07 Nov Thirty Tyrants
The Thirty Tyrants (Ancient Greek: οἱ τριάκοντα τύραννοι, hoi triákonta týrannoi) were a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. Upon Lysander’s request, the Thirty were elected as a government, not just as a legislative committee. The Thirty Tyrants maintained power for eight months. Although brief, their reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population, the confiscation of citizens’ property, and the exile of other democratic supporters. They became known as the “Thirty Tyrants” because of their cruel and oppressive tactics. The two leading members were Critias and Theramenes.
The rule of the Thirty
With Spartan support, the Thirty established an interim government in Athens. The Thirty were concerned with the revision if not erasure of democratic laws inscribed on the wall next to the Stoa Basileios. Consequently, the Thirty reduced the rights of Athenian citizens in order to institute an oligarchical regime. The Thirty appointed a council of 500 to serve the judicial functions formerly belonging to all the citizens. However, not all Athenian men had their rights removed. In fact, the Thirty chose 3,000 Athenian men “to share in the government”. These hand-selected individuals had the right to carry weapons, to have a jury trial, and to reside within city limits. The list of the selected 3,000 was consistently revised. Although little is known about these 3,000 men ‒ for a complete record was never documented ‒ it is hypothesised that the Thirty appointed these select few as the only men the Thirty could find who were devotedly loyal to their regime. The majority of Athenian citizens did not support the rule of the Thirty.
Led by Critias, the Thirty Tyrants presided over a reign of terror in which they executed, murdered, and exiled hundreds of Athenians, seizing their possessions afterward. Both Isocrates and Aristotle (the latter in the Athenian Constitution) have reported that the Thirty executed 1500 people without trial. Critias, a former pupil of Socrates, has been described as “the first Robespierre” because of his cruelty and inhumanity; he evidently aimed to end democracy, regardless of the human cost. The Thirty removed criminals as well as many ordinary citizens whom they considered “unfriendly” to the new regime for expressing support for the democracy. One of their targets was Theramenes, whom Critias believed to be a threat to the rule of the oligarchy. Critias accused Theramenes of conspiracy and treason, and then forced him to drink hemlock. Many wealthy citizens were executed simply so the oligarchs could confiscate their assets, which were then distributed among the Thirty and their supporters. They also hired 300 “lash-bearers” or whip-bearing men to intimidate Athenian citizens.
The Thirty’s regime did not meet with much overt opposition, although many Athenians disliked the new form of government. Those who did not approve of the new laws could either fight ‒ and risk exile or execution ‒ or accept the Thirty’s rule. Some supporters of democracy chose to fight and were exiled, among them Thrasybulus, a trierarch in the Athenian navy and noted supporter of democratic government. The uprising that overthrew the Thirty in 403 BCE was orchestrated by a group of exiles led by Thrasybulus. Critias was killed in the initial revolt.
The Thirty Tyrants’ brief reign was marred by violence and corruption. In fact, historians have argued that the violence and brutality the Thirty carried out in Athens was necessary to transition Athens from a democracy to an oligarchy. However, the violence produced an unanticipated paradox. The more violent the Thirty’s regime became, the more opposition they faced.
The increased level of opposition ultimately resulted in the upheaval of the Thirty’s regime by Thrasybulus’ rebel forces. After the revolution, Athens needed to decide the best way to govern the liberated city-state and to reconcile the atrocities committed by the Thirty. It was decided to give amnesty to all of the members of the selected 3,000, except for the Thirty themselves, the Eleven (a group of prison magistrates appointed by lot who reported directly to the Thirty), and the ten who ruled in Piraeus. After the revolution that overthrew the Thirty Tyrants, Athens and her citizens struggled to reconcile and rebuild.