Archaic Greece had evolved a complex, if unformulated, social structure long before Numa attempted to establish one in Rome. Its origins lie deep within the impenetrable mists of prehistory, reaching back tenuously towards the forgotten splendour of Mycenaean civilization. Its development paralleled the transition from elegant bronze to cruder iron, as if the hardness of the new metal envisaged a shrinkage and hardening of the people. Despite the loss of trade and collapse of colonization, the abandonment of temples and disappearance of cities, old forms were transmogrified. Centered upon oikonomia, the management of the household, families looked first to their own, then to other families who came to depend upon them or upon whom they relied. These phratries or associations of clients were as old as, and perhaps stronger than, blood-related clans. When the population of Attica suddenly began to expand in the eighth century B.C. and Athens grew from a local village to a regional power, the Archaic pattern of life showed stress and imbalance.
The inability of tribal modes to deal with new realities – fragmentation of agricultural holdings amongst increasing numbers of descendants, rudimentary forms of trade and the consequent flow of commercial wealth to urban centres, the need for social and political organization on a regional rather than a village basis – encouraged the appearance of tyrants across Greece. Strong rulers who themselves constituted the law, they worked to fashion states and a viable political tapestry with varying degrees of imagination, foresight, selfishness and corruptibility. In 632 B.C. Cylon, an Olympic victor, made a bid to be tyrant of Athens. With the support of his father-in-law, Theagenes, tyrant of Megara, he seized the Acropolis. Noble families protested, but the threat of Theagenes kept them from risking a defeat which might subject Athens to Megara and diminish their wealth and power. The incalculable and spontaneous uprising of the peasantry prevented Cylon from succeeding. Though he escaped, his followers, promised safe conduct from the citadel, were slaughtered by the archons, the administrative officials of the city. Though Athens was spared an unwanted tyrant, the archons had acted far beyond their recognized authority, the city had become religiously polluted, and the peasantry had exhibited an unsuspected solidarity and rejection of authority. The Cylonian incident brought to the surface bitter struggles between noble families and deep conflicts between the aristocracy and the common people.
By 624 measures were needed to prevent the ancient principle of the blood-feud from becoming the paradigm for disaffection between the social classes and to discourage outright tyranny as well. Dracon promulgated and wrote down a set of laws which were to bind all citizens, distinguish amongst classes and preserve the rights of each, and define the roles of the various governing groups in the emerging polis. He was the first to distinguish between murder and manslaughter, and he made the polis, not the family, the judge of crimes. His laws were as harsh as they were clear, and even minor infractions were punishable by death. Some say, however, that Dracon was not a person. Rather, Athens codified laws derived from the authority of a drakon, 'serpent', since the Athenians worshipped a sacred serpent on the Acropolis where it was tended by priests. Long after the Athenian serpent had been forgotten, the polis still consulted the pythoness at Delphi, oracle of Pythian Apollo, on public affairs. Delphi was consecrated to Python before Apollo made it his own. Although Dracon established a degree of political cohesion, he did not address impending social or economic disasters. As farms were divided amongst heirs, their smaller size worked against their viability. Families grown wealthy through large holdings or trade lent money to struggling farmers, who had in return to mortgage their land and often themselves. Farms were seized, individuals and even whole families were sold into slavery, and a few grew immensely rich whilst agriculture declined. With the possibility of violent rebellion immanent and other poleis looking to take advantage of Athenian weaknesses, a diallaktes – statesman and reconciler – was needed. Perhaps unique in his foresight and practical wisdom, Solon brought to an historical crisis the ability to lay a new foundation for his city and a new mode of political thought for the Mediterranean world.
