Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

Two Great Lawgivers

Life in Greece grew busy and earnest. Changes of every kind took place. The people were not satisfied to be governed by a few men; they themselves wished to share in the government. There were no written laws, but everything was done according to old custom.

About six hundred years before Christ, Draco, the greatest man of the nobility, was chosen to write down a system of laws by which all people were to be ruled. In those laws nearly every crime was punished with death. There was no difference between the punishment of a man who stole a loaf of bread and that of a murderer. It was a common saying that Draco wrote his laws, not in ink, but in blood. The people were not satisfied with these laws, and a greater and wiser lawgiver was found.

This was Solon, who belonged to a rich family in Athens. He received all the education of the time at the gymnasium and in the schools. His one great desire was to learn; and after leaving school he traveled as a merchant on his own ship, that he might see the world and find out all he could about its people. He loved his country, and all his studies were intended to help him give to his native land more freedom and greater power.

Some years before Solon's time the island of Salamis had rebelled against Athens and put itself under the protection of Megara. Several times the Athenians had sent ships and men to conquer the island, but they had always been defeated. The people were so ashamed of this that they passed a law that any man who proposed an expedition against Salamis should be put to death.

Solon was angry. He was a poet, and he wrote a poem of a hundred lines upon the loss of the island. To escape death he pretended to be crazy and rushed into the market place with wild looks and disordered garments. A crowd gathered around him, and he began to recite his poem. His voice, his looks, his manner, and his words aroused the Athenians to fury. These were the closing lines of the poem:—

"Up! and to Salamis on! Let us fight for the beautiful island,

Angrily down to the dust casting the yoke of our shame."

When he had finished the men of Athens rushed from the Market place, crowded on board the ships, sailed to Salamis, and conquered it again for Athens.

Solon was then the popular hero and favorite. His word was law. To bring the people into closer friendship he ordered a change in worship. Until then Apollo been the god of the nobility, and they alone had the right to worship him. Solon consecrated to him the city and the state. Every house was made sacred to that god, and a statue of him was set up in every street. New prayers and hymns were written to be used in the religious services. Fires were lighted upon the altars, and the citizens, putting laurel wreaths upon their heads, marched in procession to the temples. They said to one another, "We are all brothers; let us live like brothers in friendship and love."

Solon might now have made himself the only ruler of Attica and Athens, but that was not his wish. He drew up a system of laws which he thought would help the state to be happy, peaceful, and successful.

Times had been hard in Athens. Many people had fallen into debt, and some had become so poor that they had been sold as slaves. Solon made a law that no citizen should own another, and that no one should be sold into slavery because he was poor. Thus thousands were set free, and thousands more were saved from misery.

He lowered the rate of interest and altered the value of the currency, so that if a man owed a hundred dollars he could pay his debt with seventy-three dollars. The state was to forgive all who owed it money and to free them from the burden of such debts.

He set aside all the laws of Draco, except those which punished murder. He divided the citizens into four classes, according to the land they owned. Only the first class, who were richest in land, could hold high office in the state or in the army. The second and third classes might have some of the lower offices, and their taxes were made very light. In war, men of the second class must serve as cavalry, of the third class as heavy-armed foot soldiers. Men of the fourth class could not hold office, but they paid no taxes. They had a right to vote at the public meetings where officers were elected and new laws were passed. In war they were sailors, or light-armed foot soldiers. In that way every freeman helped to govern and to defend the state.

Solon also changed the laws of the family. No man had a right to sell his child, or to drive him away from home while under age. If the father would not educate the child, he was not allowed to receive any help from him when his son had grown to be a man.

He did not permit any Athenian to make or sell ointment, for he said that such a business was unmanly. Very expensive dress was forbidden, and only a certain sum of money could be spent for a wedding or a funeral, or for a monument over the dead. Wild crying for those who died came into fashion, but Solon said it was useless and foolish and could no longer be allowed.

All these laws were put into writing and placed on pillars upon the citadel, or highest point of the city, that everybody might read them. These pillars were of wood, as tall as a man, and shaped like a pyramid.

Then Solon ordered a general peace. Those who had been banished from the city were invited to return; no man was to be called a rebel or a traitor; the past was to be forgotten; kindness and helpfulness were to be the rule of life.

When his year of office was over, Solon went away for ten years and traveled into Egypt and Asia. Kings and princes were glad to see him and talk with him, for all said that he was the greatest lawmaker in the world.