The Marriage Fiasco of Cleisthenes, Tyrant of Sicyon

(Painting of a ancient festival to Demeter, by Francis Davis Millet  (1846–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


The tyrant, Cleisthenes, is thought to have ruled the city-state of Sicyon from approximately 600-570 BCE. Sicyon was located somewhere in the northern Peloponnesus, between ancient Corinth and Achaea. Cleisthenes was a member of the Orthagoras family (or the Orthagorids), and his reign was the climax of his dynasty’s rule in Sicyon.

Cleisthenes successfully ushered Sicyon through the political and military conflicts of ancient Greece. He sided with the Oracle of Delphi in the First Sacred War (around the 590s BCE), which led to the destruction of Crisa. He was also a patron of athletics and sports, both in Delphi and at home in Sicyon.

It was around this time, after emerging victorious from the First Sacred War, that Cleisthenes began thinking of arranging a marriage for his daughter, Agariste. The tyrant, however, did not want just any marriage for his daughter; he wanted to marry his girl to the greatest man in all of Greece. To make sure the most accomplished men in Greece would hear of his daughter’s marriage eligibility, Cleisthenes made an announcement at one of Greece’s most prestigious events—either the Olympic or Pythian Games. According to the historian, Herodotus, he made his declaration after having won fist place in an Olympic chariot race. Yet, others think his announcement came after participating in the 582 BCE Pythian Games. Either way, the most athletic and affluent Greeks heard that Cleisthenes was accepting suitors for his daughter’s hand in marriage. As with most stories recorded by Herodotus, the tale of Cleithenes’ marriage fiasco is likely highly exaggerated and filled with folklore, but nonetheless, it remains incredibly entertaining.



  (Ancient vase (c. 490-480 BCE) depicting the four-horse-chariot race, one of the most prestigious events in the games. Photographed by Nicolas Koutoulakis, currently in the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1977, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Cleisthenes challenged all the men of Greece who thought themselves truly great to arrive at Sicyon within sixty days, if they wanted a chance to marry his daughter, Agariste and become the son-in-law of a powerful tyrant. Much to his delight, a veritable army of Greek heroes arrived in his city to compete over his daughter. Herodotus listed numerous men from the farthest reaches of Greek settlement. From Italy, came Smindyrides of Sybaris and Damasus “the wise” of Siris. Amphimnestus of Epidamnus arrived from Ionia and another man named Males journeyed to Sicyon from Aetolia. Leocedes, a son of the tyrant in Argos, joined the assembly in Sicyon. Also in attendance were Amiantus of Trapezus, Laphanes of Paeus and several others. Yet, it was the Athenians, Megacles and Hippocleides, who most interested Cleisthenes.

When the heroes of Greece arrived in Sicyon, the suitors immediately discovered that Cleisthenes would not make his pick arbitrarily—they would have to compete and prove their superiority over their rivals before the groom was chosen. According to Herodotus, the tyrant had made a racetrack and a wrestling ring just for this very occasion.

Cleisthenes assessed every detail of his potential sons-in-law. He watched them spar, wrestle and race. He judged them while they exercised in his gymnasium. Herodotus even noted that Cleisthenes kept an especially keen eye out for bad table manners.

After a long period of observation, Cleisthenes still maintained that the two Athenians were his top choices. Finally, he called all the heroes together for a feast, announcing that by the end of it, he would make his decision. To start off the occasion, Herodotus wrote that Cleisthenes sacrificed one hundred oxen. Once the food was provided, and the drink was flowing, Cleisthenes proclaimed there would be two final competitions—one of storytelling (or “talking in company”) and one of music. In both events, Hippocleides proved himself to be the clear victor.



  (Ancient Greek Vase c. 510 BCE From Vulci depicting musicians, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Cleisthenes was about to announce Hippocleides as his new son-in-law, but became concerned about his choice as he continued to watch the man indulge in the abundant wine. When inebriated, Hippocleides was a happy, carefree and bold man—yet, unforgivable to Cleisthenes, he was also a shamelessly, foolish drunk.

Hippocleides apparently really liked music, and his enjoyment and desire to dance grew exponentially when he drank alcohol. First, he just danced to the tune of a flute-player as any normal man would do; yet, things were noticeably escalating. In a scene that may be recognizable to many who frequent bars, Hippocleides eventually realized that the top of a table was the perfect dance floor. Feeling the rhythm of the music, Hippocleides began to show the assembly of heroes various styles of dancing, all while still on top of his table. He danced a Laconian piece, then moved on to one popular among the Attic Greeks, and finally began his own peculiar dance. According to Herodotus, Hippocleides’ final dance looked a bit like a man standing on his head, while waving his legs to the beat of the music.



  (Etruscan dance scene from the Tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi, c. 470 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Aghast by this odd display, Cleisthenes shouted for all to hear that Hippocleides would in no way be marrying his daughter. Hippocleides, still enjoying his dance, simply stated, “Hippocleides doesn’t care”—a phrase that, Herodotus wrote, later became a common saying in ancient Greece. With the original victor dancing a drunken jig on top of a table, Cleisthenes settled for the other Athenian, Megacles, to marry his daughter, Agariste. To all the other Greeks who had participated in the events at Sicyon, Cleisthenes paid them with silver and sent them on their way.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


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