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Ancient Greek Laws Against Tyrants

Greek Fighters Against Tyranny in Ancient Athens, Greece
Harmodius and Aristogeiton who became known as the Tyrannicides (τυραννόκτονοι) for their assassination of the ancient Greek tyrant Hipparchus. Credit:Miguel Hermoso Cuesta /Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0

Ancient Greek laws against tyrants is a very fine subject to explore. Ancient Greece is known for its emerging democracy, many of which sentenced them to death.

Scholarly observers have defined classical Athens as a direct democracy. Some have quarrelled on how democratic the ancient Greek city-states acut It depends on how people actually feel about the prospects of majority rule.

In Ancient Greece, many city-states institutionalized and encouraged large-scale pro-democracy uprisings. They passed legislation encouraging the brave to strike the first blow against non-democratic regimes, which essentially gave the populace the right.

Strike the first blow

The world tends to watch in astonishment when popular uprisings after a long trail of abuses suddenly overthrow authoritarian regimes that were thought stable if decadent. The Eastern European insurgencies of 1989 as well as the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 left observers with cautious optimism.

Still, everyone is not watching with the same intent. World powers wish to install their preferred governments and bring protests quickly to an end. They aim to send the discontented back to their families and workplaces. Others hoping for a new beginning pray for another society to emerge. It all depends on what people think is subversive.

This is exactly what was on ancient Greek aspiring rulers’ minds. The ancient Greek laws against tyrants were established in order to contain the seditious. This they may have achieved by condemning one side as disloyal and stirring a patriotic mobilization against the other.

It appears the Ancient Greeks learned early how to combat those individuals and small groups who wished to overthrow regimes only to grab power for themselves.

The Ancient Greeks are a dynamic archive of thought that can be interpreted toward popular democracy or national liberation. This is also true of these ancient Greek laws against tyrants. Which social class embodies the nation in such chaotic circumstances where authority is up for grabs?

Before professional armies

Far more than parliaments and presidents, the professional army is an essential element of the modern state. It is the institution that disciplines people for breaking the laws, whether just or unjust.

However, we may define a democratic regime, and one factor must be highlighted in its survival in the ancient world. Before the rise of modern professional armies, to what extent was the ancient Greek polis able to rally its supporters to defeat an armed confrontation?

Democracy was not simply majority rule. Those who wished to govern by democracy had to impose their will. This had to be more than intellectualities but a fighting volition.

The popular will and the execution of tyrants

Those who were for oligarchy or tyranny could also impose their willpower. The anti-democratic forces probably had more finances, better weapons and training, more powerful people on their side, and more time to plot.

Those supporting democracy were likely of the popular toiling class. Hence, anti-tyrant legislation appears to be on the poor and powerless’ side.

The scholar Martin Ostwalt, whose book From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law, and more recently, David A. Teergarden’s book Death to Tyrants! contributes to our understanding of this antiquity heritage.

When populist slogans and laws are wielded above society, it is difficult to say whose sovereignty is being defended.

The decree of Demophantos

Athenians promoted the first tyrant-killing law. It was called the decree of Demophantos (410 B.C.) This was after democracy had been re-established, turning back the coup of the Four Hundred.

The law required Athenians to kill an emerging tyrant or anyone who holds office after democracy was overthrown. It also encouraged rewards for those who took matters into their own hands.

The new ruling made specific reference to Harmodius and Aristogeiton. In 514 B.C., they were not only heroes but lovers, who, with a small group, assassinated Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias.

This act of daring opened the way for democracy in Greece. The reforms of Cleisthenes were to follow.

Killing Hipparchus, but not Hippias

Like many historical attempts to kill prominent leaders all over the world, things didn’t go as planned. They organized the murder of both Hippias and his brother Hipparchus during the armed procession at the Panathenaic festival. The plot miscarried, however, and they succeeded in killing only Hipparchus. Harmodius was slain on the spot, and Aristogeiton was captured and died from torture.

