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Ancient Greek Lawmaker, Solon, Paves the Road to Democracy

Solon writing laws for Athens, in an 1842 wood engraving. Public Domain
Ancient Greek lawmaker Solon of Athens is the statesman who laid the foundations for today’s democracy in the sixth century BC. Public Domain

Ancient Greek lawmaker Solon of Athens is the statesman who laid the foundations for today’s democracy in the sixth century BC.

Solon (c. 630 BC – c. 560 BC) is known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He singlehandedly ended the rule of callous aristocracy in Athens and introduced a fair law code in the city-state.

During the time of Solon, Athens was a small city-state with its economy depending on proceeds from the surrounding farms, mainly great estates owned by rich, noble families that also ruled the city.

All government decisions and operations were run by nine leaders called archons and lower officials called magistrates. The archons were elected each year by an assembly of nobles, the Council of the Areopagus, composed of members from wealthy families who served for life.

Such an agrarian economy benefited only rich families. People with small allotments or lower land quality had years of poor harvest. Without profits, they couldn’t buy materials to plant the next harvest and had to borrow money instead.

Wealthier landowners would lend money to farmers when the harvest was not adequate. However,  the collateral given on these loans was their land. This meant that they could easily lose their plots if they had two consecutive bad harvests.

Gradually, all Athenian land ended up in the hands of the aristocracy, and farmers became surfs on their own land. For many, that was tantamount to slavery. As the Athens population grew, land became more scarce, and the rich became richer while the poor became poorer.

This was the state of Athens when Solon became lawmaker. The disgruntled have-nots rebelled against those who were better off, and it was time for new laws to appease both sides.

Early Life of Solon

According to Plutarch in his treatise Solon, the lawmaker was the son of Execestides, the head of a distinguished family. Even though he was brought up in a wealthy home, Solon was a modest man who was passionate about poetry and painting.

Solon’s poems lacked in literary form but were brimming with ideas and became a basic element in Athenian education. They were works of an original and profound thinker.

Before the time of Solon the lawmaker, poetry centered around the gods. Earlier poets used to attribute all events and phenomena to the gods, whether they were natural disasters, epidemics, or drought. They inferred that all calamities were punishment from the gods as a result of human wickedness.

Solon’s poems, however, differentiated between events beyond human control and events within human control. For instance, in a poem he wrote during a civil war in Athens, Solon attributed the destruction of society not to the gods but to the citizens.

In his poems, he criticized greed, cruelty, and injustice as the causes of disruption in society. For Solon, order could be restored only if citizens agreed to obey laws.

Hence, it was not the gods that punished humans, but men were responsible for human relations within a group. So as to achieve order, they would have to achieve this within the group, seek social justice, and accept the reign of law.

The Areopagus, as viewed from the Acropolis, is a monolith where Athenian aristocrats decided important matters of state during Solon's time
The Areopagus, as viewed from the Acropolis, is a monolith where Athenians decided important matters of state during Solon’s time. –
CC BY-SA 2.0

According to Plutarch, Solon came to wider prominence around 600 BC, when he commanded the Athenian forces during the war between Athens and Megara over control of Salamis.

After repeated losses, Solon managed to improve the morale of his troops with a poem he wrote about Salamis. With the support of Pisistratus, he defeated the Megarians either by means of a cunning trick or, more directly, through heroic battle around 595 BC.

The Megarians, however, continued to claim the island. The dispute was referred to the Spartans, who eventually gave possession of the island to Athens on the strength of the case that Solon put to them.

Solon was then appointed archon, the highest administrative position of Athenian government around 594 BC. He was now in a position to make fundamental and lasting changes to his city.

Solon Replaces Draconian Law

Almost three decades before Solon was appointed archon, the clashes between the ruling elite and poor forced Athenian archon Dracon to produce the first comprehensive written code of laws (c. 622 BC – 621 BC).

It was a harsh legal code that punished both trivial and serious crimes in Athens with death. The penalty for both petty crimes such as theft and premeditated murder was death—hence the continued use of the word ‘draconian’ to describe harsh legal measures.

