Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Early Days of Athens: They Laws of Solon

Sparta was the chief state of the Peloponnesus, and even north of the Peloponnesus she began to be looked upon as the leading state of Greece. Her great rival was Attica. Attica was a peninsula about eighty miles long, bounded by mountains on the north and west. There were a few rivers, but even the largest had a way of running dry in warm weather. The soil was scanty and barren. A Greek could make a good meal of a piece of bread, a cup of wine, and a handful of olives; but even these could not be obtained in Attica nearly so easily as in the neighboring state, Bœotia, for to produce them, the ground had to be cultivated with great care. There was one advantage, however, that made up for these disadvantages, and that was the fine climate. Attica was warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than Bœotia. The air was so pure that distant objects could be seen far more distinctly than elsewhere. The heavens were so bright and clear that it was a pleasure to gaze up into them; and even if the mountains were somewhat barren, the sunset skies were so glowing that the delicate outlines of the peaks traced upon them were wonderfully beautiful. The people were Ionians. They said proudly, "No foreign conquerors have ever overcome us. We are sprung from the soil itself." This is why the Athenian women liked to wear ornaments in the form of a cicada,—because it was believed that the cicada was born of the earth.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Not much was known of Attica in the earliest times; but there were no Greek slaves in the state, the belief was probably true that it had never been conquered by foreigners, but had been formed by a union of people of the same race. The Greeks believed that this union had been brought about by the hero Theseus, who was once their king; and there were stories without number of his exploits. He was declared not only to have killed the Minotaur, but to have gone on a warlike expedition with Heracles, and to have sailed in the Argo in quest of the Golden Fleece. It is said that as a young man he dressed so foppishly, with his elegant robes, his jewels, and his perfumes, that one day as he was passing some workmen they first stared, then laughed and said, "That young girl is old enough to be married; how happens it that she is running about the streets alone?" Theseus heard this speech, and to show that he was something more than a dandy, he stopped a cart that was going by, unyoked the oxen, and tossed them over a temple.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


When he came to be king, the stories say that he invited not only people dwelling in Attica, but even strangers, to make homes for themselves in Athens. The city was then only a cluster of little houses on a great mass of rock with a wide, flat top; but it was a very safe place, for it would not be easy for enemies to make their way up the rock and into the city. Theseus was not greedy of power, for when the inhabitants of the other parts of Attica hesitated to agree to be ruled by a court in Athens, he said to them, "If you will do this, I will give up my rights. You shall be king as much as I, save that I shall watch over the laws, and if there is a war, I shall command the army." It is no wonder that they yielded to so generous a prince. Theseus set up a pillar to show just where the limits of Attica began. Then he established splendid festivals in honor of the union of the Attic villages.

The next great king, according to the legends, was Codrus. He had reigned peacefully for some time when trouble came upon him. The Spartans and some other Dorians united to attack Athens, and encamped before the walls of the city. They were in the best of spirits, for the oracle had said, "If you spare the life of Codrus, you will be sure of victory." Of course they would spare the life of Codrus,—that was a small price to pay for victory,—and soon Athens would be theirs. If they had known what sort of man King Codrus was, they would not have been quite so jubilant. A friend of his who lived at Delphi told him what the oracle had said; and in a moment the brave king had made up his mind what to do. He dressed himself like a wood-chopper, slipped out of the city gates, and went where he was sure to meet some of the Dorians. Soon he came upon two of them. He struck one with his axe and killed him. Then the other one killed Codrus. By this time the Athenians had learned that their king had died for them, and they sent a messenger to beg for his body. The Dorians were terrified when they learned what they had done. "It is of no use to attack Athens," they said, "for the gods will be against us"; and so they turned about and marched over the Isthmus of Corinth and back to the Peloponnesus, and Athens was saved. The Athenians were so grateful that they declared their city should never have another king, that the title should always remain sacred to the patriot Codrus.

There were later kings, nevertheless, but they had to share their authority with eight other men called archons, or rulers, until at last the king-archon did little more than offer up the state sacrifices to the gods. All the nine archons together had not nearly so much power as a famous council, called the Areopagus because it met on the Hill of Mars, or Ares, which made all the laws and tried men accused of crime.