Solon was born about 638 B.C. to Execestides and his wife, a cousin of the mother of Pisistratus. His father was of modest wealth, ancient nobility (as a descendant of Codrus) and exceptional generosity. According to Plutarch, Solon and Pisistratus were close friends in youth. When Execestides had dispersed most of the family estate to aid individuals in distress, Solon gave up writing amatory verses and became a trader. This rather new occupation for Athens led Solon to many places in the Aegean, and perhaps as far as Egypt and Syria. While restoring the family wealth, Solon cultivated a lifelong love of learning and shed his Attic views for a Mediterranean perspective. When he returned permanently to Athens, he was a man of knowledge, experience and influence. He was also aware of the acute crisis facing the polis. Athens had carried on an enervating and unsuccessful struggle with Megara for possession of the island of Salamis. The rapidly swelling landless class desperately wanted the island's arable land; the aristocracy failed to annex it. In an attempt to quash public criticism and potential revolt, a law was enacted that forbade anyone to speak of Salamis or of Athenian claims to it. Solon saw in this a pathetic response to a genuine need. He had his family circulate the rumour that he had gone quite mad – a view provincials might readily accept regarding one who had rashly wandered to foreign parts. Once Solon's supposed madness was commonly accepted, he composed a poem on Athens' historic right to Salamis and the shame of her failure to regain it. He recited it in the agora and was listened to by commoner and aristocrat alike. Pisistratus effected a repeal of the law, and Solon found himself placed in charge of a new effort to conquer the island.
Solon divided his modest forces into two groups. One approached Salamis by sea and captured a Megarian warship. While Solon launched a land attack against the Megarian stronghold and drew out its forces, the Megarian warship manned by Athenian troops quietly sailed into the harbour and seized the town. The island was occupied by Athenians, and, since both sides suffered losses they did not wish to endure again, Megara agreed to arbitration by Sparta. Solon's eloquence won a ruling in favour of Athens, and Solon solemnly dedicated a temple to Aries on Salamis. Returning to Athens, he found himself a leader and a statesman. When news arrived that the Cirrhaeans were marching on Delphi, he advised the citizens of Attica to form an army of the Delphic amphictyony to defend their sacred centre. Delphi's victorious defence under the generalship of Alcmaeon gave Solon a high standing in all the poleis of Attica. The relative calm produced by Solon's actions and counsel, however, only allowed the old enmities and suspicions to reawaken. Wealthy and impoverished factions threatened open confrontation. The hill tribes urged more democratic government, whilst the plains clans supported a strong oligarchy and the peoples of the seashore vacillated.
Many people saw the need for a leader who could reconcile the factions, and most were sufficiently weary of wars and feuds to want a peaceful solution. Although Solon was reluctant to immerse himself in political debate, the sifting function of public conversation left only one name – Solon the diallaktes. The poor and disenfranchised appreciated him because he had not been implicated in their gradual degradation; the wealthy saw him as one of themselves. He hesitated, but the Athenians elected him archon in 594 B.C. and, in their enthusiasm and hopefulness, endowed the office with sweeping judicial and legislative powers for his term. Some believe that Solon would have refused the office, since he said that tyranny was a fair spot but had no way down from it, save for an oracle he received from Apollo at Delphi:
Whatever the sapient counsel, Solon accepted the office of archon because he had insight into what was needed, a perspective on what could be done, and the conviction that he alone stood a chance of accomplishing it.
Solon realized that intensified expectations focussed on one leader provide both unusual opportunities and awesome dangers. Balances had to be restored and subtly altered in Attic society. Whilst social bonds remained strong, agriculture, economics and politics had to be transformed. He began with Dracon's enduring achievements, and reinforced the idea of appeal to written law – constitutionalism – by having all his legislation inscribed on rotating wooden cylinders where they could be consulted by any citizen. Several of these axones survived into Plutarch's time. Treading the narrow path between revolution and reaction, he instituted reforms simultaneously in several directions. He promulgated the famous seisachtheia, the throwing off of burdens. This sweeping legislative decree cancelled most mortgages on property and all on persons. Once the immediate shock was over, the seemingly radical nature of his act was widely accepted by the wealthy, for they were not seriously damaged as individuals and were left unharmed as a class. Farms abandoned or left fallow began to produce again, and the impoverished felt new hope. If the rich were forced to relinquish some morally dubious gains, the poor were not promised an egalitarian redistribution of land. Rather, new mortgage laws were established which included protection from foreclosure and fixed maximum interest rates. Individuals were barred from mortgaging themselves. New inheritance laws forbade the fragmentation of small farms amongst several sons and wills were established guaranteeing transfer of property according to the designation of the deceased. Since only one son in a family could inherit a family farm, Solon required fathers under penalty of law to teach their sons a trade. Widows and certain other women were granted a measure of independence in respect to their inheritances and affairs. Just as the concept of constitutional law (rather than personal decree) reduced caprice in the affairs of the polis, Solon's new laws restricted arbitrariness in the affairs of family, clan and phratry.
