Sunday, November 8, 2009

Solon the Reformer and his Republic

In 632 B.C, the opportunist Cylon tried to establish himself as tyrant of Athens, and failed.

By 600, Athens was in disarray. The last decades had seen the Athenian pottery trade fall behind their Corinthian competition, and its aristocratic class become more ruthless. Poor farmers were becoming 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 so the Polis split into factions.

The time was right, once again, for a tyrant to emerge. A man was put forward by his followers in their quest for a tyrant leader, but he defied them instead. That man took it upon himself to try to fix the polis single-handed -- to create a republic instead of a democracy. That man was Solon.

He was an educated and a successful businessman: an aristocrat who wrote poetry. 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.

Solon was elected first Archon in 594 B.C. and immediately set to work remaking the Athenian government. His fellow aristocrats were confident he would serve their interests until be began canceling the debts of the poor farmers. He devalued the mina giving relief to the landless poor, and received from the stunned power brokers supreme authority over all offices of the government for the remainder of the year. The government of Athens was now in the hands of a single individual.

Solon repealed the dreaded Draconian criminal code and substituted his own. Then he wrote a new constitution. Those born of free Attican parents would be citizens of Athens. 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.

He was no democrat, but a republican through and through. Solon had no sympathy for equality – only for creating a balance between the classes. The vehicle for that balance was the creation of a middle class.

Solon’s year came to an end with passions high, yet there was enough support for the reforms in each class to keep the Polis stable. To the surprise of many, Solon resigned his post and left Athens for ten years.

But the balance of forces could not last. When he returned to Athens as an old man in 561, Solon witnessed the fake assassination of Peisistratus and insisted the young man didn’t need a bodyguard. Solon was ignored and Peisistratus became tyrant of Athens.

No comments: