Y OU have already learned that Athens was one of the greatest cities of ancient Greece, and that after the heroic self-sacrifice of Codrus the inhabitants would not allow any one to bear the name of king.
The sons of Codrus were named archons, or rulers for life,—an office which was at first handed down from father to son, but which soon became elective; that is to say, all the people voted for and elected their own rulers. Then nine archons were chosen at once, but they kept their office for only one year.
As these men received no pay for serving the state, only the richest citizens could accept the office; and thus Athens, from a monarchy, or country ruled by a king, became an oligarchy, or state ruled by the rich and noble citizens.
As the rich thus held the reins of the government, they often used their power to oppress the poor, and this gave rise to many quarrels. Little by little the two parties, the rich and the poor, grew to hate each other so much that it was decided that a new code or set of laws should be made, and that they should be obeyed by all alike.
A severe archon called Draco was chosen to draw up these new laws (602 B.C.); and he made them so strict and cruel that the least sin was punished as if it had been a crime, and a man was sentenced to be hanged for stealing even a cabbage.
When the Athenians heard these new laws, they were frightened. Such severity had never been known before; and one and all said that the laws had been written in blood instead of ink. Some of the citizens, hoping to make Draco change them, asked why he had named such a terrible punishment for so small a crime as the theft of a cabbage. Draco sternly replied that a person who stole even the smallest thing was dishonest, and deserved death; and that, as he knew of no severer punishment, he could not inflict one for the greater crimes.
The Athenians had all promised to obey Draco's laws, so they were obliged to submit for a short time. Then, driven wild by their strictness, rich and poor rose up, drove the unhappy lawmaker out of the city, and forced him to go to the neighboring Island of Ægina. Here Draco spent all the rest of his life.
The people were now in a state of great uncertainty. The laws of Draco were too severe, but they had no others to govern the city. While they were hesitating, not knowing what to do, Cylon, an Athenian citizen, tried to make himself king.
His first move was to gather together a few of his friends, and go secretly to the Acropolis, or fortress of Athens, which he took by surprise. Now that he was master of the fortress, he tried to force the Athenians to recognize him as their king, but this they stoutly refused to do.
Instead of yielding, the Athenians armed themselves, met the rebels in a bloody battle, and killed Cylon himself in the midst of the fight.
As their leader was now dead, and they feared the anger of their fellow-citizens, Cylon's friends fled in haste to the temple of the goddess Athene. Once inside the sacred building, they felt quite safe; for no person could be killed in a temple, or be taken out of it by force.
Although they had neither food nor drink, the rebels refused to leave the temple, until the archon Megacles, fearing that they would die there, and thus defile the temple, promised to do them no harm if they would only come out.
The rebels did not quite trust to this promise, so they came out of the temple holding a small cord, one end of which was fastened to the statue of the goddess. They were thus still under her protection, and any one touching them would be guilty of a great crime.
When the men reached the street at the bottom of the hill where the temple stood, the cord to which they were all clinging suddenly broke. Megacles, the first to notice this, said that the goddess refused to protect the rebels any longer, and gave orders to kill the unhappy men.