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Who's Who Ancient Greece: "Benevolent Tyrant"

Peisistratos (died 527 BC)

here they are after much looking - P doesnt get a lot of positive press in GreeceIn 561 BC in the time of Solon's reforms there lived a wealthy, aristocratic, landed noble called Peisistratos who's large ambitions were only tempered by his somewhat mild manner and appreciation of the arts. He, backed by a party of malcontents, usurped for his own, power and the title of Tyrant.

The landed nobility or 'Party of the Plain' did not like Solons reforms. Those who benefited were primarily newer arrivals to Athens, the 'men of the coast', city craftsmen, artisans and others who were satisfied with their lot. The deciding party leading towards turmoil were 'the men of the Hills' who had expected land as well as freedom from Solon. The leadership of these unhappy citizens fell in time to Peisistratos who was a distant relative of Solon. His other accomplishments included military experience, training in rhetoric and in sophistry, he was also polite and a master of political shenanigans.

He persuaded the Areo Pagos to vote him a personal bodyguard pleading danger from possible assassination and using this force seized the Acropolis in 560 BC. Upon his return from exile from Macedonia in 545 BC he defeated, with the aid of mercenaries an Athenian force and finally established himself as tyrant

During the course of his long grab for power he was twice banished, once in 556 and again in 545 BC. Both times he succeeded in regaining power.

During the rule of the Peisistratidae Athens radically improved itself in several respects. In the Agora, which served as the administrative heart of the city at that time, was erected the Alter of the Twelve Gods. This alter was considered ground zero of the Athenian Republic and from it were measured the size and apportionment of the growing cities different demes (neighborhoods, quarters, sections, areas) of the city. These in turn served to magnify the symbol of Athens as greater than just the sum of her parts.

Peisistratos also caused to be built an underground aqueduct, which from Mt. Hymettos conveyed an abundant supply of water to the inhabitants of the town and augmented the ancient spring to be found at Kalli-rhoe. Here, was built according to Pausanias, Athens' only fountain and it had 9 spouts (ennea-krounos) with which to serve the many women, free or slave who came there daily with clay amphorae to get potable water

Good for business and to attract the masses during the rule of the Peisistratidae ground was broken for the Temple of Olympian Zeus (near the Kalirhoe) and the gymnasium in the Academy was enlarged. A network of roads thorough out Attika was built, and the extensive building of temples took place. Probably dating from this time are the old gateway of the Acropolis and the peristyle of the Hekatompedon or old temple of Athena on the Acropolis and now replaced by the Parthenon.

Also undertaken by the Peisistratidae regime was the enlargement of the cities religious festivals such as the city Dionysia, the birth place of Greek drama and the great Panathenaic festival. Peisistratos also was a principle in the incorporation of Eleusis into the sway of Athenian policy and enlarged and rebuilt much of the cult center doubling its area and enclosing it with strong walls. It was during this period that the cult became panhellenic in popularity and initiation in it open to barbarians as well as Greeks. Peisistratos was also responsible for the first purification of Delos in 543 BC.There is no question that Peisistratos nurtured much that we love about the civilization of ancient Greece, what exactly his motivations were, remain a mystery.

Many of the nobles appreciated the social attraction of the Peisistratidae court but those land owners too independent to go with the flow were sent into exile and their estates divided up among the poor who were also given seed and work animals and thus solved the land distribution problem and killed two birds with one stone!

Peisistratos foreign policy was good for business too and greatly aided the commerce and industry of Athens at the time. Attik oil was now shipped in lovely clay hand painted vases as far away as Asia Minor, Egypt, the Black sea and Etruria in Italy

It is not too much to say that Peisistratos was a creator of Athenian diplomacy policy and gave Athens a place of dignity and influence among its fellow Greek city states.

When Peisistratos died of old age in 527 BC his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchos (both names denoting a more than passing familiarity with horses since 'Hippos' in ancient Greek is a horse and from it we derive the race track or hippodrome) tried to continue his policies.

Hipparchos was assasinated for personal reasons and the Hippias became bitter and harsh and became a tyrant in the bad sense of the word. With the aid of Cleomenes, King of Sparta, the exiled Alcmaeonidea were able to drive Hippias into exile and thus ended the tyranny of the Peisistratidae in 510 BC.