Theseus had a life filled with great adventures, such as killing the infamous Minotaur in his labyrinth, going to war against the Amazons, and even descending into the world of the dead in an attempt to kidnap Persephone, Hades’ wife and queen of the underworld. He is also credited with some less glamorous, but equally important actions, such as introducing many political reforms to Athens, establishing new cult places in the city and fortifying various cities throughout Attica.
The downfall of Theseus, leading to his death, is a political story, but it started, of course, with a woman – the famous Helen. Exactly – the same Helen that would later on trigger the great war of Troy, but who was a mere child at the time. Fascinated with her beauty, despite of her young age, Theseus, who had already reached the age of 50 at the time, kidnapped her and took her back to Athens for safekeeping, planning to marry her when she got a little older.
For this daring action, Theseus enrolled the help of his best friend, Pirithous. In order to repay his friend, Theseus wanted to help him find an equally beautiful wife, and they decided on none other than Persephone, wife of Hades. The two of them descended into the world of the dead, but were trapped by Hades and held prisoners for a long time. Eventually, Theseus was rescued by Hercules, but in the meantime, things did not go well in Athens.
Young Helen was not a helpless victim – she never was during her adventures anyway. She was a daughter of Zeus after all, and could not be snatched so easily. Her two equally famous brothers, Castor and Pollux, came looking for her, and found Athens undefended, and quite a large number of people unhappy with Theseus’ policies. So, they took Helen back home, kidnapped Theseus’ own mother, Aethra, and installed a new king in Athens, a man by the name of Menestheus. (The whole story, complicated and full of mythological references, is however an indication of the traditional rife between the city of Athens, represented by Theseus, and that of Sparta, represented by Castor and Pollux.)
So, Who Killed Theseus?
Returning from the Underworld, Theseus found the city of Athens devastated by political fights. Realizing he stood no chance of becoming the ruler again, he took refuge on the island of Skyros, cursing his beloved Athens when he left. In Skyros, the local king, Lycomedes, welcomed Theseus, but then betrayed him, and pushed him off a cliff and killed him.
In another version of the myth, king Lycomedes was not the killer of Theseus, and the great hero actually died in an accident, a very anti-climatic death after such an agitated life.
Either way, Theseus was buried on the island of Skyros where he found his end, and two of his sons, Acamas and Demophon, participated in the Trojan war as mere soldiers, not kings and rulers, as their family tree would have entitled them. But after the end of the war, Menestheus died, and the two sons of Theseus returned to their native Athens and ruled the city.
The Tomb of Theseus
After an entire life dedicated to the well-being of Athens, the remains of Theseus could only find rest in Attica, of course. During the famous historical battle of the Marathon, the Athenian soldiers swore they saw the ghost of the great Theseus leading their armies to victory.
Later on, Cimon – once again, an actual historical figure – conquered the island Skyros for Athens, accidentally, at the same time when the Oracle of Delphi asked the Athenians to bring the remains of their great hero home. (The oracle did things like that every now and then.) While on the island, Cimon saw a vulture digging in the earth. He understood the message, dug in the same place, and found a giant skeleton, lying next to a bronze spear and a sword. Everybody accepted those were the remains of Theseus, and were brought back and buried in a sumptuous tomb in Athens.