Polycrates the tyrant of Samos

Polycrates was a tyrant of Samos, a Greek island, who ruled from approximately 538 to 522 BCE. His reign is often highlighted as a period of great prosperity and cultural development for Samos, but also as a time characterized by ambition, opulence, and eventual tragic downfall, as recounted by ancient historians like Herodotus.

polycratesIn the ancient Mediterranean world, power was often seized through cunning and ambition. Polycrates, a man of charisma and determination, rose to prominence in Samos by skillfully navigating political waters. Through strategic alliances and calculated maneuvers, he gradually consolidated his influence over the island.

Polycrates’ rise to tyranny was not without controversy; some saw him as a savior while others viewed him as a ruthless dictator. Nevertheless, his ability to maintain control amidst internal strife and external threats solidified his grip on power.

With shrewd diplomacy and military prowess, Polycrates expanded Samos’s wealth and influence in the region. His rule brought prosperity to the island through trade agreements with neighboring powers.

The path to tyranny is often paved with both ambition and sacrifice. For Polycrates, it was a journey marked by intrigue, betrayal, and ultimately triumph.

Early Life and Rise to Power

Polycrates came to power in a rather turbulent period. He initially shared rule with his brothers, Pantagnotus and Syloson, but eventually seized sole control of the island through treachery and murder, establishing himself as the tyrant.

Under Polycrates’ rule, Samos experienced a golden age. He was a patron of the arts and architecture, commissioning significant works and infrastructural projects, including the construction of the Temple of Hera, one of the largest temples of its time, and the Eupalinian aqueduct, an engineering marvel that involved tunneling through a mountain to provide water to the city.

Polycrates’ navy was formidable, allowing him to control the Aegean Sea and establish Samos as a dominant naval power. This naval supremacy enabled him to secure wealth through piracy and the establishment of trade routes, contributing significantly to the island’s prosperity.

The relationship between Polycrates and the Persian Empire

Polycrates, the influential tyrant of Samos, strategically navigated his relationship with the powerful Persian Empire. Recognizing the Empire’s might, Polycrates sought to establish alliances that would benefit both parties. Through diplomacy and shrewd negotiations, he managed to maintain a delicate balance of power.

The Persian Empire viewed Polycrates as a valuable ally in the region, appreciating his ability to control trade routes and maritime activities. In return for his loyalty and cooperation, Polycrates received support and protection from the Persians against potential threats.

Despite their mutually beneficial arrangement, tensions occasionally arose between Polycrates and the Persian Empire due to conflicting interests. However, through skillful diplomacy and clever maneuvering, Polycrates was able to navigate these challenges without jeopardizing their overall relationship.

Polycrates’ dynamic interaction with the Persian Empire showcased his political acumen and strategic foresight in maintaining stability within the region while advancing his own interests.

Rule and achievements of Polycrates

Polycrates, the formidable tyrant of Samos, ruled with an iron fist yet brought prosperity to his island. Under his rule, Samos flourished economically and culturally, becoming a dominant force in the Aegean Sea.

Polycrates was known for his naval prowess, expanding Samian influence through strategic alliances and military conquests. His fleet became one of the most powerful in the region, securing trade routes and protecting Samos from external threats.

One of Polycrates’ most notable achievements was the construction of a magnificent temple dedicated to Hera. This grand monument not only showcased his wealth but also solidified his divine authority over the people.

Despite being viewed as a tyrant by some, Polycrates’ rule brought stability and growth to Samos during a tumultuous time in ancient Greece. His legacy as a shrewd leader and visionary ruler continues to fascinate historians to this day.


Polycrates’ downfall is a story of hubris and betrayal. Warned by Amasis of Egypt about the dangers of his uninterrupted success and urged to rid himself of his most valued possession to avert a future loss, Polycrates threw a cherished signet ring into the sea, only for it to be returned by a fish caught and served to him, an event interpreted as an omen of inescapable fate.

Eventually, he was captured and executed by the Persian satrap Oroetes, who lured him under the pretense of friendship and treasure. His death marked the end of his ambitious reign and the beginning of a more troubled period for Samos.


Polycrates remains a fascinating figure in ancient Greek history, emblematic of the archetypal tyrant who achieved great heights through ambition and ruthlessness, only to fall due to overreaching and betrayal. His reign is remembered for its contributions to culture and infrastructure but also serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of unchecked power and success.