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What it Means to be a Tyrant

In modern day society, the word tyrant scares most people.  If a country is said to be ruled by a tyrant then it probably means that he or she is a very harsh ruler who will not step down as a leader.  If they were elected, it is most likely assumed that it was not a fair election or violence was used to gain power. Today, people view the word tyrant very negatively; usually a picture of a vile man with a mustache comes to mind or a toxic emperor. For example, even the definition in the modern (post-ride of democracy) of tyranny when you look it up on google is “a cruel and oppressive leader.”

The ancient (pre-democratic) definition of tyrant is a non-hereditary ruler. During this time, the word tyranny did not mean the person under rule was necessarily bad or corrupt.  It was strictly someone who did not come to power through inheritance. During this time, they were either elected or attempted to gain power through trickery or violence. For example, Peisistratos had three separate attempts at trying to become a tyrant of ancient Athens.  In the article, “Herodotus on the Athenian Tyrants” it goes into great detail about Peisistratos and the stories behind all his attempts to rule. It explains how resilient he was: “with his mind set on tyranny.” Whether the tyrants were looking to be ruler to better society or not, many would go to extreme ways to get the position. 

In the article, The Field Guide to Tyranny by Adam Gopnik it uses the word “dictator” interchangeably with the word tyrant. The article was written a month ago and is a perfect example of the word’s connotation today compared to ancient times. The author brings up the names Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and even Julius Caesar as examples of tyrants.  He says,”Dictatorship has, in one sense, been the default condition of humanity. The basic governmental setup since the dawn of civilization could be summarized, simply, as taking orders from the boss. Big chiefs, almost invariably male, tell their underlings what to do, and they do it, or they are killed.” The word tyrant has come to the point where it is seen as interchangeable with dictator because the vast history of tyrants who have ruled post-rise of democracy have fit the description.  If a country is not democratic today it is most of the time assumed that it is some variation of a dictatorship or a socialist country, which further explains why many rulers get put into that group. 

Although the ancient definition of tyranny does not mean that the tyrant had to be evil, it was still very common during the time. The tyrant, Perainder and many others committed unspeakable acts as rulers.  They left lasting impacts on the world that lead to how the word is interpreted today. In The Field Guide to Tyranny it goes on to say, “For centuries, students learned Latin by memorizing the writing of the great Roman tyrant and republic-ending ogre Julius Caesar.” Julius Caesar and many ancient leaders used their charisma and strong platforms to brainwash people to follow their ways and therefore leave their mark on the world. Although the definition was different at the time, ancient tyrants did still play a large part in why the definition has changed over time.

– Ellie Canalichio

Word count:  562

Herodotus on the Athenian Tyrants

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