Salamis, an island lying about a mile from both Athens and Megara, was in the hands of the Megarians. Its position between the two States made it an important one. So the Athenians determined to proclaim war against the Megarians and try to win Salamis for themselves.
But the war dragged on so long that the Athenians grew weary, and although the Megarians still held the island they longed for the war to end. The poor soldiers wished to go home to plough their fields, the rich wished to escape from the hardships of the camp to their own comfortable homes.
So at length peace was made, and a law was passed by the Athenians forbidding any one either to say or to write, upon pain of death, that Athens ought still to try to win Salamis.
There were many citizens both indignant and ashamed that such a law had been passed, yet lest they should be put to death they did not dare to say what they thought.
Solon was away from Athens when this law was passed, and when he came back from his journey and found that peace had been made while Salamis was still in the hands of the Megarians, he was much displeased.
Some time had passed since peace had been made, and Solon knew that the Megarians were not now as strong as they had been when the Athenians gave up fighting. So he determined that he would rouse his countrymen to try again to capture the island. Yet what could he do? He would be put to death if he defied the law, which said that no one must say or write that Athens ought still to try to win Salamis.
At length he hit on a strange plan. He pretended that he was mad, and persuaded his own family to spread the report that this terrible fate had befallen him. He then wrote some verses, learned them by heart, and ran toward the market-place, a cap upon his head. In those days a cap was worn by a man if he were ill.
Solon soon attracted as much attention as he had hoped to do by his strange gestures and by the words he shouted.
As the people crowded round him he jumped on to the platform from which heralds were used to announce important tidings, and began to recite the verses he had written.
"I came myself as a herald from lovely Salamis, but with song on my lips instead of common speech," so began the poem. It then went on to blame those who wished no longer to fight, and bade them "Arise and come to Salamis to win that fair island and undo our shame."
As the people listened they forgot that they believed Solon was mad, and their hearts were stirred by his words.
From that day so strong became the desire of the people to blot out their disgrace and win Salamis, that the law which had so displeased Solon was repealed. No one had thought of punishing the man who had broken it.
The Athenian forces were again mustered; Solon himself being made commander of the troops. His cousin Pisistratus went with him to battle, and it was he who succeeded in taking the port of Salamis.
In those days Athens had no fleet. Solon sailed toward Salamis in a ship, but his army followed him in a number of fishing-boats.
When the Megarians caught sight of the Athenian ship, they sent one of their own vessels to find out the strength of the enemy's fleet.
Solon managed to capture this ship, and all on board were taken prisoners. The captured vessel was then manned with Athenians, and the men were ordered to sail slowly and quietly to the island.
Solon meanwhile reached the shore and, landing with his army, at once attacked the Megarians. While the fight still raged, the ship manned by Athenians sailed unnoticed to the port. The soldiers leaped to the ground, sped swiftly to the city, and took it almost before the citizens were aware of the presence of the enemy.
The island was soon in the hands of the triumphant Athenians, by whom it was held for many long years, until indeed Philip of Macedon conquered Greece.
To celebrate the victory in after years, an Athenian ship used to sail to the island just as the victorious one had done on the actual battle day. When it reached the shore, a soldier, armed as though for battle, jumped to the ground, and with a loud shout ran toward the city, where he was met and welcomed by his countrymen.
Close to the spot where Solon won this victory a temple was built and dedicated to the god of battle.