Solon (c. 640 – c. 560 BCE) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, who is credited with restructuring the social and political organisation of Athens and thereby laying the foundations for Athenian democracy. Such were his accomplishments that, in later centuries, he became a sort of semi-mythical founding father figure who had set Athens on the path to the glory and prosperity the city enjoyed in the Classical period.
According to Plutarch in his Solon, the lawgiver was the son of Execestides and so born into a distinguished family, even if their wealth was modest. Plutarch also quotes fragments of Solon’s poetry, painting a more romantic picture than posterity would remember the matter-of-fact lawmaker. For example, he writes,
In Solon’s poems, too, we can find evidence of the fact that he could not resist good looks and did not challenge love - 'To meet him like a boxer in the ring.' (Solon, 43)
Solon, we are told by the same author, was a trader as a young man. Solon first came to wider prominence in c. 600 BCE when he commanded during the war between Athens and Megara following a dispute over control of Salamis. Solon was then appointed archon, the highest administrative position of Athenian government, traditionally in c. 594 BCE (or perhaps even c. 580-570 BCE). He was now in a position to make fundamental and lasting changes to his city. As the oracle at Delphi proclaimed,
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 & the Debt Problem
Athens was facing a period of economic crisis and the particular problem that ownership of agricultural land had become over-concentrated into the hands of a small aristocracy. This meant that a significant number of citizens were forced to work as dependents (hektemoroi) to the landed class to whom they paid a share (one sixth) of their crops or even become slaves if they could not pay their debts. Solon was charged with finding a remedy for this increasing problem and given the title of diallaktes or mediator. Ancient writers suggest that, in a radical move, Solon proposed to cancel all debts. This plan was referred to as seisachtheia or ‘shaking off of burdens’. In practice, it seems more likely that the hektemoroi still had to pay off some debts but were given the right to own the land they worked. To prevent poor workers slipping into slavery, Solon also forbade the use of one’s person or family members as security on loans. Those hektemoroi who had become slaves through debt were freed from their bondage.
Restructuring the Social System
Besides changing debt practices Solon also re-structured the Athenian class system, creating four distinct groups classified by agricultural production, and therefore, wealth. These were: the pentakosoimedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitai, and thetes. At the top, the pentakosoimedimnoi were those whose land produced at least 500 bushels (medimnoi) of corn or its equivalent in other goods. Next were the hippeis, or knights, who produced between 300 and 500 bushels annually. The zeugitai produced between 200 and 300 bushels or were craftsmen. The lowest class was the thetes who produced less than 200 bushels or were only labourers on other people’s land.
This four-class classification also gave certain political rights. Thetes could participate in the Athenian assembly and jury system but they could not hold high political office. That privilege was reserved for the pentakosoimedimnoi and hippeis only. The zeugitai could hold minor positions in Athens’ institutions. Solon also created a council of 400 which prepared business for deliberation by the larger plebeian assembly. This was another provision which ensured that political control was not entirely taken from the hands of the Athenian elite.
For the poor these political changes perhaps did not alter their lives very much but it certainly did for the richer, landed class who could now be on level terms with the traditional Athenian aristocracy. Previously, the latter had dominated politics but now positions were based on property ownership only and not family ties. The judicial changes did affect everybody, though, as now third party prosecutions were permitted (previously only the injured party could prosecute) and an appeal system was introduced. Now, at least in theory, everybody was equal before the law.
Solon produced, then, a new law code. Athens had previously worked according to Draco’s Law Code, produced c. 621 BCE. Draco’s laws regarding murder were preserved but, otherwise, these sometimes harsh decrees were abandoned or modified by Solon. Set down on wooden beams (axones), then later carved in stone, these new laws (and many subsequent ones) became associated with Solon for the next 200 years, such was the lawmaker’s lasting reputation. The body of laws drawn up by Solon were credited by later Athenians as being very wide-ranging, covering such diverse matters as inheritances, funerals, adultery, theft, damages, and the working of political institutions. Solon’s laws regarding trade helped an economic recovery. Trade in food goods, especially cereals, was strictly controlled to guarantee supply and only olives were allowed for export, thus stimulating that industry.
All of these laws established Solon with a lasting reputation as one of the founding fathers of Athens, a man who immeasurably helped the city fulfil its destiny as a major Mediterranean power in the Classical period. Although much admired, Aristotle was one later critic of Solon’s laws in his Athenian Politics (9.2) where he notes that they were often too vague and open to very different interpretation and consequently many legal disputes. Unsurprisingly, the rich aristocrats of Athens did not take too kindly to Solon’s reforms either. Disputes over high appointments blighted politics, and the tyrant Peisistratus seized power three times in the 550s and 540s BCE. Nevertheless, Solon did reduce the dominance of the Athenian aristocracy and improve the participation of ordinary citizens in the political arena. In this, he deserves credit for laying the foundations for the Athenian democracy which would arrive in the mid-5th century BCE.
Travels & Later Life
Solon also found time for travel and poetry when not re-shaping the laws of his city. He was said by Herodotus (but dismissed as fiction by modern scholars) to have met with Croesus in Lydia, and by Plato to have visited Egypt, there discovering the tale of Atlantis. He was also said to have been a member of the Seven Sages who met in conference at Delphi. Only fragments of his poetry and writings survive but they amount to some 285 verses. The historian Plutarch quotes several of them in a rather strained attempt to illustrate what Solon’s laws may have addressed. His work does, at least, present a man with a strong sense of justice:
Often the wicked prosper, while the righteous starve;
Yet I would never exchange my state for theirs,
My virtue for their gold. For mine endures,
While riches change their owner every day.
Justice, though slow, is sure.
In great affairs you cannot please all parties.
To the mass of the people I gave the power they needed,
Neither degrading them, nor giving them too much rein:
For those who already possessed great power and wealth
I saw to it that their interests were not harmed.
I stood guard with a broad shield before both parties
And prevented either from triumphing unjustly.