1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Peisistratus

PEISISTRATUS, (605?–527 B.C.), Athenian statesman, was the son of Hippocrates. He was named after Peisistratus, the youngest son of Nestor, the alleged ancestor of his family; he was second cousin on his mother’s side to Solon, and numbered among his ancestors Codrus the last great king of Athens. Thus among those who became “tyrants” in the Greek world he gained his position as one of the old nobility, like Phalaris of Agrigentum, and Lygdamis of Naxos; but unlike Orthagoras of Sicyon, who had previously been a cook. Peisistratus, though Solon’s junior by thirty years, was his lifelong friend (though this is denied), nor did their friendship suffer owing to their political antagonism. From this widely accepted belief arose the almost certainly false statement that Peisistratus took part in Solon’s successful war against Megara, which necessarily took place before Solon’s archonship (probably in 600 B.C.). Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens (ch. 17) carefully distinguishes Solon’s Megarian War from a second in which Peisistratus was no doubt in command, undertaken between 570 and 565 to recapture Nisaea (the port of Megara) which had apparently been recovered by the Megarians since Solon’s victory (see Sandys on The Constitution of Athens, ch. 14, 1, note, and E. Abbott, History of Greece, vol. i. app. p. 544). Whatever be the true explanation of this problem, it is certain (1) that Peisistratus was regarded as a leading soldier, and (2) that his position was strengthened by the prestige of his family. Furthermore (3) he was a man of great ambition, persuasive eloquence and wide generosity; qualities which especially appealed at that time to the classes from whom he was to draw his support—hence the warning of Solon (Frag. II. B): “Fools, you are treading in the footsteps of the fox; can you not read the hidden meaning of these charming words?” Lastly, (4) and most important, the times were ripe for revolution. In the article on Solon (ad fin.) it is shown that the Solonian reforms, though they made a great advance in some directions, failed on the whole. They were too moderate to please the people, too democratic for the nobles. It was found that the government by Boulē and Ecclesia did not mean popular control in the full sense, it meant government by the leisured classes, inasmuch as the industrious farmer or herdsman could not leave his work to give his vote at the Ecclesia, or do his duty as a councillor. Partly owing to this, and partly to ancient feuds whose origin we cannot trace, the Athenian people was split up into three great factions known as the Plain (Pedieis) led by Lycurgus and Miltiades, both of noble families, the Shore (Parali) led by the Alcmaeonidae, represented at this time by Megacles, who was strong in his wealth and by his recent marriage with Agariste, daughter of Cleisthenes of Sicyon; the Hill or Upland (Diacreis, Diacrii) led by Peisistratus, who no doubt owed his influence among these hillmen partly to the possession of large estates at Marathon. In the two former divisions the influence of wealth and birth predominated; the hillmen were poorly housed, poorly clad and unable to make use of the privileges which Solon had given them.[1] Hence their attachment to Peisistratus, the “man of the people,” who called upon them to sweep away the last barriers which separated rich and poor, nobles and commoners, city and countryside. Lastly, there was a class of men who were discontented with the Solonian constitution: some had lost by his Seisachtheia, others had vainly hoped for a general redistribution. These men saw their only hope in a revolution. Such were the factors which enabled him to found his tyranny.

