The Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens for a short period after her defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and the ensuing demise of democracy. Imposed by the Spartans, i.e, the winners of the War, the Thirty established a cruel and rancorous oligarchic regime; and executed a great number of their political opponents.

After Athens' surrender in the Peloponnesian War in April 404 B.C., and the ensuing destruction of the Long Walls, oligarchy replaced democracy. On the edict of the Spartan general Lysander, 30 men were assigned the task to create new laws; among them were the famous Critias and Theramenes. The Thirty appointed a new Council (Boule) and other offices according to their own interests. They ruled the city alοng with 3000 selected citizens, who were allowed to carry weapons. All other Athenians were deprived of their political rights. One of the first things the Thirty did was to condemn to death prominent democratic leaders, Athenians and metics. Some prosecutions were due to the practise of property confiscation. The toll was about 1500 men executed. Some 5000 fled to Thebes and other places of exile. Among the prosecuted was the rhetorician and metic Lysias, who escaped, and his brother who was killed. The moderate oligarch Theramenes opposed the cruelty of the regime, and for that reason was killed by Critias.

In January of 403, Thrasybulus, a democratic leader exiled in Thebes, assisted by 70 men of one mind, seized a fort at Phyle, and started the resistance against oligarchy and the Spartan garrison. His initial success gathered more democrats around him, and they soon took control of Piraeus. In May of the same year, Critias was killed in a critical battle. The Spartan king Pausanias II arranged the negotiations between the two parties, and they finally reached a reconciliation. In September of the same year, democracy was re-established. All members of the Thirty that survived the combat along with a few other oligarch leaders were executed.

Some devotees of the oligarchy resorted to Eleusis, which they held under their control. Soon, however, they surrendered too. The reconciliation terms ordered a general pardon that the democrats upheld in a remarkable way. Democracy attempted to throw into oblivion the sad and painful interim of extreme oligarchy. Therefore, the period of the Thirty was named anarchy, that is, without an archon, on the ground that the eponymous archon was illegal.

In his evaluation of this change in the constitution, Aristotle praised the prudence of the Athenian democrats. He claimed that "the Athenians appear both in private and public to have behaved towards the past disasters in the most completely honorable and statesmanlike manner of any people in history; for they not only blotted out recriminations with regard to the past, but also publicly restored to the Spartans the funds that the Thirty had taken for the [civil] war" (Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 40; cf., Xenophon, Hellenica 2).

Socrates, Plato, and the Thirty

It is a matter of dispute whether the dramatic Critias, who appears in the platonic dialogues, is one of the Thirty Tyrants. He could possibly be the grandfather of the oligarch ruler. At any rate, Socrates, in Plato's Apology, refers to the Thirty with repugnance:

When the oligarchy was established, the Thirty summoned me to the Hall, along with four others, and ordered us to bring Leon from Salamis, that he might be executed... Then I showed again, not in words but in action, that, if it were not rather vulgar to say so, death is something I couldn’t care less about, but that my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious... When we left the Hall, the other four went to Salamis and brought in Leon, but I went home. I might have been put to death for this, had not the government fallen shortly afterwards (32c-d).

Again, Plato in purportedly his Seventh Letter says:

When I was a young man I had the same ambition as many others: I thought of entering public life as soon as I came of age. And certain happenings in public affairs favored me, as follows. The constitution we then had, being anathema to many, was overthrown; and a new government was set up consisting of fifty-one men, two groups—one of eleven and another of ten—to police the market place and perform other necessary duties in the city and the Piraeus respectively, and above them thirty other officers with absolute powers. Some of these men happened to be relatives and acquaintances of mine, and they invited me to join them at once in what seemed to be a proper undertaking. My attitude toward them is not surprising, because I was young. I thought that they were going to lead the city out of the unjust life she had been living and establish her in the path of justice, so that I watched them eagerly to see what they would do. But as I watched them they showed in a short time that the preceding constitution had been a precious thing (324c-e).
Author: Dimitris Kyrtatas
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