified by the events of the late fifth century, when the imperial ambition of Athens created the opportunity to apply the template at home. All the while the individual drive for power remained. It took the conception of demos as an individual to allow the merging of the two paradigms. Thus the system of empire could be viewed as the expression of the desires of the Athenians conceived as a coherent citizen body: the Demos, the individual that is Athens and whom we see crowned by Democracy in the relief atop the Eucrates Decree of 337. Greece's eastward glance allowed it to construct a paradigm it wished to reject, but the paradigm both repelled and attracted. Like eastern clothes and other imports, it was not easily excluded.

The question of the tension between Herodotus' individuals and a larger system returns us to the final significant area of Morris' paper. Despite the strength of the Bronze Age autonomous local communities she describes, we can trace evidence of conflict between the collective and the individual. The conflict is not between the da-mo and the wanax, but between the da-mo and a priestess over land ownership. On one level, this is unsurprising: wherever there is a collective, there will be antagonism between it and individuals. Nevertheless, the stand-off between community and authority figure is important. In spite of this possibility of communal autonomy in the prehistoric period, investiture scenes in art show the attraction of powerful individuals. So too in a later period, Morris remarks (following the lead of McGlew) that "the myth and cult of a founder hero celebrated individual autonomy that was soon subverted into an image of "collective sovereignty." Thus the authority of the polis exists in a dynamic tension with individual drives and desires. In his funeral oration Pericles celebrates the happy convergence of individual and collective goals in Classical Athens, but in less idealistic visions the tension was expressed less optimistically.

Seaford's essay brings out this tension clearly. Much is at stake in our interpretation of tragic tyranny: nothing less than our conception of the tragic hero and the community with which he or she interacts. Seaford believes that interpreters of tragedy have been insufficiently historical, particularly in the widespread belief that the tragic tyrant embodies the community. Thus the preeminent individual would be the community writ large, and disaster for one would be disaster for the other. Not so, says Seaford. The tragic tyrant embodies the Athenian experience of tyranny, belongs to the aetiological past and is adapted to the needs of the polis in the present. This means that the Athenian polis reinvents the hero of myth as the antitype of polis values, the tyrant, who both emerges from and controls the polis. Tragedy projects anxiety about the autonomy of the individual citizen "onto its most extreme embodiment, the horribly isolated autonomy of the tyrant" (p. xx). It may thus be the case, as Vincent Farenga (1981) has suggested, that conceptualizing the tyrant had an important part to play in the construction of an idea of the individual. Two different approaches to the tragic hero thus present two alternate ways of understanding the individual as he or she emerges from the background of the community. The dispute between Seaford and those with whom he disagrees represents an alternatively pessimistic or optimistic view about the inevitability of conflict between the autonomous individual and the polis. Must the ruler figure be a Pericles or an Alcibiades?

When we ask whether the individual hero is a king or a tyrant and conceive preeminent, even aggressive, individuality positively or negatively, we are asking a question analogous to the one which concerns a number of essays in this collection: would it have been possible to think positively of the Athenian demos or polis as a tyrant? For some politicians and intellectuals, the answer is a resounding "no". Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle use the metaphor of the people as tyrant to lay bare the flaws of Athenian democracy. This dissident discourse is examined by Ober. He suggests that in developed Athenian democracy, the demos was "sovereign" and democratic authority was viewed as continuous, tyrannical aberrations notwithstanding. The dissidents, however, viewed this authority as spurious: "legitimate (i.e. non-tyrannical) government can only arise when the demos has been deposed from its tyrannical position and political authority returned to those few who actually deserve it and are capable of its appropriate exercise". On this interpretation the demos is not sovereign but tyrant; popular ideology is the hegemon and can only be combated by re-education. The desire for tyranny must be expunged from individual and polis. My own contribution explores further the notion of misplaced authority as set out by Plato and Isocrates, and the strategies by which they attempt to construct non-democratic sources of authority. Democratic rhetorical culture tyrannically privileges (audience) desire over rational calculation of appropriate ends. Plato and Isocrates resist this tyranny and attempt to install an austere rationality as ruler in the city and the soul. Whereas democratic ideology, as expressed in tragedy, rejects tyranny as inimical to polis values, this philosophical discourse rejects democracy as an embodiment of tyranny. I use the word "embodiment" advisedly, for Plato in particular conceives the soul as a polity. The analogy between city and soul means that the individual can be seen as a collective and the collective as an individual. This blurring of distinctions breaks down the polarity between individual and polis and allows a range of interpretative moves, the most important of which is the emptying out of traditional democratic anti-tyrannical ideology. It also bestows political authority on the author of the philosophical text, since the relationship of author and audience is political and parallel to that between politician and audience. Political, rhetorical, and philosophical authority converge in the individual who has knowledge, but this authority is that of the king and rightful ruler.

