Saturday, January 24, 2015

Pisistratus of Athens in Power

Pisistratus was, in Greek parlance, a tyrannos, or tyrant.  But at the time, "tyrant" was a neutral term, meaning not an unusually harsh or arbitrary ruler, but simply any ruler who did not inherit his power.*  Usurper or dictator are probably better approximations.  These terms are not altogether neutral either, but neither sounds as harsh as tyrant.  But even without using the word tyrant, Pisistratus' beginning looks bad. His lust for power and lack of scruples pursuing it make us expect that he will be equally unscrupulous in exercising it.  But then Pisistratus throws us a curve.  He turned out to be an excellent ruler.

No classical source says that Pisistratus divided the lands of his enemies among the landless, but most modern historians have inferred that he did for three reasons (1) later classical usurpers invariably did so, so why not the earlier ones, (2) although there was widespread clamor for land before Pisistratus, there was not afterward, and (3) land distribution appears to have been fairly even in 5th Century B.C. Athens.  Aristotle affirms that he offered credit to poor farmers who did not have other sources, and that he instituted roving judges to handle lawsuits in the countryside so that farmers would not have to come into the city to resolve their disputes.  This killed two birds with one stone, it took away the hardship of coming to town and it made country folk less likely to come into town and stir up trouble.**  Taxes were modest at one-twenties of produce,*** and when a very poor farmer with a very rocky field grumbled, Pisistratus remitted his taxes.  He respected Solon's laws so long as they did not interfere with his power and even kept the old elective office of archon, although he ensured that it was always filled by his relatives or friends.  (No source explains how he did this).  And he fought urban unemployment with public works to adorn the city.

Modern historians with the use of archeology add that he continued promoting the export of olive oil and there was a vast expansion of pottery exports while he was in power, that he issues Athens' first coins (bearing the image of Athena and her symbols, the owl and the olive tree), that he built roads and other commercial infrastructure and the Enneakrounos. an aqueduct that brought spring water into public fountain houses.  The tragic theater got its start under Pisistratus and Cicero credits him with commissioning the first written copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  He even seems to have done a fair job at conciliating the nobility with friendly personal dealings.  And he avoided wars, whether out of fear of arming the people or out of fear of what would happen if he lost.

Solon lived to see Pisistratus seize power the first time, but not his first overthrow.  There are two accounts of how he spent his last days.  According to Plutarch, after Solon openly denounced Pisistratus, many of his friends began to fear for his life and urged him to flee, but Solon was not afraid, saying he was too old and feeble to be seen as a threat.  And, indeed, Pisistratus courted Solon so assiduously that he ended us serving as an advisor.  Diogenes Laertius says that Solon went into exile to protest the dictatorship.  Pisistratus wrote to him, urging him to come back and assuring him that there was nothing to fear.  Solon responded that he would not return, not out of fear for his safety, but because to come back could be taken as endorsement.  It seems a fair assumption that it was not just Solon's old age that kept him safe.  Rather, he had immense moral authority and was the only one who could convey the legitimacy that Pisistratus so desperately craved.

After his final seizure of power, Pisistratus ruled for 17 years of peace and prosperity and finally died at a ripe old age and handed power to his sons.

*This is attested in Sophocles' great masterwork which we usually know by its Latin name, Oedipus Rex or its English name, Oedipus the King.  But the Greek name is actually Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus the tyrant.  Oedipus was certainly not a tyrant in the sense of being a harsh or arbitrary ruler. Nor did he usurp power; he was made king by unanimous acclimation because he freed the city from the sphinx.  But he did not inherit his power, so he was a tyrannos.
**My editors suggest that it may have had the third advantage for Pisistratus of taking courts out of the hands of the local nobility.
***Recall that a sharecropper paid a sixth to his landlord.  In Sparta, the rate was half.

No comments:

Post a Comment