What do you fear most? Tyranny and the Polis

Edmund Stewart

What do you fear most? Is it illness, such as Covid-19 or another global pandemic? Is it financial ruin or an economic crash? Is it global warming or the threat of a ‘climate crisis’? What we fear may tell us a lot about the society we live in.

Human beings are not always good at calculating risk and it is not always the most terrible things that frighten us the most. Sometimes we learn to live with awful and impending threats. Humans are used to making their homes under the shadow of volcanos or perched above shifting tectonic plates, as at Pompeii or Catania. Their future destruction is inevitable; but the timing is unknown, and nothing can be done about it. Thus, the Phaeacians of Homer’s Odyssey feast and sing and dance, even while the gods threaten to cover their city with a mountain. In the ancient world, the threat of starvation from bad harvests or sudden death from an inexplicable disease was ever present. Yet it is striking how rarely ancient authors express their fears of future pestilence or natural disaster. Of course, the effects of current plagues or famines were horrific: Thucydides (2.58), for example, tells us that a quarter of the troops at Potidaea in 430 BC succumbed to the plague that affected Athens that year and a similarly high mortality rate may be assumed among civilians in the crowded polis itself.[1]

Yet the survivors appear to have spent little energy in worrying about whether such evils would be revisited upon them again. There was too little they could do, beyond continuing their customary sacrifices to the gods. Paradoxically, it may be that we are most afraid when there is something we can do: when the problem belongs to the human sphere, where we feel we have most responsibility to act.

Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, John Martin, c. 1821 (Tate Britain, London).

The poet Solon, who was archon and lawgiver in Athens around 594 BC, expresses it thus in elegiac verse (couplets of alternating hexameter and pentameter verses):

Our state (πόλις) will never perish through the dispensation of Zeus or the intentions of the blessed immortal gods: for such a stout-hearted guardian, Pallas Athena, born of a mighty father, holds her hands over it. But it is the citizens themselves who by their acts of foolishness and subservience to money are willing to destroy a great city, and the mind of the people’s leaders is unjust; they are certain to suffer much pain as a result of their great outrages (ὕβριος). (fr. 4.1-8 West, trans. D.E. Gerber)

For Solon, the greatest threat to the polis was political and moral, not divine or natural: greed and injustice leading to strife and lawlessness.

One of Solon’s contemporaries was a poet named Theognis, who came from the neighbouring city of Megara, in around the mid-sixth century BC. This elegy, addressed to his young protégé Cyrnus, expresses similar fears regarding the lawlessness and injustice of his community:

Cyrnus, this city is pregnant and I am afraid she will give birth to a man who will set right our wicked insolence (κακῆς ὕβριος ἡμετέρης). These townsmen are still of sound mind, but their leaders have changed and fallen into the depths of depravity. Never yet, Cyrnus, have noble men destroyed a city, but whenever the base take delight in outrageous behaviour and ruin the people and give judgements in favour of the unjust, for the sake of their own profit and power, do not expect that city to remain quiet long, even if it is now utterly calm, whenever this is dear to base men, profit that comes along with public harm. From this arise civil strife, the spilling of kindred blood, and tyrants (μούναρχοι); may this city never delight in that. (39-52, trans. D.E. Gerber)

Solon, Merry Joseph Blondel, 1828 (Musee de Picardie, Amiens, France).

We know little about the life of Theognis beyond what we can glean from his poems. The historical events to which he alludes in the verses above are unknown. One possibility is that the “man who will set right our wicked insolence” is the tyrant Theagenes of Megara, who came to power around 600 BC.

Yet what is clear is that Theognis is afraid, even at a moment of relative calm and quiet. The city is like a mother before she is struck with sudden birth-pangs, or the earth before it is convulsed by an explosion of seismic pressure. Like Solon, what he fears is not natural but human: corruption that will lead to civic strife and violence. But he goes further than Solon in predicting the end result of lawlessness: out of civil conflict there will emerge a victor, the man who punishes the outrages (the Greek word is ὕβρις, “hubris”) that have gone before.

The final evil, in which he prays that the city will not take delight, is a concentration of power in one individual or narrow group: autocrats or monarchs (mounarchoi), Greek-derived words meaning “sole ruler”. Gerber, in the translation above, uses a word that is also derived from the Greek: “tyrants” (τύραννοι).

Relief of the Banquet of Ashurbanipal (reclining) from the Nineveh North Palace, 645–640 BC (British Museum, London).

Why is this concentration of power into the hands of one individual, the monarch or tyrant, especially to be feared? In many ways it is remarkable that Theognis should consider any form of rule other than autocracy. Virtually all the other peoples known to the Greeks at this time were ruled by kings who wielded complete power over the lives of their subjects. In the seventh century, the Kings of Assyria were the greatest potentates in the Near East, of whom the most famous was Ashurbanipal, whom later Greek writers called Sardanapalus, famed among them for his luxury and cruelty. In Theognis’ own time, the kings of Lydia were the most powerful rulers with whom the Greeks had regular contact. Their last king, Croesus, was overthrown in around 546 BC by a yet mightier successor: Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia.

Yet the Greeks had come to see the concentration of power in a strong man as an evil, even if it resulted in temporary stability after prolonged factionalism. The Greeks have been, and should be, credited with a distinctive model of political community: the polis or city-state (πόλις), for which Solon and Theognis are so concerned. The polis was a community of citizens, which in theory existed for the benefit of the citizen body, so that they could enjoy what Aristotle called “the good life” (Politics 1252b30), and which was regulated by law (νόμος, nomos).

The polis should not be confused, however, with another related and better-known concept, democracy (δημοκρατία), which was in fact only one way in which a polis might be organised. Democracies aimed to provide each citizen with an equal share: that is equal rights to speak in the Assembly, act as a juror and hold magistracies and state honours. Significant variations, however, existed between poleis, most important of which was the size of the ‘share’ which each citizen or group of citizens were granted in the constitution (πολιτεία, politeia). Modern political scientists tend to divide regimes into two types, democratic regimes that observe the Rule of Law, and non-democratic (or authoritarian) and largely illegitimate polities. The Greeks, however, observed no such distinction; rather there were at least three different ways in which a polis could be organised: democracy, oligarchy / aristocracy (ὀλιγαρχία / ἀριστοκρατία) and tyranny / monarchy (τυραννίς / μοναρχία).

The Acropolis of Athens, Leo von Klenze, 1846 (Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany).

To some extent all these constitutions are designed to monopolise power in the hands of a particular group: either the people (δῆμος), an elite, or one man and his family. Another way of understanding the Greek polis, however, is to see it as an attempt to prevent a monopoly of power by any given individual. When Solon was appointed leading magistrate (archōn, ἄρχων) and lawgiver by the Athenians, he adopted a form of constitution that was not a democracy, since it afforded the rich the greatest share of magistracies and honours in the polis. These were defined as the pentakosiomedimnoi (πεντακοσιομέδιμνοι), that is those who possessed enough land to produce annually 500 bushels (4,000-5,000 dry gallons) of agricultural produce. Nevertheless, in affording all citizens a share (however small) in the constitution, its intention was to limit the powers of the richest citizens. Solon aimed to prevent them from unjustly monopolising the “good life” to the exclusion of the poorest (which in some cases had included the actual enslavement of citizens for debt). And, most important, all citizens, rich and poor, agreed to be bound by the laws that Solon had established.

The differences between the Greek polis and Near Eastern kingdoms were perhaps subtle yet of paramount importance. The subjects of the kings of Assyria or Persia obeyed laws, as did the Greeks: the earliest known law code is from Babylon and dates to the eighteenth century BC (a copy is kept in the United Nations HQ in New York). However, this was the work of a king, Hammurabi, and his laws were intended for his subjects. Solon, by contrast, was not a ruler but a lawgiver (nomothetēs, νομοθέτης), and his laws were intended to apply to everyone. And while the members of the polis in theory freely consented to, and participated in, the constitution, the Greeks believed that the subjects of foreign monarchs were in effect slaves of their rulers.

The beginning of the Code of Hammurabi, engraved on a diorite stele, early/mid-18th century BC (Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, The Louvre, Paris, France).

It was possible, however, for the Greek polis and its institutions to fail. In these circumstances, a small group or individual might succeed in monopolising power over other citizens. This was worse than lawlessness, it was law determined by one person: a rule-based society where the boss makes the rules and you obey them. Solon had the opportunity to abuse the special position of trust granted him as lawgiver and so become a tyrant. He declined, he tells us in his poetry, and instead went into voluntary exile. Not everyone would possess such self-control. In the following generation, one man named Pisistratus and his family set out on a two-decade quest for power, that ended in the establishment of a tyranny in Athens in 546 BC.

It is sometimes supposed that the Greeks held an ambivalent view of tyranny and that in origin the word tyrannos was a neutral term for “ruler”, good or bad. This is false (here is not the space to make the argument in detail, although one point that should be noted is that no historical ruler ever, in any period, styles himself a tyrant). In actual fact, as the fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus put it, “there is nothing among mortals more unjust or steeped in blood than tyranny” (5.92a). This is not because all tyrants are bad people, but rather because, as Lord Acton (1834–1902) put it, “all power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Stamnos (vase for liquids) showing the death of the tyrant Hipparchus, Syriscus Painter, Athens, 475–470 BC (Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany).

