The Classical Definition of a Tyrant

Illustration of Peisistratus Riding with Athena
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

A tyrant—also known as a basileus or king—in ancient Greece meant something different from our modern concept of a tyrant as simply a cruel and oppressive despot. A tyrant was little more than an autocrat or leader who had overturned an existing regime of a Greek polis and was, therefore, an illegitimate ruler, a usurper. They even had some measure of popular support, according to Aristotle. "Before Turannoi Were Tyrants: Rethinking a Chapter of Early Greek History," by Greg Anderson, suggests that because of this confusion with modern tyranny, the perfectly good Greek word should be removed from scholarship on early Greece.

Peisistratus (Pisistratus) was one of the most famous of the Athenian tyrants. It was after the fall of the sons of Peisistratus that Cleisthenes and democracy came to Athens.

Aristotle and Tyrants

In his article, "The First Tyrants in Greece," Robert Drews paraphrases Aristotle as saying that the tyrant was a degenerate type of monarch who came to power because of how insufferable the aristocracy was. The people of the demos, fed up, found a tyrant to champion them. Drews adds that the tyrant himself had to be ambitious, possessing the Greek concept of philotimia, which he describes as ​the desire for power and prestige. This quality is also common to the modern version of the self-serving tyrant. Tyrants were sometimes preferred to aristocrats and kings.

The article, "Τύραννος. The Semantics of a Political Concept from Archilochus to Aristotle," by Victor Parker says the first use of the term tyrant comes from the mid-seventh century B.C., and the first negative use of the term, about a half-century later or perhaps as late as the second quarter of the sixth.

Kings vs. Tyrants

A tyrant could also be a leader who ruled without having inherited the throne; thus, Oedipus marries Jocasta to become tyrant of Thebes, but in reality, he is the legitimate heir to the throne: the king (basileus). Parker says the use of tyrannos is common to a tragedy in preference to basileus, generally synonymously, but sometimes negatively. Sophocles writes that hubris begets a tyrant or tyranny begets hubris. Parker adds that for Herodotus, the term tyrant and basileus are applied to the same individuals, although Thucydides (and Xenophon, on the whole) distinguishes them along the same lines of legitimacy as we do.

Greg Anderson argues that before the 6th century there was no difference between the tyrannos or tyrant and the legitimate oligarchic ruler, both aiming to dominate but not subvert the existing government. He says that the construct of the age of tyrant was a figment of the late archaic imagination.


"Before Turannoi Were Tyrants: Rethinking a Chapter of Early Greek History," by Greg Anderson; Classical Antiquity, (2005), pp. 173-222.

"The First Tyrants in Greece," by Robert Drews; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 21, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1972), pp. 129-14

"Τύραννος. The Semantics of a Political Concept from Archilochus to Aristotle," by Victor Parker; Hermes, 126. Bd., H. 2 (1998), pp. 145-172.

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Gill, N.S. "The Classical Definition of a Tyrant." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). The Classical Definition of a Tyrant. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Classical Definition of a Tyrant." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).