The Greek statesman and poet Solon (active 594 B.C.) formulated an influential code of laws and has been regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy.
As a statesman, Solon put principles before expediency. Elected chief magistrate in 594 B.C., he was given special powers to deal with the emergency brought on by civil war. The war had arisen mainly because of the oppression of the poor by the rich, who were entitled under the existing laws to tie some bankrupt debtors to the land and exact a sixth part of the produce (hence the victims were called hectemoroi, "sixth-parters") and to sell others into slavery. Solon canceled all debts. He freed the land and those tied to it, and he purchased the freedom of those who had been enslaved. He enacted new laws of debt which were the same for both groups. "The laws I passed were alike for low-born and for high-born; my aim was straightforward justice for each." He proclaimed a general amnesty except in cases of bloodshed or an attempted coup d'etat. The principles of habeas corpus and of equality before the law were thus implemented by Solon. The price was a grave economic crisis, during which he banned the export of foodstuffs except olive oil, always plentiful in the land of the olive. For the future he took steps to align Athens commercially with Corinth, the leading exporter to overseas markets.
Reorganization of Athenian Institutions
The principles enunciated by Solon were in advance of the existing constitution. In 592 he was entrusted with full legislative powers. As he had done in regard to debt, he abolished distinctions of birth in politics. Henceforth all Athenians were classified by income into four groups. Liability for tax and military service and eligibility for office were defined in terms of the new classification. For example, the lowest group—that of the thetes—paid no tax, provided no equipment, and was not eligible for any office, whereas the next lowest—that of the zeugitae—paid tax at the lowest rate, provided body armor, and was eligible for minor offices. The effective organ in the existing constitution was the Areopagus Council, recruited from former magistrates, who held office for life. Solon introduced alongside it a second house, the Council of Four Hundred, nominated by Solon no doubt for their liberal and progressive views. The new house was designed not only to break the monopoly of the Areopagus Council but also to guide the Assembly of Citizens (Ekklesia), in which men of all classes sat. This Assembly was sovereign in theory; but at a time of social and economic disruption Solon did not intend it to be sovereign in practice. He regarded the two councils as stabilizers. "The ship of state, riding upon two anchors, will pitch less in the surf and make the people less turbulent." In particular, the Assembly was debarred from considering any motion on which the Council of Four Hundred had not already reported its own recommendation. Thus snap decisions were ruled out.
Politics and justice were closely related in ancient society. Solon championed the poor more in justice than in politics. Every citizen was to have the right of appeal against the edict of a magistrate. Every citizen was to be entitled to prosecute at law. And every citizen was to be eligible to sit on a new court of state, the Heliaea, or People's Court, before which appeals were heard (the actual panel for each case being selected by lot). He drew up a new code of laws, designed to protect the underprivileged and the deprived. Only fragments survive.
Having established the basic equalities on which a democratic society is founded, Solon went into voluntary exile for 10 years. Returning to find party strife, he censured the leaders and the people for their stupidity. He died at an advanced age.
Solon's poetry, esteemed for its ideas rather than its literary form, was a basic element in Athenian education. His few extant poems reveal an original and profound thinker. Earlier poets had attributed to the gods not only natural calamities such as epidemics or drought but also national and individual disasters, and they had deduced that the gods always punished wickedness. Solon first distinguished between events beyond human control and events within human control; and he thought more deeply about the ways of the gods. Thus in a poem written during a civil war at Athens, Solon attributed the destruction of society not to the gods but to the citizens. It was their greed, cruelty, and injustice which had caused chaos. Order could be restored only if the citizens agreed to obey the laws. "Where law reigns, all human affairs are sensible and sound." In essence, men are responsible for human relations within a group; and if they are to achieve order within the group, they must seek social justice and they must accept the reign of law.
In his longest surviving poem Solon reflected on a man's personal aspirations. Success is not his to command. It is the gods who give success and who take success away. Their purposes are not clear. Success is not awarded in accordance with human merits. "Many bad men are rich, many good men are poor." "One who tries to work well falls without any premonition into utter disaster, while complete success is granted by the gods to a bad worker." In the long run wickedness is punished but not necessarily the actual sinner. Sometimes "the innocent pay—the children of the sinner or his descendants thereafter." These ideas are the stuff from which Attic tragedy and indirectly later tragedy were made. Intellectual awareness and religious faith were fused to produce the tragic view of man.
Further Reading on Solon
Solon's poems are translated in Kathleen Freeman, The Work and Life of Solon (1926). Ancient sources on Solon include the biography by Plutarch and Aristotle's Athenaion politeia. Modern works include Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (1919); W. J. Woodhouse, Solon the Liberator (1938); and N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece (2d ed. 1967).