Pittacus – the good tyrant

After unpromising beginnings and innumerable controversies, Pittacus, seventh-century ruler of Mytilene on Lesbos, should be remembered as one of the great leaders of his age.
Statue of Pittacus
Brown terracotta statuette of Pittacus of Mytilene. From Pompei, House of Julia Felix. Credit: DEA / L. PEDICINI/De Agostini via Getty Images
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Pittacus, ruler of Mytilene on Lesbos, shot to prominence around 600 BC after catching his enemy in a fishing net. The Athenians had embarked upon a quest to seize control of Sigeum, the Lesbians’ most significant overseas territory, not far from Troy, and Pittacus had gone over to confront them. When the Athenian general – a former Olympic champion – challenged the defenders to fight him in single combat, most of them scarpered. Pittacus stood his ground.

Born into a noble family in the mid seventh century, Pittacus was Thracian on his father’s side, but thoroughly Lesbian in his outlook. Mytilene, then the most powerful city-state in the Greek East, lay on the south-east coast of the island. Described by Homer as ‘well laid-out’, the ancient town boasted two harbours and a famous resident in the shape of the poet Sappho, a contemporary of Pittacus.

Historically, Mytilene had been ruled by the Penthilidae – a harsh dynasty that claimed descent from the Homeric hero Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army – but following the usurpation of the dynasty’s rulers – and the rise of a new tyrant named Melanchrus – Pittacus was inspired to try his hand at ruling himself.

Still broadly a neutral term in Greece, ‘tyrant’ described a sole ruler who attained absolute authority over his people, whether for good or ill. Although Pittacus’ first attempt at seizing power on Lesbos was unsuccessful, his memorable performance at Sigeum ensured that he could not be ignored in the future.

His Athenian opponent, Phrynon, had particular prowess in the boxing-like sport of pankration. In Greek vase paintings, pankration fighters are huge and terrifying: kicking, punching and wrestling each other to the ground. As Pittacus prepared to confront the great muscle-man, word spread among the Lesbian army that the enemy were stripping soldiers and dedicating their armour in a temple to Athena. Even if Pittacus made it out alive, he was unlikely to do so intact. Knowing that he had little chance of surviving a fight – or of knocking Phrynon out cold – the Lesbian inched forward until he was standing in his shadow, and stealthily threw his net around him.

Pittacus was a man of many sayings. He believed that ‘forgiveness is better than revenge’ (he allegedly forgave the man who hacked his son to death in a barbershop) and that ‘it is difficult to be good’. He believed, too, that it is important to ‘do well the task in hand’. True to his word, he persevered in his attack on the general, incapacitating him and, finally, killing him like a hunter on a reserve. For the people of Lesbos, the episode was truly the highlight of what proved to be a difficult and indecisive campaign. Eventually, with the two sides reaching a stalemate, a neutral party was called in to arbitrate, and Sigeum fell to the Athenians.  

While the loss of territory had a devastating effect upon morale on Lesbos, Pittacus drew strength from his personal victory, and renewed his hopes of securing power in Mytilene. In the event, this did not come about through a coup, as he had previously imagined it would, but rather through a sudden change of allegiance. While Pittacus had helped to depose the tyrant Melanchrus, another man, Myrsilus, had emerged in his place and begun lording over Mytilene. The city continued to be riven by rival factions and civil unrest. What seemingly began as a plan to displace Myrsilus, too, ended in Pittacus going over to his side.

To many on Lesbos, not least Pittacus’ former co-conspirators, this was a gross act of betrayal, nothing more. Pittacus had pitched himself against the tyranny, then simply decided that he had been thwarted too many times, and defected. Ambition had trumped loyalty to the cause. Disgusted by his slipperiness, the other plotters, who included men of similarly high birth – among them a highly vocal poet – turned bitterly against him. However, they had little choice but to flee the city for voluntary exile on the other side of the island after their plot against Myrsilus was foiled. When the tyrant died a short time later, Pittacus was chosen by his townspeople to succeed him, prompting a warning from the disgruntled poet that it would be only so long before he resembled every other ruler who had come before him.

