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The Development of the Greek World, 800-500 BC


Jeffrey Lumb

Blacktown Girls High School


H1.1 describe and assess the significance of key people, groups, events, institutions, societies and sites within the historical context
H2 .1 explain historical factors and assess their significance in contributing to change and continuity in the ancient world
H4.1 use historical terms and concepts appropriately
H3.4 explain and evaluate differing perspectives and interpretations of the past
H3.3 analyse and evaluate sources for their usefulness and reliability

Principal Focus: Through an investigation of the archaeological and written sources for the development of the Greek world 800 - 500 BC, students learn about significant developments, forces and relevant historiographical issues that shaped the historical period.

Students learn about:

 Colonisation and tyranny





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Background to tyranny

The historian R.J. Littman states:

"When aristocratic power was disintegrating, disruption and class struggle boiled within Greek cities. Amid these upheavals tyrants emerged in many places."

The tyrants were autocrats but not despots. They often passed on their power to their sons, but it seldom survived for more than two or three generations. The unstable conditions that created tyranny soon passed. The tyrants often contributed to their own downfall, since by their policies they broke the power of the aristocrats and encouraged the rise of the hoplites and the new commercial class at the expense of the aristocracy. As these new groups became stronger, they would no longer tolerate rule by tyrants.

As the size of city states grew and their citizens became more politically aware, an increasing demand arose for the community's laws to be written down and published for all to see. In the course of the 7th century B.C. many cities selected influential and respected men to record the legal traditions of the state. These men were called lawgivers. In many cases they simply collected existing rules and customs, but sometimes they formulated new regulations to meet changing conditions, and these appeared side-by-side with old traditions. Quite often the lawgiver sought the approval of the gods for his work by consulting the oracle at Delphi. The code was then published, either proclaimed publicly or, using the new alphabetical script, inscribed on tablets of wood, bronze or stone.

In this same period, social and economic crises in many city states created a major political development. This was a form of government called tyranny, with the ruler known as a tyrant. However, the meaning of these words was quite different from today, when they signify the cruel and oppressive rule of a dictator.

A tyrant in the ancient Greek sense was a man who, without any hereditary or official right to rule, seized control of his city. Typically this was done with some violence and probably the support of local hoplites or hired mercenary troops.

View a source book (external website) with documents for the rise of tyranny c.650-550.

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In summary

Fitting tyranny into the context of the period 800-500 B.C.

I. The Dark Ages.

  1. After the fall of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilisation, Greek culture regressed for almost 300 years.
  2. The art of writing was lost.
  3. Cities were destroyed and plundered.
  4. The native Ionian population was enslaved by barbaric Dorians from the northern Balkan plains.
  5. Eventually cities began to grow again.
  6. These cities were walled for protection.
  7. Each city state was independent of each other.


II. The city state, or polis, became the dominant governmental structure on the island of Greece.

  1. The polis was small in size; Athens was the largest.
  2. Population remained relatively low; Athens at its height had only 40,000 people.
  3. Each polis had an acropolis, or high point, where the governmental and religious buildings were constructed.
  4. The market-place, or agora, was the meeting-place for most of the people and was the economic centre of the polis.
  5. The surrounding farmland supported the large population inside the walled cities.


III. Nobles began to challenge the hereditary kings for power in the polis between 800 and 650 BC.

  1. A power shift began to occur as wealthy nobles began to supply the military.
  2. Small farmers were forced to sell to wealthy nobles.
  3. Soon a merchant class developed to supply goods to an ever-expanding population.
  4. Debt slavery increased also and these people challenged free labourers for jobs.
  5. The general population became more disenfranchised and distrustful of wealthy leaders.


IV. Between 650-500 BC a new leader, the tyrant, began to challenge for political power in the polis.

  1. Class economic and political warfare broke out between the rising aristocracy and the general population.
  2. Aristocrats also began to fight among themselves.
  3. The poor began to turn to someone who could galvanise the poor and challenge the aristocracy.
  4. The tyrant, or one who seizes governmental power through extra-constitutional means and breaks with tradition, was created.
  5. A tyrant today is often thought of as cruel and mean; however, in early Greece they were often good.
  6. Tyrants often came from the middle class.
  7. They usually promised peace and prosperity.
  8. Tyranny took different forms in different city states: (a) in Athens it led to democracy; (b) in Sparta it led to totalitarianism; (c) in Corinth it led to oligarchy.

