Yes, there have been tyrants for all human history. The likes of Putin are nothing new. Sadly, human nature has not advanced one iota in thousands of years. Thus, a look at how people in ancient Greece talked to tyrants seems like a fresh topic.

Author Daniel Unruh actually does dip a toe into modern politics, is a discussion of the “divisive presidency of Donald Trump” that echoes anxieties raised in ancient times by Alkmaion, Themistokles and Iphikrates. The author admits he is “very attracted by the approaches of intercultural negotiation and strategic moral diplomacy. Nevertheless, it seems not unreasonable to accept that such approaches are not entirely without risk, and that there may be a line where understanding turns into sympathy.” Unruh points to Trump’s fondness for Putin, Kim Jong Un, and other authoritarian leaders in this regard. I wonder how Unruh would have written this book today, now that the Supreme Court has overturned the Constitution and created a monarchy in its place on July 1, 2024. The whole point of this book is how those living under some form of democracy can approach monarchs without themselves succumbing to the allure of absolute rule. Unruh quotes the tragedian Sophocles: “Whoever journeys to a tyrant is his slave, even if he set out a free man.” This book may now be a primer on how European leaders, in democracies, talk to the American king.

Unruh sets out his project on page 12: “There is no comprehensive treatment of how Greek writers themselves depicted relationships between citizens and monarchs, an absence this book seeks to redress.” His remit spans the period from 431 BCE to 338 BCE. “This was the period that saw the increasing power and influence of a wide range of monarchies on the world of the Greek city-states.

As an example of the intercultural communication Unruh endorses, he discusses Herodotus, who employs the term nomos. In English, this can mean the amalgam of culture, custom and law. “Herodotus approvingly quotes the poet Pindar’s statement that “nomos is king of all.” Herodotus subscribes to the view that cultural codes “exert a powerful control over the choices made by both individuals and communities.” Throughout his writings, Herodotus provides case studies (that are ably examined by Unruh) on the differences between monarchic and non-monarchic societies. While not every monarch “is an unmitigated monster,” many are. Herodotus tells of the Greek diplomat Solon, who met with King Croesus (Unruh spells it Kroisos), but their cultural difference prevented effective communication (Their meeting is depicted in the photo with this review). Both Greeks and barbarians who become monarchs “oppress their subjects and persecute their rivals,” exactly what DT is promising to do on his first day as Dictator.

Unruh does not quote the French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), but as his words explain not only what Unruh is dealing with, but what the U.S. is dealing with in July 2024 as judicial quislings and the depraved party formerly known as Republicans run roughshod over democracy, I offer this:

                For since the insolence of evil men is so great, their wickedness so stubborn, that it

                can scarcely be restrained by extremely severe laws, what do we expect them to do

                if they see that their depravity can go scot-free – when no power can force them to

                cease from doing evil?

Ancient Athens reversed the order that the United States has experienced. It began in the sixth century under tyrannical rule, only establishing democracy after it was overthrown. Unruh focuses on a word whose meaning has expanded with new scholarship. Isegoria “was long been viewed as a narrow democratic process, indicating the ability of citizens to speak in deliberative assemblies.” This word, which Herodotus used only once, actually describes “a state of affairs where all citizens communicate with each other as equals…Civic identity in Herodotus is thus presented as communitarian, egalitarian, and anti-hierarchical.” But for monarchs, the view was quite different. The Persian king Xerxes thought that “freedom is equivalent to anarchy, and discipline is achievable only through fear.”

The culture of Sparta is well known, with many places in the United States named Sparta, and sports teams called Spartans. “Xerxes treats the entire idea of Spartan obedience to law as a joke. His laughter reveals his fundamental inability to understand an unfamiliar culture and society.” So how then can emissaries from Greek city-states like Athens ever hope to converse with such monarchs?

For Unruh, the answer can be found in the life of Xenophon, who “most closely anticipates modern ideas of intercultural communication.” While Xenophon’s comrades “viewed the Persians through Greek eyes, Xenophon makes a genuine effort to engage” them on his own terms. “Xenophon’s ability to enter a monarchic world,” combined with his ability “to suppress his own monarchic instincts” is what saves him while he leads his Greek troops back to Greece through Persian territory. Unruh does a very fine job here at putting the issues at stake in very stark terms. Unruh is certainly less enchanted with Plato, who did not believe any citizen could teach civic virtue to a tyrant. Indeed, Plato says people like Xenophon have nothing to teach tyrants “but vanity, shamelessness, and reckless stupidity – precisely the qualities that Xenophon and others present themselves as trying to expel from the rulers’ minds.”

Unruh claims this is a comprehensive treatment, but he falls a bit short of that. For example, he mentions the tyrant of Syracuse, Gelon, only in passing, implying that he was just another bad person. But this is far from the case. Timaeus, the chief ancient historian of the western Mediterranean, had an “apparent hatred of tyranny, however it does not seem to be directed to all tyrants. Gelon is represented as an honourable, pious man.” Stories about him can be found in accounts by Diodorus and Herodotus. My quote comes from a PhD thesis by Michael John Griffin (2005), which Unruh does not reference. Even though it deals with a period prior to the one stated in his book, Unruh does mention Gelon, so the reader deserves a much more nuanced context here. My other criticism is that the author makes mention that Spartan envoys to the dictator of Thrace were executed on their mission, but he fails to take this is a point of departure for engaging with the broader issue of the danger envoys were in.

Unfortunately, the book has a fair number of typos. On pg 50, “deceive the” should read “to deceive the”; page 61: “he can to offer” should be “he can offer”; pg 66: “no other reason” should be “no other reasons”; pg. 91: “Xenoophon” should be “Xenophon”; pg. 103: “heard” should be “hear”; pg. 163: “spend” should be “spent”; pg. 188: “pots” should be “despots.” A further editorial note: I quoted Sophocles in this review, which is on page 51 of the book. The footnote attached to this quote simply says “Radt 837”, but no such person is given in the references.

Despite my minor misgivings, this is not only a timely book as we enter an age of increasing authoritarianism, but an excellent expose on how people in ancient Greek time managed their interaction with those on a spectrum from benign tyranny to outright despotism.

About the author:

Daniel Unruh has a PhD in Ancient History from Cambridge, and teaches at the Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge, and at CityLit. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he now lives and works in the UK. Image is the front cover of the book: Solon Before Croesus, 1624 painting by van Honthorst. In the Public Domain.


Griffin, M.J. (2005). The Tyrannies in the Greek Cities of Sicily: 505-466 BCE. University of Leeds.

Talking to Tyrants in Classical Greek Thought is by Liverpool University Press. It lists for $120.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.