A horde of shackled skeletons unearthed in a mass grave outside Athens may have once belonged to the followers of a tyrant who sought to overthrow the leader of ancient Greece, according to a Greek archeologist.
Stella Chryssoulaki, regional archaeological services director at Greece’s Central Archaeological Council thinks the mass grave could hold the remains of the followers of Cylon, an Olympic champion who tried, unsuccessfully, to take over the city of Athens in 632 BC.
More than 1,500 skeletons have been discovered in Phalero, a suburb of modern Athens where heavy excavation and construction has been under way for the new National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera.
Archaeologists are involved in a CSI type of investigation, piecing together what little known historical accounts from the era, along with hard evidence they’re finding.
Two small vases found among the shackled skeletons allowed scientists to date the grave between 650 to 625 B.C., an era that ancient historians say was full of turmoil for Athens.
According to accounts by ancient historians Plutarch and Thucydides, Cylon was an athlete at the 640 B.C. Olympic games. His victory there gave him an elevated status and the hand of the daughter of the nearby tyrant of Megara.
Over the next decade, there was discontent in Athens because of poor harvests and social inequality.
When the harvest failed, or when trade was bad, the poor were forced to borrow from the rich. And if a poor man could not pay his debt when it became due, his land and his goods were seized by the rich man. Nor was that the worst, for if the land and goods were not enough to cover the debt, then the poor man himself was taken to be used or sold as a slave.
With the help of his father-in-law’s soldiers, Cylon began a coup in 632, hoping the disenfranchised people of Athens would rise up and join him. Some did, but most did not. Instead, Cylon escaped the city and his rebels took shelter in the Acropolis.
Eventually they began to starve, and the city archon Megacles promised them safe passage. But when they left the temple, he slaughtered them. “They even slew some of them in the very presence of the awful Goddesses at whose altars, in passing by, they had sought refuge,” writes Thucydides. “The murderers and their descendants are held to be accursed, and offenders against the Goddess.”
Of course, its not certain that the skeletons are from Cylon’s followers. One of the problems is that historical records are really spotty for that century.
But one piece of evidence— dental records— points to the entombed as younger men in good health, which boosts the theory that they were the rebels who tried to take the city.
Historians say this dramatic chapter in the story of ancient Athens showed the aristocracy’s resistance to the political transformation that would eventually herald in the golden years of Athenian democracy.
The remains, if proven to be the rebels of Cylon, point to an ancient Greek world with many of the issues plaguing it that modern humans continue to struggle, cope with and fight for, including income inequality and a growing separation between the wealthy and those with less means.
An ancient occupy Wall Street, or 99% versus the 1%— in Ancient Athens.