The assassination’s social background will captivate those who concern themselves with vendettas and fear the irrational behavior of commoners, though the corruption began with the elite. Hipparchus, finding himself rejected in his romantic attentions to the young man Harmodius, prevented Harmodius’ younger sister from participating as a basket bearer in the Panathenaic procession.

This was considered an insult since only virgins were permitted to carry the basket with the tools for the ritual sacrifice. Thus is how the day of the procession for the killing was chosen. When one of the plotters was observed chatting with Hippias, the others wrongly believed the conspiracy had been betrayed. They panicked and immediately killed Hipparchus.

What had been a benign government of two aristocrats now gave way to the overbearing autocracy of Hippias. All of this was on the minds of those who legislated against tyranny a century ago.

Three more laws

We must keep in mind that the earliest legislation against subversion and tyranny anticipates Solon, but he is often given credit for such laws. Solon was the first Ancient Greek leader to make the legal constitution of society transparent so people could appeal to it, and check government practices by their own claims.

Solon came to power in 594 B.C. It appears he projected an ideal of Athens as a self-supporting self-governing system distinguished by a concern for moderation and a contempt for slavery and tyranny. This doesn’t mean that the ruler always had the power to alleviate these social burdens.

Three more tyrant-killing laws were advanced in three other cities modeled on the Demophantos decree. The Eretrians ratified the earliest such law in 341 B.C., shortly after the Athenian overthrow of a pro-Macedonian tyranny and restored democratic government. What is startling about the Eretrian law is it incentivized slaves and foreigners to become tyrant killers.

The Athenians passed another tyrant-killing law called the law of Eukrates. This was in 336 B.C., nearly two years after Philip II defeated the Athenian-led coalition at the battle of Chaironea.

The Ilion Tyrant-Killing Law dates to 280 B.C. and also encouraged slaves to kill tyrants. It was likely legislated after Seleukos I defeated the Lysimachos at the Battle of Kouroupedian. Afterwards, Seleukos controlled much of Asian Minor. What all of the laws had in common rewards for tyrant killers and defenders of democracy.

Alexander the Great

If Philip of Macedon tried to subvert democratic regimes, Alexander the Great and his successors encouraged the democratization of the Greek polis in the eastern Aegean and western Asia Minor, or at least that is what many historians suggest on some level.

Did Alexander encourage anti-tyrant laws whenever he conquered? More specifically, was he a populist authoritarian philosopher-king. Somehow, he linked his intentions to the spirit of Harmodius and Aristogeiton.

It appears anti-tyrant killing was praised throughout the ancient Greek world. From Aristotle to Xenophon, there is evidence this was affirmed not necessarily by the authors themselves. It is merely that they recognized this sentiment among the societies they lived.

Slaves and free foreigners encouraged

Many are quick to decry historical slavery and discrimination against foreigners as undermining any claims for Ancient Greece building democracies.

If such a regime did, it would not transform society toward radical democratic autonomy overnight. Still, there is a dynamic to these laws that absurdly encourages subject peoples to kill tyrants only on Tuesdays.

The pattern of this anti-tyrant legislation, encouraging their death, often had an ambiguous definition of containing subversion. It was not the type of laws encouraging slave revolts or international solidarity to overturn ancient regimes that were still substantially aristocratic in many ways.

It may have merely been a means to weaponize commoners and conquered peoples against one faction of the city-state on behalf of the other.

Ancient Greek laws against tyranny

Given this probability, ancient Greek laws against tyrants could exist in an environment where populism and appeals to the wisdom of ordinary people to govern, festered.

It may be a widespread theme in Ancient Greek history that the search for popular sovereignty could be also obscure tyranny.

Then and now, the sovereignty of a city or nation and that of the common people should not be confused.

If ordinary people, even the enslaved, can be called to save society from tyranny, then such a fact may call into question narrow terms defining subjects and citizenship.


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