When reading about the history of Sicily, especially the period of Greek colonies here (around the 5th century BC), the tyrant Theron is mentioned quite a lot. He must’ve been a pretty bad egg, you might be thinking, to be called a tyrant, you might think. Well, not necessarily…
Tyrant nowadays has entirely negative connotations in English, usually referring to cruel or despotic absolute rulers, often those who have gained power as a usurper. This has a very direct connection to the Ancient Greek word tyrannos, from which it’s derived, which also generally referred to someone who usurped power. In Ancient Greece though, the term was a neutral one, for a long time at least.
Theron, for example, gained power in Acragas (modern-day Agrigento) in Sicily in 488 BC, a major power during the heyday of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), a name given by the Romans to the Greek colonies in the south of modern-day Italy in the 5th century BC.
Theron apparently came to power by using public funds allocated for a temple-building project to hire bodyguards. Politics never really changes!
Because he came to power in this way, he earned the title tyrant, but it seems he wasn’t a particularly unpopular ruler. It might seem odd to us to see the word tyrant used in a neutral way, but I guess 2,500 years ago it wasn’t so strange for somone to seize power by force. And as long as you were a just ruler afterwards, people didn’t really mind that much.
Still, over time, the term came to be used in an exclusively negative way. Even by about 100 years after Theron took power, Plato and Aristotle were using the term to refer to cruel and unjust rulers who had usurped their power, and as democracy became more prominent, the negative meaning stuck.
And now of course we only use it in extreme cases for rulers who use corrupt means to gain control, and show disdain for those they’re meant to serve. Can’t think of anyone like that…