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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book II. - 1/26 -




The Conspiracy of Cylon.--Loss of Salamis.--First Appearance of Solon.--Success against the Megarians in the Struggle for Salamis.-- Cirrhaean War.--Epimenides.--Political State of Athens.--Character of Solon.--His Legislation.--General View of the Athenian Constitution.

I. The first symptom in Athens of the political crisis (B. C. 621) which, as in other of the Grecian states, marked the transition of power from the oligarchic to the popular party, may be detected in the laws of Draco. Undue severity in the legislature is the ordinary proof of a general discontent: its success is rarely lasting enough to confirm a government--its failure, when confessed, invariably strengthens a people. Scarcely had these laws been enacted (B. C. 620) when a formidable conspiracy broke out against the reigning oligarchy [195]. It was during the archonship of Megacles (a scion of the great Alcmaeonic family, which boasted its descent from Nestor) that the aristocracy was menaced by the ambition of an aristocrat.

Born of an ancient and powerful house, and possessed of considerable wealth, Cylon, the Athenian, conceived the design of seizing the citadel, and rendering himself master of the state. He had wedded the daughter of Theagenes, tyrant of Megara, and had raised himself into popular reputation several years before, by a victory in the Olympic games (B. C. 640). The Delphic oracle was supposed to have inspired him with the design; but it is at least equally probable that the oracle was consulted after the design had been conceived. The divine voice declared that Cylon should occupy the citadel on the greatest festival of Jupiter. By the event it does not appear, however, that he selected the proper occasion. Taking advantage of an Olympic year, when many of the citizens were gone to the games, and assisted with troops by his father-in-law, he seized the citadel. Whatever might have been his hopes of popular support--and there is reason to believe that he in some measure calculated upon it--the time was evidently unripe for the convulsion, and the attempt was unskilfully planned. The Athenians, under Megacles and the other archons, took the alarm, and in a general body blockaded the citadel. But they grew weary of the length of the siege; many of them fell away, and the contest was abandoned to the archons, with full power to act according to their judgment. So supine in defence of the liberties of the state are a people who have not yet obtained liberty for themselves!

II. The conspirators were reduced by the failure of food and water. Cylon and his brother privately escaped. Of his adherents, some perished by famine, others betook themselves to the altars in the citadel, claiming, as suppliants, the right of sanctuary. The guards of the magistrates, seeing the suppliants about to expire from exhaustion, led them from the altar and put them to death. But some of the number were not so scrupulously slaughtered--massacred around the altars of the furies. The horror excited by a sacrilege so atrocious, may easily be conceived by those remembering the humane and reverent superstition of the Greeks:--the indifference of the people to the contest was changed at once into detestation of the victors. A conspiracy, hitherto impotent, rose at once into power by the circumstances of its defeat. Megacles--his whole house--all who had assisted in the impiety, were stigmatized with the epithet of "execrable." The faction, or friends of Cylon, became popular from the odium of their enemies--the city was distracted by civil commotion--by superstitious apprehensions of the divine anger--and, as the excesses of one party are the aliment of the other, so the abhorrence of sacrilege effaced the remembrance of a treason.

III. The petty state of Megara, which, since the earlier ages, had, from the dependant of Athens, grown up to the dignity of her rival, taking advantage of the internal dissensions in the latter city, succeeded in wresting from the Athenian government the Isle of Salamis. It was not, however, without bitter and repeated struggles that Athens at last submitted to the surrender of the isle. But, after signal losses and defeats, as nothing is ever more odious to the multitude than unsuccessful war, so the popular feeling was such as to induce the government to enact a decree, by which it was forbidden, upon pain of death, to propose reasserting the Athenian claims. But a law, evidently the offspring of a momentary passion of disgust or despair, and which could not but have been wrung with reluctance from a government, whose conduct it tacitly arraigned, and whose military pride it must have mortified, was not likely to bind, for any length of time, a gallant aristocracy and a susceptible people. Many of the younger portion of the community, pining at the dishonour of their country, and eager for enterprise, were secretly inclined to countenance any stratagem that might induce the reversal of the decree.

At this time there went a report through the city, that a man of distinguished birth, indirectly descended from the last of the Athenian kings, had incurred the consecrating misfortune of insanity. Suddenly this person appeared in the market-place, wearing the peculiar badge that distinguished the sick [196]. His friends were, doubtless, well prepared for his appearance--a crowd, some predisposed to favour, others attracted by curiosity, were collected round him-- and, ascending to the stone from which the heralds made their proclamations, he began to recite aloud a poem upon the loss of Salamis, boldly reproving the cowardice of the people, and inciting them again to war. His supposed insanity protected him from the law-- his rank, reputation, and the circumstance of his being himself a native of Salamis, conspired to give his exhortations a powerful effect, and the friends he had secured to back his attempt loudly proclaimed their applauding sympathy with the spirit of the address. The name of the pretended madman was Solon, son of Execestides, the descendant of Codrus.

