Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Solon, Who Made Laws For The Athenians

A certain young A-the'ni-an named So'lon expected to inherit a large fortune; but when his father died, it was found that he had been so generous to all in need as to leave little property to his son. There were wealthy friends who would have willingly supported Solon, but he preferred to support himself, and he became a merchant. In those times, a merchant not only sold goods, but he went from land to land to purchase them. In this business Solon made himself rich and also saw the customs and became familiar with the laws of many countries. People said that he was always eager to learn and that he liked to write poetry. He was a most devoted father. When one of his children died, he wept as if his heart would break. A friend who tried to comfort him pleaded with him not to weep, because it would do no good. "And that is just why I do weep," Solon replied.

At that time the Athenians were divided into parties, and the members of each party thought far more of having their own way than of acting for the good of the state. Athens became so weak that even the tiny kingdom of Meg'ar-a ventured to make war against her, and got possession of the island of Sal'a-mis, and, what was more, held on to it in spite of the efforts of the Athenians to win it back. At length they gave up all hope of ever regaining it. They even passed a decree that any one who should suggest making the attempt should be looked upon as an enemy to his country and should be put to death.

[Illustration] from Old World Hero Stories by E. M. Tappan


Now Salamis was Solon's birthplace, and he could not bear to have it in the hands of enemies. The way he set about regaining it, however, was to shut himself up in his house and send out a report that he had become insane. In reality, he was writing a poem; and when it was done, he sallied forth into the marketplace, always full of people, and mounted the stone from which proclamations were made. There he stood and recited the poem. It was a ringing appeal to his countrymen to recover the island. An insane man could not be put to death for breaking a law; and this poem so aroused the Athenians that they repealed the law, set out for war, put Solon in command, and regained the island.

In another way Solon was of great help to his countrymen. The Athenian, Cy'lon, and his friends had raised a revolt and had seized the temple of the goddess Mi-ner'va. The magistrates told them that if they would tie a cord to the shrine of the goddess and keep fast hold of it, they would still be under her protection and might come down from the temple and be sure of a fair trial. It chanced that the cord gave way; and at this the magistrates rushed upon them and killed them. Some of the Athenians believed that the many troubles of the state had come upon it because of this broken promise, and they were most grateful to Solon when he induced the magistrates to come to trial. The people of Megara took advantage of the difficulties of the Athenians and seized Salamis again. There is no knowing when the struggle over the island would have come to an end, had not both states finally agreed to leave the decision to five judges appointed by the Spartans. Then each side pleaded its right to Salamis. Solon was the chief speaker for the Athenians. He could reason and argue as well as fight; and he won the victory. Salamis was given to Athens.

Solon now became a maker of laws. No two parties wanted exactly the same thing. Taking the people as a whole, the only change desired by the rich was to be better protected in enjoying their wealth; while the poor thought that all wealth ought to be equally divided among the citizens, whether they had ever done anything to earn it or not. These different classes all had confidence in Solon; and he was chosen archon, or chief magistrate. The men who owned little farms were in the most pressing trouble. If a hard season had made it necessary for a farmer to borrow some money, he had to give so high a rate of interest that there was small hope of his debt ever being paid. In that case, his creditor had a legal right to sell him as a slave. Solon's first laws were made to help these farmers. He allowed them to pay their debts to individuals in coins only three fourths as heavy as the old ones, but counted as of the same value. He forgave all debts of farmers to the state. He decreed that no man should be made a slave because he failed to pay borrowed money; that whoever had seized a man as a slave should set him free, and if he had been sold into a foreign country, should bring him back.

Solon's next reform was in regard to the manner of making the laws. Thus far, they had been made by the nobles, that is, the men of high birth. Solon divided the people into four classes according to their income from land. The wealthiest class alone were to hold the highest offices; but they had to pay the most taxes. The lowest class could hold no office in the state, as they paid no taxes for its support; but every man could rise from one class to another, and every man, rich or poor, had the right to vote in the general assembly.

