This philosopher was descended from a noble stock. His father was Execestides, a man whose power was great in Athens, though his means were small. So generous was he in the benefits he conferred on others that he actually ruined his own estates thereby. When this happened, his son Solon resolved to leave home and become a merchant. He had friends enough who would have been pleased to assist him, but as he came of a family who were in the habit of conferring favors, he would not consent to receive any. Besides, Solon lived at a time when the merchant's was considered a noble calling, on account of its bringing different nations in contact with each other, encouraging friendship between their kings, and serving as a means for increasing one's experience.
Solon was always anxious to gain knowledge, and when he grew old he used to say that "each day of his life he learned something new." There can be no doubt of this, for he made excellent laws, and became one of the seven sages of Greece. His reputation for wisdom extended so far that learned men from other parts of the world often sought his acquaintance. Once Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher, who was on a visit to Athens, knocked at Solon's door and announced that he wished to become his friend.
"It is better to make friends at home," said Solon.
"Then you that are at home form a friendship with me," replied Anacharsis.
Solon was so pleased at the readiness of this answer that he admitted the stranger and kept him in Athens for several years.
At that time Solon was engaged in writing his code of laws, and often asked the advice of Anacharsis as he proceeded. The Scythian laughed at him for supposing that men could be restrained from acts of dishonesty by written laws, which he likened to spiders' webs, that might catch the weak and poor, but would be easily broken by the powerful and rich. Solon's argument against this was that men would certainly keep their promises if nothing could be gained by breaking them, and he meant so to frame his laws that the citizens of Athens would find it to their advantage to observe them. Anacharsis was nearer the truth in his judgment of men than Solon was, as later events proved. And he further showed his discernment when, after attending an assembly, he said that "the wise men pleaded causes, and the fools decided them."
Once when Solon was visiting Thales of Miletus, one of the seven wise men of Greece, he asked Thales why he had no family. Thales did not answer immediately, but a few days later he introduced to Solon a stranger, who said that he had returned from Athens ten days before. Solon inquired what news he had brought. "None," replied the man, in accordance with the instructions he had received from Thales, "but I saw the funeral of a young man, which the whole city attended. They said he was the son of an honorable person of high standing who was travelling."
"What a miserable man is he!" exclaimed Solon. "But what was his name?"
"I heard his name, but do not recollect it," said the stranger; "all I remember is, that there was much said about his wisdom and justice."
Solon's fears were aroused, and becoming extremely anxious he at last mentioned his own name, and asked the stranger in a trembling voice whether it was his son that was dead. On hearing that such was indeed the case, the philosopher gave way to a transport of grief. Then Thales took his hand and said, "These things which strike down so firm a man as Solon have kept me from marrying and having children; but take courage, my good friend, for not a word of what has been told to you is true." No doubt Solon thought, as all sensible people must think, that Thales gave proof of great weakness; for a man ought to be reasonable enough to arm himself against misfortune, and to remember that he may be deprived of wealth, glory, or wisdom as well as of objects of affection, yet he would not on that account object to having them. It is not excess of feeling, but lack of moral strength, that causes men to sink under affliction.
Solon was not so successful with his writings as many of the ancients, but his poem called Salamis is considered very beautiful, and he wrote it under peculiar circumstances. After the Athenians had grown tired of the war they had carried on in vain for so long a time with the Megarians for the island of Salamis, they made a law condemning any one to death who should write or speak in favor of the renewal of hostilities. Solon was vexed at their failure, and knew that there were thousands of young men ready to fight if only somebody would lead them on. So he pretended to be insane, and his own family spread the news of his misfortune throughout the city. He then composed his verses urging his fellow-citizens to renew the war, and learned them by heart. Having done this, he proceeded to the market-place, mounted the herald's stand, and sang his composition to the crowd that gathered to hear him. Pisistratus, his kinsman, was in the secret, and went about urging people to obey Solon's directions; the result was that the law was repealed, and the war began again.
