Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

Solon, The Law-Giver Of Athens

We have told how Sparta came to have an aristocratic government, under the laws of Lycurgus. We have now to tell how Athens came to have a democratic government, under the laws of Solon. These formed the types of government for later Greece, some of whose nations became aristocracies, following the example of Sparta; others became democracies, and formed their governments on the model of that of Athens.

As before Lycurgus the Spartan commonwealth was largely without law, so was Athens before Solon. In those days the people of Attica—of which Athens was the capital city—were divided into three factions,—the rich, the middle class, and the poor. As for the poor, they were in a condition of misery, being loaded down with debt, and many of them in a state of slavery to the rich, who owned nearly all the land.

At that period what law existed was very severe against debtors. The debtor became the slave of his creditor, and was held in this state until he could pay his debt, either in money or in labor. And not only he, but his younger sons and his unmarried daughters and sisters, were reduced to slavery. Through the action of this severe law many of the poor of Attica were owned as slaves, many had been sold as slaves, some had kept their freedom only by selling their own children, and some had fled from the country to escape slavery. And this, too, had arisen in many cases through injustice in the courts and corruption of the judges.

In the time of Solon the misery and oppression from these laws became so great that there was a general mutiny of the poor against the rich. They refused to submit to the unjust enactments of their rulers, and the state fell into such frightful disorder that the governing class, no longer able to control the people, were obliged to call Solon to their aid.

Solon did not belong to the rich men of Athens, though he was of noble birth, and, like so many of the older Greeks, traced his family line back to the gods. Neptune, the ocean deity, was fabled to be his far-off ancestor. He was born about 638 b.c. His father had spent most of his money, largely in kind deeds to others, and the son found himself obliged to become a merchant. In this pursuit he travelled in many parts of Greece and Asia, and in his journeys paid more heed to the gaining of knowledge than of money, so that when he came back his mind was fuller than his purse. Men who seek wisdom rarely succeed in gaining much money, but Solon's story goes to show that wisdom is far the better of the two, and that a rich mind is of more value than a rich purse. When he returned to Attica he gained such fame as a poet and a man of learning and wisdom that he has ever since been classed as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece.

Of these wise men the following story is told. Some fishermen of Cos cast their net into the sea, and brought up in its meshes a golden tripod, which the renowned Helen had thrown into the sea during her return from Troy. A dispute arose as to whom the tripod should belong to. Several cities were ready to go to war about it. To prevent bloodshed the oracle of Apollo was applied to, and answered that it should be sent to the wisest man that could be found.

It was at first sent to Thales of Miletus, a man famous for wisdom. But he decided that Bias of Priene was wiser than he, and sent it to him. And thus it went the round of the seven wise men,—Solon among them, so we are told,—and finally came back to Thales. He refused to keep it, and placed it in the temple of Apollo at Thebes.

An evidence alike of Solon's wisdom, shrewdness, and political skill arose in the war for the island of Salamis, which adjoined the two states of Megara and Attica, and for whose possession they were at war. After the Athenians had been at great loss of men and money in this conflict, Megara gained the island, and the people of Athens became so disgusted with the whole affair that a law was passed declaring that any man who spoke or wrote again about the subject should be put to death.

This Solon held to be a stain on the honor of Athens. He did not care to lose his life by breaking the law, but was not content that his country should rest under the stigma of defeat, and should yield so valuable a prize. He accordingly had it given out that he had gone mad; and in pretended insanity he rushed into the public square, mounted the herald's stone, and repeated a poem he had composed for the occasion, recalling vividly to the people the disgrace of their late defeat. His stirring appeal so wrought upon their feelings that the law was repealed, war was declared, and Solon was placed in command of the army.

Megara sent out a ship to watch the proceedings, but this was seized by Solon's fleet and manned by part of his force. The remainder of his men were landed and marched towards the city of Salamis; on which they made an assault. While this was going on, Solon sailed up with the ship he had captured. The Megarians, thinking it to be their own ship, permitted it to enter the port, and the city was taken by surprise. Salamis, thus won, continued to belong to Athens till those late days when Philip of Macedon conquered Greece.

To Solon, now acknowledged to be the wisest and most famous of the Athenians, the tyrants who had long misruled Athens turned, when they found the people in rebellion against their authority. In the year 594 b.c. he was chosen archon, or ruler of the state, and was given full power to take such measures as were needed to put an end to the disorders. Probably these autocrats supposed that he would help them to continue in power; but, if so, they did not know the man with whom they had to deal.

Solon might easily have made himself a despot, if he had chosen, all the states of Greece being then under the rule of despots or of tyrannical aristocrats. But he was too honest and too wise for this. He set himself earnestly to overcome the difficulties which lay before him. And he did this with a radical hand. In truth, the people were in no mood for any but radical measures.

The enslaved debtors were at once set free. All contracts in which the person or the land of the debtor had been given as security were cancelled. No future contract under which a citizen could be enslaved or imprisoned for debt was permitted. All past claims against the land of Attica were cancelled, and the mortgage pillars removed. (These pillars were set up at the boundaries of the land, and had the lender's name and the amount of the debt cut into the stone.)

But as many of the creditors were themselves in debt to richer men, and as Solon's laws left them poor, he adopted a measure for their relief. This was to lower the value of the money of the state. The old silver drachmas were replaced by new drachmas, of which seventy-three equaled one hundred of the old. Debtors were thus able to pay their debts at a discount of twenty-seven per cent, and the great loss fell on the rich; and justly so, for most of them had gained their wealth through dishonesty and oppression. Lastly, Solon made full citizens of all from whom political rights had been taken, except those who had been condemned for murder or treason.

