CylonDates: 7th Century
Occupation: Would-be tyrant
It would be hard to overstate the importance of an Olympian victory to the people of ancient Greece. It made instant celebrities of the winners. They could even feed at public expense for the rest of their lives. Poems were composed for them. Enduring monuments still attest to their achievements. Cylon, an Athenian nobleman or eupatrid, was one such Olympic athlete whose victory in 640 B.C. also won him a king's daughter and an in to the top position in Athens.
Cylon married the daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara [see map section I e-f]. A tyrant, in the 7th century B.C., meant something different from our modern concept of tyrant as a cruel and oppressive despot. A tyrant was a usurper in ancient Greece. Think coup d'etat. He was a leader who had overturned an existing regime and took control of government. Tyrants even had some measure of popular support, usually. [The concept is complicated. For a detailed look, see "Ancient Tyranny," by Sian Lewis.]
As an aside, although the Roman emperors weren't technically tyrants, some of the most infamous emperors, like Domitian and Nero, had popular support. What they lacked was committed senatorial class backing. In the case of a Greek tyrants, it's obvious why the nobility opposed the tyrants -- the previous ruler, a member of their class had been ousted.
Cylon wished to become tyrant of Athens. It is possible he had radical reforming tendencies that would have appealed to poor farmers. Even if he did not, he must have counted on their support, but it never came. Backed mainly by his father-in-law Theagenes' threatening forces, Cylon attacked the Acropolis in Athens. Cylon thought he had selected an auspicious day, but his interpretation of the Delphic Oracle had been wrong (according to Thucydides). The Oracle had told him that he could become tyrant during the great festival of Zeus. Zeus was honored on more than one annual occasion and Cylon had made assumptions without adequate information. Cylon assumed it was the Olympic festival.
Curse of the Alcmaeonids
Cylon lacked a broad base of support, perhaps because the Athenians feared Cylon would be a puppet of his father-in-law. At any rate, his plot failed. To save their lives, some of his fellow conspirators sought sanctuary in the Temple of Athena Polias. Unfortunately for them, in 632 B.C., Megacles of the Alcmaeonids was archon. He ordered the killing of Cylon's supporters.
This was unexpected. Just as today, sanctuary meant a place where refugees expect to be safe from pursuit. To violate the rules of sanctuary was deemed sacrilege.
Historian J.B. Bury says there was probably a clan feud in the background to explain such extreme behavior. For their sacrilege, the Alcmaeonids were cursed and driven from Athens, but their banishment was only temporary. The Alcmaeonids eventually returned to Athens where they produced a few important Athenian leaders.
Although his supporters were killed, Cylon and his brother managed to escape. Neither they nor their descendants were ever to return to Athens.
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"Solon and the Megarian Question," by A. French. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 77, Part 2. (1957), pp. 238-246.
Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, by Donald Kagan
The Greek City States: A Sourcebook, by P.J. Rhodes
The Rise of the Greeks, by Michael Grant
History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, by J. B. Bury
Thomas Martin Overview of the History of Ancient Greece