Solon himself took the command, and with five hundred Athenian volunteers, a number of fishing-boats, and one thirty-oared ship, anchored in the bay of Salamis. As soon as the Megarians heard of this they began to prepare for battle, but meanwhile sent out a ship to ascertain whether the report they had received was true. Solon captured the ship, secured the Megarians on board of it, and replaced them with his own men, who had orders to sail to the island as privately as possible. At the head of the rest of his soldiers Solon marched against the Megarians by land, and whilst they were fighting those from the ship took possession of the city. The battle was a furious one, and many were killed on both sides, but the Athenians claimed the victory, and dedicated a temple to Mars in honor of it.
This achievement made Solon famous throughout the land, and his glory was heightened still more by the part he took in the Sacred War in defence of the Delphic oracle against the people of Cirrha. Cirrha is a town on the Bay of Corinth. The inhabitants, coveting the riches contained in the Temple of Apollo, besieged the city of Delphi, where it stood, in order to get possession of them. Solon pronounced this an infamous deed, and persuaded the Amphictyons, who were the representatives of the various nations of Greece, to declare war against the Cirrhæans. They did so, and the army laid siege to Cirrha for a long time, but without success. At last, becoming greatly discouraged, they consulted the oracle. The answer was that they should not be able to reduce the place till the waves of the Cirrhæan Sea washed the territories of Delphi. As that seemed impossible, the soldiers were struck with surprise; but Solon helped them out of the dilemma by advising them to consecrate the whole territory of Cirrha to the Delphic Apollo, when the sea would be sure to wash the sacred soil. Thus was the problem solved, and victory was the result.
Now, there was a strong party in Athens opposed to the government and anxious to have their ancient system of laws restored. Cylon, a man of quality, and son-in-law of the tyrant of Megara, headed this party, being himself ambitious for power. Accordingly, he formed a conspiracy to seize the fortress on a certain day when many of the citizens had gone to the Olympic games. Megacles, who was chief magistrate, immediately called those Athenians who had remained at home to arms, and proceeded against the conspirators. Cylon managed to escape; but his men, finding themselves likely to be overcome, sought refuge in Minerva's Temple. Megacles dared not pursue them into the holy place; but he ordered them to come forth like men. At first they refused; but it suddenly struck them that if they fastened a string to the shrine of the goddess and kept hold of it, they would still be under divine protection. So they left the temple; but as Megacles and his men rushed upon them the string broke, and the butchery that followed was kept up to the very altar; for some of Cylon's men returned to the temple, and both sides were too excited to remember that they were on sacred soil.
The conspirators who were fortunate enough to escape won many over to their side and kept up a constant quarrelling with the Megacles faction. Thus two parties were formed, and the disturbances became so serious that Solon advised the magistrates who had polluted the Temple of Minerva to submit to a public trial, hoping thereby to appease the indignation of the populace and restore quiet.
The magistrates were accordingly tried, found guilty of sacrilege, and condemned to death. Still Athens was in a state of tumult, which the priests increased by announcing that the sacrifices gave proof of divine displeasure.
Solon knew that reforms were needed; but, not feeling powerful enough to produce them alone, he entreated his countrymen to call in the aid of Epimenides of Crete, another of the sages of Greece, who was supposed to have intercourse with the gods.
So Solon and Epimenides worked together, and the result was the establishment of a more sensible form of religious worship, as well as of funerals and mourning ceremonies. Various barbarous customs were abolished, and the Athenians were taught to purify themselves, their houses, and their roads. They were encouraged to build shrines and temples, and to live together in harmony by dealing honestly with one another.
The good effect of the Cretan sage's visit was felt by all, and when he returned home valuable presents were offered to him; but he would accept nothing but a branch of the sacred olive, which he took as a memento. Much work still remained for Solon to do, because no sooner were the troubles springing out of Cylon's conspiracy settled than new ones arose among the political parties.
The people of the mountains, those of the plains, and those of the sea-coast represented these parties, and each desired a separate form of government. The state was in a dangerous condition, because the poor suffered so severely at the hands of the rich. Bad times and disasters had tended to increase poverty and to render the aristocrats tyrannical. So deeply were the poor in debt to the rich that they were compelled to pay a sixth part of the produce of their land or to engage their persons for the debt. In the latter case their creditors had the power to make slaves of them or to sell them to foreigners. Some parents were even forced to sell their own children and fly from the country to escape the cruelty of their oppressors.
