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To Kill or not to Kill the Philosopher


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It's no secret that ancient philosophy covered what was the best of many things. In particular, the ideal form of government was a common topic and the subject of Aristotle's famous Politics. In it, he covered the differences between monarchy, aristocracy, and polity. Interestingly, he found no one system the best, but did remark that democracy tended to be the most stable, but each had an accompanying "bad" form and each would in time give way to another.

Yet, despite all the debates and banter about the ideal political system, it was mostly just that. This led to a debate on whether the philosopher, convinced that his convictions were for the public good, should take action. In other words, was this all just theoretical, or could these changes and knowledge be put into effect? Plato himself tried this to some degree with Dionysios, the tyrant of Syracuse, and it ended badly with his suggestions ignored and an extended Sicilian stay.

However, the matter would end far differently with Klearchos of Herakleia Pontika.


Bithynia, Herakleia Pontika
Klearchos (Tyrant, circa 364-352 BCE)
AR Obol 0.81g 9mm
Obv: ΗΡΑK. Turreted head of Hera-Tyche left.
Rev: Quiver and club; K to right.
SNG BM Black Sea 1592; HGC 7, 476
Klearchos himself was a philosopher, and at some age traveled to Athens and studied with Plato himself and Isokrates. Since he had the reputation of a learned man, he was recalled to the city to quell an issue between the populace and the oligarchs. He then arranged a deal with the satrap Mithridates to hand him the city, but in the first of many betrayals, he instead took him prisoner and forced him to pay a hefty ransom.
Over the following years, Klearchos consolidated his power by butchering both the populace and the aristocracy. His habit for cruelty was heard in Athens, where Isokrates in particular had great displeasure. Of course, we're not entirely sure what bugged them more: Klearchos' cruelty or his friendship with the Persians. Regardless, he was now on their shit list.
Klearchos' tyranny resulted in many exiles, typical of the time, and one such was a man named Chion. He also studied under Isokrates, and soon came to believe that philosophy was not merely for preaching but also for action. Spurred on by his teacher, he returned to Herakleia Pontika, tricked Klearchos into believing him a friend, and killed him. According to ancient sources, Chion and his co-conspirators were then butchered by Klearchos' bodyguards.
The story of Chion's thoughts and actions can be read today in Letters of Chion, perhaps the first epistolary novel in existence. It consists of a series of seventeen letters, most of them from Chion to his father, in which he debates action vs idleness, creates his plan, and carries it out (though the last letter is a suicide note to his teacher and we're left to history to learn the result). While ancient sources believed these to be authentic 4th century BCE letters, they're now strongly believed to originate from the 1st or 2nd centuries CE.
If these "letters" were crafted much later, what was their purpose? Some guess that they may have been directed at Domitian, but we have no way to truly know.
Ironically, Chion's efforts, though successful in their immediate goal, failed to remove the tyranny. After Klearchos' death, his brother Satyros took over as regent for his sons Timotheos and Dionysios. Timotheos then took power and soon shared it with Dionysios, who later ruled alone after his brother's death.

BITHYNIA, Herakleia Pontika.
Dionysios, 337-305 BCE
AR Drachm 4.4 gm, 12h, 18mm
Obv: Head of young Dionysos, left. Rev: Naked Herakles erecting a trophy.


Dionysios played a part in the struggles between the Diadochi, and proved just as adept as his father in choosing alliances wisely in order to stay in power. He eventually married Amastris, who had previously been married to the Macedonian general Krateros.

PAPHLAGONIA, Amastris. Circa 285-250 BCE
AR Stater 23mm, 8.88 g, 12h
Head of Mên right, wearing Phrygian cap decorated with laurel branch and star / Aphrodite seated left, holding in extended right hand Nike, who crowns her with wreath, and cradling lotus-tipped scepter in left arm; rose to left.
Callataÿ, Premier, Group 2, 43 (D17/R21 – this coin); RG 5; HGC 7, 356
Ex Sigmund Collection.
Ex CNG March 1999


She in turn married Lysimachos after Dionysios' death, and eventually became the first woman to issue coins in her own name. Shortly thereafter, she was drowned by her two sons (if you want happy endings, stay away from this period).

The anonymous Letters of Chion and Aristotle's Politics are just as relevant today. Is it possible to discuss politics on a mere theoretical level, or should the learnings of such academics be put into action, sometimes forcefully? Is any system of government truly the ideal, or are all destined to give away to another?

Klearchos learned this the hard way. Personally, I rather like my new coin. 🙂 

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2 hours ago, kirispupis said:

Is any system of government truly the ideal

Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others.

Thanks for  the great  write up AND mention of the failure of the philosophers in Syracuse! A huge opportunity for Plato, and one modern day philosophers can get oddly prickly about. Plato had 3 (even 4) chances to  impact Dionysios, Dion and Dionysios II.  And Dion was a huge fan, and effectively "king" for a while too.

I guess the Eleatics  of Velia and possibly Pythagoras were the successful ones. No philosopher coins there sorry, though there are many  claims incuse coins are closely linked to the latter. So -


Sybaris,  incuse stater, c 530BC






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Great write up, coins and good philosophical questions. 

This far all systems of government have collapse to be worm poop for the next.

Currently the top 1% have increased their wealth by over 70% since 2020. 2020 marking the steepest increase in billionaires' share of wealth on record.

The right form of government is pretty clear to me


Here's Lysimachos to add to the mayhem:


Lysimachos Pella,305-281 BC.

Tetradrachm AR 27mm., 15,95g. Head of the deified Alexander the Great to right, wearing diadem with fluttering ends and with the horn of Ammon around his ear / ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΛΥΣΙΜΑΧΟΥ, Athena, wearing robes and helmet, seated to left on throne, holding Nike on her right hand and resting her left elbow on large round shield adorned with a gorgoneion; to left monogram. very fine. Thompson 253; Müller 471


Lysimachos, 305-281 BCE Ae.

Obv: Head of Herakles right, wearing lion skin.


Legend in two lines within wreath of grain ears.

SNG Copenhagen 1168.

Condition: Extremely fine.

Weight: 2.00 g.

Diameter: 12.6 mm.

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22 hours ago, kirispupis said:

Is it possible to discuss politics on a mere theoretical level, or should the learnings of such academics be put into action, sometimes forcefully? Is any system of government truly the ideal, or are all destined to give away to another?

I'm with the green part of the map below. Here, the people peacefully negotiate and elect to what extent academic theories are put into action or not. And fortunately so: in examples like Klearchos, history has shown again and again what happens if you hand power to ideologists with a fancy set of ideas!


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16 hours ago, Ryro said:

The right form of government is pretty clear to me

No wise archons to rule over us? We would be without archons?? That would be a state of av apxia or transliterated -  an arkhia.

(I should really get outside more.)


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