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Herodotus on Tyranny

Author(s): Arther Ferrill


Source: Historia: Zeitschrift fr Alte Geschichte, Bd. 27, H. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1978), pp. 385-398
Published by: Franz Steiner Verlag
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ABHANDLUNGEN
HERODOTUS ON TYRANNY
1. TheCurrentInterpretation
Until the last few years modern scholars have been emphatic in the
contention that there were two periods of Greek tyrannyl. In the early
period, down to about 400 B. C., tyranny was a response to aristocratic
control of the city-states. Only through tyranny were the Greeks able to
destroy the strangle-hold of the aristocracy on the middle and lower classes.
Individual tyrants usurped power with "popular" support, sometimes but
not always by force, and subordinated, or exiled, or executed the aristocrats of their city2. Modern historians have generally believed that this
period of tyranny was a necessary step in the evolution toward democracy3.
After 400 B. C. tyranny can be regarded in the traditional manner as the
government of an arbitrary, despotic, and frequently cruel ruler who is
completely dominant in the state. In this second period tyranny is unpopular
and the very opposite of democratic institutions. All the modern connotations of the word tyrant are appropriate for this second period of Greek
tyranny4.
It is not my purpose to challenge the modern division of Greek tyranny
into two periods although some speculations about this schema will be
made in the conclusion5. There is, however, a corollary to the modern view
I

The bibliography on Greek tyranny is extensive. The following list is not complete,
but hopefully it includes the most important works: H. G. Plass, Die Tyrannisin ibren
beidenPeriodenbei den a/ten Griechen(Bremen, 1852); E. Zeller, ,,Ober den Begriff der
Tyrannis bei den Griechen," KleineSchriften(Berlin, 1910), I, 398-409; P. N. Ure, The
Origins of Tyranny (Cambridge, 1922); Malcolm MacLaren, Jr., "Tyranny", in The
Greek Political Experience:Studiesin Honor of Willidm Kelly Prentice(Princeton, 1941),
pp. 78-92; Mary White, ,,Greek Tyranny", Phoenix, 9 (1955), 1-18; A. Andrewes, The
Greek Tyrants (New York, 1963); and Helmut Berve, Die Tyrannisbei den Griechen,2
vols. (Munich, 1967). See also the irnportant works cited in n. 5 and in n. 39.
2 The definition of a tyrant as a popular usurper of power is widespread. See J. B.
Bury and R. Meiggs. A History of Greece,4th ed. (New York 1975), p. 105. Bury and
Meiggs deal with the early tyrants under the heading "Democratic Movements".
3 W. W. How and J. Wells, A Commentary
on Herodotus(Oxford, 1928), Vol. II, 339,
in an appendix entitled "Herodotus on Tyranny" say: "We see that it (tyranny) was a
necessary stage in the progress of the state ..
4 Plato and Aristotle, it is agreed, are unequivocal in their condemnation of tyranny.
See Andrewes, Greek Tyrants,pp. 28-29.
5 Some recent works have suggested a modification of the traditional view. Claude
Moss6, La Tyranniedansla Grice Antique (Paris, 1969), sees a closer connection between
26

Historia, Band XXVII/3 (1978) 6 Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH, D-6200 Wiesbaden

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386

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FERRILL

which is perhaps not as sound as it is generally believed to be. That corollary


is that the Greeks of the early period did not use the word "tyrant" with its
modern connotations of evil. According to nineteenth and twentieth century
scholars the word had, in addition to the evil connotations commonly
associated with it, the purely "neutral" meaning of "ruler."6 All scholars
are agreed that the word is frequently used in this neutral sense by the lyric
poets, the tragedians, Herodotus, and Thucydides7. Therefore, when these
early Greek literary figures use the word, it is not possible to assume automatically that they necessarily disapprove of the man to whom they apply
it.
I have serious reservations about the validity of the above view, but in
this paper I am limiting my study solely to Herodotus' use of the word
tyrannos.Modern scholars are in agreement that the word tyrannos,as used
by Herodotus, had a vague and ambiguous meaning8. How and Wells say
that he sometimes used tyrannos to mean "nothing more than absolute
monarch," but also that he used it to mean "a rule illegal in origin and
character." According to them Herodotus often termed the same person
both "basileus" and "tyrannos" as though there were very little difference9.
Other scholars have made the same claim with greater precision, intensity,
and clarity.
"He makes no firm distinction", wrote A. A. Andrewes, "between
the terms he uses. For the old-established kings of the East he usually
says king but sometimes tyrant, for the upstart tyrannies of Greek
cities mostly tyrant but often king or monarchos,and within a single
chapter he uses both tyrannos and basileus for Telys, a late sixthcentury ruler of Sybaris whom Aristotle would certainly have classified as tyrant. It is clear that it did not much matter to him which
of these words he used ... "10

