In this week’s episode of Two Friends Talk History, Zofia is joined by Dr Sam Ellis, a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair of Ancient History in the University of Mannheim where his project focuses on the use of language to legitimise political power in the Greek polis. Sam is an expert in the language of tyranny in antiquity and the study of monocratic power in the Greek polis from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period.
In this episode, we explore how the language used to frame the actions of sole rulers has created a construct of ‘tyrant’ that remains with us today.
Greek attitudes towards tyranny are the topic of this week’s podcast. It may surprise listeners to hear that these attitudes changed over time; from the early stages of the Greek polis (the city-state), the ruling aristocracy ruled as a group over the citizen body, with the eventual rise of some aristocrats into positions of sole-rulership in the mid-7th century BCE.
These early sole-rulers tended to have popular political support and were generally viewed favourably among the citizens.
We discuss the Peisistratids of Athens in the podcast, one such family, whose founder, Peisistratus, was popularly received by the people for setting up law courts and investing funds into public projects like water fountains and religious buildings. The charismatic leadership of a sole-ruler could spur a relationship of political control through public support that rewarded the ruler with many types of honours. As we discuss, these types of relationships were precarious and could turn into tyrannicide, as was the case of the assassination of Peisistratus’ son, Hipparchus (brother of the sole-ruler, Hippias). The assassination was carried out by Harmodius and Aristogeiton and remained a famous story replicated across visual media for centuries afterwards.
The Syriskos Painter’s stamnos, ‘Death of the tyrant Hipparchus’, 475-470 BCE (and illustration of actions); Roman copy of Aristogeiton and Harmodius sculpture.
The inspiration for the episode art was the sculptural pair of tyrannicides, originally commissioned by Antenor after the establishment of Athenian democracy. It was taken as war booty during the Persian Wars in 480 BCE, then returned after the fall of the Persian Empire by one of Alexander’s generals-turned-king. The sculpture was so famous that it inspired Roman copies, of which several survive; the most famous of which is in the National Archaeological museum of Naples.
To learn more about the language, metaphors and stereotypes of ancient tyranny, check out the episode here:
You can get in touch with Dr Ellis on the Universität Mannheim website here, or you can follow him on Academia.edu. Sam is also on Instagram & Twitter @SamEllis1993. Seriously, check out his Instagram. The photos are stunning.
If you would like to check out some of Dr Ellis’ publications:
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). ‘Legitimising sole power in the Greek polis: A New Institutionalist approach’ in M. Canevaro & M. Barbato (eds.) New Institutionalism and Greek Institutions, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ellis, S. (2021). ‘Greek Conceptualisations of Persian Traditions – Gift-giving and Friendship in the Persian Empire’, Classical Quarterly 71.1,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 77–88.
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). Review of C. de Lisle (2021). Agathokles of Syracuse: Sicilian Tyrant and Hellenistic King. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
For further reading:
Brock, R. (2013). Greek Political Imagery: From Homer to Aristotle. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Luraghi, N. (2013). The Splendors and Miseries of Ruling Alone. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.
Börm, H. (ed.). (2015). Antimonarchic Discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
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