By the fourth century, some authors were able to characterise Pisistratus’ rule as benign autocracy, though only in comparison to the despotic and cruel rule of his son Hippias. However, the views of those who actually lived through the tyranny of Pisistratus were very different, as shown by the altar and monument they erected to commemorate, as Thucydides puts it (6.55.1), “the injustices of the tyrants.” They similarly honoured the tyrannicides, who had assassinated Hipparchus, a younger son of Pisistratus, with statues, special privileges for their descendants, and even hero-cult offerings. A century later memories of tyranny, passed down through successive generations, remained bitter, as Thucydides tells us (6.53). And as late as 337/6 BC the Athenians passed a law permitting (and indeed encouraging) citizens to kill any prospective tyrant. No mention is made of oligarchs, despite the fact that two short-lived oligarchical regimes had emerged in 411 and 404/3. The reason, presumably, is not that tyranny was the only possible result of a coup, but that it was the worst possible result.

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, Italy).

Were the Greeks right? I would like to make a bold claim and suggest that they were. I would go further: tyranny in the twenty-first century is the greatest threat to human happiness and prosperity. This is not because individual tyrants are especially vicious, though that is certainly the case (consider allegations that Kim Yong Un has executed his own relatives using anti-aircraft guns or highly toxic chemical substances). Rather, it is that if the political community is the source of the “good life” of citizens, tyranny, as a monopolisation of all the good things in the state, leaves in the end the common citizen with nothing. This has many effects, some of them less obvious than others.

Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin meet at Vladivostok, Russia, in 2019.

Modern states have developed the ability to monopolise resources far beyond anything ancient tyrants would have dreamed of. As a result, collectivisation and the theft of private property can result in famines of terrifying proportions: the hunger caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, for example, caused the deaths of an estimated 45 million people in China. By contrast the global death toll from Covid-19 currently stands at 4.5 million. Similarly, in an age of nuclear warfare select state-leaders have the means to extinguish all human life on the planet. Some studies indicate that dictators who accumulate a high degree of personal power are more likely to risk war or take actions that might threaten to precipitate international crises. The increasing personalisation of power in China under Xi Jinping may thus become a growing and ongoing cause for concern.

Yet tyranny was not hated by the Greeks simply because of its crimes. Tyrants have the power to take away a citizen’s self-respect or honour (what the Greeks called ‘tīmē’, τιμή). Achilles in the Iliad (9.312–13) claimed that he despised like the gates of Hades the man who thinks one thing and says another.[2] But in a tyranny, where the tyrant can monopolise force and where everything, even your daily bread, is effectively in the gift of the despot, everyone thinks one thing and says another. Those who live through dictatorships routinely comment on this intense and constant oppression of the human soul and the huge sense of relief, following the fall of the regime, in being able to speak again without fear.

A propaganda photograph from a People’s Commune Collective Canteen, 1958: the slogan reads “Food is free; work hard.” In reality, millions of Chinese people starved to death owing to the collectivisation policies enforced by Mao.

But what is still worse is that citizens are presented with a choice: aid the regime in any way it wishes, or else suffer total exclusion from the “good life”, that is imprisonment, confiscation of property, torture, exile, death. If a citizen has any ambition to live, and live well, he must eventually become complicit in the regime. It is not just tyrants who are corrupted: they maintain their power by creating little despots who will tyrannise their subjects into submission. The Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier (1907–71), for example, in handing guns to local supporters called macoutes, extended his power into every street and neighbourhood, but in the process the macoutes themselves were also empowered to rob, rape and murder at will. A tyrannical state can fast become a city of gangsters.

There are many things in this world worthy of fear. But I would suggest that what is most frightening is not misfortune but a state in which the “good life” becomes impossible because of the constitution of your community. Losing a job owing to a recession is not as bad as permanent poverty owing to corruption. Losing power in an election is not as bad as permanent impotence in a dictatorship. Losing an argument is not as bad as being unable to speak. Inequality due to free competition is not an evil, but deliberate and legalised discrimination is.

What do you fear most?

Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham. His earlier essays for Antigone can be found here and here.

Further Reading

For a translation of the poems of Solon and Theognis, see either D.E. Gerber, Greek Lyric Poetry (Loeb Classical Library, 1999) or M.L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics, 1993). For the Greek text see the two volumes of West’s Iambi et Elegi Graeci ante Alexandrum cantati (Oxford UP, 1989–92). For an introduction to Solon and his historical context, see J. Blok and A. Lardinois (edd.), Solon of Athens: New Historical and Philological Approaches (Brill, Leiden, 2017) and especially the article by E.M. Harris on “Solon and the Spirit of the Laws” (290–318). For a more detailed account of my own (developing) ideas on tyranny, see “The Tyrant’s Progress: The Meaning of ΤΥΡΑΝΝΟΣ in Plato and Aristotle,” in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought 38 (2021) 208–36. The bibliography on modern dictatorships is vast, but I have found particularly helpful F. Dikötter, Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, London, 2020) and B. Geddes, J.G. Wright, J. Wright and E. Frantz, How Dictatorships Work: Power, Personalization, and Collapse (Cambridge UP, 2018).


1 Thucydides’ account can be read in Greek and English here.
2 This passage and its broader context can be studied here.