the first phase of Greek tyranny and its later forms than has been fashionable. Robert
Drews, "The First Tyrants in Greece", Historia, 21 (1972), 129-144, argues that the
cause of early tyranny was "the desire for power and prestige". Although Drews does
not make the point, if he is right, and I believe that he is, his argument could be used to
modify the traditionalclassificationsof Greek tyranny.
6 For the bibliography on the word tyrant, in addition to the items cited above in
n. 1, see Berve, Die Tyrannis,II, 517.
7 A good, representative discussion is that by Andrewes, Greek Tyrants,pp. 20-30.
8 How and Wells, Commentary
on Herodotus,II, 338, are the only exception: "The
picture of tyranny and tyrants given by H. is one of almost unrelieved blackness." But
they are very inconsistent in this view as is evident from the quotations in the text below.
9 How and Wells, Commentaryon Herodotus,II, 359, n. 1. See also, MacLaren, Greek
Political Experience,p. 78: "Herodotus also applies both tyrannos and basileus to the
same man indiscriminately."
10 Andrewes, Greek Tyrants,p. 27.

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Herodotuson Tyranny

387

MaryWhite,in an importantand intelligentdiscussionof Greektyranny,


made essentiallythe same observation about the use of the word tyrantin
Herodotus:
"Although the Attic use of the word was becong increasingly
coloured with this derogatorymeaning, the Ionic continued to have
both senses. The two fifth-centuryhistorians, the Ionian Herodotos
and the Athenian Thucydides illustrate this. Herodotos applies it
constantly to oriental kings and their power, occasionally even to
governors or satraps,and regularlyto the various Greek tyrants, in
fact to one-man rule of any kind with no implicaton about the character of the rule.""11
Berve also gave his imprimatur to the currentview:
,,Den menschlich-religiosenAspekt teilt mit dem groBen Tragiker
sein Zeitgenosse Herodot, der auch darin mit ihm iibereinstimmt,
daBer, aus demselbenGrunde wie dieser, die Bezeichnungenbasileus
und tyrannos nicht selten promiscue gebraucht. In den erzahlenden
Partienmag es zunachsterstaunen,daBder Mann, der selbst an einem
Versuch, die Tyrannis in seiner Heimat Halikarnassoszu sttirzen,
beteiligt gewesen war, keine unbedingteTyrannenfeindschaftzeigt."12
In a recent work that deals directlywith Herodotus K. H. Waterswrote
that ". . . the 'constitutional' aspect of tyranny interested him [Herodotus]

very little. Similarly,he characterizesby the same terms persons who may
well be legally monarches, e. g., by heredity; rt6pxvvoqand PMa&xe6q
together with their congeners of abstract or verbal form are completely
interchangeable,with ,oU'vMpXoq
occasionally substituting for either."'3
It is my thesis that Herodotus did not use basileus,monarchos,
and tyrannos
interchangeablyin an arbitraryfashion14.His use of the words is remarkably
consistent and illustratesthroughout his history an overwhelming hostility
toward tyranny.The following pages will deal with specificappearancesof
the words basileusr,monarchos,and tyrannos, but in order to determine the
significanceof certain individual passages, the following statistics should
be kept in mind. Altogether in Herodotus' history, basileusand its variants
are used 860 times. Monarchos,
on the other hand, is used relativelyinfre-

11

White, Phoenix, 9 (1955), 3.

12

Berve, Die Tyrannis,I, 195.

13 Kenneth H. Waters, Herodotoson Tyrantsand Despots: A Study in Objctivity (Hi-

storia: Einzelschriften, Heft 15, 1971), p. 6.


14 Throughout the paper, when I use the words tyrannos,
basileusand monarchos,
I include their relatedvariants:nupavvweoc,
?upzw(V, aP 2CLOx,a t60,
AarLknEn,
MMLX?
t a,

