As happened in many other Greek states, a tyrant arose in Athens in the 6th century B.C. His name was Peisistratos, and after several unsuccessful attempts he seized power in 546 B.C. and ruled until his death in 527, after which he was succeeded by his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchos.

Such tyrannies were a common feature of Greek political life as states made the transition from an aristocracy to either a democracy or an oligarchy. The Greek word τύραννος indicates that the individual seized or held power unconstitutionally but does not necessarily carry the negative force the word has today. Often the tyrant arose as the champion of the common people against the aristocracy.

Peisistratos, head of one of the large aristocratic families, seized power by force during a period of factional strife. Though many Athenians fled or were forced into exile (Herodotus 1.64), Aristotle's assessment of his tenure is positive:

Peisistratos' administration of the state was, as has been said, moderate, and more constitutional than tyrannic; he was kindly and mild in everything, and in particular he was merciful to offenders and moreover he advanced loans of money to the poor for their industries. (Athenian Constitution 16.1-2)

Aristotle has further praise for the tyrants, at least in their early days:

And in all other matters too he gave the multitude no trouble during his rule but always worked for peace and safeguarded tranquility; so that men were often to be heard saying that the tyranny of Peisistratos was the Golden Age of Kronos; for it came about later when his son succeeded him that the government became much harsher. And the greatest of all the things said of him was that he was popular and kindly in temper. For he was willing to administer everything according to the laws in all matters, never giving himself any advantage. ... Both the notables and the men of the people were most of them willing for him to govern, since he won over the former by his hospitality and the latter by his assistance in their private affairs and was good-natured to both. (Athenian Constitution 16.7-9)

That Peisistratid rule was surprisingly open is borne out by a fragment of a list of archons which shows that in 524 B.C. the future founder of democracy, Kleisthenes himself, held the chief magistracy while the tyrants were still in power, as did another rival aristocrat, Miltiades. For 599/1 B.C. we can read the name of the younger Peisistratos, grandson of the founder of the tyranny.

Fragment Of an inscription, about 425 B.C. H.: 0.15 m. W.: 0.195 m. Athens, Agora Museum I 4120. Broken from a large marble block inscribed with a list of archons of Athens, this piece preserves parts of the names of six archons of the 520's B.C.; two of them are members of the family of Peisistratos: In the second line we read Hippias, his son, and in the last line, Peisistratos the younger, his grandson. The inscription also records the names of two other well-known politicians active in the late 6th century B.C.: Miltiades, future hero of the battle of Marathon against the Persians, and Kleisthenes, later to be the initiator of democratic reforms. The letter forms date the inscription to the later part of the 5th century B.C., which means the piece shown here recorded the names of individuals who held office a century earlier.

His reign, like that of so many tyrants, was characterized by large public works projects, the first in Athens for centuries. Large temples and altars were constructed for Zeus Olympios, Apollo Pythios, and the Twelve Gods. In addition, an extensive system of aqueducts and fountainhouses brought a reliable supply of good clean water into the city. The impact of this fine new water system is reflected in the fountainhouse scenes painted on dozens of black-figure hydrias (water jars) and other pots in the late 6th century.

Model of the Altar of the Twelve Gods. Model by Petros Demetriades and Kostas Papoulias, Athens, Agora Museum. Literary sources tell us that the younger Peisistratos, grandson of the founder of the tyranny, dedicated the Altar of the Twelve Gods when he was archon in 522/1 B.C. This monument was near the middle of the Agora square, the actual center of Athens, and was the point from which distances from Athens were measured. The altar was famous in antiquity as a place of asylum and refuge. No traces remain of the altar itself, but excavation has revealed a foundation of squared blocks supporting a low sill of limestone blocks with the marks of a stone fence on the upper surface which formed the altar enclosure. Nearby is a statue base with a inscription that identifies the structure as the Altar of the Twelve Gods: "Leagros the son of Glaukon dedicated this to the Twelve Gods."
Athenian (Attic) white-ground, black-figure lekythos (oil container), about SOO B.C. Attributed to the Gela Painter. H.: 0.265 m. Athens, Agora Museum P 24106. Building fountainhouses and thus improving the water supply of the city was one of several civic works initiated under the Peisistratid tyranny. In the picture on this vase, water gushes from a spout shaped like the head of a panther into the water jar (hydria) below. A woman waits for it to fill while another woman goes off with her jar full. The fountainhouse shown here is small, but we know of one fountainhouse built at this time that had nine waterspouts, the Enneakrounos, a building that has not so far been located by archaeologists. As this picture suggests, fountainhouses became meeting places for women whose otherwise circumscribed lives allowed them few such opportunities.

Matters changed with the death of Peisistratos when his two sons Hippias and Hipparchos took over in 527 B.C. Aristotle describes the characters of the two brothers:

Affairs were now under the authority of Hipparchos and Hippias, owing to their station and their ages, but the government was controlled by Hippias, who was the elder and was statesmanlike and wise by nature; whereas Hipparchos was fond of amusement and lovemaking and had literary tastes; it was he who brought to Athens the poets such as Anakreon and Simonides, and the others. (Athenian Constitution 18.1)
Drawing of an inscribed molding from the Altar of Apollo Pythios. Drawing by William B. Dinsmoor, Jr. Literary sources tell us that the Altar of Apollo Pythios, like the Altar of the Twelve Gods, was built when Peisistratos the Younger was archon, in 522/1 B.C. Inscribed bases from the shrine survive and have been found near the Olympieion, so it is assumed that the altar was in that area. The inscription on the section of molding from the altar illustrated here reads: "This memorial of his office Peisistratos son of Hippias set up in the precinct of Pythian Apollo."
Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).