The Wise Man of Athens
A BUZZ of many voices was heard in the market-place of Athens. "Is he really mad?" asked one.
"Yes, you can see he is. Look at him now; he is leaping on to the herald's stone; and he wears a cap! Poor Solon; what a pity his brain should give way like this! Hark, he is beginning to speak."
The citizens of Athens crowded round the herald's stone, and listened to Solon. It was the custom for only sick people to wear caps, and Solon's strange appearance made the people readily believe the report that he was out of his mind. He recited a poem which he had composed beginning with the words:
Solon was born about 638 B.C., and died about 558 B.C.
Salamis was an island whose mountains rose above the sea on the west of Athens. It was held by the Megarian people, who had taken it by force; and Solon so stirred up the spirit of Athens that the citizens made him commander of the men who should recapture the island. Solon played the following trick: He bade a number of young men dress in long, loose garments that made them appear like women; and he sent word to the Megarian warriors in Salamis that now they might have a good chance of seizing some of the principal ladies of Athens! The Megarians, not knowing the message was a trap laid by Solon, hurried into a ship, landed on the Athenian coast, and saw what seemed to be a crowd of women dancing at a festival. With a shout they rushed forward, but were much surprised when the supposed matrons drew swords and made a fierce defence. In the end all the Megarians were slain, and Solon afterward took possession of Salamis. You will meet many such tales of trickery in the history of war in ancient times; and I fear that in our own days also men do not hesitate to deceive their enemies, and they think it quite right to do so.
In another case of trickery the Athenian people were not so well pleased. The city had been troubled by quarrels between two parties who disagreed as to the best way of governing the State; and a number of men were beaten in the conflict and fled to the temple of the goddess Athene (Ath-ee-nee) for refuge. According to the custom of the time, no man might touch them while they remained under the care of the goddess. Some of the opposite party came to the gate, and said:
"Come out, like honest men, and go before the city magistrates, and let them judge if you are guilty or innocent."
"We dare not come out. You would slay us."
"No, not while you are under the protection of Athene; and we will give you a long thread, long enough to reach from here to the court of justice, and while you hold that we shall consider you as under the guardianship of the goddess."
So the men who had taken refuge in the temple tied the thread to the altar of Athene, and, while holding it, walked forth toward the place of the magistrates. But presently—perhaps by accident, perhaps by the act of some treacherous hand—the thread snapped. Then their foes fell upon them and killed them. But the people of Athens regarded this deed as a most wicked murder, and later on, when Solon was made chief ruler and lawgiver of the city, all the persons who took part in this action were sent into exile.
Many of the citizens wished Solon to take the crown. They thought he was a wise and just man, and would act as a wise and just king. Solon, however, had no mind for kingship; he was pleased to do his best to govern Athens, but had no wish for the glory of a crown or the splendor of a palace. He found the people of the Athenian country divided. There were, first, the Peasants of the Mountains, poor and hard-working, and always in debt to money-lenders; second, the Dwellers on the Coast, who were neither very rich nor very poor; and third, the Nobles of the Plain, who owned fruitful fields and orchards, and had much power. The poorest folk expected great help from Solon. They hoped he would wipe away all their debts, and they hoped he would take away the greater part of the land of the nobles and share it out among the people generally, as was done in Sparta. Solon did indeed wipe out their debts. He declared that all debts should be forgiven, so that the peasants might make a fresh start in life. Nor, even after that, would he allow any debtor to be seized and put into prison. For such had been the custom till then, every debtor being treated as if he were a wicked person. Solon heard of Athenians who had fled away into strange lands for fear of being cast into prison on account of money they owed, and he sent and brought them back; and all debtors who were in jail he set at liberty. You may be sure the poor and needy folk were filled with joy, and they now waited for him to divide the lands. But this Solon would not do, for he thought it would only upset the whole country; and, for that reason, some who had once praised him began to speak ill of him. Yet most of the citizens held him in great esteem, for they saw that in all he did he sought to do good to the people. Many laws he swept away. Before his days a lawgiver named Draco had ruled Athens so severely that he put to death men who only stole a few herbs from a garden; so that it was said that his laws were written not in ink, but in blood. I will set down a little list of some of Solon's laws:
He divided the people (leaving out the slaves) into four classes: The first class were men who had a yearly income of five hundred measures of corn; they must serve as horse-soldiers in the army, and they could vote at elections.