Littman, Robert, J., The Greek Experiment. Imperialism and Social Conflict 800-400 B.C.
Thames and Hudson, London, 1974.

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General causes for the rise of tyrants

Dissatisfaction with rule of nobles (or aristocrats) because of their control of political, military and economic life of the state, excessive taxation; worsening economic conditions of the lower classes, especially the threat of slavery for the failure to meet tax commitments and debt repayments; general oppression of the poor by the nobles.

Results of colonisation, economic, social and political, with consequent rise of a moneyed middle class (often a result of trade), discontented with their inferior political position. This new moneyed class had no say in government and, even though they possessed wealth, they still had inferior social status. They were still outside the circle of the nobles; there was still the threat of slavery; they had little or no say in commerce, expenditure and polices.

Trade also brought about the decline of the aristocrats because it increased the availability of metal. Increased supply decreased cost, so more people could afford armour. Any citizen who could furnish his own armour could become a knight, regardless of birth, and with this new status came more political power. This brought on the era of the hoplite.

Change in warfare: The nobles alone could afford the expensive armour and horses needed for warfare, and so society depended on them for defence and protection, and the population lacked the military capacity to seize power, even if they had wanted to. This situation changed with an increase of population and the resulting colonisation and trade, the introduction of a money economy, and the emergence of a new type of warfare, the hoplite phalanx. The panoply (set of weapons) of the hoplite soldier was expensive to purchase.  This new type of warfare gave the new moneyed middle class a means of purchasing positions in the military.

The introduction of the money economy in the seventh century also weakened the old aristocracy. Before money there was little a non-aristocratic landowner could do if he produced a surplus. Without more land he couldn't maintain more animals and he couldn't keep his crops. With a money economy he could sell off his surplus each year and gradually accumulate capital. Theognis of Megara, a sixth-century poet, said, "that money mixes the classes".

Dorian versus pre-Dorian conflicts in some areas, with would-be tyrants taking the side of the pre-Dorian people against their Dorian rulers.

Poorer classes found their lot was made worse, while others in society benefited from the new prosperity. The farmers were particularly affected.

Farmers' resentment grew as the tax burdens that were placed on them and the threat of slavery for failure to meet their taxes increased. Further, their enforced greater share in military burdens during the 600s B.C. was particularly resented.

Hence there was general discontent with the rule of the nobles and support for anyone promising their overthrow and promising to meet the needs of the middle and poorer classes.


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Specific tyrants

Pheidon of Argos: The earliest tyrant would appear to have been  Pheidon (of Argos). Pheidon seems to have inherited a claim to a weak kingship and using military means, perhaps hoplites, built a strong tyranny for himself and control over several neighbouring states for Argos. During his tyranny, he struck standard measures and possibly weights that were accepted by many other Peloponnesian cities.
The Cypselids of Corinth: The rule of the Bacchiads (nobles) was oppressive, harsh and unpopular. In addition, a new wealthy non-ruling class had developed as a result of some of Corinth's early colonisation. The deterioration of the nobles' prestige came as Corinth lost some of its colonies, such as Corcyra.

Cypselus established himself as tyrant (655-625 B.C.). With the support of discontented people and the army, he overthrew the nobles and divided their land among the people. Cypselus also encouraged commerce, began the colonisation of northern Greece and introduced a system of coinage. He was a patron of peace. His rule was popular.

Herodotus wrote: "... many of the Corinthians he drove into exile, many he deprived of their property, and still more, by a long way, of their lives."

Another author, Ephorus, whose work exists only in fragments, wrote more kindly of Cypselus, stating that he ruled mildly and did not need a bodyguard

Herodotus, however, continues:

"He ruled Corinth for 30 years, died in the height of prosperity, and was succeeded by his son Periander. To begin with Periander was less violent than his father, but soon surpassed him in bloody-mindedness and savagery."

Periander (625-585 B.C.) was an opponent of the nobles. He built a strong Corinthian fleet and promoted extensive colonisation from Leucas and Ambracia in the south to Appolonia in the north, and also in Potidaea. Corcyra  was regained. Alliances were concluded with Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, and the rulers of Lydia and Egypt. Periander encouraged public building programs, art, literature, architecture (Corinthian Order), commerce and industry (pottery). He displayed moderation towards the lower classes and encouraged the development of artisans. Initially, his tyranny was popular, but his later rule became harsh.

