Solon, the Lawmaker

When most people think of early democracy, they think of ancient Greece. After all, the very word “democracy” comes from demos, a Greek word meaning “the people.” In ancient times, the Greek nation we know today did not exist yet: Instead, each major city had its own traditions and laws. The biggest center of democracy in Greece was Athens, named after the goddess of wisdom, Athena. Among the many sages and scholars who contributed to the idea of democracy, one of the most important was Solon, called one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece.

Solon’s life was written about by Herodotus, the greatest Greek historian of the time. Born around 630 B.C., Solon was a nobleman and merchant before he became a politician. When he was about thirty, he became famous for a poem that motivated the Athenians to continue their war against a neighboring city, Megara, leading to a glorious victory. Ultimately he went on to hold political office in Athens. His influence gave him the chance to participate in reforms and improve the lives of the Athenian people.

In Solon’s time, Athens was ruled by the Eupatrids, noblemen with great wealth. Solon worried about the way the Eupatrids harmed ordinary Athenians by facilitating loans to the poor they could not repay. In about 594 B.C., Solon was elected archon, chief judge, for the first time. He had support from both the poor and the wealthy, who wanted him to make small legal changes to ensure the loyalty of the poor. Instead, Solon set his sights on writing a totally new code of laws, but it wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he had the support and experience to do it.

In 573 B.C., the middle-aged Solon was trusted to reform Athens’ laws. By writing a new constitution, he made changes to the political process and the economy. Solon abolished the Eupatrids, which was based on bloodline, and created a system of government headed by wealthy citizens from any background. Although the rich were still much more powerful than the poor under these rules, all citizens could attend the Ecclesia, meetings where public matters were debated. All but the poorest could serve on the Council of Four Hundred, which brought matters to the Ecclesia. After a few years, the old aristocracy built on family ties faded away in Athens.

Solon also changed the economic system. He released all the Athenians who had been enslaved because of debts they owed the Eupatrids. The debts were cancelled and Solon made it illegal to give loans that led to slavery if the borrower couldn’t pay. Solon, for the most part, refused to seize the land the Eupatrids got with their loans; but he made changes to the minting of coins, to farming, and even to education. These changes helped make poverty much rarer than it had been in the Athens of his youth and made him popular with the poor. When he was done, he traveled around Greece and North Africa for ten years, in order to prevent any aristocrat from trying to convince him to change the laws back.

Solon’s life came to a troubled end when he returned to Athens. His old friend, the career soldier Peisistratus, was conspiring to become tyrant — a temporary but absolute ruler. Solon spent the last years of his life warning the people of Athens about the danger that Peisistratus would represent to Athens. Shortly after Solon’s death, his prediction was proven right: Peisistratus seized control of the city as tyrant, but was rejected by the people only a short time afterwards. By comparison, the ideas in the code of laws Solon created were embraced by his countrymen for generations to come. He was celebrated as a wise man, hailed as Athens’ first great poet, and his words were chiseled on temple walls throughout Greece. When democracy flowered in Athens, Solon’s moderate and humane laws provided the seed.

Life

Law

Poetry and Other Writings of Solon

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