The Curse of the Alcmaeonidae

It sounds like the title of a really bad horror movie, but it was a for-real curse that happened in 632BC.

There was at that time in Athens a famous Olympic victor called Cylon. Like many famous people to this day, Cylon assumed that fame in one field guaranteed success in another. He should have consulted with a career advisor, because unfortunately his chosen new life plan was to make himself the Tyrant of Athens.

In his defence, it must be said that Cylon was probably encouraged by his father-in-law, who happened to be the tyrant of a city called Megara, just up the road. Sometimes it can be really tough for a guy to impress the wife's family.

It all went horribly pear-shaped when Cylon gathered together his friends and attempted an armed takeover. He seems to have assumed the common people of Athens would flock to his leadership when they saw what was happening. But when the fighting began, the people of Athens were notable by their absence, and Cylon and his followers had to retreat to the temple of Athena atop the Acropolis. (Not the Parthenon. The Parthenon would not be built for another 200 years.)

Then Cylon managed to escape, leaving his hapless friends trapped inside the temple, to face the consequences of his ambition. By the end of the day, Cylon had set a new record for total leadership FAIL.

Now everyone had a problem. As long as the coup plotters stayed inside the temple, they were safe, because all Greek temples had sanctuary. Anyone who harmed a person under the protection of Athena was looking at some serious trouble. (Cylon's friends were neither the first nor last to rely on temple sanctuary for protection; it was perfectly normal for pursued criminals to make a beeline for the nearest altar.)

Negotiations began between the coup plotters and the archons (city officials). The archons convinced the men to come out, in return for a fair trial. I can't imagine what fair trial the plotters thought would result in them surviving, but presumably they planned to argue it was all Cylon's fault.

There are different stories about what happened next. The most dramatic says the plotters emerged, tied to a rope which they'd fastened at the other end to the cult statue of Athena within the temple, to maintain their connection with the Goddess.

Another version says the archons swore before Athena that the plotters would have sanctuary while the law took its course. Either way, everyone agrees the men were under the protection of the Goddess when they emerged to go to the place of trial, which certainly would have been the adjoining rock of the Areopagus.

Among the archons was a man called Megacles, from the genos (family) Alcmaeonidae (ALC-MAY-ON-ID-AY). When the friends of Cylon were out in the open, the archon Megacles and all the men of his family fell upon them and killed them.

No one cared about the dead plotters, but the men of the Alcmaeonidae had just broken the sacred sanctuary, and that was a big deal. A very big deal.

Megacles claimed (in the rope version) that they'd seen the rope break, meaning Athena had repudiated her protection. But that weak excuse didn't wash.

At once a curse fell upon the family - in Greek, a miasma - and not just upon the men who committed the crime, but upon every member of the family. And not just those living, but every man, woman and child to be born into the family forever after.

This crime was so bad that the Alcmaeonidae were, in fact, eternally cursed.

To expiate the sacrilege, and to avoid a furious Athena from destroying her own city, Megacles and the Alcmaeonidae were expelled from Athens.

Then they dug up the remains of dead members of the family and threw them out too.

That's the way things stayed for 40 years, until Solon the Wise allowed the family to return, because Solon was a weak-kneed, bleeding heart, soft-on-crime wimp. Or so the dissenting Athenians thought as the accursed family walked back in the gates. Nevertheless Athens failed to be destroyed by the Alcmaeonid presence, and things settled down.

Now the Alcmaeonidae were destined to become a driving force behind democracy. Note that the crime for which they'd been cursed was the ruthless slaughter of would-be tyrants.

Eighty years later, a tyrant did manage to take Athens, and the Alcmaeonidae had a very uneasy relationship with him. The family head at the time - another Megacles - married his daughter to the tyrant, which kept the peace for a while, but eventually the Alcmaeonidae were instrumental in removing this tyranny too. Supporting freedom was obviously a family tradition.

Then an Alcmaeonid called Cleisthenes introduced the democratic reforms which led to full democracy 50 years later under Ephialtes. When Ephialtes died, he was replaced by Pericles, who guessed Alcmaeonid on his mother's side.

But it didn't matter how successful the Alcmaeonidae became; whenever a member of the family was put in charge of anything, someone was bound to ask, "But what of the curse?" Even the Spartans raised it when they were dealing with Pericles, 200 years after the crime.

It must be pointed out that the curse on the family was eternal. Which means their descendants living today, of which there must surely be some, are in fact, cursed.


Amalia T. said...

It would be interesting to track a direct descendant down and talk to them about it... I imagine it would be a genealogical nightmare to find one though.

It is kind of important to note that "Tyrant" then did not have the same connotations as it does today.

_*rachel*_ said...

This is fascinating--thanks for putting it up!

Matthew Delman said...

Amalia --

I think it was actually these Tyrants of Athens that gave "tyrant" the current meaning it has today. Because you're right, before this period it just meant "dude in charge."

