The language of tyranny

Different types of government use different language. A short treaty from Athens provides an example of this from the ancient world.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

A lot can be said for the importance of language, and often is. Certain branches of modern scholarship believe that everything we “know” exists only within the context of the language that we use. While I believe this to be wildly incorrect, there is no doubting that language is a significant part of understanding.

In politics, this has always been true, especially now in a world where everything that a politician – in office or aspiring – says is constantly analyzed and broadcast. The ancients did not have the technology to do this, but there were public spheres of communication, such as public speeches, dramatic performances, or inscriptions. The latter of these were both important and commonly used in political contexts and one found in Athens is the inspiration for this short article.

Inscriptions from Athens

The inscription in question was found on the Acropolis and records the text of a treaty between Athens and Dionysius I of Syracuse.Show The treaty is catalogued variously as IG II2 105 or RO 34. The first of these is its reference number in the Inscriptiones Graecae series, while the latter is its number within Rhodes and Osborne 2003. The name of the eponymous archon, an important means of dating Athenian inscriptions, is partially damaged at the top of the stele, meaning that academics are unable to give an exact date with utmost certainty.

With that said, the typical restoration is that the first three words read epi Nausigenos archontos, meaning that the treaty was enacted “in the time of Nausigenes’ archonship.”Show Although other restorations of the archonate name at the top have been suggested, I follow the brief discussion of this in Stephen Lambert and P.J. Rhodes’ note 1 on the entry for this inscription at Attic Inscriptions Online. An English translation of the text can also be found there, while a Greek version can be found here. OhioLINK provides an image of the stele as we have it today. This places it in 368/7 BC, within the last year of Dionysius’ life.

Another inscription from the year before this treaty was brought about reveals that Athens had granted the Syracusan citizenship and praised him and his sons as friends of the Athenians. They were also awarded honorary gold crowns.Show IG II2 103 = RO 33, with a digital text available through Attic Inscriptions Online. Both of these are probably the results of Dionysius’ support of the Athenian-Spartan alliance in the wake of the Theban destruction of Spartan hegemony in the wake of the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC (cf. Xen. Hell. 7.1.28).

Democracy and tyranny

Although both of these inscriptions are interesting and shed light on the international political dealings of the mid-fourth century, the treaty stele, however, gives us an interesting view of how the languages of democracy and tyranny differed.

We see this in the way in which it describes the protection offered to each signatory. In the main body of the text are a number of rather repetitive clauses. The first of these reads: “if anyone goes against the chora of Athens for war either by land or by sea”.Show […ἐάν τις] [ἴηι ἐπ]ὶ [τ]ὴν χώραν τὴν Ἀ[θηναίων ἐπὶ πολέμ]-[ωι ἢ κατ]ὰ γῆν ἢ κατὰ θάλ[ατταν…] The second of these reads: “if anyone goes against Dionysius, or his descendants, or all that which he (Dionysius) rules, by land or by sea.”Show ἐάν τις ἴηι ἐ[πὶ Διονύσιον ἢ τοὺς ἐ]-[κγόνου]ς αὐτο͂ ἢ ὅσων ἄ[ρχει Διονύσιος ἐπὶ] [πολέμω]ι ἢ κατὰ γῆν ἢ κα[τὰ θάλατταν…]. The translations are adapted from the version found on Attic Inscriptions Online. Those quoted are lines 12-14 and 18-20, respectively. The requirement for both parties is to send as many troops as possible to whichever is being attacked, in order to repel the invaders. This seems like a fairly standard defensive treaty; if either Athens or Dionysius is attacked, the other will respond.

But the language used to describe what is to be protected is different between the two. For Athens, the concern is an assailant attacking its chora, meaning hinterland, countryside, etc. For Dionysius, however, the concern is for his power, reflected in the language used. Rather than saying the chora of Syracuse, the treaty describes it as hosos archei, or “all that he rules.” Similarly, Dionysius is forbidden from carrying arms against the chora of Athens, and they are forbidden from carrying arms against hosos archei.

The distinctions between these two phrases are somewhat subtle, as in practice they mean essentially the same thing: the territory controlled by either Athens or Dionysius. The word choice, however, implies two very different political situations. For the Athenians, their territorial possessions are associated directly with the polis, the conceptually complex term we use to refer to a Greek city-state and its people. However, that which belongs to Syracuse, governed by Dionysius, is directly associated with the tyrant by the clause’s phrasing. The treaty explicitly says that Athens is to assist when anything he rules is attacked, but not explicitly his primary city, from whose political system he draws much of his power, Syracuse.

For some readers, this may seem fairly obvious. After all, Dionysius was a tyrant, notorious for not sharing power and ruling with absolute authority, while Athens in the 360s was a democracy, thus had a government “of the people”, or as far as that concept can be used to describe any Greek city-state. But the phrasing of the treaty emphasizes the difference in the mentality of power between these two political systems.

The language used in reference to Dionysius is very reminiscent of Aristotle’s “fifth” type of king: “the absolute type, where a single person is sovereign on every issue, with the same sort of power that a tribe or a polis exercises over its public concerns” (Arist. Pol. 3.14.15 = 1285b; transl. Barker 1946). While things like this can be seen theorized about and described in Hellenic philosophers, this inscription is first-hand evidence of one of the divide between the sole rule of one man and a democratic system.

This is especially important in light of all of those cited as agreeing to this treaty at the bottom of the inscription. Besides Dionysius himself, it appears that the archons, the boule (council), the generals, and the trirarchs of Syracuse signed off on it as well.Show I follow the restoration of the text as provided here. Not all scholars accept this reconstruction. It is probable that, as Rhodes and Osborne have suggested, the tyrant “maintained an appearance of constitutional government”, so these bodies may not have possessed much, or any, power.Show Rhodes and Osborne 2003, p. 168. As I have argued above, however, the text of the treaty belies this and that this was less a treaty between Syracuse and Athens than between Athens and Dionysius.

Closing thoughts

The Athenians were also probably trying to flatter the tyrant. In the opening of the decree of alliance, Dionysius is referred to as ton Sikelias archonta, “ruler of Sicily”. While it may be correct to describe him as ruling the Greeks of the island, this is clearly an overstatement of his power.

Although Dionysius had experienced some success in the ongoing wars with the Carthaginians, in 376 BC his army was destroyed at the Battle of Cronium, which led to a peace treaty restoring the old boundaries and leaving western Sicily in Punic hands. He did launch a new war in 368 BC, the year that this treaty was enacted, but it was not a successful campaign and the results of it would never lead an objective observer to describe him as the ruler of Sicily.

It would be overstating the accomplishments of this article to claim that it has changed the way that we think about tyranny, democracy, or Greek politics. What I have attempted to do, however, is to point to a practical, tangible, example of how political perspectives and power structure can influence the choice of language, even in something as pedestrian as a defensive treaty.

Unlike the philosophers and historians whose well thought out, carefully edited, and subjective writings form the basis of our thinking on the subject, IG II2 105 lets us glimpse the world of Hellenic political discourse and some of the subtle differences between types of political organization.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading:

  • P.J. Rhodes, “Making and breaking treaties in the Greek world,” in: P. de Souza and J. France (eds), War and Peace in Ancient and Medieval History (2008), pp. 6-27.
  • P.J. Rhodes and R. Osborne, Greek Historical Inscriptions 478-404 BC (2003).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.