To enter here into an exhaustive account of the various theories which even before, though especially after, the appearance of the Constitution of Athens have been propounded as to the chronology of the Peisistratean tyranny, is impossible. For a summary of these hypotheses see J. E. Sandys’s edition of the Constitution of Athens (p. 56, c. 14 note). The following is in brief the sequence of events: In 560 B.C. Peisistratus drove into the market-place, showed to an indignant assembly marks of violence on himself and his mules, and claimed to be the victim of assault at the hands of political enemies. The people unhesitatingly awarded their “champion” a bodyguard of fifty men (afterwards four hundred) armed with clubs. With this force he proceeded to make himself master of the Acropolis and tyrant of Athens. The Alcmaeonids fled and Peisistratus remained in power for about five years, during which Solon’s death occurred. In 555 or 554 B.C. a coalition of the Plain and the Coast succeeded in expelling him. His property was confiscated and sold by auction, but in his absence the strife between the Plain and the Coast was renewed, and Megacles, unable to hold his own, invited him to return. The condition was that their families should be allied by the marriage of Peisistratus to Megacles' daughter Coesyra. A second coup d’état was then effected. A beautiful woman, it is said, by name Phya, was disguised as Athena and drove into the Agora with Peisistratus at her side, while proclamations were made that the goddess herself was restoring Peisistratus to Athens. The ruse was successful, but Peisistratus soon quarrelled with Megacles over Coesyra. By a former marriage he already had two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, now growing up, and in his first tyranny or his first exile he married an Argive, Timonassa, by whom he had two other sons Iophon and Hegesistratus, the latter of whom is said to be identical with Thessalus (Ath. Pol. c. 17), though from Thucydides and Herodotus we gather that they were distinct—e.g. Herodotus describes Hegesistratus as a bastard, and Thucydides says that Thessalus was legitimate. Further it is suggested that Peisistratus was unwilling to have children by one on whom lay the curse of the Cylonian outrage. The result was that in the seventh year (or month, see Ath. Pol. c. 15. 1, Sandys’s note) Megacles accused him of neglecting his daughter, combined once more with the third faction, and drove the tyrant into an exile lasting apparently for ten or eleven years. During this period he lived first at Rhaecelus and later near Mt Pangaeus and on the Strymon collecting resources of men and money. He came finally to Eretria, and, with the help of the Thebans and Lygdamis of Naxos, whom he afterwards made ruler of that island, he passed over to Attica and defeated the Athenian forces at the battle of Pallenis or Pellene. From this time till his death he remained undisputed master of Athens. The Alcmaeonids were compelled to leave Athens, and from the other noble families which remained he exacted 400 hostages whom he put in the care of his ally Lygdamis.

In the heyday of the Athenian democracy, citizens both conservative and progressive, politicians, philosophers and historians were unanimous in their denunciation of “tyranny.” Yet there is no doubt that the rule of Peisistratus was most beneficial to Athens both in her foreign and in her internal relations. (1) During his enforced absence from Athens he had evidently acquired a far more extended idea of the future of Athens than had hitherto dawned on the somewhat parochial minds of her leaders. He was friendly with Thebes and Argos; his son Hegesistratus he set in power at Sigeum (see E. Abbott, Hist. of Gr. vol. i. xv 9) and his friend Lygdamis at Naxos. From the mines of Thrace, and perhaps from the harbour dues and from the mines of Laurium, he derived a large revenue, under his encouragement, Miltiades had planted an Athenian colony on the shores of the Thracian Chersonese; he had even made friends with Thessaly and Macedonia, as is evidenced by the hospitality extended by them to Hippias on his final expulsion. Finally, he did not allow his friendliness with Argos to involve him in war with Sparta, towards whom he pursued a policy of moderation. (2) At home it is admitted by all authorities that his rule was moderate and beneficent, and that he was careful to preserve at least the form of the established constitution. It is even said that, being accused of murder, he was ready to be tried by the Areopagus. Everything which he did during his third period of rule was in the interests of discipline and order. Thus he hired a mercenary bodyguard, and utilized for his own purposes the public revenues; he kept the chief magistracies (through which he ruled) in the hands of his family; he imposed a general tax[2] of 10% (perhaps reduced by Hippias to 5%) on the produce of the land, and thus obtained control over the fleet and spread the burden of it over all the citizens (see the spurious letter of Peisistratus to Solon, Diog. Laert. i. 53; Thuc. vi. 54 and Arnold’s note ad loc.; Boeckh iii. 6, Thirlwall c. xi., pp 72–74; and Grote). But the great wisdom of Peisistratus is shown most clearly in the skill with which he blinded the people to his absolutism. Pretending to maintain the Solonian constitution (as he could well afford), he realized that people would never recognize the deception if a sufficient degree of prosperity were ensured. Secondly, he knew that the greater the proportion of the Athenians who were prosperously at work in the country and therefore did not trouble to interfere in the work of government the less would be the danger of sedition, whose seeds are in a crowded city. Hence he appears to have encouraged agriculture by abating the tax on small farms, and even by assisting them with money and stock. Secondly, he established deme law-courts to prevent people from having recourse to the city tribunals, it is said that he himself occasionally “went on circuit,” and on one of these occasions was so struck by the plaints of an old farmer on Hymettus, that he remitted all taxation on his land. Thus Athens enjoyed immunity from war and internecine struggle, and for the first time for years was in enjoyment of settled financial prosperity (see Constitution of Athens, c. 16. 7 ὁ ἐπὶ Κρόνου βίος).

