1902 Encyclopedia > Pisistratus

Athenian statesman and dictator
(6th cent. BC)

PISISTRATUS, citizen and afterwards tyrant of Athens, was the son of Hippocrates, through whom he traced his pedigree to Neleus and Nestor, princes of Messene in the Heroic Age. A branch of the family had reigned at Athens in the persons of Codrus and his descendants. Pisistratus was second cousin to Solon, their mothers having been cousins, and the early friendship between the two men was not entirely broken off even by the wide political differences which separated them in later life. Pisistratus, who was much junior to Solon, was born about 605 B.C. In his youth there was a keen rivalry between Athens and Megara, and Pisistratus as general of Athens contrived by stratagem to defeat the Megarians and capture their port Nisaea (perhaps 570 or a little later). But Pisistratus was ambitious of more than military triumphs, and in the internal condition of Attica he discerned the road to power. The constitution which Solon had given to Athens a few years before (594 B.c.) was too moderate to satisfy either of the extreme parties. The wealthy nobles chafed at the political rights granted to the lower classes, while the poor were dissatis-fied with what they regarded as merely a half measure of relief. The nobles themselves were divided into the parties known as the Plain {Pedieis) and the Coast (Paraloi), the former inhabiting the western lowlands of Attica, the latter the level districts on the southern and eastern coasts. The former were led by the noble Lycurgus, the latter by Megacles, of the proud house of the Alcmaeonidas. Pisistratus took advantage of their dissensions to form a third political party out of the men of the Mountain (Diacreis or Diacrioi), the poor cottars and shepherds of the eastern and northern hills, among whom his own estates lay. He easily won the affection of these simple highlanders. His manners were captivat-ing, his good humour imperturbable; his purse was ever at the service of the needy; his fields and gardens stood open for their enjoyment. Equality and fraternity, together with the maintenance of the constitution, were the watch-words of this eloquent and handsome aristocrat, the people's friend. But his easy and affable deportment hid a boundless ambition. Solon detected his schemes, and warned the people against him, but in vain. One day, not long after a violent dispute with Megacles in the public assembly, Pisistratus drove into the market-place, himself and his mules bleeding from wounds which he had inflicted with his own hand, but which he pretended to have received from his political enemies. The indignant people decreed a guard for the protection of their cham-pion. Of this guard the champion soon availed himself in order to seize the Acropolis and make himself master of Athens (560). Megacles and the Alcmaeonidai fled, but Solon remained and continued to lift his voice against the usurper, who, however, treated the old man with the utmost deference, as a valued friend and counsellor. Solon did not long survive his country's freedom ; he died in the next year (559). The government of Pisistratus was marked by great moderation; he maintained the existing laws, to which he exacted obedience from all, and set the example of it himself. Being once accused of murder, he appeared in court like a private citizen to answer the charge, which, however, the accuser did not venture to press. But before he had time to establish himself firmly on the throne, he was expelled by a coalition of the Plain and Coast parties (perhaps in 555). His property was confiscated and sold by auction. But after five or six years Megacles, unable to make head against the party of the Plain, proposed to Pisistratus to secure his recall on condition that Pisistratus should marry his daughter Ccesyra. Pisistratus agreed, and his return was effected by a stratagem. A tall and beautiful woman, Phya by name, was dressed as the goddess Athene, and drove into Athens on a chariot with Pisistratus at her side, while heralds proclaimed that Athene herself was bringing back Pisistratus. Thus restored, Pisistratus fulfilled his part of the bargain by marrying Ccesyra; but by his former marriage he had already sons approaching manhood (Hippias and Hipparchus), and he treated his young wife so slightingly that Megacles, feeling himself affronted, made peace with his adversaries, and the united parties once more compelled Pisistratus to emit Athens (perhaps in 549). But he did not renounce his designs on the tyranny. The contributions which he received from various cities, especially Thebes, enabled him to hire a body of Argive mercenaries, with which he landed at Marathon in the eleventh year after his expulsion (perhaps in 538). His partisans nocked to him, and he defeated the Athenians at Pallene, and repossessed himself of the tyranny, which he thenceforward held till his death. He now placed his power on a securer basis by keeping a body of mercenaries in his pay, and levying a tax of a tenth or a twentieth on the produce of the soil. A further revenue accrued to him from the Thracian mines, and probably from the silver mines of Laurium, and the harbour and market dues. He now developed his plans for the exten-sion of the naval empire of Athens in the ^Egean. The island of Naxos was conquered by him, and handed over to Lygdamis, a native of the island, who had zealously supported the restoration of Pisistratus with men and money. In Naxos Pisistratus deposited the hostages lie exacted from those of his enemies who chose to re-main at Athens. In Sigeum on the Hellespont, which he conquered from the Mytilenians, he established as tyrant Hegesistratus, his son by an Argive wife, whom he had married in his second exile. The European side of the Hellespont was already in Athenian hands, Miltiades having established an Athenian colony on the Thracian Chersonese during the first tyranny, and with the consent _of Pisistratus. Athens thus commanded the straits through which passed the corn trade of the Black Sea. Pisistratus further raised the reputation of Athens by purifying the sacred island of Delos ; all the graves within sight of the temple of Apollo were opened and the dead removed to another part of the island. His rule was as wise and beneficent at home as it was glorious abroad. He encouraged agriculture by lending the poorer peasants cattle and seed, and he paid special attention to the culti-vation of the olive. He enacted or enforced a law against idleness, and he required that the state should maintain its disabled soldiers. Under his rule and that of his sons Attica was intersected by high roads, which, converging to the capital, helped to unite the country and thus to abolish
local feuds and factions. To the tyrants Athens further owed those subterranean channels in the rock which still supply it with drinking water from the hills Pisistratus also adorned Athens with splendid public buildings. The temple of the Pythian Apollo was his work; and he began, but did not finish, the great temple of Zeus, the remaining columns of which still astonish the beholder. Modern authorities further ascribe to him the old Parthenon on the Acropolis, which was afterwards burned by the Persians and replaced by the Parthenon of Pericles. The Lyceum was attributed to him by Theopompus, but to Pericles by the better authority of Philochorus. He caused the Panathenaic festival to be celebrated every fourth year with unusual magnificence.

