The Peloponnesian War: The Establishment of The Thirty Tyrants at Athens

Essay, 2014

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The Establishment of The Thirty in Athens

As a consequence of their final, unequivocal defeat in the Ionian War, the Athenians in their surrender to the Spartan admiral Lysander had to acquiesce into a new constitution being imposed upon them in 404 B.C. This new government of the Thirty Tyrants would sustain its despotic and oftentimes arbitrary rule for less than a year, before revolution and the seemingly invincible democratic spirit of Athens eventually swept it away. Although the establishment of the Thirty is unusually well documented by historical sources—accounts from Lysias, Xenophon, Diodorus, Aristotle and Plutarch are available to us1 —error and political bias serve to blur this fateful development. Despite Peter Krentz' assertion to the contrary, it is to be assumed that the Thirty were not established as an oligarchy at once, but rather in two surges, one limiting their task to the restoration of the ancestral constitution, the other granting them the powers to rule Athens as oligarchs.2

After the defeat in the battle of Aegospotami, which sealed the fate of their empire, the Athenians, weakened through a lack of provisions on account of Lysander's blockade of the city, eventually accepted Sparta's peace terms, which were negotiated by Theramenes and, according to Xenophon, demanded ''that the Athenians take down their Long Walls and the fortifications of the Peiraieus; that they hand over all of their ships except twelve; that they allow their exiles to return to Athens; that they have the same friends and enemies as the Spartans; and that they be willing to follow the Spartans as their leaders on land or sea, on whatever campaign the Spartans should order them.''3 They were also bound to ''employ the polity of their fathers,'' the patrios politela, which, as a relatively vague formulation, caused disagreement among the Athenians, who by and large were split into three political groups trying to bend the constitution in their favor, one democratic, another oligarchic, and a third, moderate group of outstanding citizens headed by Theramenes.4

Thus, Theramenes sent for Lysander and, in his presence, called upon the Athenian assembly to entrust the definition of the patrios politeia, and thereby the formulation of the new constitution, to thirty men.5 Lysander then rose to speak and accused the Athenians of being in violation of the peace treaty, since they had not returned to their ancestral constitution; he therefore violently urged them to accept Theramenes' proposal; otherwise, their lives would be in danger.6 The Athenians, after initial objections, agreed to the plan, not least since it called for the appointment of ten democrats (ten of ''those present,'' according to Lysias), in addition to ten oligarchs chosen by their victorious overseers, and ten men of Theramenes' choice.7 Lysander having left the city, the resulting committee of thirty men to determine the constitution then lingered on for the rest of the summer without coming to an agreement, whereupon the oligarchic faction seized the opportunity and sent for Lysander to return to Athens and end the debate with a result favorable to them.8 Upon his arrival, Lysander sought to finally impose an oligarchy of thirty men upon Athens. As Rex Stem argues: ''He likely chose the number thirty because that was the number of the board which already existed, but from Lysander's manner it must have now been clear that this group of thirty would consist entirely of dedicated oligarchs, thus ending the constitutional discussion.''9 Thus, a committee of thirty men assigned to determine the constitution made way for thirty oligarchs who became the new constitution.

Theramenes objected to this imposition, since it was at odds with the peace treaty, which called for the patrios politela and therefore should be construed to understand that Athens should enjoy at least some measure of her ancient liberty; however, Lysander had the treaty on his side, because the Athenians had not destroyed their walls within the time window that it had called for.10 In any event, Lysander was de facto in charge of the city anyhow, and so he went on to threaten Theramenes and the Athenians, who gave way and acquiesced into the new government.11 The people then decided to at least vote for Theramenes as one of the oligarchs, ''believing that his honourable principles would act to some extent to check the encroachments of the leaders.''12 Thus the Thirty Tyrants, whose names we are given by Xenophon, were established in the city.13

It is possible that, at this time, the main responsibility of the Thirty was still understood to be that of determining a constitution; however, since they were now a politically homogenous body, this assignment became meaningless. As Diodorus reports: ''Now they kept postponing the drawing up of laws, always putting forth fine-sounding excuses, but a Council and the other magistrates they appointed from their personal friends, so that these bore the name indeed of magistrates but actually were underlings of the Thirty.''14 They also appointed ten colleagues to govern the Peiraeus and eleven to be guards for the prison.15 Thus, the tyrannical government of 404 took shape, looking back from which Plato in his Seventh Letter described the worsted Athenian democracy as ''golden.''16

