Solon

About the time King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Solon (630-560BC) introduced democracy to Athens. Using a four-tier hierarchical structure based on wealth, each class of citizen had certain privileges and responsibilities.

Considered exceptionally wise (one of the Seven Wise Men of Athens), Solon introduced democratic principles to Athens. His version of democracy was not government by the people; it was more like nonbinding consultation between the rich and the people they rule. 

Still, it was an improvement; indeed, Solon’s constitutional reform was a major and controversial step toward representative government. An aristocrat by birth, Solon expanded the government by excluding poor aristocrats and adding wealthy non-aristocrats. His approach was to use annual income to determine class status, instead of privilege by birth, which was the standard way of selecting leaders.

In 594 BC, the economy of Athens was in ruins and its people near revolt. The economy relied heavily on agricultural exports but failed crops and excessive exports of grain meant there wasn’t enough food for the Athenians. Farmers were forced into slavery to pay for their debts, and the poor wanted land reform and a redistribution of wealth. The rich wanted more power, and the aristocracy were splintered and unwilling to change.

Given enough power to reconstruct the economy, Solon could have established a tyrannical dictatorship. Instead, he gave everyone a new start. Solon freed the slaves, canceled all debts, limited exports to olive oil, and encouraged an occupational shift from agriculture to trade. Weights and measures were standardized, and loans couldn’t be secured with personal freedom as collateral. Solon also minted Athen’s first coin.

In order to determine class status, Solon instituted a forerunner of income tax. Citizens was required to specify their annual income and were then assigned to one of four social classes of the basis of their wealth. The basis of comparison was the medimni, which is approximately equivalent to a cubic foot of grain or 36 liters of wine. The wealthy (500 medimni or higher), the professional soldier with war-ready horse (300 medimni), the working class with a team of oxen (200 medimni), and the poor (less than 200 medimni). Office holders for the Council of 400 were selected from the top three groups but all 4 strata were able to attend the general assembly.

Although he didn’t do away with the social class distinctions, he imposed constitutional reforms that radically changed the way government operated. Thirty years after Dracon introduced strict written laws to Athens, Solon reformed the society to be more responsive to the peoples’ needs. He kept Draco’s distinction between premeditated and accidental murder, but eliminated the more “draconian” aspects of the law.

Solon’s laws were displayed on wooden tablets that revolved. Although his reforms didn’t go far enough to please the poor and went too far to please the aristocracy, Solon changed the basic structure of Athenian society and laid the foundation for the reforms of Cleisthenes.

Solon came to prominence through his poetry, which he used to inspire, instruct and convince Athenians to action. During the war with Megara, Solon wrote a poem that inspired Athens to rejoin the battle and win the war. It was this poem that made him famous. Having gained fame and influence through poetry, Solon used his literary skill during the reformation of Athens to convince others to accept his proposals. According to Plato, it was Solon who brought the myth of Atlantis to Greece, no doubt through a poem.

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