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Ancient Insurrections—and Ours

Would-be tyrants keep trying until they succeed.
November 30, 2021
Ancient Insurrections—and Ours
The war council of Darius, presented on a Greek red figure vase. Darius King of Persia 549 BCE - 486 BCE. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

No ancient Greek would have had any difficulty in understanding the scenes that Americans watched on January 6: the inciting speeches, the marching mob, the insurrectionist attack on the seat of government. Ancient Greece was itself a bit of a laboratory of self-government during the archaic and classical periods (from roughly 800 to 323 b.c.). The Greeks lived in fairly small, independent, self-governing states called poleis, each of which was fiercely independent. The largest of these poleis, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, and so on, are still familiar to many people by name and perhaps reputation, but there were many more smaller poleis, perhaps around a thousand in total. Each of these poleis had a government with loosely republican or democratic intuitions: Citizens voted in popular assemblies to pass laws and elect magistrates who executed those laws. Some poleis concentrated power more toward a select few elites (the Greeks coined the word “oligarchy” for this), while others pushed more power to the citizen body at large (“democracy”), but whatever the mix, some version of the basic institutions of self-government appeared in nearly every polis.

There are always risks in drawing comparisons across vast chasms of time and culture, and of course there are more recent insurrections—including from our own country’s history—which we can study and learn from. But if we can stretch the scientific metaphor of laboratories of democracy, the sheer number of little, self-governing, somewhat democratic states in ancient Greece is valuable. There are, after all, comparatively few modern democracies and most of those democracies are fairly young; the United States is arguably the oldest. By contrast the Greek experiment in self-government ran for centuries and was repeated hundreds of times in different ancient Greek states. That robust “data set” allowed more observant Greeks to notice recurrent themes both in how self-government functioned and how self-government failed.

Among the ways self-government might fail, the most common, repeated in numerous poleis, was the emergence of a tyrant—another Greek coinage, by which they meant merely one-man rule; tyranny would gain its negative reputation from the actions of Greek tyrants, but the term was initially a neutral descriptive term for one-man rule. No astute Greek would have any problem identifying the events of January 6 as a step in the path by which self-government falls into tyranny; attempting to seize the center of government with a mob of supporters was a standard tactic for would-be tyrants. Indeed, in Athens the would-be tyrant Kylon attempted to seize power in exactly this way in 632, storming the Athenian Acropolis with an armed mob during a religious festival, though the attempt failed. Some two centuries later, a similar coup launched by the Four Hundred—the Athenian elite—seized control of the state by arriving as a mob and dispersing the Athenian boule, the supervisory council which oversaw the Athenian assembly and the closest thing Athens had to a congress. Such efforts are farcical only until they succeed.

Another key lesson from this history should be even more sobering: Would-be tyrants keep trying until they succeed. In 561, Peisistratos, a popular political figure in Athens with a committed group of supporters, tried to make himself tyrant by gathering a band of his supporters, arming them with wooden clubs, and seizing the public spaces of Athens. The effort initially succeeded, but Peisistratos’ own success united the opposition to him in Athens and he was swiftly expelled from the city in a countercoup. But in a turn that may seem grimly familiar, as soon as Peisistratos was out of power, the other political figures of Athens turned back to feuding with each other all while Peisistratos schemed his return. Two years later, in 559, Peisistratos co-opted another key political figure, Megacles, and made a second attempt to seize the city, arriving from exile in a display that must have seemed every bit as farcical as the Q-Anon shaman: He rode in a chariot with an exceptionally tall woman dressed as the goddess Athena so as to fool the Athenians into thinking his return had divine support.

That effort failed as well; Peisistratos fell out with his erstwhile ally Megacles and once again, if only for the moment, the bickering political factions of Athens got their act together and threw Peisistratos out. Yet Peisistratos tried again, gathering a small army of supporters from Athens and mercenaries from foreign powers who hoped to gain from the chaos. In 545, he stormed back into Athens and seized power by force; he would not be dislodged a third time but rather ruled as a tyrant until his death in 527. Unless would-be tyrants are made to face the consequences of their attempts to seize power, they will keep trying until they succeed so thoroughly that justice is beyond recovery.

During this last coup, Peisistratos had made sure to claim that he intended no violence and no retribution against those who had opposed him; this was a lie of course and as soon as he was secure in power he murdered or exiled his enemies. That too was normal for tyrants. Herodotus tells a story (repeated by Aristotle and Livy) of Periander, who on becoming tyrant of Corinth sent a messenger to Thrasybulus, the successful tyrant of Miletus. Periander’s messenger asked Thrasybulus’ advice on how best to rule a city; Thrasybulus, knowing he couldn’t speak openly, led the messenger outside of the town into a field of grain. Instead of answering the question, he moved through the field, cutting down the tallest ears of wheat until the entire field was leveled down to the worst plants. The messenger departed confused, but Periander understood the message perfectly: To survive, a tyrant must destroy all of the outstanding citizens of the state, those distinguished by either wealth or ability. Periander promptly set about using his position to butcher the best and brightest of Corinth and in so doing secured his reign for the rest of his life.

Livy’s Roman retelling of this story, with the grain replaced by poppies, gives us the modern term “tall poppy syndrome”—but the ubiquity of the tale and its lesson ought to worry the prominent supporters of the January insurrection as much as its opponents. Pundits and politicians are, after all, very tall poppies, whatever their party or ideology, and would-be tyrants often cull the tallest poppies, friends and foes both.

The ancient Greek experience with tyranny thus presents two reminders: First, the necessity to prepare for another, likely better planned and organized, effort to overthrow democracy; and second, the dire consequences for failure.

Bret Devereaux

Bret Devereaux is a visiting lecturer in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @BretDevereaux.