I love these posts that connect your stories to history, Mr. Corby. It's also fascinating that Pericles was a member of this "cursed" family.

Loretta Ross said...

Another very awesome post! What ever finally became of Cylon, do you know?

You know, one thing that really fascinates me about history is the way things survive through nomenclature, tradition, folklore, etc. And in that vein, though I realize it's a nonsensical observation, you know that the villians on the original Battlestar Galactica (don't know about the new version) were called Cylons? Wonder if there was any connection?

Gary Corby said...

Cylon was exiled for the rest of his days. I assume he died naturally in Megara. But I don't know. I don't think any historian mentions him again after the failed coup.

I wish we could track the descendants, Amalia, but it's all lost in the mists of time.

You're totally right that tyrant had a different meaning, just as dictator wasn't such a bad thing in Rome.

A tyrant was any man who took control of government by force. Most tyrants were reasonably well liked, and that meaning continued throughout the classical period.

I confess I have no idea when tyrant took on the negative image. I suspect it might even be from mediaeval usage.

Sorry this post was a bit long, btw. To get in the entire curse I needed to cover 172 years of family history.

Loretta Ross said...

Tracing the Alcmaeonidae's descendants would have to be undertaken by a university or someone like the National Geographic Society. It couldn't be done by individuals, but it might possibly be done. Possibly.

As you said, traditional genealogy would be useless. The records are all lost in the mists of time. However, it might be possible to find modern descendants the same way they did with Cheddar Man. ( ) You'd need identifiable graves of members of the Alcmaeonidae and a target group of possible descendants. Members of families that have lived for generations in areas where the Alcmaeonidae lived?

Gary Corby said...

I love the idea, Loretta, but it's a tough ask. There are obviously remains from the period, but no one knows who's who. Also, cremation was in vogue during much of classical time.

I'm sure your idea would work to find people whose ancestors were in Classical Athens. Given the long time that's passed, I would have guessed anyone with even a single Athenian descendant would probably be related to absolutely everyone who was there?

Loretta Ross said...

Given the long time that's passed, I would have guessed anyone with even a single Athenian descendant would probably be related to absolutely everyone who was there?

Probably! You know, working with prehistoric DNA they've come up with something like 9 "Adams" (patrilineal ancestors) and 12 "Eves" (matrilineal ancestors) that everyone in the world is descended from? Incidentally, what do you think of the concept of racial (or ancestral or genetic) memory?

Bill Kirton said...

I don't have the learning to add to the debate, Gary, but I just wanted to note that the ease of your story-telling is as evident in your facts as it is in your fiction. Fascinating post.

A Writer Under The Influence said...

As one who as has traced his lineage back more than a few years, i can agree with Amalia; it would be amazing to see what his descendants think about his escapades.

Thanks for the tale,


Gary Corby said...

Thanks Bill, coming from you, that's real praise.

Jeff, it'd be amazing if it were possible. I'd love to find out if the curse is still operating. Though how you'd test it, I don't know. Maybe lead the descendant into an ancient temple and then stand back in case lightning strikes?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta, my view is the objective evidence for racial memory is thin on the ground.

On the other hand, every writer works one way or another with archetypes. There's a good argument for a set of common underlying patterns which we all have built in.

Patrick Nkiriho said...

hi everyone,..i dont know if am too late,i mean the last post was in 2010,..i read that after the defeat of athens in the peloponnesian war, the alcmaeonide family putting into consideration the immense wealth of this family,..(megacles, the exiled guy was reported to live in luxury and ostetious wealth)..they must have moved to prominent nation, say persia or egypt were many immigrants were...or rome...or even into europe to form a royal house their...
do you see my trend of thought..this family's style sounds to me like the rich lancasters of england ,..or the intensely rich rothschild...names blend in..anyway i would love to revive this Colby?

Patrick Nkiriho said...

hi everyone..this must be a late coming but i will just go ahead..i read somewhere that the alcmaeonide family/clan vanished after athens fell in the pelloponnesian considering the immense wealth of this family (megacles was acclaimed to be ostentiously wealthy and like luxury) clearly the family migrated somewhere else like into the interior of europe ie france ,rome or even egypt..and set up a royal house somewhere since they claim royalty by descent from poseidon himself..if it moved into france, i see the similar style it bears with the wealthy lancaster nobility..or if persia or egypt, i see similarities with the intensely rich rothschild house...and this could explain their jewish descent...
but hey, these are just theories ...i base these on the fact the family vanished when athens fell...about the curse,..these curses are often powerful and are common in wealthy families...i read too that the royal house of plantagenet has a curse that rises in members of the family once in a while...a princess/queen of that house once vanished after reports of possession...also i refer u to the lady bathory ,who used to pleasure in drinking the blood of virgins and taking a bath in it...

anyway, just theories

pAtrick Nkiriho

Patrick Nkiriho said...

The merovingian also claim descent form neptune (poseidon)...interesting..they had reddish blonde hair...and they liked it long..