The Greek word tyrannos is probably derived from Lydian tûran, “lord”, and simply means “sole ruler”. The word is neutral, has associations with wealth and power and can therefore be synonymous with expressions like basileus, “king”. For example, the oldest known use of the word tyrannos is a fragment by the poet Archilochus describing king Gyges of Lydia (r.680-644).
Yet, in Greek history the tyrant (sometimes translated “despot”) was usually more than just a monarch. Since the mid-nineteenth century, ancient historians discern two types of tyranny:
- The “older” tyrants in mainland Greece of the seventh and sixth centuries. These people were often dissatisfied aristocrats who managed to seize control of the state by cooperating with the nouveaux riches: wealthy people from non-aristocratic families that had until then usually been excluded from government. Examples are Cypselus and Periander of Corinth, Pittacus of Mytilene, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Pisistratus of Athens, and Polycrates of Samos. These tyrannies were a normal phase in Greek history, marking the end of the old aristocracy and the beginning of oligarchic or even democratic rule.
- The “younger” tyrants in the periphery of the Greek world of the late fifth and fourth centuries. These people tried to expand the power of their city-states and were in fact creating larger political units. Example are Jason of Pherae and Agathocles of Syracuse.
Modern scholars tend to add two other types:
- The eastern tyrants. In the sixth to fourth centuries, many city states in Asia Minor were part of the Achaemenid or Persian empire and were ruled by one man (e.g., Aristagoras of Miletus), who served as an intermediary between the city and the great king.
- The western tyrants of the late sixth, early fifth centuries, to be found in Sicily and southern Italy. Using mercenary armies, people like Phalaris of Acragas, Hippocrates of Gela, and Gelon of Syracuse created political units that were larger than the old city-states. In fact, this type is a predecessor of type #2.
What these people have in common is that their sole rule was unconstitutional, and that, therefore, they had to justify their power. Usually, they claimed to provide more efficient government than the traditional rulers. And indeed, trade and commerce often benefited from the measures taken by tyrants, so that it was possible to embark on large-scale building policies, which also served as some sort of legitimization of the tyrant’s power.
The negative connotation of the word originated in fifth-century Athens, where the democrats more or less created the tyrant as their anti-type. Writers like Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides make it clear that democrats thought that the power of tyrants was uncontrolled, so that they easily became violent and mean despots, surrounded by sycophants. Democracy, in this philosophy, was the exact opposite: people were free to speak and power was controled and balanced.