Monday, October 20, 2014


David A. Teegarden, Death to Tyrants! Ancient Greek Democracy and the Struggle against Tyranny. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. xiv, 261. ISBN 9780691156903. $45.00.

Reviewed by Alex Gottesman, Temple University (

Version at BMCR home site


Why did Greek democracy survive? David Teegarden offers a novel answer to this perennial question. He suggests that in part it had to do with laws that encouraged people to murder would-be tyrants. This is accordingly the first monograph to collect and discuss all the relevant epigraphic evidence since Hans Friedel's Der Tyrannenmord in Gesetzgebung und Volksmeinung der Griechen (Stuttgart 1937), including two cases discovered subsequently. Teegarden argues that such laws acted as a kind of "technology" (4) for helping democrats mobilize against possible threats from their opponents.

Based on a 2007 Princeton dissertation, it follows in the wake of recent work by Josiah Ober, especially his Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton, 2008). That book used social scientific approaches to explore how the Athenian democratic system identified and addressed problems of social knowledge (i.e. how I know X, and how you know that I know X, and vice versa). In this case, Teegarden considers the "collective action" problem of how to mobilize democrats against a possible coup. According to Teegarden, anti-tyranny legislation helped solve this problem by sending a clear message to democrats and their enemies alike that any attempt to overthrow the democracy would be met with a collective response, and also provided the outlines of what a response would and should look like. This fostered the trust among pro-democrats on which any collective mobilization must rely, thus making mobilization more likely to be successful and more credible as a deterrent.

The book takes the anti-tyranny measures in chronological order. Although anti-tyranny proclamations date to the time of Solon (AP 16. 10), the earliest case of anti-tyranny legislation is the Athenian Law of Demophantus, promulgated in Athens after the overthrow of the Four Hundred in 410. Teegarden credits this decree as setting the standard for the entire genre of anti-tyranny laws that followed it. His interpretation of its significance relies heavily on Thucydides' account of the assassination of Phrynichus. Teegarden reads this assassination as the spark that helped solve the "coordination problem" Athenians were facing at the time. They did not know how big the oligarchic conspiracy was or who was behind it. This ignorance prevented them from mobilizing and striking back against the oligarchs. The assassination of Phrynichus changed the calculus, according to Teegarden. It showed that people were ready to act, and led to the uprising that brought about the oligarchs' subsequent overthrow. This experience of how assassination sparked mobilization subsequently led to the adoption of the Law of Demophantus, which enjoined all Athenians to perform an oath ritual which created the common knowledge that they would never again allow anyone to overthrow the democracy, but would instead "kill by word and by deed … anyone who overthrows the democracy of Athens" (And. 1. 97), that is, to do to such a person what happened to Phrynichus. And in fact, when the Thirty came to power a few years later, Teegarden suggests that the oath of Demophantus was "largely responsible for the successful mobilization against [them]" (44). It had enabled Athenians to manipulate their "revolutionary thresholds" by means of public rituals that propagated the awareness of their credible commitment to respond to an anti-democratic threat.

The second measure is the Eretrian anti-tyranny legislation of ca. 340. The inscription consists of two fragments, one originally published in 1857 and subsequently lost and the other discovered in 1958 and published in 2001 (SEG 51. 1105). Our knowledge of Eretrian history is patchy, but it does appear that the city was subject to frequent bouts of one-man rule. The law thus addressed a pressing need to stabilize the city's constitution. Teegarden offers an interesting interpretation of this law as setting up "layers of defense" (71) against attempts to overthrow the Eretrian democracy, ranging from the incentive of a statue in honor of anyone who killed a tyrant, to instructions on how to identify a situation that the democracy has been overthrown and how to mobilize in its defense.

It has long been recognized that the 337 anti-tyranny law of Eucrates (GHI 79), the third to be considered, was modeled on the law of Demophantus. Teegarden maintains that the resemblance between the two Athenian laws is due to the fact that Athenians credited Demophantus' measure with securing their democracy in a time of uncertainty. Eucrates' law makes sense in a post-Chaeronea context in which Athenians worried that their democracy might be overthrown (even though that did not happen until more than a decade later). One of the biggest problems of interpreting Eucrates' law in this way is to understand why it threatens the Areopagites in particular, as there is no other evidence that the Areopagus was seen as anti-democratic at this time. Teegarden's novel solution to this problem is to treat the Areopagus in the law not as a threat but as a "signaling institution" (104). If the Areopagus failed to meet, that failure would signal to the Athenians that their democracy had been overthrown and thus they should mobilize in its defense. As to why the Areopagus rather than the assembly or the council had the job of being the canary in the coal mine, Teegarden suggests it was because the Areopagus was seen as being the "guardian of the politeia" (AP 25. 2) and as being potentially harder to manipulate than the assembly.

