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  • Φόβος φυτεύει τύραννον:The Tyrant's Fears on the Attic Tragic Stage
  • Gherardo Ugolini (bio)

In jedem begabten und ehrgeizigen Griechen wohnte ein Tyrann.

("In every capable and ambitious Greek dwelt a tyrant")1

The Attic tragic stage teems with tyrants: veritable τύραννοι, who use the word in referring to themselves or are labeled as such by other characters in the play; or rather characters who can be defined as "tyrannical" in a more general sense, figures who exercise a violent, autocratic, and often illegitimate power.2 Such cases are plentiful in tragic works throughout the fifth century BCE, ranging from the tyrannical couple in Aeschylus's Oresteia (458), Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the violent usurpers of Agamemnon's kingdom in Argos,3 to Lycus in Euripides's Heracles (probably performed in 416), another usurper who flaunts his despotism and ἀσέβεια (impiety) to the point of becoming an overly schematic version of the theatrical tyrant doomed to end in defeat and death.

Between these two chronological extremes, numerous other tyrants appear on the Athenian stage, the most significant of which undoubtedly include Creon in Sophocles's Antigone, Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, and Eteocles in Euripides's Phoenician Women. There are also cases of tyrants who do not actually appear on stage in the Dionysian theatre but are so constantly evoked as to become a decisive factor in the dramatic action. A prime example is Zeus in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. Setting aside the issue of the play's authenticity and date, as well as problems of interpretation arising from the loss of the other two parts of the Promethean trilogy, there is no doubt that Zeus is portrayed as possessing [End Page 456] all the features of the tyrant. Moreover, the power newly gained by usurping his father's place is explicitly defined as tyrannical with such a frequency that cannot be considered accidental. Zeus rules as a "harsh monarch not subject to control" (Prometheus 324; τραχὺς μόναρχος οὐδ' ὑπεύθυνος κρατεῖ) who makes use of "new laws" he himself has established arbitrarily (149-50; νεοχμοῖς δὲ δὴ νόμοις / Ζεὺς ἀθέτως κρατύνει; 403; ἰδίοις νόμοις κρατύνων). He also exhibits other characteristics typical of the tyrant: a tendency to anger (ὀργή) that makes his mind "inflexible" (164; ἄγναμπτον νόον),4 violence (βία), rejection of dialogue, and diffidence ("It is a disease that is somehow inherent in tyranny to have no faith in friends," declares Prometheus in 224-25).5

A similar case in point is Euripides's Suppliants (422), where no tyrant is physically present, but the specter of tyranny is conveyed in the dialogue between the Theban herald and the Athenian Theseus, the representative and defender of an isonomic and democratic system founded on the citizens' freedom, on their equality before the law and participation in managing power.6 The heated exchange in lines 399-583 readapts traditional clichés of the tyrant who surrounds himself with contemptible men and uses violence against women, the city, and so forth. While the scope of this article cannot include a complete survey of tyrants in fifth-century Greek tragedy, some of the most cogent conclusions of past studies on the subject will help to trace an outline of the topic:7

  1. 1. There is clearly no stereotype of the tyrant, but rather a model easily recognized by the audience, developed in a variety of ways with different functions. Each tyrant in the tragic theatre shares characteristics with his fellow tyrants but has personality and behavioral traits specific to himself.

  2. 2.

    The traits which serve to portray a tyrannical character on the stage—and which are to be found in all particular cases, albeit with different modulations and degrees—are the same as those mentioned both in the historiographical tradition (Herodotus) and in philosophical theories (Plato, Aristotle):

    • • violence (hybris, bìa), that is, the murder of enemies, and even family members and friends;

    • • little respect for tradition, whether laws or ancestral customs; [End Page 457]

    • • tendency toward impiety (asèbeia), that is, the abuse of rituals, when not actual blasphemy;

    • • greed (kerdos, pleonexìa), that is, coveting wealth, voracious pursuit of profit and using money to acquire and wield power;

    • • lack of respect for laws not enacted by the tyrant himself (anomìa, paranomìa);

    • • tendency to easily lose control and thus a propensity to fits of wrath (orgh...


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