Solon was one of the most important figures of his time and on a short list of the greatest Greek politicians. He was an educated aristocrat, successful businessman, and poet. According to Plutarch, Solon had four character traits seldom found in one man: patriotism, integrity, political genius, and intelligence. And we must not leave out ambition – he wanted the job of saving the Athenian state.
As previously discussed, the Period of Tyrants dated from ~ 650 B.C. to 510 B.C. when Hippias was expelled from Athens. Solon was active during the middle of this period.
In 632 B.C, the opportunist Cylon tried to establish himself as a tyrant of, but failed. He had achieved victory at the Olympic Games and used his fame to gather supporters and take control of the Acropolis. Lured out of hiding with the promises of a pardon, Cylon and his followers were murdered by members of the aristocratic Alcmeonidae family. Athens was not ready to tolerate a tyrant.
A decade later in 621 B.C. the citizens of Athens asked a legislator named Draco to codify Athenian law for the first time. The results of his work were unduly harsh specifying the death penalty for even minor offences.
“…he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones."
By 600 B.C, Athenian politics was in complete disarray. The last decades had seen their pottery trade fall behind its Corinthian competition, and the aristocratic class had become more ruthless. Poor farmers became serfs of the rich when they could not pay their debts, and the landless were enslaved and sold abroad. Territorial groups could not be controlled by the weak central government.
As Plutarch tells it, “The state was divided into as many factions as there were parts of the country, for the Diakrii, or mountaineers, favored democracy; the Pedioei, oligarchy; while those who dwelt along the seashore, called Parali, preferred a constitution midway between these two forms, and thus prevented either of the other parties from carrying their point. Moreover, the state was on the verge of revolution, because of the excessive poverty of some citizens, and the enormous wealth of others, and it appeared that the only means of putting an end to these disorders was by establishing an absolute despotism.”
Again Plutarch sets the stage.
“In this position of affairs, the most sensible men in Athens perceived that Solon was a person who shared the vices of neither faction, as he took no part in the oppressive conduct of the wealthy, and yet had sufficient fortune to save him from the straits to which the poor were reduced. In consequence of this, they begged him to come forward and end their disputes.
But Phanias of Lesbos says that Solon deceived both parties, in order to save the state, promising the poor a redistribution of lands, and the rich a confirmation of their securities. However, Solon himself tells us that it was with reluctance that he interfered, as he was threatened by the avarice of the one party, and the desperation of the other. He was chosen Archon next after Philombrotus (594 B.C.), to act as an arbitrator and lawgiver at once, because the rich had confidence in him as a man of easy fortune, and the poor trusted him as a good man. It is said also that a saying which he had let fall some time before, that "equality does not breed strife," was much circulated at the time, and pleased both parties, because the rich thought it meant that property should be distributed according to merit and desert, while the poor thought it meant according to rule and measure. Both parties were now elate with hope, and their leaders urged Solon to seize the supreme power in the state, of which he was practically possessed, and make himself king.”
Solon consulted the Oracle at Delphi which said,
“Take thou the helm, the vessel guide,
Athens will rally to thy side.”
But he refused the monarchy saying in his own verse,
"Not a clever man was Solon, not a calculating mind,
For he would not take the kingdom, which the gods to him inclined,
In his net he caught the prey, but would not draw it forth to land,
Overpowered by his terrors, feeble both of heart and hand;
For a man of greater spirit would have occupied the throne,
Proud to be the Lord of Athens, though 'twere for a day alone,
Though the next day he and his into oblivion were thrown."
As senior Archon, Solon chose to proceed quietly to administer so as to
Not disturb or overset the state
Because if he did he would not have sufficient power to re-constitute and organize again. To rule properly, Solon thought it best to “Combine force and justice together”.
So he started changing Laws. What laws? Nearly all of them.
Solon cancelled all debts and obligations in Athens. He repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own. Then he wrote a new constitution. Those born of free Attican parents would become citizens of
The populace would be divided into four classes based on wealth with the top three classes eligible for the magistracies formerly only available to the aristocrats. The lowest class was barred from magistracies but allowed to serve on juries. Solon also made decisions of the magistrate’s court subject to appeal to a special court (Heliaia) which had no judge.
And on he went. He suppressed dowries, barred men from speaking evil of the dead, allowed wills to give property to a friend if no relative was available, regulated the journeys of women, encouraged trade, barred exports except for oil, and allowed foreigners to become Athenian citizens.
Solon was no democrat, because he believed in the reality of the distribution of wealth. Anticipating the Roman Republic, which was ninety years in the future, he rejected equality – choosing instead a way of creating a balance between the classes. He believed the creation of a middle class would neutralize the conflict between the upper and lower, precisely the role the Knights would take in Republican Rome.
Solon’s year in power came to an end with passions high, yet there was enough support in each class for his reforms to keep the Polis stable. He ordered the new laws to be in force for one hundred years, and then, to the surprise of many, resigned his post and left
Athens for ten years.
The balance of forces did not last. Returning to
Athens as an old man in
561, Solon witnessed Peisistratus become a tyrant. He died two years later and
his ashes were scattered around the Island of Salamis. When the last tyrant,
Hippias, was exiled in 510 B.C, the first act of the Athenian government was to
re-institute the laws of Solon.