Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

"I Will Be Greatest"

A young man said, "I will rule Athens and be the greatest man within her walls." This youth was named Pisistratus.

His mother was first cousin to Solon's mother. He and Solon were friends, and when the lawgiver led the attack on Salamis, this young man fought by his side. His father left him plenty of money, a fine house, large and beautiful gardens. He had a handsome face, a noble form, a rich voice, and a powerful mind. Knowing that he had these gifts, he was determined to be the ruler and leader of his native city.

There were three parties in Athens, each trying to gain and hold the governing power. The rich landowners called themselves "the Plain." The "Coast" party were men who were rich, but not noble. The other party, who called themselves "the Highlands," were in favor of freedom and equality. To this party most of the poor belonged. Pisistratus joined them, for he thought they had most votes. To please the people he opened his gardens to everybody.

He said, "Why should I keep for myself all these shady walks, these marble statues, these cool and sparkling fountains? If they are mine, that only gives me the right to say that the people of Athens shall enjoy them. The gates shall not be closed. The lanes, the paths, the seats, are free to the public."

When he walked out he had with him two or three young men, whom he called his purse-bearers. They gave money to every poor man they met.

He was a brave soldier and a good speaker, and the people liked him for this and for his generosity. He became the leading citizen of Athens. Many men who were opposed to him were banished.

One day he went into the market-place, wounded and bleeding. He declared that his enemies had attacked him while riding in the country. Solon said that the wounds were very slight, and that Pisistratus had cut and stabbed himself.

But the people cried out, "Let the friend of the people have a bodyguard. Let him have fifty men with clubs to go with him everywhere."

This was ordered, but Pisistratus raised a much larger force, took the citadel, and was master of Athens.

A number of citizens left the city. Solon took his helmet, spear, and sword, and laid them down in the street before the door of his house. "I can do no more," he said to the people. "You would not listen to me. There are my arms, no longer of any use."

Pisistratus made no change in the laws and governed well, but his enemies finally drove him out, and he was gone six years. Then one of the leaders went to him and said, "Marry my daughter, and I will take you back to Athens and to power." He agreed, and this was their plan. They found a very tall and beautiful country girl, a garland seller, whom they dressed in armor like Athene. She entered a chariot with Pisistratus and drove toward Athens. Heralds went before, shouting, "Ye men of Athens, the great goddess Athene is coming, and with her is your beloved leader and true friend." The people believed this, and Pisistratus became again the ruler.

He did not treat his wife well, and her father, with others, drove him out again.

For ten years he tried to get back. The Greek cities gave him money, Thebes giving most of all. At last he landed with an army at Marathon. Friends hurried to him; his enemies marched out to meet him. The two camps were near together. The Athenians ate their dinner; then some of the soldiers went to sleep, while others played ball. Pisistratus led his troops against them and they ran like frightened sheep.

He did not follow, but sent his sons on horseback to say, "Have no fear, go quietly home, and you shall not be disturbed." They obeyed, and Pisistratus entered Athens, never to leave it while he lived.

His enemies, of course, were driven away. But he obeyed the laws, and made everybody else obey. He sent poor people out of the city to work on farms, and gave oxen and seed to those who had none. Other poor men he employed in erecting temples and public buildings.

He laid out a public garden called the Lyceum, built a splendid fountain over the "Nine Springs," founded a free public library, and gave pensions to men hurt in the wars.

He ordered the religious festivals to be well observed, brought Thespis and his actors from the country into the city, and gathered into one book the songs and poems of Homer. Peace, beauty, order, and gladness filled the city during the rest of his long life. He had kept his word that he would be the greatest man in Athens. When he died his son Hippias took his place.