Tyrants, dictators, and demagogues

The election of Donald Trump, whose autocratic tendencies are more visible than those of previous presidents, has resulted in greater appearance of words like dictator, tyrant, and demagogue in news and political commentary. I have colleagues and friends who are scholars of the classical Roman and Greek worlds and they inform me that these words originally had more benign meanings. They only later developed pejorative connotations as a result of the actions of some of those to whom the labels had been applied.

For example, my colleague who specializes in ancient Rome tells me:

The word “dictator” was originally neutral. If you read Livy’s Early History of Rome, you will find that an individual Roman will be appointed dictator to deal with a crisis situation at Rome. Anyone taking the office in the early days always resigns from the post after six months. Julius Caesar was an exception: in a later period of Roman history (c. 45 B.C.) he took the office, got himself appointed for ten years, and then for life. He did not live out even the ten-year term. At that point the word “dictator” begins to be equated with the Greek term “tyrant” in its negative sense.

The meaning of ‘tyrant’ also evolved with time.

In the exact sense, a tyrant is an individual who arrogates to himself the royal authority without having a right to it. This is how the Greeks understood the word ‘tyrant’: they applied it indifferently to good and bad princes whose authority was not legitimate. [Rousseau, “The Social Contract”]

Originally in Greek the word was not applied to old hereditary sovereignties (basileiai) and despotic kings, but it was used of usurpers, even when popular, moderate, and just (such as Cypselus of Corinth), however it soon became a word of reproach in the usual modern sense.

And so it was with ‘demagogue’ which originally just meant ‘leader of the people’.

1640s, from Greek demagogos “popular leader,” also “leader of the mob,” from demos “people” (see demotic) + agogos “leader,” from agein “to lead” (see act (n.)). Often a term of disparagement since the time of its first use, in Athens, 5c. B.C.E. Form perhaps influenced by French demagogue (mid-14c.).

Indeed, since the term demagogos explicitly denotes someone who leads or shepherds the demos, the eventual use of this word as the primary epithet for a political panderer represents a virtual reversal of its original meaning. The word demagogos in fact implies that the people need someone to lead them and that political power, at least in part, is exercised appropriately through this leadership. [Loren J. Samons II, “What’s Wrong With Democracy,” University of California Press, 2004]

My colleague added that ‘demagogy’ originally meant:

‘leadership of the people’, a phenomenon particularly associated with Classical Athens in the 5th century BC, though the 4th century had its (less extreme) demagogues too. Unlike their English counterparts, the Greek words were not initially or necessarily disparaging. i.e., the root meaning was ‘leader’ not ‘misleader; and they are fairly rare… That ‘demagogue’ came to be bad is however beyond doubt.

On the most favorable view, demagogues were the ‘indispensable experts’, particularly on financial matters, whose grasp of detail kept an essentially amateur system going. Certainly inscriptions, our main source of financial information about Classical Athens, help correct the hostile picture in Thucydides and Aristophanes. But it has been protested that demagogues worked by charisma not expertise.

Clearly the early idea of a demagogue as an indispensable expert who has a grasp of detail comes nowhere close to describing Trump, which shows just how far the meaning has changed.

The changing meanings of these words provides a good reminder, if we needed one, that language evolves, usage changes, and words do not have fixed meanings, which is why those who try to restrict the meanings of words to what they currently represent are fighting the tide.


  1. KG says

    It’s worth noting that most of the classical Greek authors came from the (generally anti-democratic*) aristocracy -- hence, probably, why demagogos so rapidly became a pejorative.

    *Of course classical Greek democracy, as in Athens, was profoundly undemocratic in our terms, in excluding women and relying on a large slave population -- but it was a root of the idea that all citizens of a state had a right to argue and vote for their views. (It was also direct rather than representative, with all citizens having the right to vote on laws and appointments, not just for representatives; ancient Greek democrats might well have regarded our “democracies” as a sham covering actual oligarchy for that reason -- and come to think of it, they might have had a point.)

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ 1. KG
    Of course classical Greek democracy, as in Athens, was profoundly undemocratic in our terms, in excluding women and relying on a large slave population

    That reminds me of….ah yes, the USA in 1790.