The money which he accumulated he put to good use in the construction of roads and public buildings. Like Cleisthenes of Sicyon and Periander of Corinth, he realized that one great source of strength to the nobles had been their presidency over the local cults. This he diminished by increasing the splendour of the Panathenaic festival every fourth year and the Dionysiac[3] rites, and so created a national rather than a local religion. With the same idea he built the temple of the Pythian Apollo and began, though he did not finish, the temple of Zeus (the magnificent columns now standing belong to the age of Hadrian). To him are ascribed also the original Parthenon on the Acropolis, afterwards burned by the Persians, and replaced by the Parthenon of Pericles. It is said that he gave a great impetus to the dramatic representations which belonged to the Dionysiac cult, and that it was under his encouragement that Thespis of Icaria, by impersonating character, laid the foundation of the great Greek drama of the 5th and 4th centuries. Lastly, Peisistratus carried out the purification of Delos, the sacred island of Apollo of the Ionians; all the tombs were removed from the neighbourhood of the shrine, the abode of the god of light and joy.

We have spoken of his services to the state, to the poor, to religion. It remains to mention his alleged services to literature. All we can reasonably believe is that he gave encouragement to poetry as he had done to architecture and the drama; Onomacritus, the chief of the Orphic succession, and collector of the oracles of Musaeus, was a member of his household. Honestly, or to impress the people, Peisistratus made considerable use of oracles (e.g. at the battle of Pellene), and his descendants, by the oracles of Onomacritus, persuaded Darius to undertake their restoration. As to the library of Peisistratus, we have no good evidence, it may perhaps be a fiction of an Alexandrian writer. There is strong reason for believing the story that he first collected the Homeric poems and that his was the text which ultimately prevailed (see Homer).

It appears that Peisistratus was benevolent to the last, and, like Julius Caesar, showed no resentment against enemies and calumniators. What Solon said of him in his youth was true throughout, “there is no better-disposed man in Athens, save for his ambition.” He was succeeded by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus, by whom the tyranny was in various ways brought into disrepute.

It should be observed that the tyranny of Peisistratus is one of the many epochs of Greek history on which opinion has almost entirely changed since the age of Grote. Shortly, his services to Greece and to the world may be summed up under three heads: In foreign policy, he sketched out the plan on which Athens was to act in her external relations. He advocated (a) alliances with Argos, Thessaly and Macedon, (b) ascendancy in the Aegean (Naxos and Delos), (c) control of the Hellespontine route (Sigeum and the Chersonese), (d) control of the Strymon valley (Mt Pangaeus and the Strymon). Further, his rule exemplifies what is characteristic of all the Greek tyrannies—the advantage which the ancient monarchy had over the republican form of government. By means of his sons and his deputies (or viceroys) and by his system of matrimonial alliances he gave Athens a widespread influence in the centres of commerce, and brought her into connexion with the growing sources of trade and production in the eastern parts of the Greek world. (2) His importance in the sphere of domestic policy has been frequently underrated. It may fairly be held that the reforms of Solon would have been futile had they not been fulfilled and amplified by the genius of Peisistratus. (3) It was under his auspices that Athens began to take the lead in literature. From this period we must date the beginning of Athenian literary ascendancy. But see Athens.

Authorities.—Ancient Herod i. 59; Plut. Solon 30; Arist. Politics, v. 12, 5–1315 b; Constitution of Athens (Ath. Pol.) cc. 14-19. On the chronological problems see also P. Meyer, Arist. Pol. and the Ath. Pol. pp. 48–9; Gomperz, Die Schrift v. Staatswesen, &c. (1891); Bauer, Lit. and hist. Forsch. z. Arist. Ath. Pol. (50 sqq.). On the characteristics of the Peisistratid tyranny see Greenidge, Handbook of Greek Constitutional History, pp 26 sqq.; and the histories of Greece. On the question of the family of Peisistratus see Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Aristoteles und Athen (Berlin, 1893) and a criticism by E. M. Walker in the Classical Review, vol. viii. p. 206, col 2.  (J. M. M.) 

  1. It is suggested with probability that the Diacrii were rather the miners of the Laurium district (P. M. Ure, Journ. Hell. Stud., 1906, pp. 131–142).
  2. It should be noted as against this, the general account, that Thucydides, speaking apparently with accuracy, describes the tax as εἰκοστή (5%); the Constitution of Athens speaks of (the familiar) δεκατή (10%).
  3. Dionysus, as the god of the rustics, was especially worshipped at Icaria, near Marathon, and so was the god of the Diacrii. It seems likely that Peisistratus, to please his supporters, originated the City-Dionysia.