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Ancient Tyranny in the Modern World?

Tyranny hasn’t always meant what we take it to mean now.  To the Greeks it meant something much different.  For the Greeks the word tyranny had less of a connotation.  The word “tyrant” was not originally used as a person who was domineering or autocratic but instead a non-hereditary ruler.  A tyrant was someone who was not born into power but rather stole, seized, or otherwise came into power over a people that he may not have “traditionally” had power over.

One of the first early examples of a true tyrant (true taken to mean the original definition of the word) was when Peisistratus seized control of the Athenian government in about 550 B.C.E.¹  This breaks the modern societal mold of how we perceive the word tyranny, because Peisistratus was a relatively popular and effective ruler.  He bolstered the economic prowess of Athens through a myriad of public works projects and economic programs until his death in 527 B.C.E.² 

This all begs the question:  how does our modern definition of tyranny compare to the ancient one?  Serge Schmemann’s article in the New York Times titled ”After the Fall:  Looking Back on Berlin 30 Years Later” analyzes the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1991, what that meant for the people of that time, and what it means for the globe almost 30 years later.  The most interesting part of this article, however, is Schmemann’s use of the word tyranny.  He says of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that “for the Central and Eastern Europeans, it was the long-awaited end of a tyranny” that had oppressed them for generations.³  The use of the word tyranny here is interesting because it could be molded to fit both the ancient and modern definitions.  To most the communist government of East Germany was not a “hereditary” ruling body in the sense that the governmental power was seized and did not represent the will of its constituents.  A more accurate analysis for this use of the word, however, comes when it is viewed in the scope of its modern definition.  The communist government in East Germany was highly oppressive towards the German people.  That government was certainly seen as autocratic and domineering and as such was called tyrannical by our more contemporary standards.

Schmemann closes his article by calling out the tyranny going on “now in Hong Kong and Chile” and stating that “tyranny is not the choice of the tyrannized.”⁴  This invective language and the fact that people can be “tyrannized” implies a negative connotation which lends this use of tyranny to the modern definition.  This closing passage is also interesting in that it ties historical tyranny to the modern political climate.  Tyranny is cyclical, and it is merely the definition that changes over time.

Language is infinite.  It evolves with and is defined by those who use it.  It follows then that meanings and definitions change with the ebb and flow of time.  Tyranny and its definition are not exempt from this truth.  The ancients had a much different definition and view of tyranny than we do today.  This is important to understand in order to read historical documents in the right context.  An Athenian writing about a tyrant such as Peisistratus is much different than an Allied soldier or German citizen writing about a tyrant like Adolf Hitler.  Differences in definitions such as these often lead to misunderstandings and false readings in historical analyses.  By being cognizant of these changes in definitions, historians can properly analyze history so that people now can accurately learn from the mistakes and triumphs of the past.

–T. C. Fuselier

Word Count:  586


¹  Spodek, Chapter 5, pg. 141

²  Spodek, Chapter 5, pg. 141

³  Schmemann, Serge.  “After the Fall:  Looking Back on Berlin 30 Years Later.”  The New York Times, 08 Nov. 2019,  Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

⁴  Schmemann, Serge.  “After the Fall:  Looking Back on Berlin 30 Years Later.”  The New York Times, 08 Nov. 2019,  Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

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