Archaic Greece from the mid-seventh century BC has sometimes been called an “Age of Tyrants”. The word τύραννος (tyrannos, whence the English “tyrant”) first appeared in Greek literature in a poem of Archilochus, to describe the Lydian ruler Gyges. The earliest Greek tyrant was Cypselus, who seized power in Corinth in a coup in 655 BC. He was followed by a series of others in the mid-seventh century BC, such as Orthagoras in Sicyon and Theagenes in Megara.
Various explanations have been provided for the rise of tyranny in the seventh century BC. The most popular of these explanations dates back to Aristotle, who argued that tyrants were set up by the people in response to the nobility becoming less tolerable. As there is no evidence from the time that the nobility were becoming increasingly arrogant during the period, modern explanations of seventh century tyranny have tried to find other reasons for unrest among the people. Against this position, Drews argues that tyrannies were set up by individuals who controlled private armies and that early tyrants did not need the support of the people at all, whilst Hammond suggests that tyrannies were established as a consequence of in-fighting between rival oligarchs, rather than between the oligarchs and the people.
However, recently historians have begun to question the existence of a seventh century “age of tyrants”. In the archaic period, the Greek word tyrannos, according to Victor Parker, did not have the negative connotations it had gained by the time Aristotle wrote his Constitution of the Athenians. When Archilochus used the word tyrant, it was synonymous with anax (an archaic Greek word meaning “king”). Parker dates the first use of the word tyrannos in a negative context to the first half of the sixth century, at least fifty years after Cypselus took power in Corinth. It was not until the time of Thucydides that tyrannos and basileus (“king”) were consistently distinguished. Similarly, Greg Anderson has argued that archaic Greek tyrants were not considered illegitimate rulers, and cannot be distinguished from any other rulers of the same period.