The issue of blurring between individual and group is relevant to one of the most vexing problems discussed in the volume: to what extent could the demos conceive of itself as a tyrant? The issue is laid out in Raaflaub's masterly survey of the role of tyranny in fifth-century Athens. His analysis encompasses the ideologization of tyrannicide, the political measures enacted against tyranny, and the references to tyranny in literature. It establishes two things. First, that tyranny was a pervasive theme in literature and politics. Second, that the official democratic ideology viewed tyranny as almost uniformly negative: although a minority tradition might have seen tyranny as desirable, this view never entered the ideological mainstream. He thus mounts a challenging attack against Connor's influential thesis that tyranny is bad for the city but good for the tyrant, and that this notion lies behind references to Athens as a tyranny in Thucydides.

What, then, are we to make of the analyses of Kallet and Henderson? Both stress that the acquisition and exercise of quasi-tyrannical power might be seen as desirable by the ordinary Athenian citizen. Kallet focuses on the demos as tyrant in the realm of internal politics, and uncovers a complex network of democratic ideologies connected with the spending of public monies in a lavish display of megaloprepeia. She suggests that the Athenians might positively assess themselves as tyrannical in the following ways: "they possessed and spent 'tyrant-scale' wealth, they had economic power greater than any others and used it to express and strengthen their political power, and they were free, unaccountable to anyone but themselves". At the same time, she detects in our literary sources two conflicting attitudes towards such a connection. Pericles, with his vision of an aristocratic democracy, adopted a rhetoric that implicitly denied any link between the demos and a tyrant: the Athenian love of beauty and expenditure is not seen as excessive. Aristophanes, however, is pleased to associate his reformed democratic heroes such as Demos and Bdelycleon with eastern luxury. Henderson further teases out the nuances of Aristophanes' attitudes towards popular power and democratic leadership. In his reading of the comic poets, power is always seen as a good, as long as it is exercised collectively. While the tyranny of the demos as a corporate body is desirable, fear of tyranny is focused upon the problem of leadership: is it the elite or the demagogues who threaten to curtail the sovereignty of the people and impose a tyranny upon them?

The disagreement between Raaflaub on the one hand, and Henderson and Kallet on the other is extremely fruitful. It underlines the complex implications of the image of tyranny in the classical period. The difficulty of sorting out this complexity shows how central a topic the evaluation of tyranny is and was for our understanding of classical Athens. As McGlew points out, "tyranny functioned not simply as a liminal construct providing graphic images of incorrect citizen behavior, but as a defining model of political freedom, and as a bond between individual citizens." Rather than attempt to arbitrate a solution to the opposing positions, I shall explore how the opposition between the two positions helps us understand the importance of the figure of the tyrant for collapsing a variety of boundaries, those between public and private, individual and collective, ideology and practice.

A tradition concerning the enviability of tyranny had existed since the Archaic period. While disclaiming interest in private sentiments, Raaflaub admits that on a personal level individual Athenian citizens may have envied the wealth, power, and freedom of the tyrant. It was this tradition on which the comic poets drew: "Comedy could draw out aspects of the collective Athenian character that would otherwise show up in private rather than public contexts" (p. xx). But effective rhetoric and cultural policy does not deal with official ideology alone. If a strand of popular culture spoke of desires for magnificence and unrestrained freedom, it comes as no surprise that the comic poets and some politicians could play on these desires. Politicians could not do so explicitly, but Kallet's analysis of what was at stake in Pericles' offer to finance personally the building program on the Acropolis shows how such desires could be manipulated.

In spite of the negative picture of tragic tyrants such as Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (in the Oresteia) and Zeus (in the Prometheus Bound), Plato in the next century could still write that the testimony of tragic poets makes tyranny out to be a good thing. At Rep. 568b3-8 the tragedians are banned from the ideal state specifically because they hymn the praises of tyranny. Clearly, it was not in Plato's interests to be a subtle interpreter of tragedy. Nevertheless, as a simplistic account of what popular response to gnomic wisdom such as "tyranny is the greatest of gods" might be, his comment is illustrative. This is not to dispute that the dominant Athenian ideology of tyranny was negative, but to recognize that a complete account of a culture must acknowledge the gap between ideology and practice, or rather, the co-existence of several competing ideologies. The work of Margaret Miller on the Athenian reception of Persian culture provides a good example of this. As Kallet, following the lead of Leslie Kurke, points out, the cultivation of eastern luxury by aristocrats in the archaic period fell into disrepute after the Persian Wars. Miller's study, however, reveals that the social culture of Athens was not monolithic: "Athenian receptivity to Persian culture contradicts the contempt for the Oriental as expressed in public rhetoric." This example is particularly apt, since the conceptual link between Persia and tyranny was so close. Athenians may claim to despise effete Persian culture, but they adopt Persian fashions. They condemn tyranny, but glory in tyrannical or quasi-tyrannical power.