The economic flexibility created by the seisachtheia, Solon's most dramatic act, was not allowed to concretize gradually into obsolete modes. He wanted to reduce further the internal debts of the polis, and he saw the importance of increasing trade. To accomplish both, he devalued the currency by ruling that one hundred (and not the previous seventy-three) drachmas constituted a mina. At the same time, he banned the export of everything except for olive products and handicrafts. By guiding Athens into an agricultural speciality and preventing the export of needed foodstuffs, he stabilized the regional cultivation of produce, encouraged the arts and crafts and launched Athens into the Aegean commercial market. By offering easy citizenship to foreign artisans, he assured the future greatness of his city as a centre of material culture. Many historians believe that his redefinition of Athenian currency was actually the introduction of coinage, a Lydian invention, into Attica. While he nurtured the prosperity of clans, he also enhanced the growth of urban wealth, in effect creating a new class with loyalties to the polis. Though still beyond the imagination of the time, Athens had built the foundations of its subsequent cosmopolitanism.
By transforming the economic order, Solon improved the lives of many citizens, but on this alone he could not have claimed to have done better than a number of contemporaneous tyrannies. The roots of continued social weal lay in the more delicate task of social reformation. Rather than risk the fragile compromise between classes, ancient privileges and entrenched interests, by altering the power structure of Athens he subsumed it within a larger political framework. Traditionally, the archons were elected from the Eupatridai, the old landed aristocracy. After their one-year term, archons joined the Council of Areopagus, a patriarchal survival from the earliest times. Archons were accountable to the council, which in turn managed foreign and domestic policy. Solon confirmed this political arrangement and satisfied the powerful Eupatridai as well as other traditionalists, but in doing so he clearly defined their venerable privileges and thereby established parameters of authority for both archons and council.
At the same time that Solon reassured the aristocracy of its jealously guarded positions, he extended the franchise in three directions. First of all, he rejuvenated the ecclesia, the popular assembly which probably did little more than approve the annual selection of archons, and admitted the lowest class of citizens to it. For the first time, an Athenian political body represented all citizens. Then he established a new boule – the Council of Four Hundred – which was charged with setting the business of the ecclesia and with passing laws. Coupled with the fixed laws displayed in the agora, powerful individuals and families were compelled to conduct themselves responsibly. Finally, Solon inaugurated the heliaia, a court of the people whose dikastai or jurors were drawn from every stratum of the citizenry. Not only could the decisions of the archons be appealed to this court, but each archon had to render an account of his tenure in office at its close. Whilst none of these institutional changes produced a sudden shift in the traditional lines of authority, they were the foundation upon which profound, if gradual, changes were envisaged. Having built the arch which would support the eventual emergence of democracy, Solon set in place its keystone – the law that for the first time allowed any citizen to file a suit in court on behalf of himself or any other citizen, for, he said, a citizen can safeguard himself only when he is concerned for justice for all his fellows.
Despite a great deal of acrimonious criticism from some individuals of this or that particular action, Solon enjoyed wide support throughout his archonship, the compromise held together, and he was encouraged to stay in office indefinitely. A true diallaktes, he refused to do so. But before leaving office, he took advantage of his unique position and persuaded Athens to swear to refrain from changing any of his laws for at least a decade. He added the curious law that forbade any citizen to stand neutral in a sedition. If civil strife were to be inevitable, he did not want any faction to emerge victorious because most people hoped to remain uncommitted until they could discern the outcome. By being forced to declare themselves, even revolt would become a kind of popular vote which might quickly settle the issues involved. Thus securing time for the healing and transforming effects of his economic and legislative policies to work, he retired from active participation in political affairs.
