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a. government by a tyrant or tyrants; despotism
b. similarly oppressive and unjust government by more than one person
2. a political unit ruled by a tyrant
3. (esp in ancient Greece) government by a usurper



(1) In ancient Greece, a regime established by force, with power vested in a single individual. Three historically distinct types of tyranny were the early Greek tyrannies, the pro-Persian tyrannies in the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands conquered by the Persians, and the late Greek tyrannies.

Early Greek tyranny arose with the first city-states, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., as a result of the violent strife between the tribal nobility and the demos, or common people, headed by a city’s trade and craft elite. In the economically advanced regions of Greece, tyrants seized power by force of arms; supported by the demos, they were the agents of significant changes—improving the position of the craftsmen, peasants, and the poorest strata of the urban and rural population and promoting the growth of trade, commerce, and colonization. The tyrants of this period include Cypselus and Periander of Corinth, Theagenes of Megara, Thrasybulus of Miletus, Pisistratus of Athens, and Gelon, Hiero I, and Thrasybulus of Syracuse. Reforms were usually directed against the tribal aristocracy and helped strengthen the class aspects of the society and state. With its roots in the transition from the tribal to the class system and its primary reliance on armed force, tyranny was not a durable form of government. By the middle of the fifth century B.C., it had outlived itself and had given way to the polis republics.

The pro-Persian tyrants ruled at the time of the Persians’ conquest of the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the Greek islands in the late sixth century B.C. The term “tyrant” was used by the Greeks to describe those members of the oligarchy who were placed over them by the Persians as vicegerents—for example, Syloson of Samos and Coës of Mytilene.

The late Greek tyrants—namely, those ruling from the late fifth century to the second century B.C.—assumed power during periods of acute social strife, when the wealthy and noble elites of the polis were pitted against the most destitute strata of the population. These later tyrants owed their power to the support of mercenary troops, and their rule led to the disintegration of the polis republics, as in the case of Dionysius I the Elder and Agathocles of Syracuse, Lycophron and Jason of Thessaly, and Machanidas and Nabis of Sparta.

(2) A medieval political system (also called signory) in a number of city-states of northern and central Italy.

(3) In its common meaning, “tyranny” is a synonym for rule based on despotism.


Frolov, E. D. Grecheskie tirany (IV v. do n. e.). [Leningrad] 1972.
Solov’eva, S. S. Rannegrecheskaia tiraniia (K probleme vozniknoveniia gosudarstva v Gretsii). Moscow, 1964.
Nikol’skaia, R. A. “Rannegrecheskaia tiraniia.” Uch. zap. Belorusskogo gos. un-ta, Ser. ist., 1953, fasc. 16.
Ure, P. N. The Origin of Tyranny. Cambridge, 1922.
Oliva, P. Raná řécká lyrannys. Prague, 1954.
Berve, H. Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen, vols. 1–2. Munich, 1967.
Mossé, C. La Tyrannic dans la Gréce antique. Paris, 1969.



Big Brother
omnipresent leader of a totalitarian nightmare world. [Br. Lit.: 1984]
rules Thebes with cruel decrees. [Gk. Lit.: Antigone]
Austrian governor treats Swiss despotically; shot by Tell. [Ital. Opera: Rossini, William Tell, Westerman, 121–122]
Jones, Brutus
former porter sets himself up as dictator of a West Indies island and rules the natives with an iron hand. [Am. Drama: O’Neill Emperor Jones]
Necho, Pharaoh
oppresses Jerusalem by exaction of harsh taxes. [O. T.: II Kings 23: 33–35]
mean, sadistic tyrant; epitome of human horridness. [Br. Lit.: Animal Farm]
Queen of Hearts
dictatorial ruler who orders subjects’ heads chopped off. [Br. Lit.: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]
bitterly repressed his people. [O. T.: I Kings 12:12-16]
Francis I’s symbol of absolute dictatorial power. [Animal Symbolism: Mercatante, 19]
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Whatever other initial responses of the individual audience members might have been about the assassination of Julius Caesar, it was a fact that his assassination did not end the problems regarding the perception of tyrannous rule.
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some--"men whose creed is custom"--actually prefer tyrannous
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In her [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1929) (Peacocks Flying Southeast), the aesthetic themes of beauty and death are married to the plotline of a Han dynasty folktale about two lovers who commit suicide because of the parents' tyrannous act of splitting their marriage.