The time came when the bravest of these poor people resolved to bear imposition no longer. They declared themselves ready to stand by one another, to liberate their friends, and to alter the government. But first of all they needed a leader; they were eager for a change, and preferred to be ruled by one despot rather than be tyrannized over by a great number of lords.
After a great deal of discussion, Solon was unanimously chosen by both parties as mediator. The rich favored him because he was nobly born and wealthy; the poor, because he was honest. Under the title of Archon, he was invested with full authority to frame a new set of laws. He did not abuse his power, nor did he go to extremes; he merely made such alterations as were just and expedient, and afterwards, when he was asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he replied, "The best they were capable of receiving."
First of all Solon relieved the poor by diminishing the rate of interest; next he raised the value of their money so that they might with greater ease pay off their debts; then he abolished the law which enabled a creditor to enslave his debtor, and recalled those unfortunate creatures who had been sold into slavery merely because they were not rich. Everybody was dissatisfied,—the wealthy because they had not been specially favored, and the poor because the land had not been divided as they had hoped it would be, and all men placed on an equality, as the Lacedæmonians had been under the laws of Lycurgus.
However, as time rolled on, the good results of Solon's laws began to be felt, and grumbling gradually ceased. Indeed, such a change took place in the feelings of the people towards the sage that they chose him to govern their magistracies, their assemblies, their courts, and their councils.
Draco had made statutes for the Athenians, but they were so severe that Solon found it necessary to repeal a great many of them, and that was the next task to which he devoted himself. According to Draco, a man convicted of idleness was to be punished with death, and one who stole a cabbage or an apple was made to suffer as severely as a villain who had committed the most heinous crime. It was said, long after, that Draco's laws were written not with ink but with blood. When he was asked why he made death the punishment for most offences, he said, "Small ones deserve death, and I have no worse punishment for greater crimes."
Solon did not agree with him, however, and preferred milder measures. He also desired to give all the people a share in the government, and this is how he managed it: Those who were worth five hundred measures of fruit he placed in the first rank of magistrates; those who could afford to keep a horse or were worth three hundred measures of fruit constituted the second class; those who had two hundred measures, the third; and all others, though not admitted to office, could go to the assembly and act as jurors. At first this seemed a trifling matter, but it proved to be a great privilege, because almost every subject of dispute was brought before the jurors. Any man who considered himself injured might appeal to the courts, and this tended to make the citizens resent one another's abuses. When Solon was asked what city was best modelled, he answered, "That where those who are not injured are no less ready to punish the unjust than those who are."
He next re-established the court of Areopagus, which had lost much of its power under Draco. This council had always consisted of men noted for wealth, power, and honesty, but Solon made it a more imposing body by stipulating that it should consist only of those who had borne the office of Archon, and he himself became a member. The Archons stood so high in the public estimation that their decrees were never questioned, so it is easy to understand how powerful the Areopagus must have been. But, besides, there was a council of four hundred, selected from four different Greek tribes, whose duty it was to consider all matters previous to their being placed before the people, and to take care that nothing but what had been first examined should be brought up in the general assembly. Thus one council acted as a check upon the other, and neither could have absolute power. One of the most remarkable of Solon's laws was that which pronounced a man unfit for the privileges of citizenship if he failed to take a decided stand when disputes arose. For the law-giver would not permit any one to be so absorbed in his own personal affairs as to lose sight of the public good or fail to fight in defence of justice.
With regard to marriages, the new laws required that an heiress who chanced to lose her husband should marry one of his relations, so that the money might remain within the family. No bride was permitted to have a dowry, and her trousseau was allowed to consist of three suits of clothes only. She brought to her husband's home, besides, a few inexpensive household utensils, merely to signify that she would do her part towards providing for the family. Solon desired marriages to be contracted out of pure love, and not for the sake of gain; hence the laws that governed them.
It was forbidden to speak ill of the dead, for, as they could no longer defend themselves, it was not considered just to do so, nor was it wise to encourage the unkind feelings of others towards those that were no more. One dared not speak evil of the living, either, in public, without paying a fine; for Solon pronounced it ill bred and a proof of great weakness not to be able to bridle one's tongue and temper.