This was a bold measure. And, like such bold measures generally, it did injustice to many. But the evil was temporary, the good permanent. It put an end to much injustice, and no such condition as had prevailed ever again arose in Athens. The government of the aristocracy came to an end under Solon's laws. From that time forward Athens grew more and more a government of the people.

The old assembly of the people existed then, but all its power had been taken from it. Solon gave back to it the right of voting and of passing laws. But he established a council of four hundred men, elected annually by the people, whose duty it was to consider the business upon which the assembly was to act. And the assembly could only deal with business that was brought before it by this council.

The assemblies of the people took place on the Pnyx, a hill that overlooked the city, and from which could be seen the distant sea. At its right stood the Acropolis, that famous hill on which the noblest of temples were afterwards built. Between these two hills rose the Areopagus, on which the Athenian supreme court held its sessions. The Athenians loved to do their business in the open air, and, while discussing questions of law and justice, delighted in the broad view before them of the temples, the streets, and the crowded marts of trade of the city, and the shining sea, with its white-sailed craft, afar in the sunny distance.

Solon's laws went further than we have said. He divided the people into four ranks or divisions, according to their wealth in land. The richer men were, the more power they were given in the state. But at the same time they had to pay heavier taxes, so that their greater authority was not an unmixed blessing. The lowest class, composed of the poorest citizens, had no taxes at all to pay, and no power in the state, other than the right to vote in the assembly. When called out as soldiers arms were furnished them, while the other classes had to buy their own arms.

Various other laws were made by Solon. The old law against crime, established long before by Draco, had made death the penalty for every crime, from murder to petty theft. This severe law was repealed, and the punishment made to agree with the crime. Minor laws were these: The living could not speak evil of the dead. No person could draw more than a fixed quantity of water daily from the public wells. People who raised bees must not have their hives too near those of their neighbors. It was fixed how women should dress, and they were forbidden to scratch or tear themselves at funerals. They had to carry baskets of a fixed size when they went abroad. A dog that bit anybody had to be delivered up with a log four feet and a half long tied to its neck. Such were some of the laws which the council swore to maintain, each member vowing that if he broke any of them he would dedicate a golden statue as large as himself to Apollo, at Delphi.

Having founded his laws, Solon, fearing that he would be forced to make changes in them, left Athens, having bound the people by oath to keep them for ten years, during which time he proposed to be absent.

From Athens he set sail for Egypt, and in that ancient realm talked long with two learned priests about the old history of the land. Among the stories they told him was a curious one about a great island named Atlantis, far in the western ocean, against which Athens had waged war nine thousand years before, and which had afterwards sunk under the Atlantic's waves. It was one of those fanciful legends of which the past had so great a store.

From Egypt he went to Cyprus, where he dwelt long and made useful changes. He is also said to have visited, at Sardis, Crsus, the king of Lydia, a monarch famous for his wealth and good fortune. About this visit a pretty moral story is told. It is probably not true, being a fiction of the ancient story-tellers, but, fiction or not, it is well worth the telling.

Crsus had been so fortunate in war that he had made his kingdom great and prosperous, while he was esteemed the richest monarch of his times. He lodged Solon in his palace and had his servants show him all the treasures which he had gained. He then, conversing with his visitor, praised him for his wisdom, and asked him whom he deemed to be the happiest of men.

He expected an answer flattering to his vanity, but Solon simply replied,—"Tellus, of Athens."

"And why do you deem Tellus the happiest?" demanded Crsus.

Solon gave as his reason that Tellus lived in comfort and had good and beautiful sons, who also had good children; and that he died in gallant defence of his country, and was buried by his countrymen with the highest honors.

"And whom do you give the second place in happiness?" asked Crsus.

"Cleobis and Bito," answered Solon. "These were men of the Argive race, who had fortune enough for their wants, and were so strong as to gain prizes at the Games.

"But their special title to happiness was," continued Solon, "that in a festival to the goddess Juno, at Argos, their mother wished to go in a car. As the oxen did not return in time from the fields, the youths, fearing to be late, yoked themselves to the car, and drew their mother to the temple, forty-five furlongs away. This filial deed gained them the highest praise from the people, while their mother prayed the goddess to bestow upon them the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. After her prayer, the youths offered sacrifices, partook of the holy banquet, and fell asleep in the temple. They never woke again! This was the blessing of the goddess."

"What," cried Crsus, angrily, "is my happiness, then, of so little value to you that you put me on a level with private men like these?"

"You are very rich, Crsus," answered Solon, "and are lord of many nations. But remember that you have many days yet to live, and that any single day in a man's life may yield events that will change all his fortune. As to whether you are supremely happy and fortunate, then, I have no answer to make. I cannot speak for your happiness till I know if your life has a happy ending."

Solon, having completed his travels, returned to Athens to find it in turmoil. Pisistratus, a political adventurer and a favorite with the people, had gained despotic power by a cunning trick. He wounded himself, and declared that he had been attacked and wounded by his political enemies. He asked, therefore, for a body-guard for his protection. This was granted him by the popular assembly, which was strongly on his side. With its aid he seized the Acropolis and made himself master of the city, while his opponents were forced to fly for their lives.

This revolutionary movement was strenuously opposed by Solon, but in vain. Pisistratus had made himself so popular with the people that they treated their old law-giver like a man who had lost his senses. As a last appeal he put on his armor and placed himself before the door of his house, as if on guard as a sentinel over the liberties of his country! This appeal was also in vain.

"I have done my duty!" he exclaimed; "I have sustained to the best of my power my country and the laws."

He refused to fly, saying, when asked on what he relied for protection, "On my old age."

Pisistratus—who proved a very mild despot—left his aged opponent unharmed, and in the next year Solon died, being then eighty years of age.

His laws lived after him, despite the despotism which ruled over Athens for the succeeding fifty years.

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