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The Peisistratid Tyranny: Conflicting Sources and Revisionist History at Work

One of the papers from the Eta Sigma Phi panel at the 2011 APA

Mara Kutter
University of California, Los Angeles

Before the Athenians had democracy,
they lived under tyranny. The Peisistratids
ruled Athens consecutively from 546/5
B.C. until 511/0 B.C. The sources concerning
the Peisistratids, including Herodotus,
Thucydides, the author of the Ath. Pol.,
Aristotle, and Plato, all composed their
works several decades or more after the end
of the tyranny, and thus were all susceptible
to the corrupting influence of later antityranny
attitudes. Not surprisingly then,
the sources often contradict one another.
In this paper, I will examine the various
accounts for each of the points in the chronology
of the Peisistratids after 528/7 B.C.,
and will demonstrate that the accounts of
Herodotus and Thucydides, which coalesce
satisfactorily, reveal the most comprehensive
and credible sequence of events. I will
then evaluate some of the key ramifications
of the tyranny’s demise on the political
cognizance of the Athenian dēmos.
After Peisistratus died, his eldest son,
Hippias, succeeded him, and continued to
manage the city moderately, as Peisistratus
himself had done (Thuc. 6.54). Hippias
did not immediately instigate a more
oppressive regime, and I will argue that
his regime was not particularly harsh by
contemporary standards. In regard to the
various reasons put forth about the motives
behind the murder of Hippias’ brother Hipparchus,
Thucydides’ account is the most
plausible. He reports that Harmodius and
Aristogeiton murdered Hipparchus because
he had stirred up their ill will through both
sexual advances and personal affronts,
but that the tyranny did not end until the
Spartans intervened several years later.
Furthermore, my paper will contend that
although the period between the murder
and Hippias’ deposition did witness actions
driven by the tyrant’s fear and anxiety
(Hdt. 5.55), it was not indeed a reign of
terror.
Athenian attitudes toward tyranny
remained complex throughout the fifth
and fourth centuries. The pervasive abhorrence
of tyranny that later existed was
not achieved immediately after Hippias’
deposition. It solidified when Hippias led
the Persians to Marathon in 490 B.C., and
the Athenians viewed the victory as an
ideological triumph of their fledgling democracy
over autocratic rule. Embarrassed
at having lived under tyranny for so long,
many Athenians sought to use falsehoods
to cover up their complicity and/or complacency.
A paradox existed in the fifth century,
however, between the receptions of
individuals as tyrants and of Athens herself
as tyrant, in that the Athenians were not
averse to the idea of wielding a collective
and metaphorical tyranny over the Delian
League (Thuc. 2.63). Nevertheless, the
official stance toward formal tyranny remained
firmly negative ([Ath. Pol.] 22), and
the definition of tyranny in Athens slowly
transformed to include anything at all that
opposed democracy.
In sum, this paper will argue that
Hippias’
rule was overall a moderate one,
and will from there illustrate that the
legacy of the Peisistratid tyranny went on
to complicate Athenian perceptions of
tyranny for centuries to come.

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