The Tyranny of Titles: The Complex Case of Oedipus

Rosie Wyles

What’s the difference between a tyrant and a king? It’s a question that matters quite a bit when it comes to understanding Greek tragedy – not least in working out how misleading it is to call Sophocles’ famous play about Oedipus’ downfall (the one in which he discovers that he’s killed his father and slept with his mother) Oedipus the King. The Greek title is Oedipus Tyrannos, so the crux of the matter is how to translate tyrannos (τύραννος).

This is a Greek word that is familiar to us in everyday language from the time that we first learn the names of dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus translates rather brilliantly to ‘tyrant-lizard’, but tyrannos can also be rendered simply as ‘king’. The choice of translation comes down to how we think Oedipus is being presented in the play. By our standards he certainly displays characteristics associated with tyrannical behaviour: he is paranoid about conspiracies to take his power, damning of a respected religious authority, and threatens violence to extract information from an elderly shepherd. In short, he hardly displays the decorum and reserve that we might expect from a monarch.

Oedipus confronts the Sphinx of Thebes (detail of Athenian vase by the ‘Achilles painter’, c. 445 BC; now in the Altes Museum, Berlin).

The debate is critical because of the ideological weight given to the notion of tyranny in fifth-century Athens. The democracy defined itself against the ideological phantom of tyranny. To be democratic, and a true citizen of Athens, was to stand up against tyranny. The ‘foundation myth’ of democracy reinforced this with its story of how two men killed the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus in the sixth century BC and so gave Athens isonomia (equality before the law). The pair of ‘tyrant slayers’, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, were celebrated with the unusual honour of a statue in the Agora. The importance of this statue group to Athenian identity is highlighted by its replacement after the Persian king Xerxes took the original as spoils during his invasion of Greece (480–479, as part of the so-called Persian Wars). And while the fifth-century Athenian historian Thucydides bemoans the inaccuracies of tradition concerning the actions of these two men (6.53–59),[1] they maintained their cultural standing as champions of democracy.

The tyrant-slayers Harmodius and Aristogeiton (2nd cent. AD Roman copy of the Athenian originals of 477/6 BC; now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples)

Beyond their prominent position in the visual landscape of Athens, the tyrant-slayers were also celebrated at the symposium through patriotic drinking songs. Here is an example:

ἐν μύρτου κλαδὶ τὸ ξίφος φορήσω,

ὥσπερ Ἁρμόδιος καὶ Ἀριστογείτων

ὅτε τὸν τύραννον κτανέτην

ἰσονόμους τ᾿ Ἀθήνας ἐποιησάτην. (PMG 893)

In a myrtle branch I will bear my sword,

like Harmodius and Aristogeiton

when they killed the tyrant

and made Athens a place of political equality (isonomia).[2]

Importantly, this drinking song is alluded to in a number of plays by the comedic playwright Aristophanes (c. 450 – c. 386 BC): in Acharnians (lines 980 and 1093), performed in 425 BC, in Wasps (line 1225), performed in 422 BC, and in Lysistrata, (lines 630–33), performed in 411 BC.[3] This demonstrates that the figures maintained topical relevance and that they were brought into the minds of the theatre audience.

Pace yourself during the drinking songs (interior of the Brygos Kylix, Athens, c. 480 BC; now in the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany)

In fact, it may have been the case that those attending the festival would have been systematically primed to reflect on these figures and the democratic stance against tyranny before watching the plays. After the restoration of democracy following the oligarchic coup in Athens in 411 BC, the Demophantus ‘anti-tyranny’ oath was sworn annually by citizens.[4] Peter Wilson argues that this oath would have been sworn by citizens in the Theatre of Dionysus, where these comedies were performed each year, and that an oath-swearing of this sort formed one of the pre-performance ceremonies even before 410/409 BC.[5]

The preoccupation with tyranny in Greek tragedy can certainly be mapped within the plays themselves and reaches as far back as at least Aeschylus’ Oresteia in 458 BC. In the first play of this trilogy, Agamemnon, there is a distinct clustering of language designed to style Clytemnestra (the queen) and her lover, Aegisthus, as a pair of tyrants. This is highlighted for example in the chorus of elders’ deliberations. They can hear the death-cries of their king Agamemnon, inside the palace, but theatrical convention dictates that they cannot enter. They nevertheless reflect on the action they might take, with one of the chorus members stating that it would be better to die rather than live under a tyranny (Ag. 1364–5).[6]

The Murder of Agamemnon (illustration from A.J. Church’s Stories from the Greek Tragedians, 1879)

This perspective is further reinforced in the trilogy’s second play, Choephoroi, or Libation Bearers. Orestes’ shocking action of killing his mother, in vengeance for his father’s murder, is mediated by the presentation of the deed as a form of tyrant-slaying. Orestes’ first words on being revealed after the murder are (Cho. 973-4):

ἴδεσθε χώρας τὴν διπλῆν τυραννίδα

πατροκτόνους τε δωμάτων πορθήτορας.