and 4ouvopX(E.
tLouvoapXF&,

260

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388

ARTHER FERRILL

quently, 19 times. Tyrannos appears 128 times, much more often than
monarchos,much less often than basileusl5.
2. Basileus (King)
Undoubtedly the reason for the frequent use of basileusis that Herodotus
normally applied this term to the kings of Asia Minor and the East, including Persia, as well as to the hereditary monarchs of Greece. Most of the
references to basileuswe can therefore ignore. Whenever Herodotus applies
the term to an obviously legitimate monarch such as Croesus or Xerxes,
he is using it as we would expect him to. What is of great significance to this
study is Herodotus' use of basiles to refer to historical figures who are
ordinarily considered to be tyrants, that is, rulers who had absolute power
and exercised it arbitrarily but who were not in any true sense legitimate or
constitutional kings. If in fact Herodotus used basileus to describe such
rulers, it would be necessary to concede that he used the terms basileusand
yrannosinterchangeably.
Actually Herodotus applied the title basileusto tyrants very infrequently,
and for special reasons. Of the 860 appearances of the word basileusonly
8 refer to tyrants'6. In four of the eight cases basileus is used in direct
discourse. One of them is a quotation from a Delphic oracle given to Cypselus and referring to him as basileusof Corinth (V, 92). Since this is a direct
quotation from the oracle it suggests nothing about Herodotus' use of the
word. In another case a fisherman, giving a large fish to Polycrates of Samos,
addressed the tyrant as "Q Bcaes-i." (III, 42). Periander at one point calls
(III, 52). Elsehis son Lycophron, "Kop[vtou rr% evaccLtovo; 3a?s6
where an Athenian envoy in direct speech addressed Gelo, the tyrant of
Syracuse, as "'Q ,3a?sXiu" (VII, 161). The fact that these notorious tyrants
are referred to in direct speech as basileussuggests that the word "tyrant"
had an evil connotation and could not be used in a direct address to a ruler.
It certainly does not indicate that Herodotus used the terms basileusand
tyrannos synonymously and interchangeably. When Herodotus refers to
Polycrates, Periander, Cypselus, and Gelon in his own words (rather than in
direct discourse) he calls them tyrannos, not basileus.
15 For convenience I have taken these figures from J. Enoch Powell, A Lexicon to
En
Herodotus (Cambridge,1938), s. v., oc(XetoL (9),
aLXe6q(624), paomeC c (98), XaLXTGn
(1),
(60),
(68),
aGLXLx6q
caXOLXrnoq
Vouvapxico (3), .uvotcvpXt(v(6), pLo6vapXo4(10),
.npmvve6co(27), )pocvvE (36), s'popavvoq(65). In general Powell is quite accurate al-

though I disagree with him on a few details. See below, n. 16.


(1), lists nine, but one of them
aLhC?X5(8) and
16 Powell, Lexicon, s. V.,
aLj((Hdt., III, 140) is inaccurate.The reference in that passage is not to a Greek tyrant but to
Darius. For specific references to other disputed passages see the text and notes below.

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Herodotus on Tyranny

389

There are four remaining passages (out of 860 )where Herodotus apparently uses basileus interchangeably with tyrannos. One of them is a well
known passage cited more often than any other to prove that Herodotus
did not make any clear distinctions between kingship and tyranny. In it
Herodotus uses both basileusand tyrannos to describe Telys, the ruler of
Sybaris (V, 44). But actually Herodotus very carefully indicates that his
story comes from two opposing sources:
"Just at this time, the Sybarites say, they and their king (basileus)
Telys were about to make war upon Croton, and the Crotoniates,
greatly alarmed, begged Dorieus to aid them. Dorieus was prevailed
upon, took part in the war against Sybaris, and had a share in taking
the town. Such is the account which the Sybarites give of what was
done by Dorieus and his companions. The Crotoniates, on the other
hand, maintain that no foreigner lent them aid in their war against the
Sybarites, except Callias the Elean, a soothsayer of the race of the
Iamidae; and he only forsook Telys the Sybaritic king (tyrannos),
and deserted to their side, when he found on sacrificing that the victims were not favourable to an attack on Croton. Such is the account
which each party gives of these matters" (Rawlinson).
In relating the version favorable to the Sybarites and their ruler Telys,
Herodotus used the term basileus. In the version of Croton, hostile to
Sybaris and Telys, he uses tyrannos.Clearly he is using the terminology of
his opposing sources, but probably intentionally, for literary effect, to draw
upon the evil connotations of the word tyrannos. Basileus and tyrannosare
not used interchangeably. It is the difference in meaning of the two words
which gives the passages some dramatic color, color which was lost entirely
by Rawlinson's decision to translate both words as "king".
Another passage in which Herodotus has been accused of using basileus
and tyrannos as synonyms is VI, 23-24. The subject of the anecdote is
Scythas, ruler of Zancle, whom Herodotus describes as both basileusand
monarchos,but not as tyrannos. Tyrannoswas reserved for Scythas' enemies,
Anaxilaus, the ruler of Rhegium, and Hippocrates, ruler of Gela. Many
scholars believe that Scythas was probably not a true king and that he was
as much a tyrannos as Anaxilaus and Hippocrates'7. This is based partly
upon the assumption that Herodotus used the terms basileusand tyrannos
interchangeably, and partly on the assumption that Scythas, who was not
a native of Zancle, could have acquired control there only through an illegal

17 See the discussion, with bibliography, in How


and Wells, Commentary
on Herodotus
VI, 23.

