Solon the Legislator of Ancient Athens

Solon Solon the Athenian, belonged to the seven wise men of antiquity and was elected ruler by the Athenians in 594 BC. He was a well-to-do noble, merchant, poet and sage. He was one of the great politicians of ancient Greece.

Solon was born in Athens, his father was Exikestis, who came from the family of the Mendids, to which the last king of Athens, Codros, also belonged. His mother was a cousin of the mother of the tyrant Peisistratus and came from the family of the Nelides.

Although Solon’s generation was aristocratic, his family was not wealthy, so Solon was forced to follow his father in the merchant profession, which gave him the opportunity to travel to many places and gain knowledge and wisdom in addition to wealth. However, in addition to being a merchant, Solon was also a poet, since according to Diogenes Laertius, Solon’s poetry collection amounted to 4,000 verses, of which around 300 have survived.

He won the trust of the people first with his poetic work as an elegiac poet (his elegies were called “gnomic” because they contained many opinions). With his fiery verses he influenced the Athenian public opinion, advising, encouraging and exciting the Athenians. In his poems he put forward the finding that the city’s evil spirit and strife were due to class struggle and promised the cure of evil. That is why the Athenians chose him as a legislator in order to restore peace by changing the institutions.

As a consequence of a violent and prolonged rebellion of the citizens against the nobles, Solon was summoned by the common consent of the warring parties in 594 or 593 BC. with an extraordinary procedure to legislate and for this task he was equipped with extraordinary powers. That year he was elected archon by the municipality of Athens and not by the Areopagus, as the Athenian government of the time had foreseen. He was given the extraordinary powers of negotiator, i.e. mediator, conciliator, and legislator, which he retained even after the end of his annual lordship. The laws he enacted were probably published in 592 BC.

Solon’s legislative measures were very bold as well as drastic and reflect the magnitude of the crisis they were called upon to remedy.
They were based on the principle of inequality rather than equality, while seeking to prevent civil strife and the disintegration of the Athenian political community while maintaining social stratification and the projection of this stratification into the realm of power. It defined the offices that a person could hold, based on the class to which he belonged, and where he was placed based on his income (and in particular his ability to pay taxes).

Only citizens of the highest class could serve as Treasurers (financial office), while citizens of the lowest class only had the right to participate in the municipality church. His measures were aimed at ending the dependence of the Aktimen on the agricultural economy, as well as developing trade and industry to absorb the Aktimen, which Solon tried and to some extent succeeded in preventing from complete exfoliation. With his measures, small and medium-sized farmers were strengthened, as well as those who practiced a profession outside of agriculture. The barriers of descent, which prevented those who failed in a profession from rising to higher social classes, becoming citizens and assuming office, were eliminated.

The Athenian polity remained, however, even after the reforms timocratic, based on social stratification and the division of power by citizens according to their income, although this income could henceforth come from many different activities and not only from cultivation land. Solon’s goal was to make all citizens jointly responsible for observing the laws and suppressing illegalities. His ideal was eunomia.

Solon’s legislative work included measures to remedy the existing situation, state reforms concerning the body politic, popular sovereignty and the courts, as well as legislation in specific areas.
In the framework of the state reforms for the reformation and expansion of the political body of Athens, Solon maintained the four existing fees that regulated the rights and obligations of the citizens and were based until then exclusively on the amount of agricultural income. The so-called five-hundred medimni because they had an income of five hundred medimni constituted the highest class.

Next came the triaciomedimni (with an income of three hundred medimni), who were also called hippois, or horsemen, because they could afford to keep a horse. The two hundred were called zeugitai. and finally the thetas with an income of less than two hundred medimns a year who had the right to vote, but were not allowed to hold public office.

Result of these reforms was to count as citizens henceforth all adult men who lived in Attica and were descendants of residents of Attica, members of Ionian communities, although it did not establish equality of rights and obligations for all citizens.

As soon as he assumed power he canceled all mortgages of land and bodies, freed those who had become slaves, and forbade anyone to mortgage himself in the future. This institution was called seisachtheia (compound word from seio, i.e. shake off + achthos, i.e. weight) and meant the release from burdens.

Debt amortization was not applied for trade debts. That is why he resorted to a very clever strategy. He submitted an adjustment to the monetary system, from the monetary system of Aegina that was valid in Athens to the monetary system of Evia. Thus whatever debts had been incurred under the old system could now be paid under the new one, which was lighter by a third.

Solon’s state reforms also included measures that expanded popular sovereignty, i.e. the support of power in the body of the citizens of Athens. In particular, Solon transferred to the church of the municipality the responsibility of electing the lords, which had until then been held by the Areios Pagos, and instituted the procedure of drawing lots from pre-qualified five-hundred-and-half-year-olds for their election. According to this procedure, the municipality elected a number of candidate lords from the end of the five hundred and two days, and then a lottery was held to select one of these candidates.

He established a new parliamentary body, the parliament of the four hundred (or four hundred) and transferred to it the parliamentary powers that until then had the Areios Pagos, i.e. the process of preliminary processing of the draft resolutions that would be submitted to the church of the municipality.

At the same time, Solon divided Attica into 48 navies (i.e. a total of 12 trityes), each of which was headed by a navicar, who took care of the construction and maintenance of warships as well as the collection of taxes. The House of Four Hundred was more democratic compared to the aristocratic body of the Supreme Court, which included only five hundred men who had served as lords (and had been elected by the Supreme Court itself according to the procedure in force before Solon’s reforms). The parliament, on the other hand, had 400 elected members, who also came from the fees of the knights and zeugites, the term of office of each deputy was one year and the four tribes of Athens were represented equally, with one hundred deputies each.

