Tall Poppy Syndrome – The idiot’s guide

One of the conversation topics that has recurred recently has been the meaning and origins of ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. In layman’s terms, it’s effectively the act of cutting someone down who you think is better than you out of jealousy/inadequacy/lack of understanding.

I thought however I’d do some more reading into it and share this version of events to help you get a better picture of how this widely accepted yet equally hated cultural trait started.

Tall Poppy Syndrome actually stems back before the era of Aristotle and was his fable about the roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus aka (Tarquin the Proud) who was roaming the earth around 535-496BC. He was a tyrannical leader who would eventually be overthrown and exiled with a few failed attempts to regain his leadership.

It’s understood that following a war with the Latin city of Gabii due to their rejection of a treaty with Rome, Tarquin sent his son Sextus to Gabii under the false pretence that he had a falling out with his father and wanted safe haven in their city. After spending considerable time to gain their confidence and trust, he sent a messenger back home to his father to ask for further instructions for an invasion.

Without saying a word, his father looked at the messenger then proceeded to pick up a stick and struck it across a poppy field lopping off the tallest and brightest heads. The messenger told Sextus what happened who interpreted this action as to charge, punish and execute all the brightest and most influential people of Gabii thus rendering the city fearful and reactive making it of optimal condition to be invaded.

However Tarquin can’t take the credit for this but this is where the ‘tall poppy’ part of the equation comes from.

It was in fact even further back in time than this. In an era during the 7C BC, there was another tyrant called Thrasybulus who had a colleague and friend called Periander (the tyrant of Corinth) who sought some advice as how to rule his kingdom.

One of Periander’s messengers visited Thrasybulus who without a word entered his corn field and sliced off all the tallest stalks of corn with a stick thus destroying the best part of his crop. The messenger returned thinking he was mad and communicated this to Periander. However Periander interpreted this as a sign to remove all the prominent and influential people who could threaten his leadership.

A couple of centuries later, Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian would write about this and he would one day influence Aristotle. And Aristotle would one day influence Tarquin the Proud. And Tarquin the Proud would one day influence modern day sociologists, philosophers and politicians. And they have influenced you. Talk about chinese whispers!

It’s quite fascinating when you think how far back this mindset goes and yet how influential it still is today. It’s also interesting to note the context of how it originated. It was a response to some guy in leather and silk robes feeling inadequate, who feared being overthrown and thus responded with simple violence.

But more importantly, it was a strategy and worldview held in an era when the world was thought to be flat and technology was at its prime with the invention of the crossbow and aqueduct. I think socially and technologically, we’ve made some progress since then.

Unfortunately though, even in our modern age we can all identify leaders who currently employ or have employed their own brand of Periander’s leadership style and it makes you think.

Today, most first world countries don’t have to fear execution as much as they used to for being a proud achiever and innovative leader but the point is, this attitude still exists and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Some countries are still dealing with the violence and this archaic belief to this day whilst even the most ‘advanced’ nations still have the residual of social fear, judgement and the anecdote that being competent and confident about your abilities is not something you should publicise too much for the fear of retribution.

The lasting impression for me however was how history has been dictated by an interpretation of Thrasybulus’s actions. Just imagine how different the world would be if in fact he was trying to tell Periander to chill, harvest his crops and enjoy the good food as king because life is short!

I welcome feedback on this and any further analysis, interpretation, information etc as it’s fascinating.

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