You have already learned that Athens was one of the greatest cities of ancient Greece, and that after the heroic self-sacrifice of Codrus the inhabitants would not allow any one to bear the name of king.
The sons of Codrus were named archons, or rulers for life,an office which was at first handed down from father to son, but which soon became elective; that is to say, all the people voted for and elected their own rulers. Then nine archons were chosen at once, but they kept their office for only one year.
As these men received no pay for serving the state, only the richest citizens could accept the office; and thus Athens, from a monarchy, or country ruled by a king, became an oligarchy, or state ruled by the rich and noble citizens.
As the rich thus held the reins of the government, they often used their power to oppress the poor, and this gave rise to many quarrels. Little by little the two parties, the rich and the poor, grew to hate each other so much that it was decided that a new code or set of laws should be made, and that they should be obeyed by all alike.
A severe archon called Draco was chosen to draw up these new laws (602 B.C.); and he made them so strict and cruel that the least sin was punished as if it had been a crime, and a man was sentenced to be hanged for stealing even a cabbage.
When the Athenians heard these new laws, they were frightened. Such severity had never been known before; and one and all said that the laws had been written in blood instead of ink. Some of the citizens, hoping to make Draco change them, asked why he had named such a terrible punishment for so small a crime as the theft of a cabbage. Draco sternly replied that a person who stole even the smallest thing was dishonest, and deserved death; and that, as he knew of no severer punishment, he could not inflict one for the greater crimes.
The Athenians had all promised to obey Draco’s laws, so they were obliged to submit for a short time. Then, driven wild by their strictness, rich and poor rose up, drove the unhappy lawmaker out of the city, and forced him to go to the neighboring Island of Aegina. Here Draco spent all the rest of his life.
The people were now in a state of great uncertainty. The laws of Draco were too severe, but they had no others to govern the city. While they were hesitating, not knowing what to do, Cylon, an Athenian citizen, tried to make himself king.
His first move was to gather together a few of his friends, and go secretly to the Acropolis, or fortress of Athens, which he took by surprise. Now that he was master of the fortress, he tried to force the Athenians to recognize him as their king, but this they stoutly refused to do.