Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Greece by Mary Macgregor
The Story of Greece by  Mary Macgregor

The Last King of Athens

You remember how Cecrops came to Attica and built a city so beautiful that the gods marvelled, and how Athene made the first olive-tree and was therefore awarded the honour of naming the city and becoming its patron. The olive-tree was now said to grow on a rock in the stronghold or Acropolis of the city.

In ancient days Sparta was a more important city than the beautiful one built by Cecrops, but little by little, as the years passed, Athens became supreme in Greece and the most glorious city of the world.

At first Athens, like Sparta and the other States, was governed by kings. But while Sparta continued to be a monarchy, Athens became an oligarchy—that is, she was governed by a few, and these few were nobles.

When Codrus, the last king of Athens, was on the throne, the State was invaded by the Dorians. An oracle had declared that unless the Athenian king was slain in the camp of the enemy, Athens would be taken.

Codrus loved his city and determined to save it from the enemy. So he disguised himself as a peasant and went to the camp of the Dorians, where he killed the first soldier he met. The comrades of the dead man at once fell upon Codrus and, as he had hoped, he was speedily slain. Then as the oracle had foretold Athens was saved from the enemy.

The Athenians resolved that they would no longer have kings to rule over them, because they were sure that they could never find any worthy to follow Codrus who had died for the sake of his country. This seems a strange reason for which to overturn the monarchy. In most countries it is the bad conduct of their kings which makes the people wish to get rid of them.

As Athens would not have another king, the son of Codrus was given neither the power nor the title of royalty. He was named merely archon, or ruler. An archon ruled only for ten years.

Soon the Athenians determined to choose nine archons each year, for they thought it would be well to divide the power among these men rather than entrust it to one ruler.

The archons were obliged to consult a council of nobles before they made a new law, while the council had to lay their plans before the assembly of the people.

In this way Athens became before long an oligarchy governed by a few nobles. The nobles often proved harsh rulers, taking from the people the rights that had been theirs when Athens was a monarchy.

At length the people grew so angry that they determined to destroy the nobles who treated them so cruelly. But as they were helpless without a leader, they were glad to follow any ambitious noble who would place himself at their head and lead them to fight against their oppressors. Too often the deliverer seized the supreme power himself and oppressed the people more than had the oligarch.

The usurper was called by the Greeks a tyrant. But the word tyrant did not mean to them, as it means to us, a cruel man. It meant simply one who had seized a power to which he had no real right.

Some of the tyrants were cruel, but others used the power which they had seized for the good of the State.

The years 700 b.c. to 500 b.c. are known as the Age of the Tyrants, because there were few States, save Sparta, which did not fall under the power of a tyrant during those years.

Often the people learned to hate a tyrant as greatly as they had hated the nobles under whose harsh treatment they had groaned. But it was not easy to get rid of him, for he usually had hired soldiers to help him keep the citizens from rebelling. One of the wisest and best of the tyrants was named Pisistratus, and he was a cousin of Solon, the greatest lawgiver of Athens.

Solon was not a tyrant, although had he wished he might have become one.

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