Monday, July 10, 2006

The Greek Tyrants

Here's a post that was left in draft mode for a few weeks. I think I wanted to polish it, but that's not what blogs are about, and I'm already thinking about other things (like getting my Certificate of Eligibility to teach in NJ). I forgot about it until now:

So I'm reading Andrewes the Greek Tyrants, which I picked up for 50 cents somewhere, and I can't help but think he completely misread the story of Cypselus' birth.

So first a little background.

Cypselus is recognized as the first of the Greek tyrants in the archaic period, and here 'tyrant' refers to what is esssentially a monarch who rules without hereditary right or constitutional authority; in short, not a king. Greece, it is held, was moving out of a period marked by aristocratic rule, and Andrewes believed that the reason lay in hoplite warfare and the subsequent involvement of a lower social tier in war and government: a strong individual with the support of the hoplites could easily overtake the minority ruling classes. Much of Andrewes's argument is guesswork, but it isn't badly done for the most part.

I have a serious problem, however, with Andrewes's acceptance of the myth of Cypselus' birth.

The aristocrats ruling Corinth at the time Cypselus seized power were called the Bacchiadae, a family which Herodotus tells us only married from within. A Bacchiad called Amphion had a daughter named Labda who was lame, and no one in the family would marry her. She was taken as wife by a certain Aetion from the district of Petra, by descent a Lapith and a son of Caeneus (Herodotus 5.92).

Now let's stop right here, because Andrewes passes over this casually and later calls Cypselus' father 'non-Dorian.' The OCD3 entry on Cypselus actually refers to the 'Lapithi' in a way that suggests they were simply an indigenous, pre-Dorian tribe. This smacks of rationalization: historians accept that Aetion exised and was a Lapith, ignoring the mythical signification.

The Lapiths, of course, are best known for their war with the Centaurs at the wedding of Perithous. During this war Caeneus, who had also participated in the Argonautic expedition and the Calydonian boar hunt, was buried under a mass of trees by the Centaurs but emerged as a bird. Caeneus was also praised by Nestor as one of the mightiest men of the greatest generation. It strikes me that such ancestry is precisely what tyrants of later times claim to justify their rule, though Heracles is the overwhelming favorite. But you have to cut Cypselus some slack; afterall, he may have been the first of the tyrants, or at least one of the earliest to employ this kind of propaganda.

Coupled with this mythic ancestry is the claim that his mother was a shunned Bacchiad, which actually gives him a legitimate claim to power in Corinth, especially when we consider that the Bacchiad's were said to have rotated power to different members of the clan. As a member of the clan, he was legitimate, and as a man descended from legendary kings and warriors who traced their lineage back to Zeus, he was a prime candidate to topple the existing order.

This reads as classic propaganda, like the Attalids who claimed descent through Telephus from Heracles and, by adoption, the native royal line of the ancient Mysian kingdom. The Attalids could claim to be both legitimate Greek kings and legitimate Asian kings. Isn't that convenient?

Andrewes focused too much attention on the 'racial' factor in the case of Cypselus because he wanted a thread of anti-Doric sentiment to lead him partway through the labyrinth of Archaic history, but I think he was simply mistaken and led astray by his own efforts to distinguish tyranny in the early period from its later incarnations.

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