Who Was Cylon in Ancient Greece?

Cylon was an ancient Greek nobleman who lived in the 7th century BCE. He is best known for his failed attempt to seize power in Athens, which led to one of the first recorded instances of political exile in ancient Greece.

The Story of Cylon

According to ancient sources, Cylon was a wealthy and successful Olympic athlete who had won the chariot race at the Olympic Games. He was married to a daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara, and enjoyed close ties with powerful elites in Athens.

Cylon saw an opportunity to seize power in Athens when he learned that the city was experiencing political turmoil. He consulted with the oracle at Delphi, which advised him to seize the Acropolis during a religious festival and make himself tyrant.

With the support of his wealthy friends, Cylon launched his coup attempt during the festival of Zeus. However, he failed to win over enough popular support and was trapped on the Acropolis by a mob of angry Athenians.

The Aftermath

Cylon and his supporters were eventually forced to surrender after being promised safe passage off the Acropolis. However, once they descended from their stronghold, they were attacked by Athenian citizens who had been angered by their attempt to seize power.

Many of Cylon’s supporters were killed or exiled, while Cylon himself managed to escape. He fled to Megara, where he sought sanctuary in Theagenes’ palace. However, Theagenes eventually handed him over to the Athenians in exchange for political favors.

Cylon was put on trial for his attempted coup but managed to escape punishment by taking refuge at an altar dedicated to Athena. However, once he left sanctuary under false pretenses, he was captured and executed along with his remaining supporters.

The Legacy of Cylon

The legacy of Cylon is complex and contested. Some ancient sources portray him as a violent and ambitious nobleman who sought to seize power by force, while others depict him as a victim of political intrigue and popular prejudice.

Regardless of the truth of his intentions, Cylon’s failed coup attempt had far-reaching consequences for Athenian politics. It helped to solidify the power of the nobility and contributed to the development of political exile as a punishment for those who threatened the status quo.

Conclusion

Cylon was a figure of great historical significance in ancient Greece, whose legacy continues to be debated by scholars today. Whether seen as a victim or villain, his story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of political ambition and the fragility of democratic institutions.