Solon, (640 -560 BC) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet who is credited with the restructuring of the social and political situation in Athens, thereby creating the foundation for Athenian democracy. His father was Execestides, of a distinguished family but of modest means. In 600 BC Solon commanded his city’s forces in the war between Athens and Megara in a dispute over control of the island of Salamis. It is interesting to note that the Oracles of Delphi proclaimed for him at the time, “seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Athens. Grasp the helm in your hands, for you have many allies in your city.” He then was appointed Archon, the highest administrative position in Athenian government. At the time Athens was facing an economic crisis due to the fact that ownership of agricultural land was controlled by the aristocracy. To prevent poor workers from becoming slaves, Solon forbade the use of a person or family member from becoming security on loans. As soon as he became head of state, Solon liberated the people by prohibiting all loans on the debtor’s person; in addition, he cancelled all debts, private and public. This enraged the wealthy who had taken advantage of those who borrowed and were forced to work as dependants to the landowners. Solon’s plan was called, ‘Seisachtheia’ (shaking off of burdens). An appeals system was put in place, covering matters such as inheritances, funerals, theft, adultery, and certain personal damages. Previously, the rich dominated all politics. Then, with Solon’s changes, in theory, everybody was equal before the law.
Of course, the wealthy rebelled. ‘These borrowers’, the wealthy announced, ‘borrowed money in order to buy land to enrich themselves!” But, there were those who believed that Solon made those particular laws indefinite in order to force the law to be in the hands of the people in general in an equal way, rich or poor.
He wrote, poetically, “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. 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.” There were about 285 verses. The historian Plutarch quotes some of them, mentioning that Solon was, indeed, a man with a strong sense of justice. Aristotle was a critic of Solon’s laws in his ‘Athenian Politics’ where he says that Solon’s laws were too vague and could be open to various interpretations and, consequentially, many legal disputes.
In order to escape the constant wrath, Solon traveled to Egypt, a fact that modern day writers say didn’t happen. Yet, Plato and Herodotus wrote that, indeed, he had traveled, extensively, even to Lydia in Asia Minor, where he met with Croesus. In that time, the laws he put in place had to be obeyed for the remainder of his term of ten years. I am reminded that, today, our president, Joe Biden, has proposed a law that student loans be forgiven. Some were so expensive and extensive, that it would take many years – if ever – to be paid off. He, also, proposed that Social Security beneficiaries now struggling with the inflation receive a raise, something not done in over 40 years. High inflation would mean more money paid out of the funds with more money coming into the funds from taxes on workers’ wages. But, just like in ancient Athens, it would be so beneficial if the very wealthy paid taxes, too.
Solon could have become a despot by attaching himself to whichever party he chose, but he preferred, at the cost of incurring the enmity of both parties, to be the savior of his beloved country and the ideal lawmaker by ending the exclusive autocratic control of government. Thus, he had the lasting reputation of being one of the founding fathers of Athens. But, the rich did not forgive and the tyrant, Peisistratus, seized power three times in the 550s and the 540s BC in an attempt to undo Solon’s reduction of Athenian aristocratic dominance. Politics, as usual.