The laws regarding the making of wills were regulated, as well as those that appertained to journeys, feasts, and funerals. When we consider the reforms instituted for mourning ceremonies, we shall see how necessary they had become, for the women were forbidden to tear themselves, as they had previously done, for the purpose of exciting pity. Mourners could no longer be hired to weep and wail at the funeral of a person for whom they cared nothing. Only three garments might be buried with the corpse, and the sacrifice of an ox at the funeral was prohibited.
Women were required to dress modestly, to behave in a quiet, decent manner, and to go out at night only in a chariot, before which a torch was to be carried to show that they were entitled to respect.
As Attica was rather a barren country, a husbandman's labors scarcely rewarded him; therefore Solon turned the attention of the citizens towards manufactures, and no son was called upon to support his father unless he had taught him some sort of trade. Laziness was regarded as a crime and considered the mother of mischief. So the council of the Areopagus inquired into every man's means of support, and severely chastised the idle.
Solon's laws controlled even matters that at first sight appear trifling, such as the digging of wells, the planting of trees, the money value of sacrifices, and the raising of bees; but they were important, for they influenced the welfare and comfort of the citizens, and were not made without a great deal of knowledge and forethought. They were written upon wooden tables, which could be turned around in the oblong cases that contained them, and the whole council bound themselves by oath to observe them. Each man swore that if he should be guilty of breaking one of them he would place a golden statue of the same weight as himself at Delphi. This would have been no trifling penalty, for gold was very scarce in Greece.
It must not be supposed that all these new laws were put into practice without considerable annoyance to the founder of them, for such was not the case. Solon was daily interviewed by visitors, who sought him to condemn or to criticise certain points that happened to affect their interest. Many praised the laws, it is true, but so much explanation was called for, that Solon found himself likely to incur the ill will of a great number of people whom he could not possibly satisfy. He therefore resolved to seek relief in flight. So, making an excuse for a journey, he bought a trading vessel, and obtained leave of absence for ten years, hoping that by the expiration of that period his code of laws would be firmly established.
He went first to Egypt, and then to Lydia, where he was received by Crœsus, the king, by whom he had been invited. The magnificence Solon beheld at this wealthy court surprised him; but he did not betray this to Crœsus, who made the most gorgeous display in honor of his visitor, nor did he compliment and flatter the grand monarch. He seemed rather to despise such gaudy display, and when asked by Crœsus, "Have you ever known a happier man than I?" he answered, boldly, "Yes, Tellus, a fellow-citizen of mine, who died on the battlefield, bravely fighting for his country, and left behind him a family of good children."
Crœsus was much vexed at this reply, and considered his visitor a very ill-bred fellow; however, he ventured another question:
Besides Tellus, do you know another man as happy as I?"
"Yes," again returned Solon, "Cleobus and Biton, two loving brothers and most dutiful sons, who, when the oxen were late, harnessed themselves to the wagon and drew their mother to the temple of Juno, amid the blessings of all the people who beheld the act. Then, after sacrificing and feasting, they went to rest and never rose again, but died in the night, without sorrow or pain, in the midst of their glory."
"What!" cried Crœsus, angrily, "and do you not then rank me among the number of happy men at all?" Not wishing to excite his anger further, Solon replied, "The gods, O king, have given the Greeks a moderate proportion of everything, even of wisdom, and we have no taste for the splendors of royalty. Moreover, the future carries in its bosom various and uncertain events for every man. The good fortune of to-day may change; therefore he who is blessed with success to the last is in our estimation the happy man. He who still lives and has the dangers of life before him appears to us no better than the champion before the combat is decided." Then Solon departed, leaving the king displeased, but no wiser than before.
Æsop, who wrote the famous fables, happened to be on a visit to the court of Crœsus when Solon was there, and felt very unhappy at the unkind feeling Crœsus showed towards that sage. He therefore ventured to give a little advice. "Solon," he said, "you should either not converse with kings at all, or make it a rule to say only what is agreeable to them." Whereupon Solon replied, "No; I should either not speak to kings at all, or say only that which ought to benefit them."