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390

ARTHER FERRILL

usurpationof power in alliance with Hippocrates,the tyrant of Gela18.If,


however, Herodotus did not use the terms basileusand tyrannosinterchangeably, how can this passage be explained?
There are two possibilities, one of which is clearlypreferableto the easy
assumption that Herodotus simply used basileusand tyrannosas synonyms.
One is that Scythaswas in fact the legitimate king of Zancle. There is no
positive evidence one way or the other, but it is unlikely in light of the
known political patterns of Sicily at the time19.
The other possibility, however, is reallythe best solution to the problem.
It is that Herodotus' source was favorable to Scythasand referredto him
by way of compliment as basileus.We have alreadyseen that tyrants were
addressedby their flatterersnot as tyrannosbut as basileus.There is no doubt
that Herodotus' source was favorable to Scythas. Herodotus strongly
emphasizes Scythas' reputation for virtue20. We can assume then that
Herodotus' source did not tell him that Scythas was a tyrant and that
Herodotus thought of him as a basileuswhether in fact he was legitimately
basileusor not.

There are only two other instanceswhich have been used to prove that
Herodotus regarded basileusand tyrannosas synonyms. One concerns
Aristophilides,ruler of Tarentum(III, 136). Unfortunatelywe know nothing more about him other than what Herodotus tells us, which is very little
except that he was a kind man and basileusof Tarentum.Some scholarshave
assumed that Aristophilideswas in fact a tyrant like most of the rulers of
WesternGreekcities and that we have here simplyanothercase of Herodotus
using basileussynonymously with tyrannos21.

That assumptionis unsound for two reasons. One reason, on the basis
of the evidence in the text above, is that there is no good cause to assume
that Herodotus did equate basileuswith tyrannos.But another independent
and strong argument is that Tarentum,as a Spartancolony, is one of the
few WesternGreek cities where we could reasonablyexpect to find a legitimate constitutional monarchy22.Aristophilides was not actually a tyrannos whom Herodotus carelesslycalled basileus.He was in all likelihood a
basileus,and Herodotus'use of the word was correct,properand consistent.
To this point all of the examplescited by scholarsto show that Herodotus
18 T. J. Dunbabin, The WesternGreeks(Oxford, 1948), pp. 384-385.
19 Dunbabin, WesternGreeks,p. 385, with bibliography.
20 Hdt., VI, 24. See also the comments by How and Wells, Commentarv
on Herodotus,
VI, 23.
21 Thus Powell, Lexicon,s. v.,
aLXeu', lists this as an example of basileusapplied to
a tyrant.
22 Dunbabin, WesternGreeks,p. 385, and How and Wells, Commentary
on Herodotus,
I, 298.

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Herodotus on Tyranny

391

used basileusas the equivalent of tyrannosare actually quite misleading. Only


one of the 860 uses of basileusand its variants remains to be considered. The
passage in question concerns Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus (V, 35). Herodotus makes it clear that Aristagoras was an unpopular tyrant (V, 37), but
he does once use the word Pamkc[-n (kingship) to describe Aristagoras'
government: "His fear was great, lest ... he should be ousted from the
government (kingship) of Miletus". Since it was Aristagoras himself who
was fearing (thinking), it is reasonable for Herodotus to assume that he
thought of himself in a flattering way, and thought "kingship" rather than
"tyranny". This argument is admittedly a weak one and would not stand
on its own if there were other examples of Herodotus using basileusinterchangeably with tyrannos. But in 859 out of 860 cases there is no real inconsistency in his use of the word basileusand a weak argument in the one
remaining case can be strengthened by the sheer weight of numbers. Or
perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule.
3. Tyrantos
Scholars assume that Herodotus used the word tyrannos frequently to
mean simply "ruler", and sometimes to mean a usurper of power, but they
insist that he had no sharply defined concept of tyranny in the Platonic or
Aristotelian sense. That is, Herodotus did not always use the word to
suggest that a particular ruler arbitrarily abused his power. Mary White
states the current view most precisely:
"Herodotus applies it [tyrannos]constantly to oriental kings and their
power, occasionally even to governors or satraps, and regularly to
the various Greek tyrants, in fact to one-man rule of any kind with
no implication about the character of the rule ... Thucydides, on
the other hand, restricts the term to the well known tyrants of
Greece and the West or to tyranny as an illegal and despotic form of
government" 23.
White's distinction is misleading. When Herodotus used the word tyrannos, he used it with the connotation of arbitrary, despotic, and evil government, and he was very consistent in using it that way.
It is true that Herodotus occasionally used tyrannos to refer to oriental
kings, but, when he did (only about 20 times in his entire work), the word
did not have the simple meaning of "ruler". It meant despotic and arbitrary
ruler. And this was a legitimate classical Greek usage of the term. Aristotle
himself divided tyranny into three basic types - one of which was oriental
monarchy24. He recognized that oriental monarchy was constitutionally
23