The well-known story that Pisistratus was the first to collect and publish the poems of Homer in their present form rests on the authority of late writers (Cicero being the earliest), and seems to be sufficiently disproved by the silence of all earlier authorities (see HOMER). The state- ment of Aulus Gellius that Pisistratus was the first to establish a public library at Athens is perhaps equally void of foundation. The tyrant seems to have been merciful and amiable to the last. It is not recorded of him that he ever put an enemy to death, and the easy good humour with which he submitted to affronts offered to himself and his family reminds us of Cassar. Solon's description of him appears to have been justified—that apart from his ambi- tion there was not a better-disposed man at Athens than Pisistratus. He died at an advanced age in 527, and was succeeded by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus (the Pisistratidas), who continued to rule Athens in the same moderate and beneficent spirit. (J. G. FR.)


Herod., i. 59; Justin, ii. 8; Frontinus, iv. 7, 44. Other writers (Polyamus, i. 20; jElian, Var. Hist., vii. 19) erroneously attribute the stratagem to Solon, and refer it to the expedition in which Solon recovered Salamis. Plutarch (Solon, 8) falls into this mistake, and adds to it the blunder of representing Pisistratus as having taken part in the expedition, which happened about 600 B.C. The two events (Solon's conquest of Salamis and Pisistratus's capture of Salamis) are distinguished by Justin (ii. 7, 8), and after him by Duneker (Gesch. des Alterthums, vi. pp. 145, 244) and others, but they are confused by Thirlwall and Grote. From Plutarch (Solon, 8, 9) we may infer that the confusion arose in popular tradition. The account of the stratagem itself in the Greek writers Plutarch and Polyaenus differs somewhat from that in the Latin writers Justin and Frontinus. ^Elian follows (with some variations) the latter account.

The difference between the Pedieis and the Paraloi seems to have been of the nature of a local feud between two ancient districts of Attica (Sehol. on Aristoph., Lys., 58 ; Strabo, ix. p. 392 ; Steph. Byz,, s.vv. Aietapia, TlapaXos, ireStov ; Suidas, s.v. Uapa\oi) rather than a disagreement between two political parties. It is true that Plutarch (Solon, 13) represents the Paraloi as a moderate political party, inter-mediate between the Pedieis (oligarchs) and the Diacrioi (democrats), but this has the appearance of being a mere conjecture of his own. His view is, howerer, accepted by Curtius and Duneker.

Out of the thirty-three years which elapsed between Pisistratus's first usurpation and his death in 527 B. c., we know (from Aristotle, Pol., v. p. 1315 b) that he reigned during seventeen. He was twice de-posed and banished, and his second exile lasted between ten and eleven years (Herod., i. 62); hence his first must have lasted between five and -six. But we cannot fix with certainty the dates of these two exiles. Duneker (with whom Clinton, Fasti Hellenici, ii. p. 254, and Stein on Herod., i. 64, nearly agree) places the first in 555-550, and the :seeond in 549-538 (see his Gesch. d. Alterthums, vi. p. 454 sq.).
Curtius and Duneker in their histories of Greece ; see also Wachsmuth, Die Stadt Athen im Alterthum, vol. i. p. 502.

The above article was written by: J. G. Frazer.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries