Bill of Rights in Action
Fall 2006 (22:3)
Solon Put Athens on the Road to Democracy
In ancient Athens, hatred between the rich and poor threatened the city-state with civil war and tyranny. Into this dangerous situation stepped Solon, a moderate man the Athenians trusted to bring justice for all.
During the 600s B.C., Athens was a small city-state. It had no great fleets of ships, extensive foreign trade, or network of colonies. Instead, its economy depended on its surrounding farms, especially the large estates owned by rich noble families, the aristocracy.
The aristocracy ruled Athens. Nearly all government decisions and operations were in the hands of a half-dozen leaders called archons and lesser officials called magistrates. An assembly of nobles, most from wealthy landowning families, elected these leaders each year.
The aristocrats ruled Athens to benefit themselves. They often formed violent factions to gain advantage over one another. They also used the courts to discriminate against the common people, mostly poor farmers, laborers, artisans, and a growing class of merchants. A long history of hatred had grown between the lower classes and their aristocratic rulers.
Sometimes, the poor and powerless of Athens rebelled and backed a tyrant, a sort of dictator who ruled in the name of the common people (demos in Greek). But the aristocrats always regained power.
About 620 B.C., an archon named Draco produced the first written code of laws for Athens. It provided some protections for the common people. But his laws required severe punishments, often death, for most crimes. Today, we call harsh laws "Draconian."
During this period, the problem of debt magnified the hatred of the commoners against the aristocrats. Typically, a poor farmer had to borrow seeds and livestock from a rich landowner to plant his crops. The farmer was supposed to pay back this debt with a percentage of his harvest.
Overworked soil and drought, however, often limited the farmer’s harvest to barely enough to feed his family. If the indebted farmer failed to deliver the required portion of his crop to the rich landowner, the landowner could seize the farmer’s land. In this way, the aristocrats grew richer as they extracted every bit of grain and land they could from the poor farmers.
Those without land frequently had to work as tenants, renting farm plots from the rich estate owners. Many of the farmers often could not grow enough food to both feed their families and pay the rent they owed. If the tenant could not pay his rent, the landowner could seize the farmer and his family and sell them into slavery. To avoid slavery, indebted persons sometimes fled Athens to other Greek city-states or even foreign lands.
As more poor farmers fell into debt and slavery, their hatred of the aristocracy grew. The poor and landless demanded that the large estates be broken up and redistributed to them. Civil war and the rise of another tyrant threatened the peace of Athens.
Solon Elected Primary Archon
Seeing disaster looming, both the aristocracy and common people of Athens supported the election of Solon as primary archon in 594 B.C. The Athenians granted Solon, then about age 35, nearly unlimited powers to write new laws to end the conditions that had caused all the hatred and fear.
Solon was the son of an Athenian aristocrat, but apparently his father had lost the family fortune. As a result, the young Solon became a merchant to support himself and his family. He led a modest life and never sought great wealth. Solon also became the first noted poet of Athens. Much of what we know today about his ideas and views come from his poetry.
The Athenians chose Solon to mediate their crisis for several reasons. The aristocrats liked that he was of noble birth. The commoners trusted him as an honest man who worked for a living. He was also known as a patriot who had rallied Athenians to defeat another city-state for possession of the nearby island of Salamis. Above all, Solon had the reputation of being moderate in his views.
Solon blamed much of the turmoil in Athens on the greed of the aristocratic estate owners. He charged they were about "to destroy a great city by their thoughtlessness." Yet he did not embrace democracy, which would have meant turning Athens over to the common people. In other words, he refused to take sides and looked for a middle way out of the crisis.
Solon rejected the notion that a god, a king, a tyrant, a single class, or even he himself could save Athens. Instead, he believed that all citizens, rich and poor, were responsible for achieving the common good of the city. Solon’s idea about the meaning of citizenship was new.
Solon’s Social and Political Reforms
Solon’s first priority was to provide debt relief for the poor, which he called "shaking off the burdens." By decree, Solon cancelled all debts. There is debate about what this actually meant. But most historians agree that Solon restored the land the poor farmers had lost to their aristocratic creditors.
Solon also released those in debt slavery and banned offering one’s own body or those of family members as security for a loan or rent. In addition, Solon granted amnesty to those who had fled into exile because of their indebtedness. He rejected, however, seizing the great estates of the aristocrats and redistributing their land to the poor.
Next, Solon turned to reforming the government of Athens. He believed there was a "right order" for governing the city. First, he reorganized Athenians into four new classes based on their wealth. Noble birth alone had been the basis of the old aristocracy.
Under Solon’s plan, only members of the two wealthiest classes could become archons or magistrates. For the first time, however, he opened up membership in the assembly to all Athenian citizens, even the poor.
Under Solon’s plan, the assembly chose nine archons and the magistrates by lot each year from the wealthy classes. The assembly also passed laws proposed by the archons.