See above, n. 11.

24 Arist., Pol., 1295a and 1285a.

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ARTHER FERRILL

legitimate, but because its unlimited power was frequently abused, it was
also tyrannical. Herodotus' view of oriental monarchy was essentially the
same as Aristotle's. An oriental monarch was a legitimate basileus,but the
bybrisof the Persian king made him a tyrannos,a major theme of the Persian
wars25.
Despite statements in modern scholarship to the contrary, Herodotus
does not use the word tyrannosto refer to satraps and governors. There is
only one exception. At the very end of his history (IX, 116) Herodotus
says: "The whole district was under the rule of (i.e., was tyrannized by)
Artayctas, one of the king's satraps; who was a Persian, but a wicked and
a cruel man". In this case the description "Csrt.v g xdt O'VaaOoxhc"
undoubtedly accounts for the very exceptional use of the verb "tyrannize"
in discussing the administration of a satrap. Also important is the fact that
the area "tyrannized" by the satrap was in Greece, and was probably not his
official satrapy. Except for this one instance, Herodotus reserved the word
tyrannosto describe oriental kings and Greek tyrants226.
There is one famous passage in Herodotus (III, 80-82) where his use of
the words "tyrant" and "ctyranny"is especially significant. The scene is set
in Persia after the death of King Cambyses. The Persian nobles met to
determine the fate of the government, and at the meeting, according to
Herodotus, three of the leading Persian nobles, Otanes, Megabyzus, and
Darius, engaged in a debate about the best possible form of government.
Otanes argued for democracy:
"True it is that kings (tyrants), possessing as they do all that heart can
desire, ought to be void of envy, but the contrary is seen in their
conduct toward the citizens ...
But the worst of all is, that he sets aside the laws of the land, puts
men to death without trial, and rapes women. The rule of the many,
on the other hand, has, in the first place, the fairest of names, equality
before the law; and further it is free from all those outrages which a
king (monarchos)is wont to commit".

25 See the observation of Chester G. Starr, The Awakeningof the Greek Historical
Spirit (New York, 1968), pp. 136-137. Specifically on bybris,there is a famous line in
Sophocles, OedipusTyrannus,1. 873: "Pride (hybris)breeds tyranny."
lists two other passages which are
26 Powell, Lexicon,s. v., rpxvocvv$o and 'ru'pacvvo4,
supposed to be references to satraps. They are not. One passage (V, 12) concerns two
Paeonians who sought Darius' help in establishing a tyranny. Presumably Powell assumed that they wanted to be official satraps, but there is no evidence to support that.
The other passage (V, 32) says that Pausanias the Spartanwas affianced to a lady of the
Achaemenid house "when he conceived the desire of becoming tyrant of Greece."
Pausanias was never an official satrap of the Persian Empire.

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Herodotus on Tyranny

393

Megabyzus then argued for an oligarchy:


