Today’s politics hardly takes itself seriously. With weak leadership, horrible class inequality, and polarization, this generation is going through a rough time in a democracy where its voice is rarely heard, let alone acted upon. Back in Ancient Greece, politics was everybody’s business; it was every citizen’s duty to contribute to the polis and partake in its affairs. At a young age, children were taught rhetoric and advised in politics in order to prepare them for leadership, as a good leader was valued above else. The Greeks had the same struggles we have today, including the abuse of power by the rich, select few; the inept distribution of wealth; and conflicting party viewpoints. And like today, the Greeks had their fair share of bad leadership and lack of prudence, which resulted terribly. One man in 6th-century Athens, however, took his place in office and, resisting the temptations of power, tried his best to bring equality and prospering to his city, his legacy one of great wisdom mixed with triumphs and failures, a story of a man who struggled to make Athens free. Solon of Athens, although he did not create democracy, laid the necessary foundations for it.
As with most very old historical figures, the date of Solon’s birth is not exact, nor is his death, but it is generally thought to be in 638 B.C. The son of either Euphorion or Execestides, Solon was nonetheless of noble birth, an aristocrat—a eupatrid, meaning “of a good father.” Despite his upbringing, Solon was sympathetic toward the poor, with whom he shared an affinity, which would influence his views as a politician. To make ends meet, he became a merchant so he could travel and make money. Plutarch claimed he had not money in mind, but experience: “It is certain that he was a lover of knowledge (φιλόμαθος), for when he was old he would say, that he — ‘Each day grew older, and learnt something new.’” Solon was able to travel across seas as a merchant, giving him access to all sorts of knowledge; already at a young age, he showed signs of being a devoted man of wisdom and learning. He gained his reputation as a brilliant strategist after he defeated the island of Salamis for Athens. Having been stolen by the Megarians, Salamis was heavily fortified, and many attempts had been made to take it back, but all in vain. Solon rallied the Athenians in the market and told them of a plan, which, when carried out, successfully got the island back, earning him respect from all the Athenians, who were all indebted to him. So, in 594 the Athenians unanimously voted to have Solon be the archon. The condition of Athens was horrible at the time; it was in a state of crisis: The poor could not pay for their land, so they sold themselves to the aristocrats, who treated them unfairly, causing the peasants to revolt against their masters. Precipitously close to civil war, desperate for a peaceful, bloodless resolution, the Athenians, poor and rich alike, turned their heads to the one man they knew could resolve it in all his wisdom: Solon—the single man who managed to get Salamis from the Megarians, and who defeated Crisa two years earlier. Those who lived on the coasts of Athens wanted the focus to be on the economy, those on the plains land; the Hills wanted a democracy, the Plains an oligarchy, and the Coast a mixed government. Humble, modest, and temperate, Solon was suspicious of power, fearing its ability to take control of a man’s better senses. He declined. The people insisted, and he was conferred the title of dictatorship, which allowed him to do anything at all without question. A popular poem mocks Solon’s humility:
Solon surely was a dreamer, and a man of simple mind;
When the gods would give him fortune, he of his own will declined;
When the nets was full of fishs, over-heavy thinking it,
He declined to hail it up, through want of heart and want of wit.
Had I but the chances of riches and kingship, for one day,
I would give my horse for flaying, and my house to die away.
Solon was a man of virtue. He detested wealth and greed, preferring virtue to vice, of which he thought wealth and greed were two. In one of his own poems, he disdains those of wealth, and champions those who live virtuous lives:
Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor,
We will not change our virtue for their store:
Virtue’s a thing that none can take away;
But money changes owners all the day.
Solon’s famous reforms are thought by some historians to have occurred 20 years after his election to the archonship, in the 570’s B.C., but no one knows for sure. His first, most infamous reform was known as the Seisachtheia (σεισαχθεια), the “shaking off of burdens.” Before his election, the Greek farmers had barely any money, and they could not manage to pay for their land. As a result, they became serfs and worked on the nobles’ lands, paying ⅙ of their yield every harvest, giving them the name “Hektemoroi,” (εκτημοροι) or “sixth-partner.” Some were better off than others: Those who were lucky became serfs and had to pay their debt off, while others had to sell themselves as slaves, sort of like indentured servants, and pay off their debt that way. The Hektemor system, then, was an early form of the feudalism that would become prevalent in Medieval Europe. Noble lords would have peasants, known as serfs or vassals, who would do all the work and pay them as a debt, just as those who live in apartments pay their landowners. This system created a lot of unhappiness and inequality. Seeing as the upper class got to get paid and have their own slaves, they were happy; but the lower class, evidently, was not, motivating them to want to revolt. Upon becoming archon, Solon cleared all debts whatsoever, allowing the poor to never have to pay a cent to their former owners. As he put it, “The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me / Removed, —the land that was a slave is free.” Solon removed all traces of serfdom, going so far as to buy back all slaves who had been sold across the ocean, claiming, “—so far their lot to roam, / They forgot the language of their home.” His closeness to and pity for the poor inspired him to bring everyone home. They had been so long, he says, they had even forgotten how to speak their birth language. Furthermore, Solon banned all future loans on the body, making it illegal for anyone to pay off a debt through slavery. One might think the Hektemoroi would be happy because they were now free men. Unfortunately, the Hektemoroi were no more pleased than when they had been enslaved, for they desired a redistribution of land, land Solon never gave back. On the other hand, the upper classes were unhappy, too, because they had lost their slaves. Solon, disappointed, reflected,
Formerly they boasted of me vainly; with averted eyes
Now they look askance upon me; friends no more, but enemies.
Even though they were quick to ask for his judgment, the Athenians ultimately ended up turning their backs to him, their hero, their miracle who was supposed to fix everything. They held expectations that were too high and too much to ask of Solon without becoming unfair, and thus he was made to live with his decision. The next thing Solon sought to reform was the government. Slow and steady, Solon transformed Athens from an oligarchy to a timocracy, replacing blood with wealth, family with property. This was known as the “timocratic principle”—the movement away from privilege to success. He divided the Athenians into four classes: The Pentakosiomedimnoi (πεντακοσιομέδιμνοι), so named because they produced 500 of any product, who were of the highest rank and consequently eligible for the highest offices, such as archon, treasurer (ταμιας), and magistry; the Hippeis (Iππος), who were of the second greatest wealth and were able to afford horses (hence the name, which also means horse) with between 500-300 products in their name, making them eligible for the cavalry and magistry; the Zeugitai (ζευγίται), who produced 300-200 products and were able to fill lower offices, and were reserved for the hoplite phalanx, which back then was the infantry; and the Thetes (θητες), the lowest class, which made under 200 products and was incapable of taking office, their only options being to become a worker or join the assembly. Next, he made economic reforms that greatly benefitted Athens. First, he banned all exports of anything but olive oil. Grains were hard to grow on the mountainous, rough terrain of Greece, a region more fitted to the growing of olive trees. Hence, grains were difficult to grow and rare, and the Greeks needed it more than other cities did. As olive trees grow longer and were more abundant, they were to be the focus of the economy—and a great success it was! Thanks to Solon, the economy grew much quicker and more efficiently than before. Second, he invited artisans and craftsmen from other poleis to settle down in Athens with their families, so as to improve both the population and the tradesmanship of the city-state. Because Solon believed strongly in self-reliance and developing one’s skills, he wanted people to learn the importance of tehkne (τέχνη), an important term in Greek that refers to “knowledge of a craft” and “skill.” (Whence we get “technique” and “technology.”) He promoted apprenticing, confident he could make Athens a great center for arts and crafts. It was made mandatory that a father teach his son his craft; if he did not, if the child had no craft, he was not in any way obligated to look after his father in his later years. In granting citizenship to foreigners, Solon was seen as very liberal, for citizenship was theretofore strict and reserved; such a law, however, led to the rise, historians say, to the amazing pottery we today see and admire from Athens. Metics (μέτοικος), or resident aliens, were able to get Athenian citizenship. Moving on to political reforms, Solon created a law which “disenfranchize[d] all who st[ood] neuter in a sedition.” In other words, during a revolt, anyone who did not join a side was arrested. Sounds kinda counter-intuitive doesn’t it? Solon’s intention was to enforce loyalty and patriotism: Politics was everyone’s business, so Solon expected his people to fight for one side, a side they thought worthy of fighting for. Two of his greatest reforms came when he devised the Ekklesia (Eκκλησια) and Heliaia (Ηλιαία). The former was a probouleutic, 400-member council whose role was comparable to that of the assembly. As a probouleutic council, its job was to hold preliminary discussions and debates before passing them onto the main assembly. It was composed of 100 representatives from each of the four Attic tribes. The latter was a court system, of which the Thetes could be a part, but from which women, slaves, and metics were excluded. The role of the Heliaia was to handle public litigation; thitherto, cases could only be taken up which regarded familial or tribal matters, such as if one person harmed another, then only the family could get the case, not an individual. Therefore, the power of the law extended beyond the family and unto the community. If an individual was robbed, he could now litigate. Further, if one was unhappy with one’s verdict, one could appeal to the Heliaia, much as one can do today to the Supreme Court, whose equivalence was in Greece the Council of Areopagus. In this way, the court system of Athens was a nomothetic dikastery; i.e., it was a law-giving (nomothetic) institution consisting of a jury trial (dikastery). Aristotle commented that Solon “formed the courts of law out of all the citizens, thus creating the democracy.” Solon went on to formulate new laws, having removed all of Draco’s, except that regarding homicide. He thus reduced the severity of the Athenian law and granted amnesty to all criminals, save murderers. Regarding family matters, Solon was skeptical of the rich and powerful families who had held supremacy for a long time in the city. He made it so that every childless man—like himself—could give his property to whomever he wanted; formerly, the property automatically went to his relatives. He placed stringent regulations on women and the size of funerals. Favoring the poor, he did not like seeing the rich flaunt their money in public. “In all other marriages,” wrote Plutarch, “he forbade dowries” because marriages were not supposed to be “for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and the birth of children.”
Solon finally decided after all he had done to leave Athens for 10 years. While he claimed to have left because he wanted “to travel,” most think it was because he was trying to escape from the inevitable criticisms he would face regarding his reforms, which were unpopular with everybody. In the end, in spite of everything he did for Athens, for the Athenians, he had appeased no one; no one walked out the victor, none the loser either. “In large things,” he would say, “it is hard to please everyone.”
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.
Here, Solon talks about how he attempted to give the Athenians what was equitable. He tried to the best of his abilities to preserve equality among the poor and rich, giving them what they needed, not what they wanted. Although he favored the poor and wanted the best for them, he also sought to remain impartial, as justice is, and give the rich what they deserved as well, careful not to imbalance the social order, the only thing standing between the two, the keeper of order, the defender of peace. Looking at the political situation after he left, it is easy to compare it to the French Revolution in a way, insofar as the poor were radical, the rich reactionary; the former wanted more than what they got, and they wanted the change to happen immediately, in hopes of erasing the visages of aristocratic life; the latter wanted to go back to the way things were, when they were in charge, when they could show off what wealth they had. Either way, no party got what they wanted, and so what seemed a failure for Solon was really a success. During his travels, Solon decreed that his laws were to stay in place for 100 years, so they were recorded on axones, wooden posts, in the agora for everyone to see. Of course, many of the poor were illiterate and could therefore not understand many of the laws, but those who could, and who broke them anyway, had to dedicate a golden statue to the square in their name. Meanwhile, Solon was off seeing the world. He visited Egypt and encountered a priest named Sais, through whom he learned of the tale of Atlantis, the very tale which would be told to Plato. The historian Herodotus recounted that Solon also visited Crœsus, but scholars object to this, stating it is anachronistic—the two lived during different times. Returning to Athens, Solon found Athens under the sway of the young Peisistratus; Solon proceeded to warn the Athenians not to trust him, to no avail; he had, during his travels, lost his credibility, power, and esteem. He died in 559 B.C. at about the age of 80. Solon was named one of the Seven Sages, earning the title of “sophist,” a title that, ironically, would be interpreted in a much more negative way in the next century. The famous adage “Nothing in excess”—μηδέν ἄγαν—is attributed to him. Appropriately, he said, “But the hardest thing of all is to recognize the invisible Mean of judgment, which alone contains the limits of all things.” Perhaps the greatest part of Solon’s legacy is his reputation as a politician-poet, a leader who led with wisdom, grace, beauty, and eloquence. His poems, some of which have been quoted above, reveal his morals and political motives:
I gave to the mass of the people such rank as befitted their need,
I took not away their honor, and I granted naught to their greed;
While those who were rich in power, who in wealth were glorious and great,
I bethought me that naught should befall them unworthy their splendor and state;
So I stood with my shield outstretched, and both were safe in its sight,
And I would not that either should triumph, when triumph was not with right.