Did anti-tyranny laws always aim to protect democracies? Teegarden's reading of the so-called "anti-tyranny dossier" from Eresus (IG XII 2, 526) suggests that the answer is yes. The inscriptions, ranging in date from 333 to 305, refer to an anti-tyranny law (not extant) and relate to it the trials of former "tyrants" under the auspices of Alexander and his successors. Teegarden interprets the motive of Alexander in having the tyrants tried by the Eresians as an attempt to stabilize the city by establishing the Eresians' "threat credibility" (122) against those who would overthrow it. In terms of knowledge-production, the trial served a similar function as the oath of Demophantus. The recorded verdict, 876 to 7, further advertised the unity of the Eresians against those who would threaten their democratic constitution. The publication of the Macedonian kings' repeated referrals to Eresian democratic institutions further showed that they too were inclined to jump on the anti-tyranny "bandwagon;" or rather that they were disinclined to interfere in the internal affairs of Eresus (137). This was in keeping with Alexander's professed intent to abolish tyrannies and to permit cities to be autonomous (Plut. Alex. 34. 2).

The next case, the "Philites Stele" from Erythrae (I. Erythrai 503), also does not involve an anti-tyranny law per se. Instead, the third-century inscription underscores how the politics of the commemoration of tyrannicide revolved around attempts to encourage or to discourage mass mobilization. Debates about the statue of the tyrannicide Philites were really debates about the future of Erythraean democracy. When the oligarchs removed the sword of Philites, they were advertising the message that democratic mobilization against them would fail. By taking away the sword and by allowing a patina to form on it, they suggested that the memory of the tyrannicide was being obliterated. According to Teegarden, these efforts were designed to make Erythraeans think twice before "going first" and setting off a mass mobilization. Later, after the oligarchs were overthrown, the democrats repaired the statue and passed measures to maintain its dignity, and this served to blunt the oligarchs' message and negate their effort to lower the community's "revolutionary threshold." Repeated ceremonial crownings of Philites would have propagated this knowledge. "The statue was not simply a static, bronze object. It was a tool—a medium—for generating and maintaining common knowledge" (153).

The final case is the law from Ilium (I. Ilion 25). As Teegarden notes, "there is no direct evidence for a tyranny at Ilion during the Hellenistic period, yet it is from Hellenistic Ilion that we have the most detailed tyrant-killing law" (199). After careful study of the law's multiple provisions, he suggests that in fact the Iliotes must have experienced a brief period of a non-democratic regime (of uncertain character) and were now publicizing multiple and overlapping measures to ensure that this would not happen again. He supports the consensus date of the law of ca. 280 by offering speculation about the historical context based on the measures the Iliotes took.

He concludes by listing known fragments of anti-tyranny legislation from Hellenistic Asia Minor. The popularity of such laws explains, he argues, the "success of what might be called Asia Minor's 'Hellenistic democratic revolution'" (213-4). This returns to Ober's model of democratic knowledge and expands it to account for the wide spread of anti-tyranny legislation in the Hellenistic period. Teegarden argues that other democracies copied and adapted Athens' anti-tyranny legislation because they realized that it worked. "Simply put, good ideas spread throughout the ancient Greek world" (220).

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking work. Teegarden's effort to go beyond a classical, Athenocentric view of Greek democracy, while at the same time acknowledging Athens' importance as a model, is to be especially commended. Of course, it is inevitable that such a work will provoke quibbles. My major one is that while Teegarden has shown how anti-tyrannical legislation might serve to incite a riot against potential tyrants by lowering "revolutionary thresholds," as well as being a deterrent based on that capacity, it is unclear that it would be much help in forging consensus that a tyranny existed in the first place. The extent to which a bandwagon effect would follow, or could rationally be expected to follow, an assassination surely depended more on how the victim was seen, and on how political violence was seen in general, than on the presence or absence of anti-tyranny laws. And this determination would probably be made after the fact.1 I am skeptical that legislation or ritual alone could provide rational assurance to a would-be tyrannicide that public opinion would share his interpretation of the deed. As John Wilkes Booth learned to his great chagrin, just shouting "sic semper!" is not sufficient to turn an assassination into a tyrannicide.


1.   A neat illustration of the tyrant-identification problem is the case of Timoleon (not discussed by Teegarden). According to some versions of the story, he killed his brother as a would-be tyrant but this did not settle the matter, as the act divided Corinthian public opinion, some praising the act and others condemning it depending on their political stance. Timoleon was invited back into politics from a self-ordained exile with the comment, "If you perform nobly we will consider you to have killed a tyrant, if poorly, a brother" (Plut. Tim. 7. 2). On Timoleon's reception see most recently B. Smarczyk, Timoleon und die Neugr├╝ndung von Syrakus (G├Âttingen, 2003), pp. 18-32. Compare also the case of Euphron, whom the Thebans considered a tyrant but the citizens of Sicyon heroized with a burial in their agora, leading Xenophon to comment, "Most people define as good men those who benefit them" (Xen. Hell. 7. 3. 12). On the rival traditions about the "tyranny" of Euphron, see S. Lewis in JHS 124 (2004): 65-74. On political violence as ritual action compare also the perspective of W. Riess, Performing Interpersonal Violence: Court, Curse, and Comedy in Fourth-Century BCE Athens (Berlin, 2012). ​

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