"In all that Otanes has said to persuade you to put down monarchy
(-upavv[4), he observed, I fully concur; but his recommendation that
we should call the people to power seems to me not the best advice.
For there is nothing so void of understanding, nothing so full of
wantonness (hybris) as the unwieldly rabble. It were folly not to be borne
for men, while seeking to escape the wantonness (hybris) of a tyrant,
to give themselves up to the wantonness (hybris) of a rude unbridled
mob".
Finally Darius, who won the debate, spoke out: "Lastly, to sum up all
in a word, whence, I ask, was it that we got the freedom which we enjoy? did democracy give it us, or oligarchy, or a monarch? As a single man
recovered our freedom for us, my sentence is that we keep to the rule of
one
Darius won the debate and became king, but it is the vocabulary of the
debate which is our immediate concern. Otanes and Megabyzus, both of
whom opposed monarchy, used the word tyrannosto describe monarch and
emphasized the effect of hybris on the tyrannos.Darius, on the other hand,
championed monarchy but never once used the word tyrannos as the
equivalent of monarchos.In this passage there is a very clear distinction between the arbitrary whim of a tyrannos and the just rule of a legitimate
monarchos.What Otanes and Megabyzus were saying in essence was that a
monarchoscould easily become a tyrannos.Since these speeches were undoubtedly never given, and were the product of Herodotus' imagination in an
attempt to deal with problems of political philosophy27, we can conclude
that he was not only aware of the evil connotations of the word tyrannos,
but that he used the word with those connotations in mind28.
In most of the cases where Herodotus calls an oriental monarch a tyrant
there should be no difficulty in determining his meaning. Like Aristotle he
regarded oriental monarchy as despotic and tyrannical. This is implicit
27 On the use of speeches in Hdt. see especially Lieselotte Solmsen, "Speeches in
Herodotus' Account of the Ionian Revolt," AJP, 64 (1943), 104-207 and "Speeches in
Herodotus' Account of the Battle of Plataea," CP, 39 (1944), 241-253.
28 Much has been written about this debate. How and Wells, Commentary
on Herodotus,
I, 278, call this passage "the beginning of Greek political philosophy." Herodotus is
ordinarily regarded as an admirer of Periclean democracy, but Hermann Strasburger,
"Herodot und das perikleische Athen," Historia, 4 (1955), 1-25, has argued (unconvincingly) against this view. On the significance of the Persian debate see Karl Friedrich
Stroheker, "Zu den Anfangen der monarchischen Theorie in der Sophistik," Historia, 2
(1954), 381-412. Waters, Herodotoson Tyrant:,pp. 11-12 (especially n. 28 for additional
bibliography).

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394

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FERRILL

throughout his history and it is occasionally explicit as in the passage


discussed above. Sometimes he contrasted tyranny with the blessings of
freedom or self-government: "Thus the nations over that whole extent of
country observed the blessing of self-government, but they fell again under
the sway of kings (tupacvvtego),in the manner which I will now relate"
(1, 96)29.

In several cases where Herodotus calls an eastern king a tyrannos he goes


on to discuss a cruel and arbitrary crime committed by the man in question.
One example is the passage in which he discusses the plan of Astyages,
King of the Medes, to murder the infant Cyrus (I, 109). Another is the story
of Cyaxares' treatment of some Scythian hunters: "On their return to
Cyaxares with empty hands, that monarch, who was hottempered, as he
showed upon the occasion, received them very rudely and insultingly"30.
Actually in the text and footnotes above I have discussed virtually all of
the instances in which Herodotus uses tyrannosor its variants to describe a
non-Greek king. In each case, despite modern scholars and modern translations, the words "tyrant", "tyranny" and "tyrannize" could be translated
as such (rather than ruler, monarchy and govern, etc.) without doing violence to Herodotus, and, in fact, his meaning would be more faithfully
rendered.
In regard to Herodotus' use of the word tyrannos to describe Greeks,
modern scholars admit that he occasionally expressed very strong criticisms
of Greek tyranny. The passage most often cited is V, 78:
"Thus did the Athenians increase in strength. And it is plain enough,
not from this instance only, but from many everywhere, that freedonm
is an excellent thing; since even the Athenians, who, while they
continued under the rule of tyrants, were not a whit more valiant
than any of their neighbours, no sooner shook off the yoke than they
became decidedly the first of all. These things show that, while undergoing oppression, they let themselves be beaten, since then they
worked for a master; but so soon as they got their freedom, each
man was eager to do the best he could for himself. So fared it now
with the Athenians".
This strong sentiment is regarded by many as exceptional in Herodotus,
and by others it is regarded as the "dominant" but not exclusive attitude.
All agree that sometimes Herodotus talked about Greek tyrants and
tyranny in a "neutral" fashion without the connotation of evil. However,
such a view is not compatible with the evidence.
29 Another passage in which the contrast between freedom and tyranny is madc is 1,
95-101, on the rise of Deioces, King of the Medes. See also, II, 147.
30 There are many similar passages: I, 6; 12-14; 86-89; VIII, 142.