Solon thought it best to absent himself from Athens for a time, so that the reactions he expected to manifest as the full significance of his reforms was recognized would have no visible focus. Obtaining permission to leave for ten years, he purchased a trading vessel and sailed to Egypt. He studied with Psenophis of Heliopolis for a time and then travelled to Sais, the sacred seat of Isis, the goddess of wisdom. There he met her chief priest, Sonchis, renowned for his wisdom and knowledge. According to Plato, Solon learnt that the history of Attica could be traced back in detail for nine thousand years, when the ancestors of the Athenians battled the surviving remnants of Atlantis, sinking in its last paroxysm beneath the sea. Plato used the story attributed to Solon in his own unfinished Critias. Solon's remarkable awareness of the changing economic structure of the Mediterranean was enhanced by a new perspective on time and history.
From Egypt, Solon sailed to Cyprus, where he was welcomed by Philocyprus, king of Aepea, a hillside town. The city had been built by Demophon, the son of Theseus, first king of Athens, and Philocyprus sought Solon's advice on governance. Seeing the difficult terrain which limited the city's growth, Solon advised moving Aepea to the lower plain. Philocyprus did so, and Solon helped him establish new institutions and laws. In honour of his contribution, the city was renamed Soli after him. Invoking the blessings of the Cyprian Aphrodite on Soli, Solon pushed on to Lydia. Croesus, its king, had introduced gold coinage to the Aegean and had grown so wealthy that the expression "rich as Croesus" remains to this day. Tradition says that Croesus asked Solon if he had ever seen a happier man. Solon replied, to the king's chagrin:
Aesop, whose fables are still read, was in the king's court at the time. "Solon," Aesop warned, "let your converse with kings be either short or seasonable." "Nay rather," Solon replied, "either short or reasonable."
Solon was dismissed, but years later when Croesus was defeated, captured and bound to the pyre by Cyrus the Persian, he called out "O Solon!" Cyrus enquired to which god Croesus was commending himself, and the fallen king recounted Solon's visit and his own heedlessness in not taking to heart his sage advice. Cyrus was so deeply moved by the recollection of Croesus in the face of death that he released him and made him a royal counsellor for the rest of his life.
When Solon returned to Athens, he found that his work had remained largely intact. If not seamless, it was certainly sufficiently coherent to endure. Pisistratus, his old friend, came to power, and Solon declined to engage in further political life. Rather, he turned again to poetry, and the few fragments that survive show that he had a basic political theory which had guided his public and personal actions. The harsh justice, dike, meted out in the laws of Dracon was by decree. Solon saw dike as an aspect of Deity and a quality of Nature, which, finding its apotheosis in man, is the ultimate criterion by which laws of the polis are measured and which they should mirror. Dike is the natural order of things, a moral ecology in which every need can be met, every function in Nature and obligation in man can be fulfilled, providing nothing moves to excess (koros) or falls into pride or outrage (hybris). The welfare of the polis depends upon cleaving to divine Dike, "who is so well aware in her silence of what is and what has been, and soon or late comes always to avenge". For Solon, dysnomia, bad government, assures the eventual destruction of a polis and suffering for all its citizens. Eunomia, good government, just as surely promises moral and spiritual prosperity, even though material well-being is ever in the hands of the gods, for Eunomia is the sister of Dike and therefore her beneficent power is innate to the justly ruled polis.
Solon institutionalized the denial that might is right and offered the mean as an alternative. When asked if he had given the Athenians perfect laws, he replied, "I gave them the best they could receive." Though Solon did not always approve of the actions of Pisistratus, who ruled many years and was in a stronger position than his friend and mentor had been, he held his tongue. There must have been some pain in watching many of his laws being modified and replaced, but Solon could see that the principles were unharmed. Though his friends claimed that Pisistratus undid Solon's work, the great diallaktes would have agreed with later thinkers who recognized that Pisistratus actually strengthened Solonian principles and carried out his vision. Solon's ability to grant authority to others as well as exercise it decisively himself, his capacity for long-term perspective and his flawless integrity ranked him forever amongst the Seven Sages of ancient Greece. His insight into principles made him the father of political theory, and his advice to the polis remains unshakeably sound: