Ancient History & Civilisation

4. The Dictatorship of Peisistratus

The conflicting groups which he had dominated for a generation had resumed, upon his departure from Athens, the natural play of politics and intrigue. As in the passionate days of the French Revolution, three parties struggled for power: the “Shore,” led by the merchants of the ports, who favored Solon; the “Plain,” led by the rich landowners, who hated Solon; and the “Mountain,” a combination of peasants and town laborers who still fought for a redistribution of the land. Like Pericles a century later, Peisistratus, though an aristocrat by birth and fortune, manners and tastes, accepted the leadership of the commons. At a meeting of the Assembly he displayed a wound, claiming that it had been inflicted upon him by the enemies of the people, and asked for a bodyguard. Solon protested; knowing the subtlety of his cousin, he suspected that the wound had been self-inflicted, and that the bodyguard would open the way to a dictatorship. “Ye men of Athens,” he warned them, “I am wiser than some of you, and braver than others: wiser than those of you who do not perceive the treachery of Peisistratus, and braver than those who are aware of it, but out of fear hold their peace.”83 Nevertheless the Assembly voted that Peisistratus should be allowed a force of fifty men. Peisistratus collected four hundred men instead of fifty, seized the Acropolis, and declared a dictatorship. Solon, having published to the Athenians his opinion that “each man of you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are geese,”84 placed his arms and shield outside his door as a symbol of resigning his interest in politics, and devoted his last days to poetry.

The wealthy forces of the Shore and the Plain united for a moment and expelled the dictator (556). But Peisistratus secretly made his peace with the Shore, and, probably with their connivance, re-entered Athens under circumstances that seemed to corroborate Solon’s judgment of the collective intelligence. A tall and beautiful woman, arrayed in the armor and costume of the city’s goddess Athena, and seated proudly in a chariot, led the forces of Peisistratus into the city, while heralds announced that the patron deity of Athens was herself restoring him to power (550). “The people of the city, fully persuaded,” says Herodotus, “that the woman was the veritable goddess, prostrated themselves before her, and received Peisistratus back.”85 The leaders of the Shore turned against him again and drove him into a second exile (549); but in 546 Peisistratus once more returned, defeated the troops sent out against him, and this time maintained his dictatorship for nineteen years, during which the wisdom of his policies almost redeemed the picturesque unscrupulousness of his means.

The character of Peisistratus was a rare union of culture and intellect, administrative vigor and personal charm. He could fight ruthlessly, and readily forgive; he could move in the foremost currents of the thought of his time, and govern without the intellectual’s vacillation of purpose and timidity of execution. He was mild of manner, humane in his decisions, and generous to all. “His administration,” says Aristotle, “was temperate, and showed the statesman rather than the tyrant.”86 He made few reprisals upon regenerate enemies, but he banished irreconcilable opponents, and distributed their estates among the poor. He improved the army and built up the fleet as security against external attack; but he kept Athens out of war, and maintained at home, in a city so recently disturbed by class hostility, such order and content that it was common to say that he had brought back the Golden Age of Cronus’ reign.

He surprised everyone by making little change of detail in the Solonian constitution. Like Augustus he knew how to adorn and support dictatorship with democratic concessions and forms. Archons were elected as usual, and the Assembly and the popular courts, the Council of Four Hundred and the Senate of the Areopagus met and functioned as before, except that the suggestions of Peisistratus found a very favorable hearing. When a citizen accused him of murder he appeared before-the Senate and offered to submit to trial, but the complainant decided not to press the charge. Year by year the people, in inverse proportion to their wealth, became reconciled to his rule; soon they were proud of him, at last fond of him. Probably Athens had needed, after Solon, just such a man as Peisistratus: one with sufficient iron in his blood to beat the disorder of Athenian life into a strong and steady form, and to establish by initial compulsion those habits of order and law which are to a society what the bony structure is to an animal—its shape and strength, though not its creative life. When, after a generation, the dictatorship was removed, these habits of order and the framework of Solon’s constitution remained as a heritage for democracy. Peisistratus, perhaps not knowing it, had come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.

His economic policies carried on that emancipation of the people which Solon had begun. He settled the agrarian question by dividing among the poor the lands that belonged to the state, as well as those of banished aristocrats; thousands of dangerously idle Athenians were settled upon the soil; and for centuries afterward we hear of no serious agrarian discontent in Attica.87 He gave employment to the needy by undertaking extensive public works, building a system of aqueducts and roads, and raising great temples to the gods. He encouraged the mining of silver at Laurium, and issued a new and independent coinage. To finance these undertakings he laid a ten per cent tax upon all agricultural products; later he seems to have reduced this to 5 per cent.88 He planted strategic colonies on the Dardanelles, and made commercial treaties with many states. Under his rule trade flourished, and wealth grew not among a few only, but in the community as a whole. The poor were made less poor, the rich not less rich. That concentration of wealth which had nearly torn the city into civil war was brought under control, and the spread of comfort and opportunity laid the economic bases of Athenian democracy.

Under Peisistratus and his sons Athens was physically and mentally transformed. Till their time it had been a second-rate city in the Greek world, lagging behind Miletus, Ephesus, Mytilene, and Syracuse in wealth and culture, in vitality of life and mind. Now new buildings of stone and marble reflected the radiance of the day; the old temple of Athena on the Acropolis was beautified with a Doric peristyle; and work was begun on that temple of Olympian Zeus whose stately Corinthian columns, even in their ruins, brighten the road from Athens to her port. By establishing the Panathenaic games and giving them a Panhellenic character, Peisistratus brought to his city not honor only, but the stimulus of foreign faces, competition, and ways; under his rule the Panathenaea became the great national festival, whose impressive ceremonial still moves on the frieze of the Parthenon. To his court, by public works and private beneficence, Peisistratus attracted sculptors, architects, and poets; in his palace was collected one of the earliest libraries of Greece. A committee appointed by him gave to the Iliad and the Odyssey the form in which we know them. Under his administration and encouragement Thespis and others lifted drama from a mummers’ mimicry to a form of art ready to be filled out by the great triumvirate of the Athenian stage.

The “tyranny” of Peisistratus was part of a general movement in the commercially active cities of sixth-century Greece, to replace the feudal rule of a landowning aristocracy with the political dominance of the middle class in temporary alliance with the poor.*Such dictatorships were brought on by the pathological concentration of wealth, and the inability of the wealthy to agree on a compromise. Forced to choose, the poor, like the rich, love money more than political liberty; and the only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlety and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes. Hence the road to power in Greek commercial cities was simple: to attack the aristocracy, defend the poor, and come to an understanding with the middle classes.89 Arrived at power, the dictator abolished debts, or confiscated large estates, taxed the rich to finance public works, or otherwise redistributed the overconcentrated wealth; and while attaching the masses to himself through such measures, he secured the support of the business community by promoting trade with state coinage and commercial treaties, and by raising the social prestige of the bourgeoisie. Forced to depend upon popularity instead of hereditary power, the dictatorships for the most part kept out of war, supported religion, maintained order, promoted morality, favored the higher status of women, encouraged the arts, and lavished revenues upon the beautification of their cities. And they did all these things, in many cases, while preserving the forms and procedures of popular government, so that even under despotism the people learned the ways of liberty. When the dictatorship had served to destroy the aristocracy the people destroyed the dictatorship; and only a few changes were needed to make the democracy of freemen a reality as well as a form.

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