The Shackled Burials from Phaleron ~ Another Possible Identification?

Way back in March/April there was an announcement of an  important discovery at Phaleron which — due to the usual too-much-going-on reasons — I never had a chance to relate here or comment on. Briefly stated, during excavations of a large cemetery there (which has been an ongoing excavation for quite a few years) a mass burial of some 80 individuals, including 36 who had their hands shackled, was revealed. At the time, the chief archaeologist, Stella Chryssoulaki gave an excellent press briefing on the findings:

Of the varied press coverage at the time, see Kristina Kilgrove’s piece in Forbes is probably the most useful:

Other coverage (largely based on the AFP coverage in the first item).

As can be seen, the coverage from back in  March/April all suggested that the mass burial section of the cemetery — which really has no grave goods of any kind directly associated with it — can be dated to the seventh century BCE and the ‘likely identification’ is that the skeletons belong to folks who had been associated with Cylon in his ill-fated coup attempt back in 632 BCE. From what I can gather, the identification is based largely on the apparently healthy bones of the deceased and the existence of some vaguely mentioned Archaic pottery nearby.

This past weekend, it struck me as strange that the story was once again in the news. From what I have seen so far, there is nothing really new to be added to the story and all I can think of is that this story is back in the news solely because Cylon was an Olympic victor and, of course, the modern version of the Olympics will be starting in Rio shortly.

And so, as usually happens when news articles appear to have been timed to coincide with some modern event, I decided to look closer at this purported association with Cylon. A natural starting point, of course, is Thucydides 126.3 ff (via the Perseus Project) and his account of how the Alcmeonidai came to be ‘cursed’:

[3] In former generations there was an Athenian of the name of Cylon, a victor at the Olympic games, of good birth and powerful position, who had married a daughter of Theagenes, a Megarian, at that time tyrant of Megara.[4] Now this Cylon was inquiring at Delphi; when he was told by the god to seize the Acropolis of Athens on the grand festival of Zeus.[5] Accordingly, procuring a force from Theagenes and persuading his friends to join him, when the Olympic festival in Peloponnese came, he seized the Acropolis, with the intention of making himself tyrant, thinking that this was the grand festival of Zeus, and also an occasion appropriate for a victor at the Olympic games. [6] Whether the grand festival that was meant was in Attica or elsewhere was a question which he never thought of, and which the oracle did not offer to solve. For the Athenians also have a festival which is called the grand festival of Zeus Meilichios or Gracious, viz. the Diasia. It is celebrated outside the city, and the whole people sacrifice not real victims but a number of bloodless offerings peculiar to the country. However, fancying he had chosen the right time, he made the attempt. [7] As soon as the Athenians perceived it, they flocked in, one and all, from the country, and sat down, and laid siege to the citadel.[8] But as time went on, weary of the labour of blockade, most of them departed; the responsibility of keeping guard being left to the nine archons, with plenary powers to arrange everything according to their good judgment. It must be known that at that time most political functions were discharged by the nine archons.[9] Meanwhile Cylon and his besieged companions were distressed for want of food and water.[10] Accordingly Cylon and his brother made their escape; but the rest being hard pressed, and some even dying of famine, seated themselves as suppliants at the altar in the Acropolis.[11] The Athenians who were charged with the duty of keeping guard, when they saw them at the point of death in the temple, raised them up on the understanding that no harm should be done to them, led them out and slew them. Some who as they passed by took refuge at the altars of the awful goddesses were despatched on the spot. From this deed the men who killed them were called accursed and guilty against the goddess, they and their descendants.[12] Accordingly these cursed ones were driven out by the Athenians, driven out again by Cleomenes of Lacedaemon and an Athenian faction; the living were driven out, and the bones of the dead were taken up; thus they were cast out. For all that, they came back afterwards, and their descendants are still in the city.

Herodotus’ account (5.71.1 ff via Perseus) is rather more brief:

How the Accursed at Athens had received their name, I will now relate. There was an Athenian named Cylon, who had been a winner at Olympia. This man put on the air of one who aimed at tyranny, and gathering a company of men of like age, he attempted to seize the citadel. When he could not win it, he took sanctuary by the goddess’ statue.[2] He and his men were then removed from their position by the presidents of the naval boards, the rulers of Athens at that time. Although they were subject to any penalty save death, they were slain, and their death was attributed to the Alcmaeonidae. All this took place before the time of Pisistratus.

