A man named Periander ruled as a powerful tyrant over the city-state of Corinth from around 627/625 through 587/585 BCE. Although ancient accounts portrayed him as a cruel and harsh autocrat, Corinth undoubtedly achieved great military and economic strength during his reign. As Periander was a successful tyrant who ran a stable and efficient government, it was natural that other despotic rulers in the ancient Greek world looked to him for advice and inspiration. One such ruler was a man named Thrasybulus, who reigned as tyrant of Miletus at about the same time when Periander was in power at Corinth. The correspondence between the two despots became a thing of legend, which was eventually written down in the works of authors such as Aristotle.
As ancient Greek legend tells, once upon a time, Thrasybulus sent an envoy across the Aegean sea to seek advice from Periander about topics such as politics and governance. The messenger from Miletus, after completing his journey, received an audience with the tyrant of Corinth. Yet, Periander was not in a talkative mood when the meeting occurred. Hearing the questions posed by the messenger, Periander chose to put on a demonstration instead of giving a lecture. Periander, so the legend goes, ushered his guest to a nearby field of grain and proceeded to give an agricultural example of his method of rule. Aristotle described the legend in his work, The Politics, in which he stated, “It is said that to Thrasybulus’ messenger, who had come for advice, Periander returned no answer; but while walking in a field, reduced all the ears of corn [aka grain] to one level by lopping off the tallest” (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker number 1284a). As the story goes, the messenger was baffled by the display and did not understand it in the least. Nevertheless, he took note of the demonstration and then sailed home to Miletus.
When the messenger gave an account of the incident to Thrasybulus, the tyrant reportedly understood the lesson that Periander was trying to convey. As told by Aristotle, it was a lesson about the use of ostracism, or other similar tactics, to limit the influence of the most powerful people in a city-state (except for the ruling tyrant, of course). Aristotle wrote, “The messenger did not understand the motive for this action, but reported the action to Thrasybulus, who perceived that he ought to remove the outstanding men. The method is useful not only to tyrants, and tyrants are not alone in practicing it: oligarchies and democracies are in just the same position, for ostracism has very much the same effect as lopping off and exiling the leading men. (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker number 1284a). By giving advice such as this, it is easy to see why Periander had his critics.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Portraits of the Ancient Philosophers, c. 16th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).