Behold the twin tyrants of this land,

my father’s murderers and my home’s destroyers![7]

Aeschylus invites the audience to view the tragic action through the filter of their ideological stance on tyranny.

While the date of Oedipus Tyrannus is uncertain (probably 430–426 BC), the engagement with the idea of tyranny in the Oresteia and later flirtations with it in Aristophanes demonstrate that it was an ongoing preoccupation within Athenian theatre. It justifies, and raises the stakes for, weighing up the question of how Sophocles intended his audience to perceive Oedipus and how the term tyrannos in the play should be translated. If we detect the deliberate attribution of characteristics that would be considered tyrannical, and therefore ideologically loaded for the Athenian audience, then how might that affect our assessment of the pathos generated for the tragedy’s protagonist?

Oedipus played by Louis Bouwmeester (Amsterdam, c. 1896)

Bernard Knox long ago grappled with the question of how tyrannos is used in the play, making a case for the counter-balancing force of Oedipus’ democratic characteristics.[8] Since Knox’s work, however, focalization – taking into account the way in which a character’s perspective affects descriptors – has emerged as a fruitful means of analysis within Classics and can be helpful here. When Creon labels Oedipus tyrannos (at lines 513–14), he is in a state of indignation.[9] This signals that he uses the word as a loaded term, i.e. as ‘tyrant’ – intending to discredit Oedipus’ charges through this negative categorization. Later, however, when the Corinthian messenger refers to Oedipus as tyrannos (925, 939), the context suggests that the term is used neutrally. From a Corinthian perspective, a land with a history of ‘tyrants’ (see Herodotus 3.48–53 and 5.92),[10] the term is interchangeable with ‘ruler’. Indeed, in the later phases of the play, the chorus of Theban elders acknowledge that Oedipus has come to be called basileus, or ‘king’ (1202).

Through these shifts in perspective, tyranny is presented as a dynamic concept rather than a permanent state; Oedipus is, importantly, not presented mono-dimensionally as a ‘tyrant’ throughout the play. But he displays tyrannical characteristics and the power of the term tyrannos to become charged in response is crucial. Its use as a political tool of this sort within Athens in the 420s is attested in Aristophanes’ Wasps (especially lines 488–99).[11] Here lies the significance of the term’s use within the play for Athens: through it Sophocles explores and expresses the Athenian preoccupation with, and anxiety over, tyranny as a concept. At the same time, the pathos evoked for this ruler within the play introduces further complexity to such scrutiny and categorization, potentially inviting a reassessment of the tyrant slayers’ action. 

Rosie Wyles is Lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent. Her publications include Costume in Greek Tragedy (2011) and Theatre Props and Civic Identity in Athens 458-405 BC (2020), which she discusses here (with thanks to the ‘Ancient World Breakfast Club’). Among her regular contributions to BBC radio are discussions of Sophocles’ Antigone, Aristophanes and Euripides’ Bacchae.


1 His discussion can be read here.
2 Athenaeus Deipnosophistae (Dons at Dinner) 15.695a–b (item X here).
3 For the original context, see here, here and here.
4 For the wording of the oath, see Andocides On the Mysteries 97, most conveniently readable here.
5 P. Wilson, ‘Tragic Honours and Democracy: Neglected Evidence for the Politics of the Athenian Dionysia.’ Classical Quarterly 59 (2009) 8–29 (available here with JSTOR access).
6 ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἀνεκτόν,ἀλλὰ κατθανεῖν κρατεῖ: / πεπαιτέρα γὰρ μοῖρα τῆς τυραννίδος. (‘No, it’s unbearable; no, it’s better to die, for that is a gentler fate than tyranny.’) The wider context can be consulted here.
7 The rest of the speech can be explored here.
8 B. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (Oxford UP, 1957). For an excellent summary and critique of Knox’s discussion see here.
9 This, and all other passages from this play, can most consulted most easily online here.
10 These accounts can be found here and here.
11 This famous part of the comedy can be read here.

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