I suggest that this paradoxical attitude was facilitated by the blurring of the boundary between individual and collective. As Henderson notes, the negative Athenian image of the tyrant becomes more ambiguous when we move from the individual to the corporate demos. As several papers acknowledge, if we want to conceive of the demos as a tyrant, we must ask over whom it would rule. It is possible to answer that the demos is the entire citizen population of Athens (the official line). Or that it is an interest group within that population, opposed to the elites (the dissident line). We could then infer that the demos, qua the corporate body of the Athenians, tyrannizes over the subject cities in its empire. If conceived as a special interest group, however, it would tyrannize the elite. Because the demos can imagine itself as a body politic, it can block any move to criticize its internal rule; it was left to Plato to imagine a way around this block. To the question, "Whom does the demos rule," he replies "itself". Because he hypothesizes parts to the soul (which are analogous to those in the city), he can imagine tyrannizing oneself. But he can only do this because the citizenry has previously conceived of itself as a corporate individual. A tradition going back to Solon argues that tyranny is the supreme good for the individual, the supreme evil for the community. This polarity breaks down, however, when the term is applied to a collective. As a community the Athenians reject tyranny, as an individual, they aspire to it. They can be all things to all people, especially themselves.

The paradox of collectivity entails a conceptual slippage between demos the faction, demos the people, and the individual citizen. Similarly, I agree with Henderson that "though the distinction drawn by Kallet between tyrant demos (domestically) and tyrant polis (abroad) is real, it seems more a distinction drawn by outsiders and theoreticians than by the comic poets, for whom the demos' tyrannical power is all of a piece." Indeed, the scope of the remark may be extended beyond the comic poets. The assumption of collective identity makes different realms overlap: public and private, polis and self, internal civic and external hellenic politics—all interpenetrate and several truths combine. Competing ideologies and desires struggle for space in cities and their citizens.

This lack of uniformity within the body politic means that different political arenas, different genres and text, express differing ideologies of tyranny, both from each other and within themselves. The heterogeneity of conclusions drawn in this volume is partly an index of scholarly disagreement (over, e.g., the interpretation of Thucydides' Funeral Oration or Oedipus Tyrannus) and partly an indication of a lack of uniform ideology in our sources. Such heterogeneity is important when we evaluate the effect of the rhetoric of tyranny on audiences, both Athenian and non-Athenian. These audiences are not uniform. In my own essay I emphasize the multiple and panhellenic audiences of Plato and Isocrates, as well as suggesting that these authors see the human soul as an unpredictable audience whose potential range of response must be tamed by reason. Such an audience may conceive itself now in one role, now in another. Such versatility is especially typical of the Athenian citizen. Thus a reference to tyranny will resonate differently in Sparta, Macedon, and Athens, differently among the various factions within Athens, and differently within a single Athenian citizen when he thinks of Peisistratus, the Athenian empire, the Persian empire, and his own power and comfort. Kallet makes a similar point in her analysis of Pericles' use of the tyranny metaphor in Thucydides: the perspective of the speaker and of the audience is of paramount importance and influences reception of any remark. The Athenian empire may seem to be an unjust tyranny to Athenian quietists, but this attitude need not be generalized to all Athenians.