The second class were men who had a yearly income of three hundred measures of corn; they also must serve as horse-soldiers in the army, and they could vote at elections.
The third class were men who had a yearly income of one hundred and fifty measures of corn; they must serve as foot-soldiers in the army, and they could vote at elections.
The fourth class were men who worked for wages; they could serve as foot-soldiers, and, if so, they would be paid, whereas the first three classes had no pay; and they had no vote, but they could assemble at a big public meeting and shout "Yes" or "No" when the rulers proposed that anything special should be done.
Solon set up a Council of Four Hundred men who would govern the city of Athens.
He made a law that after a person was dead no one should say anything evil against him.
He made a law to keep the people from spending too much money on funerals. For instance, they must not sacrifice an ox at a funeral, nor must they bury with the dead body more than three garments.
He made a law that no man was bound to support his aged father unless the father had taught him a useful trade. Solon thought this would lead fathers to be more careful in teaching useful trades to their sons.
He made a law that no one should plant a tree less than five feet from his neighbor's garden, lest the tree should spread its roots so far as to draw the goodness away from the soil in the neighbor's plot.
He made a law that no man should keep bees nearer than three hundred feet from his neighbor's beehives.
He made a law that a dog which bit a man should be chained to a heavy log of wood.
For some years he travelled in many lands, learning all he could from the people whom he met. Among other things he heard tales of a wonderful land far away in the western seas. It was called Atlantis, and it had beautiful fields, and its palaces were entered by grand gates, and its people were very happy. Solon made a poem about this happy land in order to amuse his countrymen in Athens. He lived to a great age, and was mourned deeply by the people at his death. I will close this account by a story of Solon's visit to the court of the richest man in the world—Crœsus (Kree-sus), King of Lydia.
Solon had always lived in a humble house, and dressed in a simple manner. When he arrived at the palace of Crœsus, he saw noblemen passing in and out, and so richly attired that he imagined each or any of them might be the king; and each nobleman was followed by a train of servants. When at length the Athenian came into the royal chamber, he beheld the king seated on a magnificent throne, and the place was glittering with jewels, and fine carpets lay on the floors, and valuable marble pillars held up the roof, and ornaments of gold and silver were observed on all sides. Solon showed no joy at these sights. To him they were gaudy and showy, and not at all deserving of praise. Then the king tried to dazzle Solon by opening to him his treasure-houses, where were gathered the most precious articles in the world.
"Have you ever seen a happier man than I am?" asked the king.
"Who was that?"
"A plain man in Athens, named Tellus. He dwelt in a modest cottage with the wife and children who loved him. Though poor, he always had enough for his wants. He died fighting for his country, and his neighbors loved his memory."
"Well, is there any one else happier than I am?"
"Another? Who was that, I pray you?"
"Two brothers who died after showing kindness to their old mother. She had set her heart on attending a feast at the village temple, and was ready to start when it was found that the oxen who were to draw her in a cart were away in a distant field, ploughing, and could not be brought in time. Her sons, in order she should not be disappointed, harnessed themselves like oxen to the cart, and drew her, amid the cheers of the village folk, to the doors of the temple. They sat at the feast, merry and friendly, and that night they died; and all men loved their memory. You see, O king, that I cannot speak of a man as happy till I know all his life."
Some time afterward the armies of Persia invaded the land. Crœsus was taken prisoner, and Cyrus, the King of Persia, ordered that he should be burned on a high pile of wood.
As the unhappy king was lying on the pile he shrieked, "O Solon, Solon, Solon!"
King Cyrus commanded his men to stay their hands from setting the pile alight, and he asked Crœsus to tell why he called on Solon; and Crœsus told the story. Cyrus thought for a while, and then bade that Crœsus should be set at liberty, not to be king again (for that would not make him happier), but so that he might live an honorable life.