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Solon's Reforms

Solon's Reforms and the Rise of Democracy in Athens

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Ancient Greece Timeline > Archaic Age > Solon Basics > Legal Reforms of Solon

"Such power I gave the people as might do, Abridged not what they had, now lavished new. Those that were great in wealth and high in place, My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace. Before them both I held my shield of might, And let not either touch the other's right."
- Plutarch's Life of Solon
First coming to prominence (c. 600 B.C.) for his patriotic exhortations when Athens was fighting a war against Megara for possession of Salamis [see Map section Dab], Solon was elected eponymous archon in 594/3 B.C. and perhaps, again, about 20 years later. Solon faced the daunting task of improving the condition of:
  • debt-ridden farmers
  • laborers forced into bondage over debt, and
  • the middle classes who were excluded from government,
while not alienating the increasingly wealthy landowners and aristocracy. Because of his reforming compromises and other legislation, posterity refers to him as Solon the lawgiver. [More on Solon's laws below.]

The Great Divide Between Rich and Poor in Athens

In the 8th century B.C., rich farmers began exporting their goods: olive oil and wine. Such cash crops required an expensive initial investment. The poorer farmer was more limited in choice of crop, but he still could have continued to eke out a living, if only he had either rotated his crops or let his fields lie fallow.

Slavery

When land was mortgaged, hektemoroi (stone markers) were placed on the land to show the amount of debt. During the 7th century, these markers proliferated. The poorer wheat farmers lost their land. Laborers were free men who paid out 1/6th of all they produced. In the years of poor harvests, this wasn't enough to survive. To feed themselves and their families, laborers put up their bodies as collateral to borrow from their employers. Exorbitant interest plus living on less than 5/6ths of what was produced made it impossible to repay loans. Free men were being sold into slavery. At the point at which a tyrant or revolt seemed likely, the Athenians appointed Solon to mediate.

Relief in the Form of Solon

Solon, a lyric poet and the first Athenian literary figure whose name we know, came from an aristocratic family which traced its ancestry back 10 generations to Hercules, according to Plutarch. Aristocratic beginnings did not prevent him from fearing that someone of his class would try to become tyrant. In his reform measures, he pleased neither the revolutionaries who wanted the land redistributed nor the landowners who wanted to keep all their property intact. Instead, he instituted the seisachtheia by which he canceled all pledges where a man's freedom had been given as guarantee, freed all debtors from bondage, made it illegal to enslave debtors, and put a limit on the amount of land an individual could own.

Plutarch records Solon's own words about his actions:

"The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me Removed, -- the land that was a slave is free;
that some who had been seized for their debts he had brought back from other countries, where
-- so far their lot to roam, They had forgot the language of their home;
and some he had set at liberty, --
Who here in shameful servitude were held."
Sources:
  • J.B. Bury. A History of Greece
  • Plutarch's Life of Solon
  • Richard Hooker's (wsu.edu/~dee/GREECE/ATHENS.HTM) Ancient Greece: Athens
  • John Porter's Solon
  • University of Keele's Classics Department's Athenian Democracy (www.keele.ac.uk/depts/cl/iahcla~7.htm - accessed 01/02/2000)

More on the Laws of Solon

Solon's laws do not appear to have been systematic, but provided regulations in the areas of politics, religion, public and private life (including marriage, burial, and the use of springs and wells), civil and criminal life, commerce (including a prohibition on export of all Attic produce except olive oil, although Solon encouraged the export of artisans' work), agriculture, sumptuary regulation and discipline.
Source: History of Greece Vol II, by George Grote (1872).

Sickinger estimates there were between 16 and 21 axones that may have contained 36,000 characters total (minimum). These legal records may have been placed in the Boulouterion, Stoa Basileios, and the Acropolis. Although these places would have made them accessible to the public, how many people were literate is not known. For more on the laws and their public recording on kyrbeis and axones, see Public Records and Archives in Classical Athens, by James P. Sickinger and Axones.

Next: Solon's Constitution

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