The ancient sources about Solon are handed down to us both by Herodotus and Plutarch, but also by some fragments of the same Solon. Another source equally important was Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians. The great philosopher, despite having lived a couple of centuries later than Solon, gave us important information regarding the Athenian State. As we know from the sources mentioned above, Solon was of noble birth, and apparently, according to the legend, his father’s side derived his lineage from King Codrus.
Solon was a man of extreme erudition, but he not despised the public life, and he chose to give himself the trouble of saving Athens from a political decay that, according to his own poems, would be derived from injustice and oppression perpetrated at the instance of aristocrats on the rural populations of the city and its territory, and that had reduced a large part of peasants to slavery. In Solon’s opinion, the Athenian aristocracy was dragging the city to ruin, fomenting civil wars.
Aristotle all in all confirmed Solon’s statements, underlining the fact that Athens had ended up in the hands of a few aristocrats, while the peasants were sold into slavery along with their wives and children if they could not pay rent, and Solon “was the first to appear as a leader of the people”:
“After this event there was contention for a long time between the upper classes and the populace. Not only was the constitution at this time oligarchical in every respect, but the poorer classes, men, women, and children, were the serfs of the rich. They were known as Pelatae and also as Hectemori, because they cultivated the lands of the rich at the rent of a sixth part of the produce. The whole country was in the hands of a few persons, and if the tenants failed to pay their rent they were liable to be haled into slavery, and their children with them. All loans were secured upon the debtor’s person, a custom which prevailed until the time of Solon, who was the first to appear as a leader of the people.” (1).
Since it is unthinkable that Solon wanted to implement a slightest revolution from below to unseat the aristocracy, he based his Athenian reform agenda on the only possible criterion known in the ancient world, i.e. focusing it on the concept of justice, and being able to impose a total reform project, so avoiding potential civil war between the classes that would have annihilated Athens:
“To the common people I have given such a measure of privilege as sufficed them, neither robbing them of the rights they had, nor holding out the hope of greater ones ; and I have taken equal thought for those who were possessed of power and who were looked up to on account of their wealth, careful that they too should suffer no indignity. I have taken a stand which enables me to hold a stout shield over both groups, and 1 have allowed neither to triumph unjustly over the other.” (2).
Around the 594 BC, the Areopagus had therefore the illumination of granting to Solon full powers for one year. The choice of the aristocracy was both very intelligent and prudent, in the sense that the civil war was imminent because of rural population was near economic collapse. Solon showed extreme intelligence, tackling the big problem of the peasants who have become slaves for debts, and arranging their immediate freedom, also providing substantial support from the Treasury of the State. He also added that the debts imposed on free peasants had to be annulled.
Obviously, the great landowners lost a lot of money, but at least the Athenian State of aristocratic origin was saved. In short, the so-called seisàchtheia, or shaking off the weights (from séiō (shake), and áchthos (weight) was a brilliant idea of Solon. The subsequent division into classes (Knights, Zeugitae, Pentacosiomedimni and Thetis) was also of exceptional importance, but, as we said, what that literally saved Athenian economy from total collapse was the abolition of debts, which did not solve all the problems of Athens, but at least halted the breakup of the city-state due to inevitable civil wars that would had been erupted inevitably because of deep and widespread social discontent in Athenian society.
Solon was also included among the Seven Sages of the Ancient World:
“Like most of the sages of those times, he cultivated chiefly that part of philosophy which treats of civil obligations. His physics were of a very simple and ancient cast, as appears from the following lines:
From cloudy vapours falls the treasured snow,
And the fierce hail: from lightning’s rapid
Springs the loud thunder, winds disturb the
Than whose unruffled breast, no smoother
In all the works of nature
Upon the whole, Thales seems to have been the only philosopher who then carried his speculations beyond things in common use while, the rest of the wise men maintained their character by rules for social life.” (3).
Solon finally had handed down to us a moral sentence that he cared very much, because it kept him out of scrapes when he ruled Athens:
‘‘ Obey the magistrates whether their commands be just or unjust.”
Solon was a man truly wise, and also very smart.
1) Aristotle on the Athenian Constitution, Translated with Introduction and notes by F.G. Kenyon, London, G. Bells & Sons, 1912, p. 2.
2) This fragment of Solon was translated by Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1919, p.73.
3) Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men : Translated from the Original Greek by J. Langhorne & W. Langhorne, London, 1853, Vol. I, p. 92-93.