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Herodotus on Tyranny

395

There are actually many passages in Herodotus where the contrast between tyranny and freedom is made quite explicit. One is much stronger
than the passage quoted above. According to Herodotus the Spartans regretted their role in driving Hippias out of Athens, because they realized that
if the Athenians "were oppressed by a tyranny, they \vould be weak and
submissive" (V, 91). So the Spartans recalled H-ippias from the Hiellespont,
summoned their allies, and proposed that Hippias should be reinstated as
tyrant of Athens. Sosicles, the Corinthian envoy, objected:
"Surely the heaven will soon be below, and the earth above, and men
will henceforth live in the sea, and fish take their place upon the dry
land, since you, Lacedaemoniians, propose to put down free governments in the cities of Greece, and to set up tyrannies in their stead.
There is nothing in the world so unjust, nothing so bloody, as a
tyranny. If, however, it seems to you a desirable thing to have the
cities under despotic rule, begin by putting a tyrant over yourselves,
and then establish despots in the other states ... We adjure you,
by the common gods of Greece, plant not despots (rupavvt8m4) in
her cities" (V, 92).
There are so many other passages in which the distinction between
freedom and tyranny is explicit that it would be tiring to quote or discuss
them all3O.And it cannot be claimed that Herodotus was so strongly opposed to monarchy that he made no distinctions between tyranny and
kingship. The Persian debate quoted above shows that he did make a
distinction, and when Sosicles, in the speech quoted immediately above,
said: "If, however, it seems to you a desirable thing to have the cities
under despotic rule, begin by putting a tyrant over yourselves, and then
establish despots in the other states", he was addressing his remarks to
Spartans who were at the time under the strong influence of their basileus
Cleomenes.
In fact the distinction between basileusand tyrannoswas quite sharp. We
have already seen that Herodotus did not use the term basileusto refer to
Greek tyrants. Also, he did not use the word tyrannos to refer to Greek
kings unless he believed that the kings were really tyrannical. By far the
best example is the famous case of Pheidon, King of Argos. Aristotle says
that Pheidon was a basileuswho became a tyrannos32.Herodotus does not
even do Pheidon the courtesy of calling him basileus. He describes him
merely as "Pheidon, king (tyrannos) of the Argives, who established weight

31 1, 62; III, 143; IV, 137; V, 55, 65; VI, 5, 22, 123; VIII, 142.
Arist., Pol., 1310b.

32

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396

ARTHER FERRILL

and measures throughout the Peloponnese, and was the most insolent (i.e.,
had the most hybris) of all the Grecians" (VI, 127).
In his history Herodotus draws a dark and bloody picture of Greek
tyrants and tyranny. His account of the rise of Peisistratus could easily
have been the source of one of the definitions of tyrannos given by Plato
and Aristotle33. Cypselus and Periander are archetypal tyrants and the
tyrants of Ionia are treated as unpopular traitors supported in power by
oriental despotism34. The unpopularity of tyranny is strongly emphasized
by Herodotus and in the cases where it was necessary for him to concede that
the tyrant was popular with his subjects he suggests that those subjects
preferred slavery to freedom35.
There are, however, a few passages which seem at first glance to support
the modern contention that Herodotus used the word tyrannos with a
"neutral" meaning simply to indicate "ruler". We know that Herodotus
never referred to a tyrant as basileusexcept in direct speech when the person
speaking wanted to flatter the tyrant. We should not expect to find the
tyrant referring to himself as tyrannosif the word had the connotation of an
evil and arbitrary ruler. And in fact there are no instances where a tyrant is
addressed as tyrannos or refers to himself as tyrannos.But there are two passages in Herodotus (and as far as I can determine, no more than that)
where a tyrant refers to his rule as a tyranny.
In one case, Xerxes, speaking to Artabanus before sending him to Susa
to serve as regent, says: "Have no fear, therefore, on this score; but keep
a brave heart and uphold my house and empire (tyranny). To you, and you
only, do I entrust my sovereignty (scepter)" (VII, 52).
In the other passage, Periander, tyrant of Corinth, tries to persuade his
disaffected young son Lycophron to return to Corinth to take his place as
ruler of the city: "Which is better, my son, to fare as now you fare, or to
receive my crown (tyranny) and all the good things that I now possess
.
(III, 52). In the next line, however, he addresses his son directly as
basileus. But Periander's argument did not prevail, so he sent his daughter
to try to persuade her brother to return home: "Do you wish the kingdom
(tyranny), brother, to pass into strange hands ... ? Power (tyranny) is a
slippery thing

it has many suitors

...;

let not your inheritance

go to

another" (III, 53).

