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Mary Macgregor

Cylon Fails To Make Himself Tyrant

The people of Attica were divided into three classes. There were the men of the Plain, who owned land and were wealthy; the men of the Shore, who were fisher-folk and traders; the men of the Hill or Uplanders, who were shepherds and herdsmen.

These three parties, the Plain, the Shore, the Hill, as they were often called, were dissatisfied with the way in which they were treated by the nobles. For, little by little, they were taking possession of the land and making free men slaves.

When the harvest failed, or when trade was bad, the poor were forced to borrow from the rich. And if a poor man could not pay his debt when it became due, his land and his goods were seized by the rich man. Nor was that the worst, for if the land and goods were not enough to cover the debt, then the poor man himself was taken to be used or sold as a slave.

So great was the discontent of the people, that in 632 b.c. a noble named Cylon determined to put himself at their head, overthrow those who were in power, and make himself tyrant. But Cylon did not trouble to gain the goodwill of the people. He succeeded in seizing the Acropolis, but it was by the aid of soldiers whom he had hired from the neighbouring city of Megara, not by the help of the people of Athens. The Athenians were indignant when they saw Megarian soldiers in their capital, and they looked on coldly and struck no blow for Cylon when the archons besieged the rebel noble in the citadel.

Cylon did not stay to see his plans destroyed; he escaped from the city by night, but his followers held the Acropolis until famine stared them in the face. Then they gathered for sanctuary around the altar of Athene and threw open the gates of the citadel.

Megacles, the chief archon, promised that the lives of the defenders should be spared, but no sooner had they left the altar than he ordered that they should be put to death.

The Athenians punished Megacles for this treacherous deed, for he and the family to which he belonged were banished from Athens, while their property was seized by the State. It is told that the city lay under a curse after the treacherous deed of Megacles, nor was she freed from it until a priest purified her with solemn religious rites.

Cylon had neither gained his own ends nor had he helped the people by his rebellion.

Poverty and debt were hard to bear, yet these the citizens might now have suffered in silence, but injustice drove them to demand that the laws should be reformed. For the archons punished as they pleased those who disobeyed the law, and at courts, sentence was often passed in favour of those who had bribed or befriended the judge.

When the people rose in 621 b.c. demanding that justice should be done in the land, the task of reforming the laws was entrusted to one of the archons named Draco.

Until now the laws had not been written, and so many of them were unknown to the people. Draco ordered that the laws should be inscribed on tablets that they might be read by the people. Sometimes he was blamed for the severity of these laws, although all he had done was to make them known.

But the code of laws which Draco drew up was so severe that in later days, as the Athenians read them, they exclaimed in horror, "The laws of Draco seem to have been written in blood rather than with ink." And indeed there was cause for dismay when the theft of a cabbage was punished with death. Draco was thus of little real help to the poor people of Athens.