Famous Men of Greece - John Haaren

Draco and Solon


One of the first Athenians whose doings belong to history is Draco who lived about 600 years before Christ.

At that time the working people of Athens were very unhappy. One reason of this was that the laws were not written and the judges were very unfair. They almost always decided in favor of their rich friends. At last everybody in Athens agreed that the laws ought to be written out and Draco was asked to write them.

Some old laws were so severe that often people had been put to death for very slight offences. Draco changed these severe laws and made new ones a great deal more merciful, and this made the people very fond of him. A story is told about his death which shows that other people besides the Athenians thought a great deal of him. He went to a theater on an island not far from Athens, and when the audience in the theater saw him they threw to him their cloaks and caps to do him honor. Unfortunately, such a pile of cloaks fell on him that he was smothered to death.

Even after the laws had been written the people were not happy, because Draco had not changed some laws that bore very hard upon the poor. These were the laws about debts. If a man borrowed money and could not pay it back at the right time, the man who lent the money might take the borrower's house and farm and might even sell him and his wife and children as slaves. On most of the farms near Athens stone pillars were set up, each of which told that the land on which it stood was mortgaged, or pledged, for a debt. Many of the farmers and their families had been sold as slaves. In time it came to be said that Draco's laws were written in blood.


Happily, a very wise and good man called Solon was then living in Athens, and the Athenians asked him to make a new set of laws.



Rich and poor were surprised when they read Solon's new laws. The poor who had lost their farms and houses were to have everything given back to them. Solon thought they had paid so much interest for so many years that their debts should be forgiven. All who had been sold as slaves were to have their freedom and no one was ever again to be sold for debt. Those debtors who had not lost everything were to be forgiven about a quarter of what they owed.

All this Solon called a "shaking-off of burdens," and thousands of people felt that heavy burdens had indeed been taken from their shoulders.

Solon did another good thing for the people. He gave every citizen a vote and all could attend the Assembly of the people, which was like a New England town-meeting.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


There was a Senate of Four Hundred, which proposed laws, but the people themselves met and passed them. So the people of Athens really made their own laws.

Besides this, the Assembly chose every year nine archons as the rulers of Athens were called. The chief archon was like the mayor of one of our cities and the others like the aldermen. Under Solon's new laws Athens soon came to stand in Greece for government by all the people, just as Sparta stood for government by the few.


When Solon saw that his laws were making the Athenians contented and prosperous, he made them promise not to change them for ten years. He then went on a long journey.

One of the countries which he visited was Lydia in Asia Minor. Croesus richest man in the world. He was so famed for his wealth that even now you often hear people say that a man is "as rich as Croesus."

Croesus was very proud of being so rich and wished Solon to flatter him. So he asked Solon, "Who is the happiest man you have ever known?" He expected the Athenian of course to say, "Yourself, your Majesty."

Solon however replied, "An Athenian peasant who never suffered want, who had a good wife and children, and who died on the battlefield for his country."

"Who is the next happiest?" asked Croesus.

"The two next happiest persons whom I have known," said Solon, "were the sons of a certain priestess of Juno. It was her duty to offer a sacrifice in the temple. When the time came for her to go the oxen to draw the cart could not be found. So her sons yoked themselves to the ox-cart and drew her all the way to the temple. She was so much pleased at them that she prayed to Juno to grant her sons the greatest blessing that they could have. The mother's prayer was answered, for the sons lay down to sleep in the temple and never waked. They had done their parts well in the world and they left it without pain or sorrow, beloved and admired by all who knew them."

"But," cried Croesus, "do you not think a rich and powerful king like me is happy?"

"Ah, Croesus," said Solon, "I call no man happy until he is dead. You are rich; you are king of thousands of people; you live a life of luxury; but none of these things proves you happy. When I hear whether or not your life has ended nobly, then I shall know whether or not you were really happy."

Years afterward when Croesus had lost his kingdom and his wealth, he saw how wise this speech of Solon was.

After ten years of travel Solon returned to Athens where he lived in honor until his death.