Compare Hdt., I, 59-64, to Plato, Pol., VIII, 562-570, and Arist., Ath. Pol., 13-17.
On the Corinthian tyrants see Hdt., III, 48-53 and V, 92. On the Ionian tyrants:
IV, 136-42.
35 On the unpopularity of tyranny: Hdt., IV, 137; V, 37; VI, 104. On the preference
for slavery rather than freedom: I, 62; III, 143.
33

34

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Herodotus on Tyranny

397

In the above passages it is clear that Xerxes, Periander, and his daughter
are speaking in intimate and Machiavellian terms to their closest associates
in power. In such circumstances they are prepared to admit that their power
is tyrannical. There is nothing unusual about this, and the above passages
do not prove that Herodotus used tyrannis with a "neutral" meaning36.
Rawlinson, by translating it with "neutral" words, actually reduced the
force of Herodotus' prose.
Given Herodotus' numerous and specific objections to tyranny, there is
no reason to assume that he uses "tyrant" with a neutral meaning. It is true
that he does not always paint the tyrants as totally wicked and perverse men.
Neither did Aristotle, although the philosopher leaves no doubt about his
view of tyranny37. Even modern historians occasionally call historical figures
"tyrant" or "despot" and write about the "achievements" and "constructive qualities" of their rule. Hitler and his autobahns are a famous example.
4. Monarch)os
The modern argument is that Herodotus uses the words basileus,tyrannos,
and monarchosinterchangeably and frequently with the neutral meaning of
"ruler". We have seen that Herodotus does not use basileus and tyrannos
interchangeably except in ways which preserve the distinctions between the
words.
Actually it is the word monarchoswhich has the neutral meaning of
"ruler" and it was used by Herodotus interchangeably with both basileus
and tyrannos.The word is used infrequently by Herodotus (only 19 times),
but it is applied to oriental kings (or tyrants), Greek kings, and Greek
tyrants 38. There is nothing unusual about the use of the word and there is
no reason to assume that Herodotus did make distinctions between kingship
and tyranny simply because he occasionally called kings and tyrants "sole
rulers".
5. Conclusion
The common assumption that Herodotus used the word tyrannos with
the simple "neutral" meaning of "ruler" rather than "arbitrary and despotic
ruler" cannot be supported by the evidence. This is significant for what it
tells us about Herodotus and about his contemporaries. Tyranny, if we can
36 Cf. Pericles' comment to the Athenians, Thucydides, II, 63: "For by this time your
empire has become a tyranny which in the opinion of mankind may have been unjustly
gained, but which cannot be safely surrendered" (Jowett).
37 For tyranny as the "worst of governments" see Arist., Pol., 1289b.
38 Oriental kings: I, 55; III, 80 (four times), 82 (five times). Greek kings: V, 61
(twice); V, 92. Greek tyrants: V, 46 (twice); VI, 23 and 24; VII, 154 and 165.

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398

ARTHER FERRILL,

Herodotus on Tyranny

judge by our new estimate of Herodotus' attitude toward it, was perhaps
a more unpopular phenomenon than historians have assumed. This should
not be a surprising discovery. The popularity in fifth century Athens
of the tyrannicides Harmodius und Aristogeiton, has long been known, and
the introduction of ostracism early in the fifth century in order to avoid the
danger of tyranny is one of the most famous elements of the Athenian
constitution.
In the second place this reassessment of Herodotus' view of tyranny, if
correct, raises the obvious question of the general reliability of the current
interpretation of tyranny in the lyric poets and the tragedians. If scholars
have been mistaken about the meaning of the word tyrannosin Herodotus,
might they not also be mistaken about the use of the word in other authors ?39
Finally, if it can be shown that the attitude toward tyranny in early
Greece was much less favorable than has been assumed in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, then would it not be necessary for modern
historians to reexamriinetheir overall assessment of the Age of Tyranny and
its importance in Greek history? Certainly part of the argument offered by
scholars in their favorable interpretation of the Age of Tyranny is that
contemporary Greeks did not regard it as tyrannical. If it was regarded as
a bloody and despotic age, then perhaps it was. Was tyranny really a "necessary step" in the evolution toward democracy? Or was tyranny, as the
democrats of the fifth century believed, incompatible with democracy,
and therefore an impediniellt in the "evolution" toward democracy?
University of Washington

Arther Ferrill

39 I did not see the excellent discussion of the Greek attitude towards tyranny by
W. R. Connor, "Tyrannis Polis", in John H. D'Arms and John W. Eadie, eds., Ancient
and Modern:Essays in Honor of Gerald F. Else (Ann Arbor, 1977), 95-109, until this
paper had gone to press, and there has been no opportunity to consider Connor's perceptive views on Greek Tyranny in the text above (although Connor does not deal with
Herodotus).

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