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in ancient history, ruler who gained power by usurping the legal authority. The word is perhaps of Lydian origin and carried with it no connotation of moral censure. With the growth of the constitutional, democratic form of government, especially at Athens, in the 5th cent. B.C. the word took on its negative sense. Many tyrants ruled well and with benefit to their subjects. Greek tyranny was in the main an outgrowth of the struggle of the rising popular classes against the aristocracy or plutocracy. The usual procedure was for a leader to win popular support, overthrow the existing government, and seize power for himself. The 7th cent. B.C. saw the rise of the tyrant Cypselus and his son, PerianderPeriander
, d. 585 B.C., one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, tyrant of Corinth. His rule raised his city to a high state of prosperity, and he established friendly relations with other rulers.
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, of Corinth, and the 6th cent. B.C. was the time of the tyrants CleisthenesCleisthenes,
fl. 510 B.C., Athenian statesman. He was the head of his family, the Alcmaeonidae, after the exile of Hippias, and with Spartan help had made himself undisputed ruler of Athens by 506 B.C.
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 of Sicyon in the Peloponnesus, PolycratesPolycrates
, d. c.522 B.C., tyrant of Samos. He established Samian naval supremacy in the Aegean Sea and tried to control the archipelago and mainland towns of Ionia. He dominated the E Aegean, capturing the island of Rhenea (now Rinía) and defeating the Lesbians, who had
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 of Samos, and PisistratusPisistratus
, 605?–527 B.C., Greek statesman, tyrant of Athens. His power was founded on the cohesion of the rural citizens, whom he consolidated with farseeing land laws. His coup (c.560 B.C.) was probably not unpopular.
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 of Athens, followed by his sons HipparchusHipparchus
, c.555–514 B.C., Athenian political figure, son of Pisistratus. After the death of his father, he was closely associated with his brother Hippias, tyrant of Athens, in ruling the Athenian city-state.
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 and HippiasHippias
, tyrant (527 B.C.–510 B.C.) of Athens, eldest son of Pisistratus. Hippias governed Athens after the death of his father. His younger brother Hipparchus was closely associated in office with him until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 B.C.
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. The tyrants of Sicily were the products of more or less the same causes as those in Greece, but tyranny was prolonged by the threat of Carthaginian attack, which facilitated the rise of military leaders with the people united behind them. Such Sicilian tyrants as GelonGelon
, d. 478 B.C., Greek Sicilian ruler. As tyrant of Gela, his native city, he interfered in the struggle for power in Syracuse (485 B.C.) and made himself the leader of the popular party there. From that time he ruled Syracuse and dominated Greek Sicily. In 480 B.C.
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, Hiero IHiero I
, 5th cent. B.C., Greek Sicilian ruler, tyrant of Syracuse (478–467 B.C.). He succeeded his brother Gelon. A noted patron of literature, Hiero had Simonides, Pindar, and Aeschylus at his court.
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, Hiero IIHiero II,
d. c.215 B.C., Greek Sicilian ruler, tyrant of Syracuse (c.270–c.215 B.C.). He showed such ability and distinction after Pyrrhus left Sicily (275 B.C.) that he was made commander in chief of the Syracusans and was later chosen (c.265 B.C.) tyrant or king.
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, Dionysius the ElderDionysius the Elder,
c.430–367 B.C., tyrant of Syracuse. Of humble origin, he entered politics as a supporter of the poorer classes. Having prompted (400 B.C.) a measure to elect truly democratic generals, he secured for himself one of these generalships.
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, and Dionysius the YoungerDionysius the Younger,
fl. 368–344 B.C., tyrant of Syracuse, son of Dionysius the Elder. He ended the war with Carthage and enlisted the support of the professional army.
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 maintained lavish courts and were patrons of culture. The Thirty TyrantsThirty Tyrants,
oligarchy of ancient Athens (404–403 B.C.). It was created by Lysander under Spartan auspices after the Peloponnesian War. Critias and Theramenes were prominent members. It was overthrown at Piraeus (now Piraiévs) by Thrasybulus.
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 were not tyrants in the usual sense.


See P. N. Ure, The Origin of Tyranny (1922); A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (1956, repr. 1968).


1. a person who governs oppressively, unjustly, and arbitrarily; despot
2. (esp in ancient Greece) a ruler whose authority lacked the sanction of law or custom; usurper
References in classic literature ?
I'll say that he is wise who loveth well, And that the soul most free is that most bound In thraldom to the ancient tyrant Love.
I followed my instinct, opposed a tyrant, and broke a chain.
Many large, bitter drops fell into the goblet as he took it, humbly, from the hand of the tyrant.
A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.
Now the guardsmen were forcing the Princess of Helium up the few steps to the side of the tyrant of Okar, and I had no eyes and no thoughts for aught else.
Since then men are guilty of the greatest crimes from ambition, and not from necessity, no one, for instance aims at being a tyrant to keep him from the cold, hence great honour is due to him who kills not a thief, but tyrant; so that polity which Phaleas establishes would only be salutary to prevent little crimes.
Entice the tyrant back with fair promises, kill him and enthrone.
Elizabeth had been a tyrant but the people of England had yielded to her tyranny.
This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector.
tyrant, imagine that they are my slaves, or my commodity.
Far too long hath there been a slave and a tyrant concealed in woman.
I know lots of other stories, and I hope to tell them, some time or another; but just now my loving tyrants won't allow me.