Solon did not forget to look out for the interests of the children. He forbade people to sell their children as slaves, a thing which had formerly been allowed; and he ordered that every father should teach his son a trade. If he neglected, to do this, the law did not oblige the son to care for him in his old age.

The laws to punish crime had been put in shape by Dra'co about a quarter of a century earlier. They were so severe that they were said to have been written in blood. Even the smallest theft was punished by death. Solon revised them and made them far more reasonable. Then he turned his attention to some of the ways in which money was wasted.

[Illustration] from Old World Hero Stories by E. M. Tappan


He decreed that less should be expended in display at funerals, that not more than three garments should be buried with the body, that there should be no sacrifice of an ox and no hired mourners. A woman going on a journey was permitted to carry only three dresses.

The laws of Solon were written on wooden tablets and set up in places where every one could read them. There is a tradition that he began to put them into verse, but gave up the attempt. Every one did read them; and promptly one and all began to find fault. The wealthy nobles had lost a great deal of money by the remitting of debts and the freeing of slaves; and they were indignant that so great a share in the government had also been taken from them. The poor people had supposed that in some mysterious way these changes would make them all rich; and they felt wronged and disappointed. Each little party had its special grievance, and everybody blamed Solon. Besides this, people were constantly appealing to him to know the meaning of one law or another; and at length he concluded that it would be best for him to go away for a while and let the Athenians manage matters for themselves. He made them promise that they would keep his laws for ten years, and then he left the country.

When he returned, he found affairs no better. The people were restless and dissatisfied, and a man named Pi-sis'tra-tus was gaining much influence over them. Pisistratus had a frank, pleasant manner, he was generous, and he had won victories in the Olympian chariot-races. He claimed to be a devoted friend to the poor, and made them feel that if he were only in power, he would do great things for them. One day. with his face smeared with blood, he rode into the market place and declared that his enemies had tried to kill him for being so devoted to the interests of the poor. Pisistratus was a relative of Solon, but the honest old patriot could not endure this, and he cried out, "Pisistratus, you have done this thing to impose upon your countrymen." Nevertheless, the people believed in Pisistratus and allowed him to have a guard of armed men. This guard grew larger and larger, and by and by this "friend of the people" captured the Acropolis, that is, the hill on which stood the finest temples and the strongest fortifications; and Pisistratus was now ruler of Athens. Solon could do nothing to prevent, and he put his weapons outside his door with these words: "I have done all in my power to defend my country and its laws."

[Illustration] from Old World Hero Stories by E. M. Tappan


After it was clear that Pisistratus would be able to remain in control, the friends of Solon were afraid of what he might do to the aged man to punish him for his opposition. Thy begged Solon to flee; but he refused. He stayed in his own house and made verses to the effect that whatever difficulties the Athenians might fall into, it was all their own fault.

Most men of that time, if in the place of Pisistratus, would have at least made Solon's life uncomfortable; but Pisistratus was too wise, and perhaps too good-natured. He always treated Solon with the greatest kindness and respect, asked his advice, and what was more, generally followed it. Solon believed that Pisistratus had no right to rule and that the Athenians would yet be sorry that they had allowed him to seize the government; but since he was in power and could not be put out, Solon thought that the best thing he could do for his state was to help make his rule as excellent as possible. This was the easier for Solon because Pisistratus really ruled extremely well. He gave cattle and seeds and tolls to the poor farmers; he reared handsome buildings; and, besides this, he invited all the people who knew the poems of Homer and He'si-od by heart to come together in Athens and compare them as they had been used to reciting them. Then he had copies carefully made of the version that was decided to be the best. That is how it came to pass that we have the poems of these two great poets in almost the same words in which they were composed.

Solon always loved Salamis, and when he came to die, he bade his friends carry his ashes across the water and scatter them over his beloved island.


The early life of Solon. — The capture of Salamis. — Cylon and the magistrates. — Salamis is regained. — Solon aids the farmers. — He reforms the manner of making laws. — The laws of Draco. — Edicts against extravagance. — The reception of Solon's laws. — The exile of Solon. — Pisistratus becomes ruler of Athens. — His treatment of Solon. — He saves the poems of Homer and Hesiod.