Tyrant: sole ruler in a Greek city-state, usually an usurper, who held power in defiance of a city's constitution. Originally, the word did not have any negative connotations.
Yet, in Greek history the tyrant was usually more than just a monarch. Since the mid-nineteenth century, ancient historians discern two types of tyranny:
- The "older" tyrants in mainland Greece of the seventh and sixth centuries. These people were often dissatisfied aristocrats who managed to seize control of the state by cooperating with the nouveaux riches: wealthy people from non-aristocratic families that had until then usually been excluded from government. Examples are Cypselus and Periander of Corinth, Pittacus of Mytilene, Pisistratus of Athens, and Polycrates of Samos. These tyrannies were a normal phase in Greek history, marking the end of the old aristocracy and the beginning of oligarchic or even democratic rule.
- The "younger" tyrants in the periphery of the Greek world of the late fifth and fourth centuries. These people tried to expand the power of their city-states and were in fact creating larger political units. Example are Jason of Pherae and Agathocles of Syracuse.
Modern scholars tend to add two other types:
- The eastern tyrants. In the sixth to fourth centuries, many city states in Asia Minor were part of the Achaemenid or Persian empire and were ruled by one man (e.g., Aristagoras of Miletus), who served as an intermediary between the city and the great king.
- The western tyrants of the late sixth, early fifth centuries, to be found in Sicily and southern Italy. Using mercenary armies, people like Phalaris of Acragas, Hippocrates of Gela, and Gelon of Syracuse created political units that were larger than the old city-states. In fact, this type is a predecessor of type #2.