Solon of Athens


Democracy is amongst the most defining and prized characteristics of our modern world. And yet, how and when did it begin? Scholars trace the origins back to the political reforms introduced by two Greek statesmen in the 6th century BCE. First by Solon in 594BC, and then expanded upon by his indirect successor, Cleisthenes in 508BC.

Civilization on and around the Greek mainland had long pre-dated these democratic developments. The bronze age had begun in Greece around 3150BC, and for roughly two millennia, monarchic civilization flourished. But around 1150BC, a sudden cultural collapse occurred, ushering in a four hundred year dark period, leaving little historical trace, aside from pottery of reduced sophistication.

Archaic Period (750 BC)

But then around 750BC, a renewed burst of activity occured, and events again return into a clearer historical view, marking the start of what is called the Archaic period. Interestingly, the historical record here indicates that noble families had already supplanted the rule of kings by this point, though it is not fully clear just how this came to pass.

During this Archaic period, civilization was becoming more robust. Population and commerce increased, leading mother cities to spawn independent satellite colonies. Eventually, a network of mother and spawned colonies comprised a vast constellation around the Mediterranean.

But even as civilization generally ascended, it was not without its discontent and resentments. Peasant farmers and their family members found themselves routinely sold into slavery, when poor harvests left them unable to repay debts. At the same time, a brand new middle strata of citizen-soldiers which had emerged (known as "hoplites"), grew increasingly frustrated at their lack of political access, relative to their societal contributions.

Widespread, bubbling discontent eventually drew a response, when a flurry of reformative and disruptive statesmen rose up across the Greek world, toppling aristocratic ruling families in various Greek cities. These statesmen were generally thought of as benevolent politial actors, riding in on popular support and attempting to address public concerns. Modern pejorative connotation notwithstanding, these leaders came to be known as "tyrants" ("tyrannos") and this pattern of reformative leaders became so prevalent across the Greek world that the period became known as the "Age of the Tyrants."

Fearing the prospect of just such an overthrow in Athens, the ruling family sought to preempt the situation by appointing an emergency statesman in 594BC; his name was Solon. His task was to end an ongoing civil war, and to restore stability.

Solon

Solon entered the scene and enacted a wide array of profound reforms. He ended the problem of peasant slavery, by outlawing the option to offer oneself as collateral for a loan, and he forgave all such outstanding debts.

But it would be other reforms which defined his legacy. Solon ended the noble monopoly on power, first by abolishing birth as the requirement for high office. In doing so, Solon directly opened up political participation to non-nobles generally.

Additionally, Solon vastly expanded the power of the Athenian Assembly, a body open to all male citizens over 18 years of age. Previously, the Assembly had been a mere passive body, probably meeting only when called upon to receive magistrative announcements from above. But with Solon's modification, the Athenian Assembly was transformed overnight into an actively participating political organ. Now the Assembly would meet routinely, and it would be endowed with the capacity to approve/disapprove individual items of public policy, both foreign and domestic. The Assembly was also now given the authority to determine the worthiness of magistrates who sought admission into the highest council in the land, the Areopagus.

After implementing these reforms, we are told that Solon received flack from both sides of the social spectrum. Nobles thought he went too far and non-nobles thought he had not gone far enough. Interestingly, Solon voluntarily stepped away from the politics of Athens, believing himself to have fulfilled his usefulness, and vowing not to return for a period of ten years. We are told that Solon took the opportunity to travel, and to "see the sights" in Egypt.

In his absence, the nobles would not abide by their reduced role for very long. Within a few years, these newly instituted elections were suspended. The situation devolved into factional strife, resulting in what the aristocracy had previously hoped to avoid; the rise of Athens' first tyrant, a man by the name of Peisistratos, in 561BC. The reign of Peisistrotus proved to be quite culturally productive, relatively peaceful, and economically beneficial to the people of Athens. His reign lasted all the way until 527BC. Peisistratos then handed power over to his sons, but another round of political unrest would follow.

It would take Claisthenes in 508BC, building upon Solon's democratic foundations, to bring the political system to a point where it was sturdy enough to persist. Cleisthenes brought a new level of representation to the rural masses. He vastly expanded the system of Assemblies, to include an assembly in each town, and an assembly for each of the ten newly defined political tribes. This new system meant that suddenly political participation was vastly more widespread throughout the population. Not only did Cleisthenes brilliantly re-draw administrative lines, but he scattered political affiliations between citizens, in such a way that their combined political voices would extend well beyond the reach of local nobles, who had traditionally been able to impose leverage and intimidation over citizens in their vicinity.

This political system proved to be remarkably successful, such that less than a century later, in 451BC, Rome itself would send a delegation to Athens, seeking to learn from the Greek example, as the Romans were beginning their own political experiment in representative government.

Source: Worthington, Ian. University of Missouri-Columbia. The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World. The Great Courses, 2009.

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