ca. 630-ca. 560 B.C.
Greek statesman and poet
Solon, called the father of Athenian democracy, reformed the government of Athens and revised its code of laws. Solon’s law code was his most significant and lasting achievement. Solon was also a poet, and the ancient Greeks considered him one of the Seven Sages, or wise men, of Greece.
Solon's Poetry. Most of Solon’s poems had political themes, three of which occurred frequently in his work. Solon believed that justice is necessary in order for people to live together in a community. He also maintained that wealth is evil if it is sought at the expense of others. The last theme concerned the notion that laws are needed to restrain the behavior of individuals and to resolve conflicts between them.
Through his poetry, Solon presented his political views to the public in a way unlike that of any previous statesman. Modern scholars have learned about Solon’s political and legal reforms from surviving fragments of his poems.
Solon's Reforms. When Solon was elected archon* of Athens in 594 B.C., he was granted the authority to end the civil unrest between the aristocracy* and the common people. Earlier attempts to resolve social problems, including the extremely harsh law code of Draco (established around 621 B.C.), had repressed the common people instead of addressing their concerns and demands. Despite Solon’s aristocratic background, he had sympathy for commoners. He tried to meet their demands, while attempting to avoid angering the aristocracy.
Solon’s governmental reforms made all the citizens of Athens free for the first time and increased the political power of the common people. The reforms were a first, and significant, step toward a democratic form of government for Athens. One reform, in particular, altered the relationship between peasants and aristocrats. Before this reform, peasants were required to give one-sixth of the produce they raised to their landlord, the person who owned the land they worked. The peasants were also required to protect their landlord and serve him in various other ways. Solon’s reform granted parcels of land to the peasants and abolished all further obligations to their landlords. Before Solon’s reform, poor Athenians who could not repay their loans were enslaved. Solon not only outlawed this form of slavery, but he canceled all debts as well.
* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state
* aristocracy privileged upper class
To break the political monopoly that the aristocracy held, Solon established four new property classes. The new classes were based on the amount of agricultural produce that was raised on one’s property, and political rights were granted accordingly. Solon’s reforms gave citizens greater social and economic mobility, enabling them to move up to a higher class.
The power of the aristocracy was further weakened when Solon created an administrative council of 400, called the boule, to prepare the agenda for the Athenian assembly. The boule took power from the traditionally aristocratic council that had previously controlled the business of the assembly. Solon strengthened the assembly by giving its members specific duties and by convening regular meetings.
Other reforms made the judicial process more accessible to commoners. Solon gave citizens the right to appeal the verdicts of magistrates, and he created a category of public lawsuits. In a public lawsuit, any citizen could prosecute a case, not just the injured party and his or her family. In addition, a citizen could also prosecute on behalf of the public interest—similar to today’s class-action suit.
Solon's Law Code. Solon’s law code was based on two fundamental principles. One was that laws must be written so that they were fixed and not easily changed. The other was that laws must apply equally to everyone, aristocrats and commoners alike. Solon’s code of law covered virtually every aspect of life—theft, treason, taxation, vagrancy, adoption, boundaries, loans, and religion, among many others.
Solon’s laws differed greatly from Draco’s code. Draco’s laws severely punished lawbreakers, whereas Solon’s laws focused on compensating victims and preventing future conflicts. Solon rejected all but one of Draco’s laws—only the homicide law was retained.
Solon's Influence. Solon served as archon of Athens for only one year. The reforms he instituted did not solve the problems between commoners and aristocrats, and the civil unrest continued. Between 561 B.C. and 546 B.C., a tyrant* named Pisistratus seized power on three different occasions.
During this period of turmoil, many of Solon’s laws were abandoned. Nonetheless, the essence of many of his reforms survived—the peasants were free, the aristocracy was less powerful, and the judicial system was stronger. Solon’s political and legal reforms became the foundation for the strong, secure democracy of Athens of the 400s and 300s B.C., and they served as the basis of the Athenian legal system for the next 300 years. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Government, Greek; Law, Greek.)
* tyrant absolute ruler
MEASURING POWER IN BUSHELS
Solon divided Athenian citizens into classes based on the amount of grain their land produced. Citizens in the highest property class were called "500-bushel men." They owned enough property to produce at least 500 bushels of grain a year. The property of citizens in the next highest class produced at least 300 bushels of grain. Men in these two classes could hold major political positions. Citizens in the third class, whose property produced at least 200 bushels of grain, could hold minor political offices. The fourth and last class consisted of all citizens who owned little or no property. They were not allowed to hold political positions, but they could attend the assembly.