Periander was succeeded by his nephew Psammetrichus. Psammetrichus' tyranny was harsh and unpopular. His assassination ended tyranny in Corinth.

Cleisthenes of Sicyon: The rule of the Dorian nobility was harsh. Farmers and artisans found themselves heavily in debt, hence the rise of Orthagoras as tyrant (c. 650 B.C.). Little is known about him; however he succeeded in establishing a tyranny that was to last for three successive generations. He was succeeded by his son, Cleisthenes (c. 600-570 B.C.). Cleisthenes of Sicyon became the champion of the pre-Dorians against the Dorian nobles. Cleisthenes himself belonged to the non-Dorian family of Orthagoras and, with the support of the Ionian section of the inhabitants, he became tyrant. He  passed laws against the nobility, dividing their land. Cleisthenes encouraged temple construction, sculpture and religion while maintaining a lavish court. Some of the popular measures of Cleisthenes included his championing the cause of the Delphic oracle against the town of Crisa in the Sacred War of c. 595-596 BC. Crisa was destroyed, and Delphi became one of the meeting places of the Amphictyonic League, or religious league of neighbouring states. The Pythian games were re-established with new magnificence, and Cleisthenes won the first chariot race in 582. He built a new Sicyonian treasury at Delphi. 

His expansionist policies brought him into conflict with Dorian Argos. Following his death, the tyranny was ended by the Spartans c.560 B. C. and Dorian oligarchy was restored.

Of Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Herodotus wrote: "In addition to all this (Cleisthenes of Sikyon) changed the names of the Dorian tribes, in order to make a distinction between the Argive and the Sikyonian; moreover, the distinction was a highly invidious one, and designed to make fools of the Sikyonians, for the names he chose were derived from the words 'donkey' and 'pig', with only the ending changed. This applied to all the tribes except his own, which he named the Archelai, 'rulers of the people',  after his own royal office..." (page 365).

Thrasybulus of Miletus: The need of a firm government in the face of danger from Lydia, coupled with the reaction of the middle class against the nobles, led to the rise of Thrasybulus as tyrant (c. 620 B.C.).Thrasybulus pursued an aggressive policy towards the nobles. He encouraged the colonisation of the Black Sea, concluding alliances with Periander of Corinth and probably trade relations. During Thrasybulus' tyranny, Miletus was able to withstand invasion by the Lydians through his trade outlets and supplies of corn from Miletus' colonies. Generally, Miletus was strengthened. However Thrasybulus was deposed and, in the ensuing civil strife, Miletus came under Persian control.
Polycrates of Samos: The decline of Miletus gave Samos the opportunity to rise to prominence in Ionia. There was need for strong government in the face of Persia. Coupled with this was the dissatisfaction of the commercial class with the rule of the land-owning nobility. Hence the rise of Polycrates as tyrant (535-522 B.C.). Polycrates built a large fleet, annexed neighbouring Aegean islands, such as Rheneia Island, and some cities on the mainland, and promoted alliances and trade with Egypt and Cyrene. Polycrates tried to extend his influence over some Ionian cities. He encouraged many public works, woollen and metal industries, and patronised the arts. On his death, his brother Syloson set up a pro-Persian tyranny with Persian help.

Herodotus wrote: "Polycrates had seized power in the island and at the outset had divided his realm into three and gone shares with his brothers, Pantagnotus and Syloson; later however, he killed the former, banished the latter (the younger of the two) and held the whole island himself." (page 220).


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Athens: the nature and significance of the Peisistratid tyranny

Overview:The name most associated with tyranny in Athens is Peisistratus. Hero of the war with Megara over Salamis, Peisistratus organised the support of the Men of the Hill, the Thetes in general, some "declassed" upper class, mercenaries and other tyrants to gain control of Athens in 546 B.C. Peisistratus also used the discontent and dissatisfaction created by Solon's reforms, hence his rise as tyrant. Importantly for later Athenian history, Peisistratus did not overthrow Solon's constitution completely.

Factions in Athens: Solon's reforms, though important in easing the burden of the various groups crying out for help, did not please everybody. Three factions appeared in Athens.

(1) A group of nobles (or aristocrats to use another name for the group), whose dissatisfaction stemmed from their financial loss when Solon cancelled debts. These people were led by the Spartan Lycurgus (sharing the same name as the great Spartan law-giver). These people were the pedieis, "men of the plain", named because of the location they came from.