This seems like a good plan for a government, but there was one thing that made it extremely unfair, namely, that all these archons and councilors were nobles, or Eupatrids, that is, men of high birth. They were generally wealthy, and they made laws which were convenient and comfortable for the rich, but which bore hard upon the poor. The government, then, was an oligarchy, or rule of the few; and an oligarchy is seldom fair to all the people. Some of the poorer men of Attica lived on the estates of the Eupatrids, and if they did not pay their rent, the owners of the estates had the right to sell them and their families as slaves. Even those who had little farms of their own were not much better off, for many of them had been obliged to borrow money of the nobles, which they had little hope of paying. Therefore, on many of the farms a pillar was set up on which was cut the amount that the farmer owed and the name of the man to whom the farm was mortgaged. Sometimes the poor farmers became so discouraged that they sold their children as slaves to try to pay even the interest on these harassing mortgages. The Eupatrids enjoyed themselves, but it is no wonder that the poorer people became more and more miserable. Some went away as colonists, and those who remained were greatly dissatisfied.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


At last even the comfortable Eupatrids saw that something must be done to quiet the troubles. One thing that the people found especially unjust was that the laws had never been published, and if a Eupatrid took away their property, they had no way of knowing whether he was acting lawfully or unlawfully. "If we publish the laws, they will be satisfied," thought the nobles; and they chose a Eupatrid named Draco to put together what they had generally agreed to call the laws, and revise them. Long after the time of Draco, the laws had become so much milder that people said his had been "written in blood," but they were really more reasonable than the unwritten laws that had been in force before his day. Moreover, his code gave far greater power to the people who were not nobles, "the Many," as the Eupatrids called them; for it declared that the magistrates need not be Eupatrids, but might be chosen from the members of the Ecclesia, or general assembly, who received a certain income from land. The code even allowed the Ecclesia to choose them. This was a great gain to "the Many," for every man who was able to provide himself with weapons for battle had a right to belong to the Ecclesia.

Draco also formed from the whole body of citizens a Council part of whose business it was to propose laws to the Ecclesia.



This code of Draco's was excellent in some ways; but he forgot one important fact, namely, that people who were poor and hungry and were in danger of being sold as slaves would not feel much more contented because some men a little better off than they had now the right to vote for a magistrate. One of the Eupatrids named Cylon thought this was a good time to try to make himself tyrant. He and his followers took possession of the great rock, the Acropolis, expecting that "the Many" would join them. This did not come to pass, and soon they were surrounded by the war-archon Megacles and the troops of the state. Cylon escaped, and his followers ran into the temple of Athene which stood on the Acropolis. Then Megacles was in a dilemma. It would be a crime against the goddess to attack even rebels when they had fled to her for protection; and it would pollute the temple if men were left to starve and die in it. At last he sent a message to the rebels: "If you will yield, I will spare your lives."

The rebels agreed, but they did not feel quite sure that the archon would keep his word; so when they left the temple they tied a cord to Athene's shrine, and came down from the Acropolis holding it fast. Probably they held it a little too fast, for suddenly it broke. "The goddess refuses to protect you," cried Megacles, and fell upon the defeated men. Some were cut into pieces and some stoned to death. Then it was the turn of the Athenians to be frightened. "Athene will surely punish our city," they wailed; and they demanded that Megacles should be banished. Some of the nobles agreed with them, but others were not willing to give up a fellow noble. At length, by the influence of a wise Eupatrid named Solon, Megacles was tried. The result was that he and his whole clan, the Alcmæonidæ, were banished.



Solon was by no means a stranger to his countrymen. It was because of him that the island of Salamis now belonged to Attica. Both Athens and the city of Megara had claimed it and when their dispute came to war, the Athenians were so badly beaten and so hopeless that they made a law saying, "Whoever proposes to renew the war against Megara shall be put to death." Solon felt that it was a disgrace to his country to give up Salamis, but he had no wish to be put to death. At length he made a plan to arouse his countrymen. He shut himself up in his own house and let the story go abroad that he was insane. In reality he was composing a stirring poem about Salamis. One day he suddenly ran into the market-place, where there was always a crowd ready to listen to anything new, and recited his poem. It began,

"Hear and attend: from Salamis I came

To show your error."