In the area of justice, Solon’s reforms were also important in the direction of democratization and control of power. Solon made it possible for every citizen, not only the sufferer, to denounce anyone, even a lord, to the Areio Pagos with a prosecution (lawsuit), and appear as an accuser. In this way, the legal interest of the ordinary citizen was effectively secured in relation to the exercise of power by the state bodies, even if the actions of the state bodies did not directly harm him.

He established the Iliaia, a popular court with many members, as a counterweight to the Supreme Court in matters of justice. The exact composition of the Solonian Iliaia is not known and it is not excluded that it is simply the church of the municipality itself, when it met as a court. In Iliaia, anyone could appeal against a court decision of nobles. Its name comes from the noun ilia=alia, which means church, assembly. The classic formation of Iliaia in a “reservoir” of 6000 drawn Athenians over 30 years of age, from which the judges for the solar courts were drawn, is due to the reforms of the year 462 BC. from Nightmare.

Political and social reforms

Solon’s political and social reforms were a cornerstone of his efforts to stabilize Athenian society and prevent further decline. These reforms addressed the immediate economic hardships and inequalities that plagued Athens, sought to redistribute political power more equitably, and laid the groundwork for what would eventually evolve into Athenian democracy. Here’s a more detailed look at some of the key aspects of Solon’s political and social reforms:

Economic Reforms and Debt Relief

Seisachtheia (The Shaking Off of Burdens): This was perhaps the most dramatic of Solon’s reforms, aimed at addressing the crisis of debt that had ensnared a large portion of the Athenian populace. By canceling all outstanding debts, Solon freed many Athenians from bondage and servitude to wealthier citizens, thereby preventing the social unrest that might have led to a full-blown revolution.

Prohibition of Debt Slavery: Solon outlawed the practice of enslaving oneself or a family member to repay a debt. This practice had led to widespread social injustice and had contributed to the economic decline of many Athenian families.

Mortgage Relief: Solon also abolished the use of personal freedom as collateral in loans, and removed the horoi (boundary markers) on land that had been mortgaged, symbolically lifting the burden of debt from the land and its cultivators.

Agrarian and Trade Policies

Agricultural Reform: Recognizing the importance of agriculture to Athens’ economy and social fabric, Solon promoted the cultivation of olive trees, which were more profitable and less labor-intensive than grain. This not only helped to stabilize Athens’ food supply but also boosted its economy through the export of olive oil.

Encouragement of Crafts and Trade: Solon sought to diversify Athens’ economy by encouraging crafts and trade. By instituting standard weights and measures and minting Athenian coins, he facilitated trade both within Athens and with other city-states.

Political Restructuring

Timocracy: Solon restructured Athenian society into four classes based on wealth rather than noble birth. Political participation and office-holding were tied to these classes, with the wealthiest (the Pentakosiomedimnoi) having the most rights and the poorest (the Thetes) having the least. However, all free male citizens were granted the right to participate in the Ecclesia (Assembly), giving them a voice in the governance of Athens.

Council of Four Hundred: Solon established the Boule, a council of 400 members, chosen from the four tribes of Athens, to propose laws to the Ecclesia and serve as a steering committee for Athenian politics.

Access to Justice: Solon allowed any Athenian citizen to bring charges on behalf of others, broadening access to justice and preventing the monopolization of legal proceedings by the wealthy.

Moral and Social Legislation

Eunomia (Good Order): Solon’s reforms aimed to instill a sense of social justice and fairness, which he believed were essential for the stability and prosperity of the state. This extended to laws regulating public behavior and morality, such as those against excessive wealth display.

Social and political impact

These reforms, radical for their time, did not immediately solve all of Athens’ problems, nor were they universally welcomed. However, they prevented the immediate collapse of Athenian society and laid the foundational principles for democracy, equality before the law, and civic participation that would come to define Athenian identity. Solon’s reforms demonstrated the power of legislative action to enact significant social change and set a precedent for future lawmakers and reformers in Athens and beyond.

Overall, Solon set new foundations for public, private and criminal law. His laws were published perhaps in 592 or 591 BC. they were recorded on wooden square columns, which narrowed upwards and turned around an axis, which is why they were called “axes” or “curves”. His legislation gained fame and had a positive impact on the development of law but also on the social, economic, political and state development of Athens.

In 410 BC a commission of jurists was formed in Athens to undertake the liquidation and codification of the laws of Draco and Solon. The commission’s work was interrupted by the thirty tyrants and completed after their fall. In 403 or 402 BC they prepared and handed over to the legislators for “safekeeping” the body of laws.

Solon, in order to avoid changes in his legislation and not to interfere in its implementation, went into exile for ten years, an act in which the application of the distinction between the legislative and the executive power can be distinguished.

Judging by the tyranny of Peisistratus and his successors, established in 561 BC. and lasted until 510 BC, Solon’s reforms seem not to have fully addressed the problems they sought to solve. However, their essence was preserved even after the end of the tyranny, constituting the foundation on which the Athenian democracy was established.

During his ten years of self-exile, Solon travelled to Egypt, Cyprus and elsewhere. His fame spread throughout the then known world, including him among the seven sages. From his legendary meeting with the Lydian king Croesus, mentioned by Herodotus, comes the quote “naught before the end blessed”.