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The “Cylonian affair” and the Knossian hoplites shield emblem


In the late 7th century BC the city the “Cylonian Affair” shook the city-state of Athens. An Olympic Games victor of aristocratic origin named Cylon who had married the daughter of Theagenes, ruler of Megara, attempted with his followers to occupy the Acropolis of Athens and to establish a dictatorial government (tyranny).

The coup d’ etat failed thanks to the stern reaction of chief magistrate Lord Megacles who belonged to the aristocratic Alcmaeonid clan and because possible sympathizers hesitated to openly support the famous athlete. Many of the Cylon’s supporters took refuge in the Temple of «Polias Athena» which was considered a sacred and inviolable asylum. In order to end the deadlock Megacles told them that he would let them leave under truce. Indeed the insurgents came out holding a rope tied to the altar of the temple. However, the rope was cut or others claim that Megacles himself cut it, who immediately started shouting that the goddess herself had abandoned them and ordered his men to kill the supplicants. The historian John Bagnell Bury in his work «The history of ancient Greece until the death of Alexander The Great” published in 1900 says that probably a power struggle among aristocratic clans was raging in the background, something that cannot be ruled out.


Goddes Athena sporting the triscelon of the Alcmaeonidae clan on her shield

Goddes Athena sporting the triscelon of the Alcmaeonidae clan on her shield

In Athens despite the ostracism of Alcmaeonidae, that were considered to be responsible for the sacrilege, a total chaos ensued, fueled from bad crops and the fierce power struggle of the clans in the city with insurrections and riots succeeding one after the other. As if these were not enough, epidemics also erupted. To put an end to the anomalous situation Solon of the Codridae clan suggested that sheer Epimenides to be called from Crete in order to perform ritual cleansing ceremonies.

Knossian coins

Knossian coins with the emblem of the city in the post-Minoan period. Archaeological Museum of Heracleion-Crete

According to Diogenes Laertius, Epimenides origins were from Knossos. His contemporaries believed that he was the beloved of the gods and that he possessed deep knowledge of divine things, especially in terms of direct immediate appeasement of the divinities though ritual acts. So he was the only person with the moral authority to impose himself over the rivaling factions and restore calm in Athens. Epimenides knowing that he would go to an area where there was no law and order he would certainly had with him armed escorts, probably equipped as hoplites. Possibly after consultations with Solon, in order to police the city, he created patrols that their members were from different and even rival factions and to prevent any faction to concentrate its forces against the other but also to have them «competing to show loyalty» to the state. It is not impossible that during the initial stages of this effort some of the Knossian hoplites to had to be patrol leaders. Thanks to the wisdom of Epimenides natural disasters (and with them political strife) seemed to subside and so law and order in Athens was restored.

hoplites with dogs

Attic black figure stamnos dated to the last quarter of 6th century BC and decorated by the “London painter” and refers allegorically to the events of the beginning of this century. (Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

The above shown image is most likely related to Epimenides stay in Athens and probably reflects the political views of its owner. It depicts a military patrol accompanied by dogs. The leading hoplite is a Knossian as we see from his shield device (complete emblem). He is followed by the Alcmaeonid hoplite with incomplete emblem (relating to the clan’s exile), a hoplite from Kropaia sporting a cantharos with broken handle (the artist suspects them for something?), a hoplite from the Thavlonidae clan with a half bull (the artist thinks they are involved too?) and the process closes with a hoplite from the Phylaidae clan with a chariot as shield device. This clan had members who had scored Olympic victories in the chariot races. The hoplites don’t carry spears, probably because in the city alleys their swords come handier to deal with troublemakers. The two dogs are notable as they might either be in service with the patrol or simply symbolize loyalty and dedication to military duty.


Diogenes Laertius: Lives of the Philosophers

Herodotus: Histories

Thudkides: History

Jack Lindsay, A short history of culture from prehistory to the Renaissance, Citadel New York, 1963

Daniel Ogden, A Companion to Greek Religion, Wiley-Blackwel Oxford 2010

3 Σχόλια
  1. Great and informative article. The most interesting was your interpretation of emblems. Do you think the half elmblems always represent something like exile, suspects of something etc…Because I heard once that half bull for example was an attempt to show bull as if raging from the shileld as in 3D.

    • Dear Warren.
      You are partly right on your assumption on the bull
      Me and a friend have done work in hoplite emblems but so far it is not translated into English. If you have an interest in shield emblems you can find some translates pieces on the subject in this blog. In 2016 there will be some info published in English on a university journal. Please take note that as in medieval heraldry the Dragon of Wales is not the same as the Dragon of Modena or Calvi(Corsica) the same applies to ancient Greek emblems. The bull of Thavlonidae is not the same as the bull of Spartan Elos or the bull of the Molossians. Thank you for your comment.

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  1. Faliron: Necropolis with 80 skeletons in chains, buried in array - Indications to Cylonian Affair in 632 BC? - Keep Talking Greece


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