When Crœsus was defeated in his wars with Cyrus, his city taken, and himself made prisoner and bound upon a pile to be burned, he cried aloud in the presence of all the Persians, "Oh, Solon, Solon, Solon!" "What god or man is that upon whom he calls when on the eve of so great a calamity?" asked Cyrus. "He is one of the wise men of Greece," answered Crœsus, "for whom I sent, not for the purpose of learning anything, but that he might witness my glory and increase my reputation for wealth. But the loss of what I once possessed is a misfortune for which the pleasure it gave me did not compensate. My miserable end must have been foreseen by that great man, for he warned me not to rely on uncertainties, or to call myself happy until the day of my death." Cyrus, who was a much wiser man than Crœsus, was so impressed by what he heard that he at once set his prisoner at liberty and honored him with his protection as long as he lived. Thus Solon was instrumental in saving the life of one king while teaching a useful lesson to another.
When Solon's leave of absence expired, he returned to Athens. He found his laws still observed, but the citizens were clamoring for a change of government, because there had been quarrelling among the leaders of the Plain, the Seaside, and the Hill parties. Now Solon was an old man, and could no longer take so active a part in public affairs as he had done. However, he was distressed at the disturbances, and did all in his power to reason with the leaders privately. Pisistratus, who headed the Hill party, seemed the most tractable and moderate of men to an ordinary observer, but Solon was a good judge of human nature, and it did not take him long to find out that Pisistratus only pretended to yield to argument, though he was really obstinate in his desire for absolute power. He had gained the good will of the multitude by his smooth, persuasive language, adroitly concealing the ambition which prompted all his actions and speeches.
At this time Thespis began to act tragedies, which became so popular that the people flocked in crowds to witness them. Solon was leading a life of comparative leisure, but, with his innate desire to learn anything new that presented itself, he too went to see the play. After it was over he asked Thespis whether he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people. Thespis answered that since it was all in jest there could be no harm in it. "Ay," said Solon, striking on the ground with his staff, "that is all very well, but if we encourage such jesting we shall soon find it entering into our contracts."
Not long after, Pisistratus appeared at the market-place in a chariot, with a wound on his body that he had inflicted with his own hand. His object was to inflame the minds of the populace against his enemies, who, he declared, had attacked and wounded him on account of political differences. Great indignation was expressed on all sides, but Solon was not deceived. He approached Pisistratus and said, "Son of Hippocrates, you act Homer's Ulysses but indifferently, for he wounded himself to deceive his enemies, but you have done it to impose upon your countrymen."
In spite of this, the rabble were ready to fight for Pisistratus, who was immediately supplied with a guard consisting of fifty clubmen. Solon was very much opposed to this, but, finding that he could not alter the determination of the citizens, he retired, declaring that he was wiser than those who did not see through the design of Pisistratus, and stronger than those who did understand it, but were afraid to oppose the tyranny. Solon was right; for, not satisfied with fifty clubmen, Pisistratus increased the number until he could control a powerful body, and then took possession of the Acropolis. Great consternation was the result, and Megacles, who headed the Seaside party, fled with his whole family.
Then Solon appeared once more in the market-place, and pointed out to the populace how misfortune had overtaken them because they had not acted with proper decision and spirit. They listened attentively, for they knew that he was right. After making a lengthy speech, he concluded by urging them to stand up like men for their liberty, and not tamely submit to a tyrant. Still they were afraid to act, and Solon was too aged a man to take the lead; he therefore returned to his own home, and placing his weapons at the street-door, wrote over them, "I have done all in my power to defend my country and its laws."
His friends begged him to leave Athens, but he refused to do so, and wrote poems in which he thus reproached his countrymen:
"If now you suffer, do not blame the Powers.
For they are good, and all the fault was ours.
All the strongholds you put into his hands,
And now his slaves must do as he commands."
People assured Solon that the tyrant would certainly put him to death for daring to express himself so plainly, and asked him to what he trusted for protection. "To my old age," he replied.
Instead of condemning Solon, however, Pisistratus had no sooner established himself firmly in power than he sent for the law-giver, treated him with the greatest consideration and respect, and asked him to become his adviser. Not only did Pisistratus do this, but all his actions were guided by the laws which Solon had made, and he obliged his friends to observe them also.
It is said that Solon lived only a couple of years after Pisistratus usurped the government, and that when he died his ashes were strewn over the island of Salamis, as he had ordered; but neither of these statements is to be received as positive fact, though some very reliable authors vouch for the latter one.