Plutarch (followed by Mr. Milford, Mr. Thirlwall, and other modern historians) informs us that the celebrated Pisistratus then proceeded to exhort the assembly, and to advocate the renewal of the war--an account that is liable to this slight objection, that Pisistratus at that time was not born! [197]

IV. The stratagem and the eloquence of Solon produced its natural effect upon his spirited and excitable audience, and the public enthusiasm permitted the oligarchical government to propose and effect the repeal of the law [198]. An expedition was decreed and planned, and Solon was invested with its command. It was but a brief struggle to recover the little island of Salamis: with one galley of thirty oars and a number of fishing-craft, Solon made for Salamis, took a vessel sent to reconnoitre by the Megarians, manned it with his own soldiers, who were ordered to return to the city with such caution as might prevent the Megarians discovering the exchange, on board, of foes for friends; and then with the rest of his force he engaged the enemy by land, while those in the ship captured the city. In conformity with this version of the campaign (which I have selected in preference to another recorded by Plutarch), an Athenian ship once a year passed silently to Salamis--the inhabitants rushed clamouring down to meet it--an armed man leaped ashore, and ran shouting to the Promontory of Sciradium, near which was long existent a temple erected and dedicated to Mars by Solon.

But the brave and resolute Megarians were not men to be disheartened by a single reverse; they persisted in the contest--losses were sustained on either side, and at length both states agreed to refer their several claims on the sovereignty of the island to the decision of Spartan arbiters. And this appeal from arms to arbitration is a proof how much throughout Greece had extended that spirit of civilization which is but an extension of the sense of justice. Both parties sought to ground their claims upon ancient and traditional rights. Solon is said to have assisted the demand of his countrymen by a quotation, asserted to have been spuriously interpolated from Homer's catalogue of the ships, which appeared to imply the ancient connexion of Salamis and Athens (199); and whether or not this was actually done, the very tradition that it was done, nearly half a century before the first usurpation of Pisistratus, is a proof of the great authority of Homer in that age, and how largely the services rendered by Pisistratus, many years afterward, to the Homeric poems, have been exaggerated and misconstrued. The mode of burial in Salamis, agreeable to the custom of the Athenians and contrary to that of the Megarians, and reference to certain Delphic oracles, in which the island was called "Ionian," were also adduced in support of the Athenian claims. The arbitration of the umpires in favour of Athens only suspended hostilities; and the Megarians did not cease to watch (and shortly afterward they found) a fitting occasion to regain a settlement so tempting to their ambition.

V. The credit acquired by Solon in this expedition was shortly afterward greatly increased in the estimation of Greece. In the Bay of Corinth was situated a town called Cirrha, inhabited by a fierce and lawless race, who, after devastating the sacred territories of Delphi, sacrilegiously besieged the city itself, in the desire to possess themselves of the treasures which the piety of Greece had accumulated in the temple of Apollo. Solon appeared at the Amphictyonic council, represented the sacrilege of the Cirrhaeans, and persuaded the Greeks to arm in defence of the altars of their tutelary god. Clisthenes, the tyrant of Sicyon, was sent as commander-in-chief against the Cirrhaeans (B. C. 595); and (according to Plutarch) the records of Delphi inform us that Alcmaeon was the leader of the Athenians. The war was not very successful at the onset; the oracle of Apollo was consulted, and the answer makes one of the most amusing anecdotes of priestcraft. The besiegers were informed by the god that the place would not be reduced until the waves of the Cirrhaean Sea washed the territories of Delphi. The reply perplexed the army; but the superior sagacity of Solon was not slow in discovering that the holy intention of the oracle was to appropriate the land of the Cirrhaeans to the profit of the temple. He therefore advised the besiegers to attack and to conquer Cirrha, and to dedicate its whole territory to the service of the god. The advice was adopted--Cirrha was taken (B. C. 586); it became thenceforth the arsenal of Delphi, and the insulted deity had the satisfaction of seeing the sacred lands washed by the waves of the Cirrhaean Sea. An oracle of this nature was perhaps more effectual than the sword of Clisthenes in preventing future assaults on the divine city! The Pythian games commenced, or were revived, in celebration of this victory of the Pythian god.

VI. Meanwhile at Athens--the tranquillity of the state was still disturbed by the mortal feud between the party of Cylon and the adherents of the Alcmaeonidae--time only served to exasperate the desire of vengeance in the one, and increase the indisposition to justice in the other. Fortunately, however, the affairs of the state were in that crisis which is ever favourable to the authority of an individual. There are periods in all constitutions when, amid the

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