Peisistratus was a major figure in the political, economic, religious and cultural life of Athens in the 6th century BC.
Rise to Power
In 594 BC his mothers relative, the reformer Solon, had improved the economic situation of the Athenian lower classes and laid the foundations for the future Athenian Democracy. However, his reforms didn’t eliminate the bitter aristocratic struggles for the Archonship, the chief executive post. As Peisistratus reached manhood, the two major factions were called the Plain, led by Lycurgus, and the Coast, led by Megacles.
During a war with the city of Megara around 565 BC, Peisistratus gained military fame by taking the Megarian harbour. He organised his own faction (The Hillsmen), a group that included noble families from his own district in the eastern part of Attica (The Athenian hinterland) as well as a considerable part of the Athenian city itself. At one point, Peisistratus slashed himself and the mules of his chariot and made a dramatic entrance into the Agora to show how his enemies had wounded him. The people voted him a bodyguard of citizens armed with clubs, with the aid of which he seized the Acropolis and held power briefly in 561 BC. To increase his support, he entered a short lived marriage with the daughter of Megacles and again acquired temporary power of Athens, sometime around 556-555 BC. However, Lycurgus and Megacles united to drive him out.
For several years he went into exile in northern Greece. He laid a solid base for his return, exploiting the silver and gold mines of Mt. Pangaeum and gaining the support of conservatives in Thebes, Argos, Naxos and elsewhere. In 546 BC he went to Eretria on the island of Euboea, and with a force provided by his own income and by that of his friends, he invaded Attica. At Pallene, near Mt. Hymettus, he launched a surprise attack on the Athenian army in the hottest part of the day while his enemies were either sleeping or gambling. After a decisive victory, Peisistratus became master of Athens for the third time and remained in power until his death in 527 BC. His sons Hippias and Hipparchus succeeded him.
Peisistratus became master of Athens by force, and maintained his power by the same measure. In Greek terms, this made him a tyrant, even though he enacted several important reforms that sped along the evolution of democracy in Athens. He maintained a mercenary bodyguard and it is believed that he disarmed the citizens of Athens. He placed hostages of major families on the island of Naxos. He preserved the constitutional forms of government and made them operate more efficiently. Some aristocrats co-operated and were permitted to hold the yearly post of archon; others went into exile.
His internal policies were designed to increase the unity of the Athenian state. Since religion was closely interwoven with the structure of the Greek city-State, many of his steps were religious reforms. He brought the shrine of Demeter at Eleusis under state control and constructed the first major Hall of the Mysteries for the annual rites of initiation into the cult. Many local cults of Attica were either removed to the city or had branch shrines there. Artemis, continued to be worshiped at Brauron, but now there was also to be a shrine to him on the Acropolis. Athena had become universally revered by Athenians under Peisistratus’s rule. Peisistratus constructed an entry gate on the Acropolis and perhaps built the old Parthenon.
Festivals and literature also flourished under his rule. The tyrant enhanced the glory of the Panathenaea, a yearly festival devoted to Athena, by accentuating the Great Panathenaea with athletic contests and prizes for bards who recited the Homeric epics. After the cult of Dionysus was placed under state sponsorship, prizes were awarded at the annual Dionysia for the singing of dithyrambs and, from 534 BC, for the performance of tragedies. Poets such as Anacreon lived at the court of Peisistratus and his sons, who also encouraged the collection of oracles and supported the soothsayer Onomacritus.
Contributions to the growth of Athens
At this time Athens was becoming a city; its villages were growing around each other to form one of the grandest civilisations of the classical period. Peisistratus improved the city’s water supply by building an aqueduct that fed the Enneakrounos fountain on the edge of the Agora. He also improved and systemised the marketplace itself. Just outside the city, on the banks of the [Ilissus Stream]], he began a temple to Olympian Zeus, but this wasn’t finished until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
In the countryside, Solon had encouraged the growing of Olive trees and vines to produce cash crops; Peisistratus made loans to small farmers for tools and equipment to further this economic activity. In a few cases the estates of exiled aristocrats were broken up. Peisistratus instituted a system of travelling judges to provide state trials of rural cases at the spot, and he made inspection tours.
This extensive cultural and political activity was financed by Peisistratus’ revenues from the mines of Mt. Pangaeum and from internal sources. The silver mines of Laurium were state property, and dues were exacted from the growing trade at Athenian harbours. Peisistratus instituted a tax of around one tenth on agricultural production.
Athenian industry and commerce expanded in the latter half of the 6th century; the main contributions of Peisistratus to these developments were probably the guarantee of stability and the protection of foreign migrants.
Externally, the tyrant pursued a policy of peace. The Greek world was at this time in a temporary state of balance. In the Aegean, Peisistratus helped Lygdamis of Naxos to become a local tyrant. He purified the sacred island of Delos by removing the old graves near its temple of Apollo. His main efforts were concentrated in gaining control of the Hellespont, through which came the grain of southern Russia. To this end he secured command of Sigeum and installed a younger son, Hegesistratus, as its ruler. More importantly, he encouraged the Athenian Miltiades to lead a private venture that gained control over the Chersonesus.
On the death of Peisistratus, Athens was much less important politically and economically than Sparta. Commercially, states such as Miletus, Corinth and Aegina were at least as active, and the contemporary tyrant Polycrates of Samos was as important a patron of the arts. Nonetheless, the religious and patriotic unification of Athens had made great progress during Peisistratus’ calm rule.
- Aristotle, Constitution of Athens, ch. 13-17.
- Hammond, N.G.L, A History of Greece to 322 BC, 2nd edition, ch.6 and 8 (1967)
- Hignett, C., A History of the Athenian Constitution to the End of the Fifth Century BC, ch. 5 (1952)