In order to explain the tension between the different sources, some of which either seem to suggest that the Thirty were immediately established as a government, or seem to confuse the initial constitutional board with the latter oligarchy, Rex Stem, commenting on the silence of the sources about any civic authorities appointed in the summer of 404, offers the following conclusion: ''Athens would not have been allowed to drift for up to six months after the end of the war without a legitimate attempt to settle its future constitution . . . Difficulties arose only because Theramenes' board of thirty syngrapheis could not reach a consensus. Magistrates were not elected because the shape of the constitution which they were to enforce had not been determined. The complete failure of Theramenes' board quo syngrapheis might also explain their apparent disappearance from the historical record. Since Theramenes' group did not codify a new constitution, there was nothing of significance by which to distinguish them from the group of thirty that followed them, and thus they became obscured by the great antipathy generated against the Tyrants that the later Thirty became.''17

Hence, the transformation of the thirty constitutional lawgivers into the Thirty Tyrants is one of the more elusive developments of the Peloponnesian War, with which the latter was finally concluded. The reign of terror that descended upon Athens as a result of the oligarchy only served to rekindle the democratic ethos that resulted in the restoration of the democracy in 403. In savoring their conclusive victory in the twenty-seven-year-long war, the Spartans would have done better than to impose a blundering regime upon a people their Corinthian allies had once so well described as restless and addicted to innovation.18 The Thirty were an imperfect solution to the insoluble problem of Athenian spiritedness; a characteristically supine Spartan innovation to subjugate ancient liberty.


1 The relevant sections are Lys. 12.71-6, Xen. Hell. 2.2.20-3.11, Diod. 14.3.2-4.2, Arist. Ath. Pol. 34.2-35.1, and Plut. Lys. 15. For a useful discussion of these sources, see Stem, Rex, ''The Thirty at Athens in the Summer of 404,'' Phoenix, Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (Spring - Summer, 2003), 18-34.

2 Peter Krentz presents his case in The Thirty at Athens, (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), esp. p. 50. Rex Stem's argument, however, is more persuasive, see ''The Thirty at Athens in the Summer of 404,'' (like note 1), esp. pg. 30­3.

3 Xen. Hell. 2.2.20; for the Athenians' acceptance of these terms, see 2.2.22. All Xenophon translations from Strassler, Robert B., ed., The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika, (New York: Anchor , 2009).

4 Diod. 14.3.2. All Diodorus translations from C. H. Oldfather via For the political factions,

see Arist. Ath. Pol. 34.3. See also Stem, 22-3.

5 Lys. 12.71-3. For the contradiction with Diodorus, see Stem, 23, footnote 20.

6 Lys. 12.74. For a persuasive interpretation of Lysander's assertion of Athens having broken the peace, see Stem, 24.

7 Lys. 12.76. All Lysias translations from W. R. M. Lamb, via

8 Diod. 14.3.4.

9 25. Peter Krentz disagrees, see 48.

10 Diod. 14.3.6.

11 Ibid., 14.3.7.

12 Ibid., 14.4.1.

13 Xen. Hell. 2.3.2. Despite knowledge of their names, the identification of these men is problematic; see Németh,Gy., ''Die Dreißig Tyrannen und die athenische Prosopographie,'' Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Vol.73 (1988), 181-94.

14 Diod. 14.4.2.

15 Arist. Ath. Pol. 35.1,

16 Quoted in Strauss, Leo, The City and Man, (Chicago Univ. Press, 1964), 131.

17 31.

18 Thuc. 1.70.

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The Peloponnesian War: The Establishment of The Thirty Tyrants at Athens
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Peloponnesian War, Peloponnesischer Krieg, Athens, Sparta, Lysander, Theramenes, Thrasybulus, Thirty, Dreissig
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Moritz Mücke (Author), 2014, The Peloponnesian War: The Establishment of The Thirty Tyrants at Athens, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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