(2) A faction that had supported Solon, the paraloi, "men of the coast" led by Megacles (of the Alcmeonid family). Although fairly moderate, this group contained a core of radical thetes who were demanding redistribution of the land.

(3) The third group was the hyperakrioi, "men of the hills". These were largely thetes who wanted land reform in their favour. Peisistratus, hero of the war with Megara over Salamis, became their leader. Ambitious and energetic, Peisistratus wanted to establish himself as tyrant of Athens.

Peisistratus seized power in an elaborate trick that Herodotus records. In the year 561 B.C., Peisistratus appeared in the agora wounded (self-inflicted!), claiming he was being chased by people opposed to him because of the assistance he had given the common people. The assembly granted him a bodyguard of 50 armed men. Peisistratus used these 50 armed men to seize the acropolis and proclaimed himself ruler.

Megacles and Lycurgus (leaders of the other two factions) united to oppose Peisistratus. This did not last long. Peisistratus married Megacles' daughter but the marriage did not last. Megacles withdrew his support for Peisistratus. So, for a second time, Peisistratus was forced to flee from Athens.

Peisistratus returned a third time following the battle of Pallene, where many nobles were killed or exiled. Those who remained and whom Peisistratus did not consider trustworthy were compelled to provide their sons as hostages.

Peisistratus in power

With the death or exile of the nobles, Peisistratus confiscated their land and redistributed it among the people. He provided loans to peasants for agricultural purposes, while farmers were encouraged to cultivate and sell products of the vine and the olive (e.g. grapes, wine, vine leaves, olives, olive oil). The consequence was a great deal of agricultural development and the establishment of a strong farming class. These reforms built up large and stable revenue with tax on land produce. From these policies, Peisistratus gained the support of many, and his position as a "friend of the people" was reinforced.

Peisistratus' economic policies also included the exploitation of the mines in Thrace and Laurion. The Athenian economy was given a sound base with the establishment of a uniform silver currency to help trade. The system Peisistratus introduced replaced the old system where aristocratic families had issued their own coins. These new coins depicted an image of the goddess Athena, the guardian of Athens, the owl (a symbol of Athena) and the olive branch.

Although dating from 5th century Athens, these coins were similar to those circulated during the tyranny of Peisistratus.

5th Century Greek Coins
5th Century Greek Coins
(external website)

Industries were encouraged. Peisistratus also provided Athens with a reliable water supply by the building of the  enneacrunus or "nine springs" south-east of the acropolis, another action that gained him favour with poorer Athenians. The water supply of Peisistratus has been extensively excavated by archaeologists.

Roads were constructed, radiating from Athens. These roads were important in assisting both trade and the travels of Peisistratus' travelling judges.

Peisistratus also instituted an efficient and extensive judiciary, where travelling (or circuit) judges toured Attica for local cases. 

Under the tyranny of Peisistratus, Athens pursued a peaceful foreign policy. During his exile from Athens, after his initial failure at seizing power, Peisistratus had cultivated important friendships with the rulers of other states, such as Eretria, Thebes, Naxos, Thessaly and Macedonia. These friendships between rulers built alliances with Sparta, Argos, Corinth.

Limited colonisation took place around the Hellespont, mainly for strategic purposes, especially aiming at control of Black Sea grain and trade. 

During Peisistratus' rule the arts flourished. Religion, festivals, a public works program for the beautification of Athens and for employment were also features of his rule. Peisistratus saw this as an important way of unifying the people. An important religious festival that both Peisistratus and his son Hipparchus (who followed with his own tyranny) supported was the Panathenaic Festival. The Greater Panathenaia was introduced every four years (in the same year as the Delphic Festival), with athletic and musical contests. The incorporation of recitations from Homer was an important feature of the Peisistratid tyranny.

Peisistratus' contribution

Although he was a tyrant, his rule benefited Athens. As a result of his work, the power and influence of the great noble families again diminished. Local nobles' power was severely curtailed with the travelling judges and local court cases. Policies in agriculture, trade and industry brought peace and prosperity and gave a great number of Athenians the chance to improve financially. Land policies contributed to the development of an effective agricultural system. Athenian control of the Hellespont was to become the basis for future Athenian prosperity and Empire.