A madman could not be punished for breaking a law, and the Athenians were so aroused by this poem that they determined to renew the war. They seem to have decided that Solon was insane enough not to be punished, but quite sane enough to be a good general; so they put him in command of their forces. Salamis finally fell into the hands of the Athenians.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


For these reasons, both the Eupatrids and "the Many" felt a good deal of confidence in Solon, and gave him the right to do whatever he thought would improve matters. There was certainly need of some man of wisdom, for all Attica was in an uproar. Besides the troubles between the poor and the rich, there were also three parties who were always quarreling: the men of the plains, who lived on the most fertile land; the men of the coast, who lived near the sea and were fishers and traders; and the men of the mountains, or shepherds, who lived on the rugged hillsides where they pastured their flocks.

These people had different wishes; and no man, however wise he might be, could ever have pleased them all. Solon paid little attention to what any one class of people wanted, but did just what he thought would be best for the whole state. The most pressing trouble was that so many people were in debt. The farmers were rapidly losing their farms and becoming day-laborers, while the laborers were being sold as slaves. So many had been sold, that their absence was a great loss to the country. Solon's first decrees were that men might pay their debts in new coins only three fourths as heavy as the old ones, but counted as of the same value; that the debts of farmers who had borrowed of the state should be forgiven; that a man who had agreed to become the slave of another if he did not return borrowed money, should not be held to his bargain; that all who had already become slaves should be freed; and that those who had been sold into foreign lands should be brought back at the expense either of the state or of the man who had sold them.

At the first glance these laws seem rather unfair to the creditors; but as a general thing, when a rich man lent money to a poor man, he knew perfectly well that he could never be repaid; his object was to get the man himself, that is, to make free citizen into slaves, and no law ought to protect such dealings.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Solon himself was a Eupatrid, but he did not believe that the Eupatrids alone ought to make the laws. He divided the people into four classes according to their income from land. The rich held more offices, but they had to pay larger taxes. The members of the lowest class, those who were too poor to buy arms and armor for themselves, could not be elected to any office, but the paid no tax; and every man, rich or poor, belonged to the Ecclesia and had the right to vote. So it was that Solon lived up to his favorite saying, "Equality causes no war." With these new laws, every man had the opportunity to rise from one class to another, and finally to hold the highest office in the state. He might even become a member of the Areopagus, and in the eyes of an Athenian this was the noblest of civic honors. Most of the laws of Draco were abolished, and Solon made a new code. Finally, he pardoned the Alcmæonidæ and allowed them to return to Athens. He did not decree how children should be brought up, but he evidently meant that they should not be idle, for he declared that no man should be required to support his father in old age unless the father had taught him as a boy to support himself by some trade. Solon's whole thought was the good of the state. He did not, like Lycurgus, believe in despising money, but rather in using it so carefully and wisely that when it was needed there would be no lack. For this reason he made some laws limiting the amount that might be spent at funerals, where there had usually been much display, and also some about the dress of women; for instance, when a woman went on a journey, she might carry with her only three dresses. The laws were written on wooden tablets, and these were set up where every one could read them.

There were so many different parties in Athens that no one of them was perfectly satisfied. They came to Solon again and again. "What does this law mean?" they would ask, or "Why not change that law?" At length Solon decided that he would go away and leave the people and the laws together for a while. When he returned to Athens, however, he found that the citizens were no more contented than when he left them. The nobles had supposed that all would be peaceful after the debts were forgiven, and they felt as if their losses had gone for nothing. Many of the poor people were grievously disappointed, for they had expected that in some mysterious way their friend Solon would make them all rich. The nobles did not agree among themselves, and the three parties, the men of the plains, of the coast, and of the mountains, were still at odds.


Attica was not generally fertile, but had a fine climate.

The Athenians believed that Theseus had formed the state by uniting many Ionians.

Codrus gave his life for Athens.

Later, the state was ruled by the king and eight archons, subject to the Areopagus.

The government was an oligarchy, and the laws favored the rich. Draco revised them. His code allowed the Ecclesia to choose magistrates from among all citizens who owned a certain amount of land.

Cylon attempted to become tyrant, Megacles overcame him, but in so doing violated the shrine of Athene. For this crime he and the other Alcmæonidæ were banished.

There were not only troubles between the rich and the poor, but there were three parties, the men of the plains, of the coast, and the mountains.

Solon made laws to favor the poor. He divided the people into four classes, according to their property. He allowed the Alcmæonidæ to return. He obliged the people to be economical. No one was fully satisfied with these laws.

Suggestions For Written Work

What would one have seen in passing through Attica?

A poor man of Attica tells his troubles.

One of Cylon's followers describes the action of Megacles.