To judge by a Roman copy of an ancient portrait, Pittacus was bearded, with wavy hair reaching down to his earlobes, close-set eyes and a mouth that turned naturally downwards in a frown. If his face was serious, his demeanour was even more so. His many truisms marked him out as a closet philosopher (he also wrote poetry), and in the centuries that followed, Socrates would have great fun teasing out their meanings.

And yet, one thing Pittacus would not stand for was being made ridiculous. After years of striving for power and influence, he was not prepared to be undermined by rebels, or held back in his ambitions for cleaning up Mytilene through strict reform. Despite marrying into the old ruling family of the Penthilidae, Pittacus strove to loosen the grip the monied factions had long had on the island. Across the Greek world, something akin to a revolution was taking place, as new leaders came to the fore, eager to overthrow the traditional ruling classes. Pittacus realised that thinning out the aristocracy from which the chief conspirators had sprung could only help him to proceed in his plans. When the most prominent group of exiles revolted, he drove them overseas, and proceeded to banish a number of other noble men and women besides.

Pittacus’ decision to drive so many out of Lesbos naturally invited criticism. His old poet friend, himself a nobleman and exile, branded him variously ‘Drag-Foot’, ‘Cracked-Foot’, ‘Boaster’ and ‘Pot-Belly’. Pittacus was not, at least according to his poet friend, the most attractive man on the island. Croesus, famous for his wealth, was said to have taken pity on his victims. At that time a young prince of Lydia, a kingdom in what is now western Turkey, Croesus intervened and provided some of the exiles with 2000 staters in coins to help ease their return to Lesbos. It was in Lydia’s interest as a trade partner to see Lesbos stabilised. To Croesus’ astonishment, Pittacus rejected his offer of money, explaining that he had quite enough money as a result of inheriting from a family estate. That bequest, as he pointed out, had done little to improve his fortunes.

Steadily, it become clear that, contrary to the predictions of his old friends and allies, Pittacus would be a very different kind of ruler from his predecessors. Such was the remaining Lesbians’ confidence in him, in fact, that they made him the equivalent of a dictator, on the condition that he remain in power for a decade only. Wiser than the earlier tyrants, and more determined, Pittacus was arguably the best hope the islanders had for stability.

Pittacus introduced a raft of legislation to target some of the causes of social unrest. Most notably, he ruled that anyone who committed a crime under the influence of alcohol would pay double the penalty of his sober counterpart. As Pittacus himself said, ‘painted wood’ – public writing tablets inscribed with laws – offered the best protection for all. Like the famous laws of Solon in Athens, Pittacus’ were written up on wooden tablets, meaning that no one could be excused for breaking them on grounds of ignorance.

Pittacus’ social measures – and more importantly his quelling of warring factions – had a positive impact on life in Mitylene. In time, he was credited with restoring peace after years of political turmoil and hailed as an accomplished law-maker. The man with the enormous fishing net had finally triumphed on his home soil.

So it was because of that, after unpromising beginnings and innumerable controversies, that Pittacus came to be remembered as one of the great leaders of his age. His reputation was secured once and for all when he was proclaimed one of the Seven Sages of Greece. This list of wise men, which also featured Solon and the philosopher Thales, was described by Plato in his Protagoras in the early fourth century BC, but is likely to have been circulating as early as Pittacus’ lifetime. As sagacious Pittacus himself might have said, there is no success without setback, and as he did say, ‘power reveals the man’. Pittacus resigned, as promised, after ten years of harmonious dictatorship, to live a quiet life. He died, approaching his eightieth birthday, in about 570 BC.

Daisy Dunn

Daisy Dunn is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny. Her women-led history of the ancient world, Pandora’s Revenge, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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