Dark Earth, thou best canst witness, from whose breast
I swept the pillars broadcast planted there,
And made thee free, who hadst been slave of yore.
And many a man whom fraud or law had sold
For from his god-built land, an outcast slave,
I brought back again to Athens; yea, and some,
Exiles from home through debt’s oppressive load,
Speaking no more the dear Athenian tongue,
But wandering far and wide, I brought again;
And those that here in vilest slavery
Crouched ‘neath a master’s frown, I set them free.
Thus might and right were yoked in harmony,
Since by the force of law I won my ends
And kept my promise. Equal laws I gave
To evil and to good, with even hand
Drawing straight justice for the lots of each.
But had another held the goad as I,
One in whose heart was guile and greediness,
He had not kept the people back from strife.
For had I granted, now what pleased the one,
Then what their foes devised in counterpoise,
Of many a man this state had been bereft.
Therefore I showed my might on every side,
Turning at bay like wolf among the hounds.
So popular were they, imbued with such moral value, they were customarily memorized by children. Solon’s political philosophy was centered around “Eunomia” (Ευνομια), which translates roughly to “well-government,” referring to the exact stability and equality of which Solon himself dreamed. He defined Eunomia as the goddess of “peace and harmony of the whole social cosmos”—the well-being of the people, and, in general, communal happiness. Also, another large part of his philosophy was the divine principle of Justice (Δικη); Justice played the role of not divine punishment, but political and social punishment, a penalty imposed on the people when there was strife and inequality. Jæger said, “It is the first objective statement of the universal truth that the violation of justice means the disruption of the life of the community.” Solon believed injustice was human-caused; he therefore believed in the responsibility of the individual to bear the consequences of his actions, and specifically, of his vices, which affect not only himself, but his community as a whole. Most importantly, though, Solon is revered as the founder of democracy. It would be imprecise to call him the founder per se, because it is Cleisthenes who is regarded as the founder of democracy, but it was Solon who made it possible. In giving power to the masses and opening up the rights of citizenship, he “put an end to the exclusiveness of the oligarchy, emancipated the people, established the ancient Athenian democracy, and harmonized the different elements of the state.” Jæger, I feel, does Solon more justice than Aristotle in describing his impact: “Because he brought together the state and the spirit, the community and the individual, he was the first Athenian.”
 Plutarch, Twelve Lives, p. 82
 Id., p. 96
 Aristotle, Politics, II.12.1274a1-5
 Plutarch, ibid.
 Pomeroy, Ancient Greece, p. 187
 Jæger, Paideia, Vol. 1, p. 148
 Id., p. 141
 Aristotle, op. cit., 1273b35-40
 Jæger, op. cit., p. 149
For further reading: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History 2nd ed. by Sarah B. Pomeroy (2008)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
Ancient Greece and the Near East by Richard Mansfield Haywood (1968)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece by Nigel Rodgers (2017)
Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture Vol. 1 by Werner Jæger (1945)
A History of the Ancient World by Chester C. Starr (1991)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
A History of Greece Vol. 3 by George Grote (1899)
Twelve Lives by Plutarch (1950)