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The Thirty Tyrants (Ancient Greek: οἱ τριάκοντα τύραννοι) were a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. Upon Lysander's request, the Thirty were elected as a government, not just as a legislative committee. The Thirty Tyrants maintained power for thirteen months. Though brief, their reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population, the confiscation of citizen's property, and the exile of other democratic supporters. They became known as the "Thirty Tyrants" because of their cruel and oppressive tactics. The two leading members were Critias and Theramenes.
With Spartan support, the Thirty established an interim government in Athens. The Thirty were concerned with the revision and/or erasure of democratic laws inscribed on the wall next to the Stoa Basileios. Consequently, the Thirty reduced the rights of Athenian citizens in order to institute an oligarchical regime. The Thirty appointed a council of 500 to serve the judicial functions formerly belonging to all the citizens. However, not all Athenian men had their rights removed. In fact, 3,000 Athenian men were chosen by the Thirty "to share in the government". These hand-selected individuals were allowed to carry weapons, entitled to a jury trial, and able to reside within city limits. The list of the selected 3,000 was consistently revised. Although little is known about these 3,000 men for a complete record was never documented, it is hypothesized that the Thirty appointed these select few because they were the only men the Thirty could find who were devotedly loyal to their regime. The majority of Athenian citizens did not support the rule of the Thirty.
The Thirty Tyrants, led by Critias executed, murdered, and exiled many Athenians. Critias, who coincidentally was a former pupil of Socrates, was considered a cruel, frightening, and inhumane man was "determined to remake the city to his own anti-democratic mold whatever the human cost." The Thirty removed criminals as well as many ordinary citizens who were considered "unfriendly" to the new regime for expressing support of the democracy. One of the many that Critias sentenced to death was Theramenes who was forced to drink hemlock. Critias believed that Theramenes threatened the rule of the oligarchy, so he called in a conspirator and accused him of treason. According to Aristotle in the Athenian Constitution, 1,500 of Athen's most prominent democrats were executed by the Thirty. Many wealthy citizens were executed for the purpose of liquidating their assets, which were then distributed amongst the Thirty and their supporters. They also hired 300 "lash-bearers" or whip-bearing men to intimidate Athenian citizens. Of those exiled was the notable democratic supporter Thrasybulus who successfully led the revolt against the Thirty in 403 BCE.
The Thirty's regime was not met with much overt opposition although many Athenians disliked the new form of government. Amongst the larger Athenian population, those who did not approve of the implemented laws could either fight and risk exile or execution or accept the Thirty's rule. Some supporters of democracy chose to fight and were exiled, among them, Thrasybulus, a trierarch in the Athenian navy. The coup that overthrew the Thirty was orchestrated by a group of exiles led by Thrasybulus. Critias was killed in the initial revolt.
The Thirty Tyrants' brief reign was marred by violence and corruption. In fact, historians have argued that the violence and brutality the Thirty carried out in Athens was necessary to transition Athens from a democracy to an oligarchy. However, the violence produced an unanticipated paradox. The more violent the Thirty's regime became, the more opposition they faced. The increased level of opposition ultimately resulted in the upheaval of the Thirty's regime by Thrasybulus' rebel forces. After the revolution, Athens needed to decide the best way to govern the liberated city-state and to reconcile the atrocities committed by the Thirty. It was decided that all of the members of the selected 3,000 were given amnesty except for the Thirty themselves, the Eleven, and the ten who ruled in Piraeus. After the revolution that overthrew the Thirty Tyrants, Athens and her citizens struggled to reconcile and rebuild.
Plato in the opening portion of his Seventh Letter recounts the rule of the Thirty Tyrants during his youth. He explains that following the revolution, fifty one-men became rulers of a new government, with a specific group of thirty in charge of the public affairs of Athens. Ten of the Fifty-one were to rule the city, and eleven were sent to rule Piraeus. Plato corroborates the general consensus found in other sources: the rule of the Thirty was "reviled as it was by many". The rule of the Thirty made the former democracy resemble a golden age in comparison. Plato also includes an account of the interaction between the Socrates and the Thirty.
In The Republic, Plato mentions Lysias, one of the most famous men from Athens that escaped the Thirty's reign of terror. We find out from Lysias that his brother Polemarchus "fell victim to the Thirty Tyrants".
Due to their desire to remain in complete control over Athens, the Thirty sought to exile or kill anyone who outwardly opposed their regime. Socrates was one of the several citizens who chose to oppose the oligarchy, and with that opposition came the endangerment of his life. In Plato's Apology, Socrates recounts an incident in which the Thirty once ordered him (and four other men) to bring before them Leon of Salamis, a man known for his justice and upright character, for execution. While the other four men obeyed, Socrates refused, not wanting to partake in the guilt of the executioners. By disobeying, Socrates knew he was placing his own life in jeopardy, and claimed it was only the disbanding of the oligarchy soon afterward that saved his life: "This happened while we were still under a democracy. When the oligarchy came into power, the Thirty Commissioners in their turn summoned me and four others to the Round Chamber and instructed us to go and fetch Leon of Salamis from his home for execution. This was of course only one of many instances in which they issued such instructions, their object being to implicate as many people as possible in their crimes. On this occasion, however, I again made it clear, not by my words but by my actions, that the attention I paid to death was zero (if that is not too unrefined a claim); but that I gave all my attention to avoiding doing anything unjust of unholy. Powerful as it was, that government did not terrify me into doing a wrong action."
Later on in his Seventh Letter, Plato describes the interaction between the Thirty and Socrates from his own point of view: "They tried to send a friend of mine, the aged Socrates, whom I should scarcely scruple to describe as the most upright man of that day, with some other persons to carry off one of the citizens by force to execution, in order that, whether he wished it, or not, he might share the guilt of their conduct; but he would not obey them, risking all consequences in preference to becoming a partner in their iniquitous deeds."