The word tyrant tyrannos is of non-Greek origin. At first, the term did not have the persistently negative meaning that it has acquired today. The tragedy known as Oedipus the King, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus, or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles, was initially called Oidpous tyrannos. Its protagonist, Oedipus, saved the city of Thebes from the terrible Sphinx monster. The Thebans unanimously elected him their ruler, and they never regretted their decision till the plot’s outcome.
In contrast to the hereditary royal power, the Greeks initially called tyrants the rulers who achieved everything by their own efforts, not necessarily by violence. The supreme power could be given to a leader who was recognized by all for his outstanding services – for example, for the victory over the city’s enemies. Although democracy was still a long way off, the gradual renewal of the ruling elite occurred for natural reasons. Tyrants differed from their predecessors in the length of their rule and the prevention of political competition. They broke the rules by resorting to violence and repression against their opponents. Those dissatisfied had to humble themselves or leave the country. To give their one-person rule a semblance of legitimacy, tyrants declared themselves kings. They usually kept the old laws in force, and for the adoption of new laws, they assembled a people’s assembly. True, it was the tyrant himself who approved the drafts of laws and candidates for elective office. Few of the tyrants died of their own accord. Some were killed by their enemies or conspirators, and others were driven out by rebellious citizens. Eventually, these excesses so compromised the type of government that the word “tyrant” itself once and for all acquired its present meaning of “cruel despot”.
In a modern interpretation, despotism means a government in which all absolute power belongs to a single individual, usually a hereditary monarch. Nevertheless, the ruler’s policy is generally moderate and conservative, as it seeks to maintain the status quo.
Example of a despotic system
An old parable about the ancient Greek tyrant Thrasybulus comes to mind. One day another tyrant sent his confidant to him to learn the secret of his long and successful tyrannical rule.
Thrasybulus silently took the messenger by the hand and went with him into the field. He picked up a stick in the field and began to knock down all the spikes that rose in any way above the general level. When he had finished his work, he turned to the ambassador.
– Have you got it? – Got it,” he replied. And took the secret of successful tyranny to his master.
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