  3. cartomancer says

    “Tyrant” came to assume its negative connotations in Athens in the late 6th century BC, thanks to the excesses of the Peisistratid dynasty who had seized power from the traditional ruling elites. The Peisistratids were, in fact, just one of a number of competing aristocratic families (their main rivals being the Alcmaeonids, although at several points in history the two families are known to have intermarried), but instead of achieving the archonships they wanted through power brokering and deals with their fellow aristocrats, they eventually raised mercenary armies and took over by force. This was not terribly unusual for an archaic polis state in Greece at the time.

    In fact the Peisistratids were the making of Athens in many ways. The current, Periclean, Parthenon, stands on top of an earlier, Peisistratid, one. The Iliad and Odyssey were first produced in textual editions during the Peisistratid period, the great Peisistratus himself having moved the order of Homeridae over from Samos. Athens also acquired a new network of roads, public water fountains, temples and festivals, and founded several colonies as its population grew. Peisistratus, keen horseman and charioteer that he was, even tried to institute a Panathenaic Games to rival the Olympics, Isthmian, Nemean and Pythiotic games.

    But his sons -- Hippias and Hipparchus -- proved petty, unpopular and vindictive. Their slights towards the leaders of other noble families lost them friends, and eventually the lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton murdered Hipparchus at a festival because (or so Aristotle has it) Hipparchus’s half-brother Thessalos tried to use his authority to seize Harmodius and take him for his own. The tyrannicides, as they became known, were lauded as heroes of the democratic state when it was finally created by the Alcmaeonid Cleisthenes in 509/8BC. Athenian popular opinion shifted towards the radically democratic, and any kind of one-man authoritarianism became suspect. The Peisistratids thus became demonised and their title -- tyrant -- was ever after blackened. Though it took a while. The Romans went through a similar process following the expulsion of their kings at around the same time, although their folk memory of how tyrants try to take sexual advantage of others inappropriately was the much more heterosexual Rape of Lucretia story.

    By 411 BC, when Athens had pretty much lost the Peloponnesian War, the word Tyrant was so firmly negative that the council of 30 oligarchs installed by Sparta to run Athens instead of its democratic system were called the “thirty tyrants” -- something of a grim joke, given that tyrant had always connoted one-man rule. Aristotle would formalise the negative connotations in his political writings sixty years later, where according to his schema of governmental types tyranny was the bad form of one-man rule as opposed to the good form (monarchy -- the difference being that a tyrant ruled according to his own whims, a true monarch ruled with the best interests of the state at heart). Of literary interest is the Sophoclean Oedipus play (probably c.427BC), Oedipus Tyrannos in the original Greek, though it is often latinised to Oedipus Rex or rendered in English as Oedipus the King and thereby robbed of some of its ambiguity. One of the main tensions in the play concerns Oedipus’s fitness to rule -- is he a legitimate king or an unworthy usurping tyrant? Does he have the best interests of Thebes at heart or is he following his own agenda of self-aggrandisement? Is he the (unwitting) inheritor of a hereditary throne or a saviour appointed by meritocratic means due to his excellence in saving the city from the Sphinx? It seems that in 427 or so there was still enough ambiguity in the word “tyrant” that it could reflect either the older or the more contemporary, democratic, meaning.

    Of course, many commentators have seen in the character of Oedipus a commentary on the politics of Pericles, whose career had dominated the twenty years prior to the play’s production. Thucydides explicitly regarded Pericles as a great and commanding statesman, rather than a base and ignoble demagogue like the execrable Cleon, although even he admitted that Athens was a democracy in name only during Pericles’ ascendancy. History has not been kind to Cleon, since the only two people to preserve any details of his life were Thucydides and Aristophanes, both of whom he pursued a vigorous campaign of legal attacks against. Having two of your worst enemies write your obituary is rarely going to leave you in the best light to posterity. In the late 5th century Athenian imagination the tyrant and the demagogue were comparable figures -- both were subverters of the democratic order, the one by force the other by manipulation.

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