Solon was a Greek statesman and poet. He ended the worst extremes of poverty in Attica (The Athenian hinterland) and provided his countrymen with a balanced constitution and humane system of laws. Solon was also Athens’ first poet; as the medium through which he warned, challenged and counselled the people, his poetry was the instrument of his statesmanship.
Solon was of aristocratic descent but a true moderate. As tradition states, he may have been a merchant. He first became prominent around 600 BC, when the Athenians were dishearted by ill success in a war with their neighbours, Megara for possession of the island of Salamis. By publicly reciting a poem that made the issue one of national honour, Solon inspired them to continue the war that they eventually won.
The early 6th century BC was a troubled period in Athenian history. Society was dominated by the aristocracy and their vehicle of government, The Areopagus. The poorer farmers were easily driven into debt by economic hardships, such as a drop in production of wheat along with a drop in its price. This caused them to sell themselves and their family into slavery both at home and abroad. The middle class of middling farmers, craftsmen, and merchants resented their exclusion from government.
The situation threatened to spill over into revolution and was only averted by the Athenian people deciding to give full power to Solon, who instituted a number of key reforms.
Solon had already held office as Archon (The annual chief ruler) in 594 BC. It was probably about 20 years later that he was given full powers as reformer and legislator. His first concern was to relieve the immediate distress caused by debt. He returned all forfeit land and freed all the enslaved citizens, including an attempt to return those sold into slavery abroad. He also prohibited all loans secured by selling oneself into slavery. He refused, however, to go to the lengths demanded by the poor, which was to redistribute the land. Instead, he passed measures designed to increase general prosperity and to provide alternative occupations for those unable to live by farming; e.g, trades and professions were encouraged; the export of any produce other than olive oil was forbidden; the circulation of coined money was stimulated by the minting of a native Athenian coinage on a more suitable standard than that of the coins of neighbours; and new weights and measures were introduced.
The rapid spread of the new coinage and of Athenian products, such as olive oil throughout the commercial world of the times proved these measures to be successful. Poverty wasn’t eliminated, but its extremes had been reduced.
Solon’s new constitution abolished the monopoly of aristocratic office holding. He instituted a census of annual income, based primarily on measures of grain, oil and win, the principal products of the land, and divided the citizens into four income groups accordingly. Political privilege was henceforth based on these class divisions. All citizens were entitled to attend the general assembly, which became the sovereign body, entitled to pass laws and decrees, elect officials and hear appeals from the most important decisions of the courts. All but those in the poorest group might serve, a year at a time, on a new council of Four Hundred, which was to prepare business for the Assembly. The higher government posts were reserved for citizens of the top two income groups.
The foundations of the future Athenian Democracy were thus laid with Solon’s reforms. A strong conservative element still remained in the Areopagus however, and the people themselves for a long time preferred to entrust the most important positions to members of the old aristocratic families.
Code of Laws
Solon’s third major contribution to the future of Athens was his new code of laws. The first written code at Athens was that of Draco (Circa 624 BC), and was still in force. Draco’s laws were severe (Hence the term draconian), so severe that the old saying went that his laws were not written in ink but in blood. On the civil side they permitted enslavement for debt; and death was the penalty for many criminal offenses. Solon revised every statute except that on homicide and made Athenian laws more humane. His code, though supplemented and modified, remained the foundation of Athenian statute law until the end of the 5th century.
Response to Solon’s Reforms
When Solon had completed his task, complaints came in from all sides. In attempting to satisfy all, he had satisfied few. The nobles had hoped that he would only make a few changes; the poor, that he would distribute land equally among them. Solon, although concerned with freedom, was a moderate and was not willing to become a tyrant to enforce the demands of the poor or be too soft with the nobility and ignore the despair of the people either.
Although discontented, the Athenians stood by their promise to accept Solon’s reforms; they were given validity for one hundred years and posted on revolving wooden tablets throughout the city. To avoid having to defend and explain them further, he set off on a series of travels, undertaking not to return for ten years.
Among the places he visited were Egypt and Cyprus. These visits are confirmed by his poems. When Solon returned, he found the citizens divided into regional factions headed by prominent nobles. Of these, his friend Peisistratus, general in the war for Salamis and leader of north-eastern Attica, seemed to Solon to be preparing to become a tyrant. The old statesman’s urgent warnings were disregarded, even dismissed as the ravings of a senile madman. It was not long before he was proven correct: Peisistratus became a tyrant around 560 BC. Although on this occasion he was soon removed, his later attempts proved successful.
It was probably around the end of the 5th century that the Greeks first drew up a list of the Seven Wise Men who had been prominent intellectually and politically in the 6th century. The earliest list, accepted by the philosopher Plato, did not satisfy later writers, who expanded it to ten and even 17 to accommodate other great men. Every version, however, contained four names that were never challenged, and one of them was Solon.
Hignett, C., History of the Athenian Constitution to the end of the fifth century BC (1952)