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The Road to Tyranny

Shifts in cultures and time periods can often cause confusion and misinterpretations of words or concepts.  In modern society, the idea of tyrannical government is a prominent example of this change in interpretation over time.  The modern connotation of a tyrant is an authoritarian individual who leads a nation with force, ruthless policies, and little consideration for the people entrusted to them.  However, the current definition of tyranny is generally used correctly in terms of modern context, even if its transition from ancient Greek civilization has changed its meaning. 

Historically, in ancient Greek civilization, a tyrant was anyone who came to power in a non-hereditary manner.  Originally, these tyrants were generally accepted as legitimate rulers who made genuine reforms and allowed Greek democracy to flourish.  However, over time, the idea of tyranny became tainted into the definition of tyranny that is accepted in modern times. Since the rise of modern  democracy, a tyrant has been viewed as oppressive and corrupted in many aspects. The contrast between pre-democratic tyranny and post-demcractic tyranny is apparent, exhibiting that the modern version of tyranny is accurate in context.

The success of tyranny is seen through many rulers in Athenian government.  Solon’s non-hereditary rule was characterized by cancellation of debt, a movement towards democracy, and a greater representation of both noble factions and common factions of people (Spodek 141).  Furthermore, “Peisistratus fostered economic growth through loans to small farmers, export promotion programs, road construction; and public works” (Spodek 141). It is clear that the work done by these tyrants was favorable and fostered Athens as a great and prosperous city-state.

However, Athenian tyranny eventually grew into the form of tyranny that is known to the modern world.  According to Herodotus, Peisistratus’s son, Hippias, was notably a cruel tyrant who lead by force and imposed harsh and unfair regulations on the Athenian people (The Histories).  Furthermore, the interpretation of Herodotus’s views on tyranny display that the Athenian people were actually relieved to be free of a tyrannical form of oversight after Hippias’ rule. It was around the time of Hippias that the term tyrant transitioned from a description of a benevolent ruler to a description of a cruel ruler, as used in modern times.

Given the historical context of the transition of the term tyranny throughout history, many characterizations of modern tyrants are justified.  One example is seen through the current persecution and oppression of the people of Hong Kong. The pro-democratic people of Hong Kong are facing mass arrests and harsh military force from the Chinese government. Joshua Wong states “beyond the barricades we long to see a Hong Kong free from tyranny and a puppet government” (The Economist).  The totalitarianism that the people of Hong Kong are experiencing violates many of their basic human rights, demonstrating further that tyranny is not what it once was. Many of the injustices that the people of Hong Kong are currently facing directly support that transition of the term tyranny that ensued in the midst of the development of Athens.  

It is clear that the current understanding of tyranny is different than the ancient understanding of tyranny.  Although tyranny has lost much of its historical context over time, the current use of the word is aligned with many so called modern tyrannical rulers.  The current use of “tyranny” is valid and contextualized, despite many historical discrepancies. 

—Xavier Evans

Word Count: 524 (Excluding quotations)

Spodek: Chapter 5: Dawn of the Empires, Pg. 141

“The Histories:” Herodotus on Athenian Tyrants

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