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The Story of the Greeks by  H. A. Guerber


 

 

THE LAWS OF SOLON

SHORTLY after the death of Cylon and the murder of his followers, a great many troubles came upon the city of Athens. The people were frightened, and soon the friends of Cylon began to whisper that the gods were surely punishing the Athenians, and especially Megacles, for breaking his promise.

This report spread throughout the city. The terrified people assembled, and voted to exile Megacles and all his family, the Alcmæonidæ. Such was the fury of the Athenians against the archon whose crime had brought misfortunes upon them, that they even dug up the bones of his ancestors, and had them carried beyond the boundary of Attica.

The city had been defiled by the crime which Megacles had committed, and the people felt that they would never be prosperous again until Athens had been purified; [90] but the great question was to find a man holy enough to perform the ceremony.

After much talking, they decided to send for Epimenides, and to ask him to purify the city. This man, when a mere lad, once went into a cave near his native town, and there laid himself down to sleep. Instead of taking an ordinary nap, however, he slept fifty-eight years, without awakening or undergoing any change. When he came out of the cave, where he fancied he had spent only a few hours, he was surprised to find everything new and strange to him.

His relatives had all died, no one knew him, and it was only after some time had passed that he found out that he had slept fifty-eight years at a stretch. This man was a poet of note, and, as he had enjoyed so long a sleep, the people thought that he was a favorite of the gods.

When the Athenians asked him to purify the town, he came to do so; but when the ceremonies were ended, he refused to accept any of the rich gifts which the people offered him as reward. Instead, he humbly begged them to give him a twig of the sacred olive tree which they said Athene herself had planted on the Acropolis.

Their troubles having now ceased, the Athenians began to think of making another and less severe code of laws. This time they chose as lawmaker a wise man called Solon, a descendant of the noble Codrus; and he soon consented to tell them what to do.

Solon was a studious and thoughtful man, and had acquired much of his wisdom by traveling, and by learning all he could from the people he visited. He knew [91] so much that he was called a sage, and he loved to meet and talk with wise people.

Solon changed many of Draco's severe laws, arranged that the farmers and poor people should no longer be treated badly by the rich, and even took care of the slaves. He also gave the Athenians a court of law called Areopagus. Here there were jurymen to judge all criminals; and here, for the first time, an accused person was allowed to speak in his own defense.

When a man was accused of any wrongdoing, he was brought before this jury, who sat under the open sky at night. No light was provided, and the whole trial was carried on in the dark, so that the jury should not be influenced by the good or bad looks of the prisoner, but should judge merely from what was proved about him.

If the accused person was found guilty, he was also sentenced and executed in the dark, so that the bright sun god, riding across the sky in his golden chariot, should not be offended by the sad sight of a man dying for his misdeeds.

Every citizen of Athens, whether rich or poor, was allowed to vote; and as a salary was now paid to the men who helped govern the city, even a man of small means, if elected to the Tribunal, could afford to give his time to public duties.

By Solon's order the people were encouraged to talk matters over in public in the market place; and, as the Athenians were fond of making speeches, many of them became very eloquent.

Solon saw that his reforms were likely to work all [92] the better if they were fairly tried, and if he were not there to see how the people did. He therefore made the Athenians promise to obey his laws for ten years, and again set out on his travels.


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