After Peisistratus' death, Hippias and Hipparchus ruled as joint tyrants. Hipparchus was murdered in 514 B.C. Following the murder of his brother, Hippias' rule became more harsh and tyrannical. He was expelled from Athens in 510 B.C., fleeing to Persia.


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Some sources on tyranny

Herodotus on tyranny... "....Believe me, there is nothing wickeder and bloodier in the world than despotism. If you think it is a good thing for other people why not give a lead by adopting it yourselves before trying to establish it elsewhere?...If only you knew, as we know, what irresponsible government can be, your advice about it now would be better than it is...."

Herodotus continues (on Peisistratus)... "Thus Peisistratus seized Athens for a third time with many mercenaries....he took as hostages the children of the Athenians who remained and did not flee at once and put them on Naxos...."

Thucydides on Hipparchus (one of Peisistratus' sons)... "for in general (Hipparchus) was not oppressive in his rule of the people, but held power without creating hostility. And indeed the sons of Peisistratus showed the utmost integrity and understanding while exacting from the Athenians only a twentieth of their produce, beautified their city, conducted its wars and performed its sacrifices. And in all ways the city itself was governed in accordance with the established laws except that they always took care that one of their number was in office...."


Plutarch (from Lives, Solon)... "When Peisistratus gained control he showed such respect for Solon, honouring him, being friendly to him and sending for him, that the latter became an adviser of his and approved many of his acts. Indeed, he kept most of Solon's laws, abiding by them himself in the first instance and compelling his friends to do likewise..."

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Results of tyranny

In additional to the specific results detailed above, tyranny had more general consequences.

* The power of the nobles was limited. There was a temporary end to class conflicts by driving out some of the nobles and seizing their land.

* There was an improvement in the condition of the commercial and industrial class because of trade, colonisation and a greater say in commercial policies.

* Colonies were founded.

* There was an improvement in the condition of the lower classes, encouragement of farm produce and less oppression of the poor. Agricultural reform was sometimes a consequence; land was divided and redistributed to farmers and taxation reduced.

* Improvements and advances in Greek culture were also a consequence of tyranny because of patronage and encouragement of the arts, literature, architecture, and religion.

* The codifying of the laws was a step in political evolution from oligarchy to the democratic principle of government.

* Trade and manufacturing were encouraged. Foreign craftspeople were attracted. In some cases they were offered citizenship in return for settling in a particular polis.

* Alliances with other tyrants and kings helped to usher in a period of peace.

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Research the life of one of the tyrants, answering the following questions:

(a) What was the family background of the tyrant you have chosen?

(b) How did this tyrant come to power?

(c) Why did this tyrant seize power and what methods did he use to remain in power?

(d) What social, economic and legislative changes did the tyrant make while in power?

(e) How did the tyrant lose power?

Looking at the sources: carefully read the sources above.....

What evidence is there to either support or conflict with the accounts of these ancient writers on the tyranny of Peisistratus?           Click here if you need help

Essay question

Herodotus on tyranny... "....Believe me, there is nothing wickeder and bloodier in the world than despotism. If you think it is a good thing for other people why not give a lead by adopting it yourselves before trying to establish it elsewhere?...If only you knew as we know, what irresponsible government can be, your advice about it now would be better than it is...."

Is Herodotus' assessment an accurate comment on all tyrants? In your answer specifically refer to the achievements of individual tyrants.

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Looking further

All of these books are easily obtainable:

Bradley, P. Ancient Greece: using evidence, pp 40-50
Bury, J. B. & Meiggs, R. A History of Greece, pp 105-132
Ehrenberg, V. From Solon to Socrates,  pp 77-91
Hennessy, D. (ed.) Studies in Ancient Greece, pp 46-56
Kelly, M. View from Olympus, pp 41-47 & pp 64-74
Koutsoukis, A. J. History of the Ancient World - Ancient Greece, pp 63-67
Roebuck, C. The World of Ancient Times, pp 192-197


The following Internet sites are excellent sources for a number of aspects relating to this historical period:

Classics Resources (external website)
An excellent site that has links to everything in the ancient world

Archaic Greek Tyranny Reconsidered by K. H. Kinzl (external website)

Ancient History Source Book for Greece (external website)

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilisation (also has Flash 4 version) (external website)
An excellent animated site with sound based around the acclaimed T.V. series

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