Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Athens is traditionally seen as the birthplace of democracy. However, as we know, democracies are vulnerable to anti-democratic forces, such as populism and authoritarian movements. This was also the case with Athens. For some eight months (404-403 BC) the city was controlled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the ‘Thirty Tyrants’. These autocrats unleashed a wave of terror, and Athens was steeped in blood during their time in government.
The Peloponnesian War
After the defeat of the Persians, the Greek world was dominated by the Spartans and their allies and the Athenians. However, in 431 BC, the Second Peloponnesian War broke out between the two most powerful city-states. This was a long and brutal conflict.
After the disastrous Athenian defeat in Sicily, the democratic government was briefly overthrown and replaced by an oligarchy. The Athenians were defeated in the sea-battle of Aegospotami (405 BC) and this effectively guaranteed Sparta’s victory in the war. The oligarchy that had been in power in Athens were discredited and they were soon removed from the government.
The Spartan Peace
The Spartans surrounded Athens and demanded that its ‘long walls’ or defensive ramparts be torn down around the city and its harbor, Piraeus. King Lysander dictated the peace terms to the Athenians who were almost totally defenseless. The Spartans did not want a return of the democracy which they despised. They supported Athenians who were sympathetic to Sparta and who believed in government by an elite. With the support of the Spartans, they controlled the city.
The so-called Thirty Tyrants’ most prominent leaders were Theramenes and Critias and they were pro-Spartan and hated democracy and democrats. They immediately stripped the ordinary citizens of political rights and ruled with a handpicked assembly of supporters.
From the Pnyx in Athens, a platform traditionally used by orators, the tyrants announced a series of measures that ended democracy in the city. They ruled with the help of a Spartan garrison and they forced all the citizens to hand over their arms. Only 3000 supporters of the tyrants had the right to bear arms.
Reign of Terror
The tyrants or the ‘overseers’, as they liked to be known, feared their fellow citizens, many of whom regarded them as traitors. Anyone who was deemed to be a democrat or could potentially oppose their government was executed after a show trial. Countless innocent Athenian men were executed often by being forced to drink the poison hemlock.
The Thirty Tyrants also had to provide pay and food to the Spartan garrison. This was at a time when Athens was on the brink of famine and resulted in great suffering. The oligarchs, to win popular support, tried to implicate ordinary citizens in their crimes. For example, Socrates was asked with others to bring an innocent man for execution. The philosopher bravely refused and just about escaped with his life.
Athens was bankrupt because of the war and the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ needed money to stay in power and to meet the Spartan demands. Critias, who was the cruelest of all the tyrants, decided to kill wealthy Athenians and foreign residents and seize their valuables and property. This was resisted by Thermanes, but Critias had him executed. He was a very complex man, a poet and cultured man who is a character in the Platonic dialogue named after him. He was also very cruel and seemed to enjoy bloodshed.
By this time, no-one was safe in Athens. It is estimated that thousands of people were killed and many more exiled and imprisoned during the rule of the oligarchs. The reign of the Thirty Tyrants can be likened to the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, or the Purges of Stalin in the 1930s.
The End of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’
The brutality and corruption of the tyrants was so great, that all the city came to hate them and they had almost no supporters left. Many other Greek states did not want Athens controlled by a pro-Spartan group and they feared the growing power of Sparta. Thebes and others gave support to the many Athenian exiles and they formed military units to overthrow the tyrants and restore democracy.
In 404 BC the former general Thrasybulus gathered together a group of Athenians and in a surprise attack seized the Piraeus, the harbor of the city. Then he fortified a hill overlooking the port so that when the Thirty Tyrants came with their force to retake it, they were defeated. This was a remarkable victory, especially considering that the democrats were outnumbered five to one.
In this battle, Critias was killed and the oligarchs were effectively leaderless. The Spartans intervened and inflicted a defeat on Thrasybulus, but at a high cost. They eventually negotiated a peace agreement between the democrats and the Thirty Tyrants. The oligarchs had to leave the city and in return were given the right to govern the nearby town of Eleusis.
In 403 BC, Thrasybulus restored democracy in Athens and the surviving tyrants were killed one by one in the following years.
The Aftermath of the Thirty Tyrants
The democrats eventually gained control of all Athenian territory and ended the influence of Sparta. The restored democracy was much more moderate than the one established by Pericles in the 5th century BC. Socrates’s reputation suffered greatly because, despite his principled stand against the tyrants, he had been the teacher of many of them, including Critias. Many believe that this ultimately led to his trial and execution.
The Thirty Tyrants shows how fragile democracy can be. Any crisis can be taken advantage of by anti-democratic forces and this can lead to dictatorship and a reign of terror. The example of the Tyrants shows that democracy is also at risk and should not be taken for granted.