The question of audience brings us back, unsurprisingly, to tragedy. If we sidestep for a moment the problems associated with specifying the precise makeup of the audience in the Theatre of Dionysus, and imagine an audience whose ideologies and desires create a shifting play of attitudes, we may be better able to come to grips with the complexity of tragic tyranny. Let us consider Seaford's disagreement in this volume with Bernard Knox (1957) over the interpretation of Oedipus Tyrannus. I have already referred to this problem in general terms: does the tyrant represent the city, or does his autonomy represent the audience's deepest fears? In the case of Oedipus Tyrannus, the issue is especially pointed, given Knox's hypothesis that Oedipus is a reference to imperial Athens and his fall predicts Athens' own. Oedipus the tyrant is Athens the tyrant. Seaford's objections to this hypothesis are well taken; we are given no explicit textual indications that this is the line of interpretation we are meant to pursue. What we might call Seaford's ideology of tragedy would oppose such a reading; even if the tragic tyrant is the autonomous citizen writ large, he must still function as the scapegoat whose expulsion is necessary to ensure the correct functioning of the polis. Nevertheless, without denying the force of this powerful paradigm, one may still suggest that Oedipus in his glory before his fall embodies what must have been many people's ambition. What is more, Sophocles' Oedipus is separated by only a few years from Aristophanes' old man Demos, who needs to be rejuvenated into the monarch of Greece. It did not take much to see the demos as a collective individual, and the Athenian resonances of Oedipus are facilitated when we consider him not as a crude allegory of the polis, but as a possible aspect of the demos. It is not an aspect that can be explicitly recognized, and thus Oedipus pollutes himself and the city and ends his life as an exile. Tragedy endorses the ideology of democratic Athens, expressed in mythological aetiology, yet it also reveals the underside of that ideology as an expression not just of the demos' deepest fears, but of its desires. If, as one is so often tempted, one succumbs to the lure of reading the Peloponnesian War as the tragedy of Athens, the determination of the demos to do just what it wanted in the trial of the generals after Arginousae (a classical tyrannical characteristic) can appear as the quintessential act of tragic autonomy, taken to the extreme with no regard for consequences.

The ambivalence in the conception of the tyrant noted by several contributors matches the manifold contradictions in the demos remarked by intellectuals both ancient and modern. At the end of the fifth century, Parrhasius painted the famous picture of Demos described by Pliny (NH 35.36.69). The figure was:

varium iracundum iniustum inconstantem, eundem exorabilem clementem misericordem; gloriosum excelsum humilem ferocem fugacemque et omnia pariter

changeable, angry, unjust, inconstant, but also capable of being moved by entreaty, clement, merciful; boastful, lofty, humble, savage, evasive—and all at the same time.

Charlotte Schubert connects this portrayal with Plato's depiction of the democratic man at Resp. 560d-561a. Yet we should also think of the puzzling character of Demos in the Knights. He is shown to be foolish and gullible, easily deceived by the machinations of the Paphlagonian/Cleon. Yet towards the end of the play, he declares that he has never really been hoodwinked, but has only seemed so in order to catch out those who don't mean him well (cf. Henderson, this volume). Opinions may differ on the accuracy of this self-representation; this justification after the fact may be merely misguided complacency, or else, as the chorus speculates, deep cunning. Nevertheless, if the exchange is not to fall flat, there must be some sense in which both interpretations of his conduct are valid. Demos' behavior embraces the extremes of simplicity and guile. Similarly, the tyrant is a cunning political manipulator and the victim of base flattery who is unable to act in his own best interests. The tyrant and the demos, conceived as a collective, are both plagued by internal contradiction. The sovereignty to which both aspire can express itself as the authoritative exercise of power (thus desirable) and as uncontrolled recklessness and indulgence. The tyrant is thus a fruitful metaphor to apply to the democratic citizen body precisely because of the range of characteristics, both positive and negative, with which he can be associated. A full appreciation of the importance of tyranny for classical Athens must seek to preserve this ambivalence.

Robin Osborne's concluding essay reveals how, in spite of its promise for ideological self-identification, the contrast between democracy and tyranny was beginning to lack descriptive power at the beginning of the fourth century. Although the charge of tyranny provided a useful stick with which to beat oligarchs at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and although the paradoxical identification between democracy and tyranny was to remain a potent weapon in the dissident arsenal, Osborne argues that ideological focus on tyranny had obscured the reality of the need for constitutional change. As this need was recognized and acted upon, doctrinaire polarities began to break down and some constitutional change was enacted. If this analysis is correct, it goes some way towards explaining the terminological slippage described in my paper on Plato and Isocrates, where constitutional distinctions break down and are subsumed into an ethical focus. What it leaves unexplained is the continuing hostility on the part of intellectuals such as Plato and Isocrates towards even a somewhat reformed democracy. They do not seem to acknowledge any change in democratic culture between the radical democracy of the fifth century and that of their own time. One might interpret this intransigence in two ways. One might (with Josiah Ober) maintain that no real change of constitutional emphasis has taken place, or one might conclude that fifth-century democracy made a clearer and more identifiable target, especially for critics predisposed to see no good in any form of Athenian democracy after, say, Ephialtes. The emptying out of constitutional terminology in Plato and Isocrates may have been enabled by a popular perception of the inadequacy of current ideology of tyranny in the wake of the revolutions of 411 and 404, but they still seize upon tyranny as an indispensable rhetorical weapon.

Indeed, Osborne's analysis of the reactions to constitutional experimentation in the last part of the fifth century exposes the same tension between ideology and practice that has been a recurring theme in this introduction, although in a slightly different form. Whereas some papers have presented (or doubted) the gap between a democratic ideology that rejects tyranny and a practice that seems to reveal aspiration towards tyrannical power, Osborne posits a political reality at odds with the rhetoric used to describe it; attacks on and changes in the democracy were interpreted as tyrannical in retrospect although they may not have been tyrannically intended. The function of tyranny as "stick and glue" described by Kurt Raaflaub had become so fundamental an aspect of Athenian thought that it could hardly be abandoned. The need to organize political thought in polarities was so strong that it overrode a more nuanced appreciation of constitutional realities. For all the reasons gathered together in this introduction the polarity between demos and tyrant was useful, especially since the polarity could veer towards analogy. One can see why oligarchy occupied a rhetorically unappealing middle ground. It resisted easy personalization and easy grasp as an extreme. It could not easily be adapted to express the Athenian obsession with the individual and autonomy.

The question of whether we are to regard tyranny or oligarchy as the chief threat to developed Athenian democracy thus depends on the attitude we take to expressed ideology. According to one rhetoric, the Athenians continued to hate and fear the possibility of the imposition of a tyranny above other political dangers. For the reasons above and elaborated in these essays, the figure of the tyrant was a convenient repository in which to load fears about political change and about one's own darker impulses. But we must not allow rhetorical convenience to make us oversimplify a complex situation. Dominant ideology cannot be the whole story, and there are indications that allow us to tease out a different narrative of oligarchic threat. Similarly, we can trace the construction of an anti-tyrannical political self-image that was at odds with the dictates and temptations of tyrannical desire as traced by Aristophanes, Thucydides, and dissident thinkers of the fourth century. Not that we can oversimplify the distinctions between ideology and practice. It is clear that the counter image of the tyrannical demos is itself ideologically motivated, whether as an expression of a dissident agenda or of the imperial ambitions and self confidence of the democracy. The analysis of the intersection and interaction of these two competing ideological practices presents us with our best hope of a non-reductive cultural history.

The issues that are at the center of tyranny are also those at the center of life in the Athenian polis: money, relations with philoi, the relationship of the individual and the collective, and (related) the autonomy of the individual and the demos. Does individual autonomy threaten the existence of the collective? One way to attempt to solve this problem (as I suggest in my paper) is to conceive the individual as a collective, and the collective as an individual. This solution brings its own problems with it, however. Chief among these is the further blurring of the already unstable division between public and private. Here again, the figure of the tyrant is paradigmatic. He notoriously treats the city as his own private household and therefore invites disaster. Yet this blurring is not the unique characteristic of tyranny, since we see it again and again in the attitude of the democracy to its politicians. The distrust of Alcibiades' (proto-tyrannical) private life felt by the Athenians led to his disastrous recall from Sicily. Any candidate for public office had to be prepared for similar scrutiny. Indeed, one of Isocrates' chief complaints about Athens in his time was that the citizens did not exercise the same care with affairs of state as with their own private affairs (On the Peace 13, cf. 133). In a successful democracy, then, the public good becomes the private good, while in a city that is lapsing into tyranny the private good is imposed upon the public good. The danger of confusion is great however. If one treats the city like one's household, one could do it either in an exploitative fashion (as in tyranny) or benevolently (as in idealized democracy). The same caution applied to an Athenian demos that claimed authority over the empire. The problem does not lie with sovereignty or authority but with how authority is exercised. That exercise will always be implicated in, but escape from, the ideologies that underlie it. The complex and unstable relationship between democracy and tyranny is a reflection of the instability inherent in the use of power.



“The book is extremely successful in guiding the reader, who is not expected to be a classicist or ancient historian, through the paradoxes of the ideology of tyranny in classical Athens. [...] On the whole, this is a very stimulating volume, offering food for thought to historians, ancient and modern, and to anybody interested in political theory as well.”
The Historian

“This is a fascinating book, and should be an excellent stimulus for further discussion.”
Journal of Hellenic Studies

“Classicists around the English-speaking world will welcome such a treatment of tyranny, an increasingly important topic in studies of archaic and classical Greece.”
James F. McGlew, author of Tyranny and Political Culture in Ancient Greece and Citizens on Stage: Comedy and Political Culture in the Athenian Democracy


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