Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens, was a descendant of King Codrus. His father had given away most of his wealth to help his city or his countrymen, so Solon became a merchant, as the sons of noblemen often did in these days of long ago. To increase his business, Solon journeyed through many of the states of Greece as well as to Asia. Wherever he went he studied the laws and manners of the people, just as Lycurgus the lawgiver of Sparta had done.
Solon was not only a merchant, he was also a poet, and because he was both wise and learned he was counted one of the seven sages of Greece.
When Solon returned from one of his journeys about 593 b.c. , he was made an archon and asked to reform the laws.
His first act was a great and unexpected one, for he proclaimed that henceforth no one might be made a slave because he was unable to pay his debts. And more than that, he said that those who were already slaves were at once to be set free.
Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens
Hundreds of men were thus delivered from slavery, many hundreds more were freed from the fear of becoming slaves. As these men ploughed their own lands and reaped their own harvests they were full of gratitude to Solon. For this law alone the name of Solon might well be held in reverence.
So great was the joy of the people that the day the law was passed was kept each year as a festival. But the rich nobles were not pleased with Solon's act, for they lost many of their slaves and found it less easy to add to their wealth.
The lawgiver also declared that if there was war or strife in the State, each citizen must take one side or the other. No one was to be allowed to look on idly, or side now with one party, now with another.
Solon restored to the assembly of the people the rights that had been wrested from it, and he did all he could to add to its powers.
In these ways Solon made Greece less and less of an Oligarchy and more and more of a Democracy. That is to say, Greece began to be governed by the many rather than by the few.
The laws made by Solon, and there were many of which I have not told, were written on tables of wood and placed in frames that revolved. These were called axones and were numbered.
When the laws had been written on the tables of wood they were placed in the public hall that they might be read by all. Other copies were made on stone pillars and kept in the portico of the king. Each citizen took an oath that he would keep these laws, which were to remain unaltered for a hundred years.
Solon had enemies, as reformers in all ages have had. Some people complained because his laws were not bold enough, others because they were too bold.
Once when he was asked if he believed that he had given to the Athenians the best possible laws, he answered, "The best they could receive."
The complaints of his enemies did not greatly disturb him. He declared that neither friend nor foe influenced him as he worked. "I threw my stout shield over both parties," he said, and steadfastly refused to alter his code.
When he ceased to be archon he left Athens and spent ten years seeing many strange people and many new places. It is said that during his absence he met Croesus, King of Lydia, the richest man in the world. As Solon and Croesus did not live at the same time, it is not possible that the wise lawgiver and the rich king could have met, but this is the story that is told.
When Solon reached Lydia, he went to the court of Croesus. The nobles were clad in such rich garments and were attended by so many guards and pages that the Athenian thought that one of them must be the king himself. But when he actually stood in the presence of the monarch he must have smiled at his mistake, so gorgeously was the king arrayed in gold and purple, so plentifully was he bedecked with sparkling jewels.
Croesus thought that Solon would be filled with awe at the sight of his grandeur, but he soon found that purple cloth and rare stones had no great interest for the Athenian.
There were still his treasure-houses! These could not fail to impress the stranger. So the king led Solon through gallery after gallery that he might see his pictures, his statues, and all the wonderful things that his wealth had brought to him. Then in a glow of pride he turned to his guest, asking if he did not think that Croesus was the happiest man in the world.
"Nay, O king," answered Solon, "Tellus, one of my own countrymen, was happier than thou, for he died bravely on the battlefield in defence of his country."
Croesus thought Solon was foolish not to count that man happiest who owned the most gold. But he only said, "After Tellus, dost thou count me the happiest man in the world?"
"Nay," again answered the wise man, "but two sons who loved their mother well, and served her with their strength."
Then the king was angry and he said, "Dost thou not count me a happy man?"
"Call no man happy until he dies," replied the wise man, "for who knows what pains the gods may yet have in store for him while he lives."
Croesus was yet to learn the truth of what Solon said. For in days to come Cyrus, King of Persia, seized his city, took him prisoner, and condemned him to be burned to death.
As he was being bound to the pyre, Croesus remembered the words of the Athenian, and he cried aloud three times, "O Solon, Solon, Solon."
The King of Persia had never heard of Solon, and he asked on what strange god his prisoner was calling.
"On no god," answered the miserable man, "but on one whom I would that all tyrants might meet and converse with." He then told Cyrus how Solon had said no one need count himself happy while he lived, as he could not know what misfortunes the gods had yet in store for him.
Already the pyre had been set alight, but Cyrus, struck by the words he had heard and thinking that he did not know what fate might yet befall himself, ordered Croesus to be set free.
But the flames had blazed up fiercely, and no one could quench the fire. Then Croesus besought Apollo to help him, and lo! the sky which had been clear grew dark, and a heavy downfall of rain soon extinguished the flames.
"Thus," says Plutarch, who tells this story, "Solon had the glory by the same saying to save one king and instruct another."