The Draconian law proved to be unsatisfactory to Athenians since it did not produce the desired results. When Solon became lawmaker, he repealed Dracon’s code and published new laws, retaining only Dracon’s homicide statutes.

When Solon became archon and lawmaker, he visited Delphi to consult the oracle. Pythia proclaimed that he should take the middle ground in his policies:

Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Athens. Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city.

Solon followed the oracle and did exactly that. His code of laws was fair to both, the rulers of Athens and the poor farmers, the aristocrats and the common people.

His first priority was to cancel all debts and release those in debt slavery. There is a debate among historians what that actually meant. Most agree, however, that Solon restored the land the poor farmers had lost to their rich creditors.

He banned the offering of one’s own body or those of family members as security for a loan or rent and granted amnesty to those who had fled into exile because of their debts.

Furthermore, Solon’s legislation paved the road for Athenian democracy and democracy as we know it today.

Solon’s Laws Were Ahead of His Time

Many of Solon’s laws marked the beginning of democracy. They were amazingly progressive for the seventh century BC.

Both rich and poor were subjected to the same restraints and penalties. Both were eligible to serve on juries. “Laws I wrote, alike for noblemen and commoners, awarding straight justice to everybody,” he wrote in a poem.

Unlike Dracon, Solon reduced the number of crimes punished by the death penalty. However, since he believed strongly in the institution of family, he permitted a husband to kill his adulterer wife if caught in the act. At the same time, there would be a hefty fine for violating the honor of a free woman.

Marriage, he wrote, should be for “pure love, kind affection, and birth of children.” He introduced wills that allowed a person to leave property to just about anyone instead of only to relatives. He also prohibited dowries to stop marriages based on economic gain.

The property tax he legislated was, as is today, a graduated income tax. Farmers who were very poor were exempt from paying taxes.

Solon made penalties for theft heavier if committed at night or in a public place. In addition, he forbade publicly speaking evil of either the living or dead. He forbade the export of any produce except for olive oil in an effort to encourage olive production, which later became central to the Athenian economy.

Sons were not obligated to support aging fathers who had not taught them a trade. The
sons of soldiers and sailors who died in war would be brought up and educated at state expense.

Solon legalized and taxed prostitution in brothels licensed and supervised by the state. He granted amnesty to political prisoners but not to insurrectionists.

The Lawmaker’s Road to Democracy

As a lawmaker, Solon, wanted to shorten the gap between the rich and the poor Athenians. Growing up wealthy himself, he did not show much interest in the pleasures and privileges his peers enjoyed. He attempted to balance political power among economic classes.

Solon’s government was not exactly a democracy. Demos in Greek means ‘the majority of the people.’ The elite still had control of the city-state. Only members of the two wealthiest classes could become archons or magistrates.

However, for the first time, he opened up membership in the assembly to all Athenian citizens, even the poor.

The Athenian statesman also attempted to make the court system more fair to the lower classes. He gave the right to any citizen to seek justice for someone else who was legally wronged.

Under the old system, only the actual victim could step forward and ask for justice, but the wealthier perpetrators could threaten their poor victims and discourage them from seeking justice.

To discourage such intervention to justice, Solon gave the assembly, made up of all classes, the authority to act as an appeals court. This was a check on the power of judges elected by the wealthy classes.

Even though the governing of Solon was not a democracy in modern terms, it certainly ruled that way. The fact that neither aristocrats nor common people were fully satisfied by his laws, whereas in the past only the former had the upper hand in society, shows that the seed was sown. Now, the common people could claim their rights.

The gifted lawmaker believed his laws and system of government was fair to all and it was up to them to assume citizen responsibility and be politically active for the good of the state. Even though some citizens asked him to remain in power as a tyrant and change some of his laws, he refused and stepped down.

It is said that before he left to travel the world, he asked Athenians to sign a contract that they would keep his reforms in place for at least ten years before they made any changes to the political system. This was to avoid any political instability that might follow his departure.

Despite his departure, his innovative policies and ideas laid the groundwork on which Pericles established the famous Athenian democracy a century later.



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