Given that my posts here seem to have been filtered through current events lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that this post is also drawn from the headlines. But no, it came up while I was reading a book--Gore Vidal's novel Creation. The narrator, Cyrus Spitani, mentions at one point that the meaning of the word tyrant has changed even within his own lifetime, which spans much of the 5th century BCE. At the beginning of the book he uses the term tyrant in a neutral way, meaning simply a ruler of one of the small Greek fiefdoms that Darius and his successors held within the sway of the vast Persian empire. But by the end of Cyrus's life, "tyrant" has come to have the negative associations that it carries for us today.
So what happened?
Turns out there is a very good article on all this by Jona Lendering on a website called Livius. He tells us that the word originally meant 'sole ruler' and was neutral in tone. It probably came from a Lydian word for lord. Its meaning became more complex as Greek history acted upon it. The first Greek tyrants were simply aristocrats who combined with monied non-aristocrats that had until then been excluded from sharing power. Another period showed the rise of the rulers of city-states on the fringes of the Greek world, who were trying to combine their territory into larger political units. I believe some of these particular tyrants are the ones Cyrus Spitane is referring in much of the novel, as Persia has its eye very closely on Greece (and pretty much every place else).
Lendering also mentions the "eastern tyrants", who were rulers of city-states within the Persian Empire. They could be said to ruling for the Great King of the Achaemenids--in other words the Emperor of the Persian Empire. I think that Vidal in his book is more likely to call them satraps. Vidal also writes as though some of those Greek tyrants were also acting as intermediaries with Darius or his descendants as well.
The main thing about a tyrant, says Lendering, is that their power is not constitutional. They come to it from outside the democratic process. The odds of that in the ancient world seem pretty great if you go by Creation, where even patricide is not so beyond the pale as all that. Tyrants, often rising out of fragile coalitions, had to make their grasp on power seem legitimate if they were to endure. To that end, they often did things that were beneficial to their dominion, expanding trade, embarking on building projects and the like.
So where does the idea of a tyrant as a bad thing come from? Blame those Ancient Greeks, of course. It was something of a spin job. Lendering thinks that Herodotus and Thucydides cast the tyrants as the anti-type to the emerging Athenian democrats. In this light, it's pretty amusing to see the 5th century BCE told through the eyes of Cyrus Spitani, who dislikes the Athenians, and Herodotus in particular. But in the long run of history, its not so much 'to the victor, the spoils' as 'to the victor, the story'.
In the West at least, we all know whose version is still being told.