A T Athens the troubles which led the people to call upon Solon to make laws for them did not come from wars with their enemies, but from quarrels in the city itself. There had once been kings at Athens who ruled over the people, but these had been overthrown, and the city was now what we call a republic; that is, certain men were chosen each year to rule over the others. But instead of letting all the people choose these men, as we do in our own republic, only the nobles were allowed to vote. This the common people did not like, so there were quarrels between them and the nobles. Besides this, there was another trouble. Owing to wars and bad harvests, the poorer people in the state had been obliged to borrow money of the rich, and when they could not pay it back the law allowed them to be seized, and sold as slaves. So there was much ill-feeling between the different classes, and it seemed for a time as if they would fall to fighting about these things.
Athens as it is Now
To prevent this, both sides agreed that a wise man named Solon should be chosen ruler for the year, and that he should be allowed to make any changes in the laws that he thought were needed. The nobles thought that Solon would decide in their favor because he was himself a noble; and the people thought he would decide in their favor because he had always shown himself friendly to them.
But Solon did not give either side all that it wanted. First he decided that the Athenians should not be sold as slaves when they could not pay their debts. That was something for the common people. Then he decided that the people who owed money and could not pay it should be helped to do so. This also was a gain for the poorer people; but as they had hoped that they should not have to pay anything at all, they were disappointed. Then he decided that the nobles must let the common people share in the rule of the city. "I gave the people," he said, "as much power as they ought to have without cheating them any, or giving them more than was their share." But this satisfied neither party; as the nobles had expected to keep all the power for themselves, while the people also had hoped to get it all for themselves.
So both parties were dissatisfied with what Solon had done, and the quarrels continued. But after these had lasted for some time, and the Athenians had suffered much on account of them, they at last came to see that Solon was right, and they did as he wished them to do. The laws which Solon had made were cut in great blocks of wood, that they might not be forgotten; and for hundreds of years afterwards these blocks might be seen at Athens.
Many people expected that Solon would not lay down his power when his year was out, and that he would make himself "tyrant" or king. But Solon was too honest to do anything of the kind. When his year was over he went away from Athens, and spent many years traveling. According to a story which the Greeks loved to tell, Solon came once to the court of a great king named Croesus. There the king showed him chests full of gold and silver and many other precious things which belonged to him. Then Croesus asked Solon who was the happiest man in the world, thinking, of course, that Solon would say that he was, because he had so much of what every one wishes to posses. But Solon named a poor man who had died while fighting for his country. Croesus then asked who was the next happiest; and Solon named two youths who had died while showing great honor to their mother. Then Croesus was angry.
"And do you not consider me happy?" he asked, pointing to all his wealth.
"I count no man happy until he is dead," answered Solon.
Many years after this, great misfortunes came on King Croesus. His kingdom was conquered by the king of the Persians, his jewels were taken from him, and he himself was placed on a great pile of wood to be burned alive. Then the words of Solon came to his mind, and he exclaimed,—
"O, Solon! O Solon! O Solon!"
When the king of the Persians heard this, he sent to ask Croesus who this Solon was that he called upon. Then Croesus told him what Solon had said to him, and added,—
"Now I see only too well that Solon was right."
Then the other king had pity on Croesus, and set him free. And the fame of Solon spread so far that he came to be looked upon as one of the seven wisest men of Greece.