Thus Solon’s new government was not a democracy controlled by the demos, the majority of the people. Rather, it was an attempt to balance political power among the economic classes. He explained his purpose in one of his poems:
To the people I have given such honor as is sufficient,
neither taking away nor granting them more.
For those who had power and were great in riches,
I greatly cared that they should suffer nothing wrong.
Thus I stood, holding my strong shield over both,
and I did not allow either side to prevail against justice.
Solon’s Code of Laws
Solon replaced most of Draco’s code of laws with one less severe and fairer for all. "Laws I wrote, alike for noblemen and commoners, awarding straight justice to everybody," he said in a poem.
Many of Solon’s laws concerned family matters. One prohibited dowries to stop marriages based on economic gain. 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 anyone instead of only to relatives.
Other civil laws regulated the water supply to farms and even the distance between beehives for honey production. To prevent shortages of food, he banned the export of all farm produce except olive oil.
Solon reduced the number of crimes punished by the death penalty. He permitted, however, a husband to kill an adulterer caught in the act. He 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 the dead.
Solon also attempted to make the court system fairer to the lower classes. He made it possible for any citizen to step forward and seek justice for someone legally wronged. Before only the actual victim of wrongdoing could make a complaint. Under the old system, the powerful could easily threaten weak and poor victims to discourage them from complaining.
Most important, Solon gave the assembly, made up of all the classes, the authority to act as an appeals court. This was a check on the power of judges elected by the wealthy classes.
After he finished writing his new code of laws for Athens, Solon reflected on his achievement:
I did those things with my power,
bringing into harmony force and justice,
and I finished them as I promised;
and I made the laws equal for the poor man and the powerful
fitting impartial justice on each.
Athens publicly displayed Solon’s code of laws on wooden rectangular beams, each with four sides, so the reader could rotate them. Solon’s laws remained in force for more than 100 years.
On the Road to Democracy
Many Athenians criticized Solon’s reforms and laws since neither the aristocrats nor the demos, the common people, got everything they wanted. Some asked Solon to remain in power as a tyrant to explain and perhaps change what he had decreed. But he believed that it was now up to the Athenians, not him, to make the new system work. Thus, Solon reinforced his idea about citizen responsibility. He then left Athens and traveled outside Greece for 10 years.
The Athenians grudgingly accepted Solon’s social, political, and legal reforms, seeing no other way to avoid civil war. The annually elected archons took an oath to observe Solon’s laws. But conflicts among aristocratic factions continued.
About 560 B.C., a smooth-talking Athenian named Pisistratus wanted to become tyrant. Solon, now an old man, spoke to the assembly, warning against this man’s ambition. Most dismissed his words as the ravings of a mad man.
One day Pisistratus entered the assembly wounded. He claimed his enemies had attacked him. He had actually wounded himself to gain the sympathy of the Athenians. The assembly appointed 50 armed men to protect him. Pisistratus used this force to seize power and make himself tyrant with the support of the poor people.
Solon blamed the Athenians for the "wretched servitude" they brought upon themselves by permitting the tyranny of Pisistratus. "Every one of you has an empty mind!" he exclaimed. Soon after, Solon died.
Pisistratus and his sons ruled Athens on and off for the next 50 years. Rival factions overthrew him two times, but he managed to regain power. One time he dressed a young girl as the goddess Athena who publicly proclaimed Pisistratus as the true leader of the city. The people of Athens fell for the trick.
To his credit, Pisistratus benefited Athens in some ways. The poor farmers gained more rights at the expense of the aristocracy. Athens began to grow as a center of commerce and the arts. Although Solon’s government reforms withered, his law code remained in force. After Pisistratus died, however, the tyranny became more abusive under his sons.
Finally, Sparta attacked Athens and overthrew the last tyrant son in 510 B.C. The aristocrats resumed fighting for political power. In 508 B.C., however, another reformer, Cleisthenes, further weakened the nobility and prepared the way for greater participation in government by all Athenian citizens.
The reforms of Cleisthenes led to the full flowering of Athenian democracy during the Age of Pericles a half-century later. Solon never intended for the demos to rule. Even so, he introduced a new idea about broad citizen participation that put Athens on the road to democracy.
For Discussion and Writing
1. What do you think was Solon’s greatest personal quality as a reformer?
2. What was Solon’s new idea about citizenship? Why is this important for democratic nations today?
3. Compare tyranny and democracy in ancient Greece. What do tyranny and democracy mean today?
For Further Reading
Meier, Christian. Athens, A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
Plutarch. Twelve Lives. John Dreyden, trans. Cleveland, Ohio: Fine Editions Press, 1950.
A C T I V I T Y
Today, we expect citizens in a democracy to participate in elections. But, what else should participating citizens do to ensure a strong democracy?
1. Meet in small groups and make a list of five activities, aside from voting, American citizens should participate in to keep our democracy strong.
2. Each group should decide which one of the five activities is the most important and why.
3. Each group should identify its top-rated activity and explain to the rest of the class why it is the most important one.