One of the earliest events in Athenian history, of which we are fairly certain of its date, is the attempt by Cylon to set himself up as tyrant of Athens. According to the account of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the would-be dictator was a man of impressive skill and status. Cylon was from a noble family and he even had enough athletic prowess to win glory in the Olympic Games. His influence and power was further increased when he married the daughter of Theagenes, a tyrant ruler of Megara. Cylon’s fame, wealth and powerful father-in-law allowed him to gather a large following of friends who were willing to lay down their lives for their leader.
With such good fortune in his life, Cylon eventually traveled to Delphi to get a glimpse from the oracle of what the gods had in store for his future. Apparently, the oracle suggested that an upcoming great festival of Zeus would be the perfect time for Cylon to seize the Acropolis of Athens. There is too little information to know if this was supposed to be a direct order from the oracle, or if Cylon just interpreted the oracle’s riddle in the way that suited his wants. Whatever the case, Cylon left Delphi thinking that the gods would support him in becoming a dictator of Athens.
Secretly, Cylon brought up the idea with his father-in-law, Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara. Theagenes fully supported the idea and lent Cylon a small band of Megarian soldiers. Cylon also brought his numerous loyal friends into the conspiracy. With his troops prepared, all Cylon needed was to wait for the next great festival of Zeus in order to seize power.
The time came in 632 BCE, when an Olympic festival was being held in the Peloponnesus. The Peloponnesian festival was not the only festival for Zeus scheduled in the near future, but Cylon thought it was an adequate event to meet the oracle’s requirements. It was also fitting because Cylon was a former Olympic champion. The allies and friends of Cylon must have also thought it was a good time to strike because they followed their leader into the Acropolis, where Cylon declared himself to be the dictator of Athens.
Unfortunately for Cylon, he had misjudged how much effort and military might it would take to bend the Athenians to his will. According to Thucydides, when word began to spread around Attica that Cylon was trying to set himself up as dictator of Athens, people came pouring into the city from the countryside to defend democracy. The conspirators soon found themselves besieged in the Acropolis, cut off from food and water. According to the account of Thucydides, Cylon and his brother miraculously slipped away from Athens before the Athenians solidified their blockade. Yet, the rest of Cylon’s followers were not so lucky.
The Athenians were not in a hurry, so they let the siege drag on and on until the conspirators still trapped inside the Acropolis began dying of hunger and thirst. When Cylon’s followers were too weak to stand their ground, they began withdrawing to the alters in the Acropolis. At this point, the Athenian besiegers sent messages to the starving men, promising mercy if they would surrender. According to Thucydides, most of the remaining conspirators agreed to the proposal and left the temple. Unfortunately, the Athenians were not in a merciful mood, so, despite the agreement, they executed all of the people that left the sanctuary of the gods. At one particular altar, the altar of the Dread Goddess, the Athenians apparently did not even wait for the conspirators to leave the temple before they began their slaughter. The impatient Athenians who insulted the Dread Goddess by spilling blood on her sacred ground were later considered cursed by the goddess and they were exiled from Athens.
In 2016, interest in the story of Cylon was revived after a mass grave of eighty bound ancient skeletons were found near Phalaeron, an ancient city located only four miles from Athens. The skeletons have been dated to 650-625 BCE, placing them around the time of Cylon’s failed coup in 632 BCE. Although it is impossible to say if the skeletons are the remains of Cylon’s ill-fated followers, the theory is intriguingly plausible.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Illustration from page 218 of “Pinnock’s improved edition of Dr. Goldsmith’s History of Greece, abridged for the use of schools” (1836), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.