What both accounts — all written long after the fact —  agree upon, of course, is that Cylon’s followers were suppliants, surrendered in the belief that they wouldn’t be put to death, and subsequently were killed in some unspecified manner. A significant difference is that Herodotus’ account suggests that the suppliants were ‘removed’ on the understanding that they would be punished and not subject to the death penalty. Thucydides’ account is a bit more vague and does not seem to have the punishment implied, much less the death but does suggest the suppliants were ‘starved out’. The two historians do agree, however, that the erstwhile suppliants were killed and their killing was considered sacrilege.

Plutarch’s account was written several hundred years after the fact and seems to have been embellished somewhat (Solon 12.1  via Perseus):

Now the Cylonian pollution had for a long time agitated the city, ever since Megacles the archon had persuaded Cylon and his fellow conspirators, who had taken sanctuary in the temple of Athena, to come down and stand their trial. They fastened a braided thread to the image of the goddess and kept hold of it, but when they reached the shrine of the Erinyes on their way down, the thread broke of its own accord, upon which Megacles and his fellow-archons rushed to seize them, on the plea that the goddess refused them the rights of suppliants. Those who were outside of sacred precincts were stoned to death, and those who took refuge at the altars were slaughtered there; only those were spared who made supplication to the wives of the archons.

This account really doesn’t provide a situation where shackles were put on any of the suppliants and the ‘braided thread’ story seems a bit fanciful.  Even so, what I haven’t been able to find any information on — and I gladly seek help on this — is whether it would be considered sacrilege to put shackles on a suppliant. As mentioned above, 36 of the 80 skeletons found in the mass grave at Phaleron are shackled, which clearly suggests they were prisoners of some kind. Were Cylon’s associates ‘led out in chains’? I’m also curious whether being ‘starved out’ would somehow affect the skeletal remains.

Given the possibility that the folks in the Cylon affair might not have been shackled before they were sacrilegiously slain, that opens the possibility that the bodies in the cemetery might actually belong to another massacre and it could be argued that these were the prisoners who were sent to Athens in the wake of the revolt of Mytilene in 428 BCE., a date which would be at the tail end of the finds in the Phaleron cemetery. In an interesting bit of synchronicity, this event has been mentioned recently in connection with possible ‘revotes’ of Brexit matters as originally the decision was to execute all the males of Mytilene and a ‘revote’ changed that to execution of folks who had been directly involved and already sent to Athens (see the account in Thucydides 3.36 ff). Whatever the case, the only problem with this suggestion is that according to Thucydides, the number of prisoners executed at the time numbered close to 1000 (3.50.1), which would be a rather large number of folks to put on ships to send to Athens perhaps. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the revolt gives — but doesn’t cite — the suggestion that the 1000 number is a “scribal error” and a figure closer to 30 is more likely. I would never base an argument solely on something from Wikipedia, of course, but I have been unable to locate any scholarly revision of the 1000 figure. Does anyone know where Wikipedia is getting this ‘closer to 30’ figure from? Presumably the ringleaders of the Mytilene revolt would have been healthy individuals and probably sent to Athens in shackles. It must be admitted that it does seem to fit the finds from Phaleron rather nicely, no?

Thinking out loud (the next morning):

Wilson, J. (1981). Strategy and Tactics in the Mytilene Campaign. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 30(2), 144-163. Retrieved from  … notes the controversy over numbers, but defends the ‘1000’ suggestion on pp 147-148.

Quinn, T. (1971). Political Groups in Lesbos during the Peloponnesian War. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 20(4), 405-417. Retrieved from … suggests the numbers might be plausible if oligarchs from other places were included, although even that has difficulties p. 408, n.21.

Debnar, P. (2000). DIODOTUS’ PARADOX AND THE MYTILENE DEBATE (THUCYDIDES 3.37-49). Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie, 143(2), 161-178. Retrieved from … p. 161 n.1 (note the Wilson article is cited above):




2 thoughts on “The Shackled Burials from Phaleron ~ Another Possible Identification?

  1. Does anyone know where Wikipedia is getting this ‘closer to 30’ figure from?

    I tracked the edit down to a now banned account; Banned for being an alt of a user making unsourced revisions. So the plot thickens.

  2. Perseus has notes by Marchant, from 1909, sc. χιλίων—the number is astonishing, and nothing approaching it is suggested by anything in the preceding narrative. Hence it is thought that ‘Α=χιλίων is a corruption of Λ᾽=τριάκοντα.

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