The Reforms of Solon
Solon is a crucial person in the world history because due to his reforms, the phenomenon of democracy from Athens was developed and significantly extended. In 593 BCE, this great statesman managed to revise the economic, social, and political structure of Athens. As a result, his attempts started the evolution of the society and made it stray from the rule of the aristocratic elite and adopt a more egalitarian structure that set a course for the democracy. In a successful way, Solon arbitrated the settlement between Athenian commoners and aristocrats and provided more citizens with the ability to participate in the political process. Therefore, Solon is famous by his economic and political reforms that helped to extend and spread the phenomenon of democracy.
At the times of Solon, Athens experienced a great crisis. Farmers owning small land pieces had been the basis of the economy of Athens for a long time. As a result, in 600 BC, the eupatridae (the local nobility) that dominated this city both economically and politically began to purchase the lands (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 2). Small farmers had no other choice than to mortgage lands; many of them could not pay off the mortgage. As a result, many had to sell their property to pay debts. Hence, they were turned into tenants that had to work on lands they used to own and were obligated to pay rent to new landlords. In the case farmers could not pay the rent, taking loans was the only option. Nonetheless, if people did not pay their loans, they were forced to become slaves of their creditors. At that time, enslavement became a serious problem in Athens that caused strong social resistance. The aristocracy feared that lower classes would overthrow the tyranny as it had already happened in some Greek cities and would start the revolution (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 2). Therefore, due to such fears, aristocracy turned to an aristocrat and poet, who was respected in Athens, Solon, with a request to mediate the case and improve the situation in the government. The man had a strong intention to reach a compromise of different social groups and join them under sound leadership.
Solon managed to develop reforms that targeted economic problems. Solon decreed that debtors could not be enslaved by their creditors; also, all enslaved people should be set free (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 2). Moreover, he limited the amount of land to be owned by one person; this strategy helped to prevent the land concentration in the hands of few. At the same time, he left the aristocrats lands intact, without redistributing or confiscating them (Spielvogel 58). In such a manner, he reached the appropriate balance in assisting poor people while protecting the aristocrats interests. Solon was the main landowner himself. However, he brags in the poem that he established marking stones in order to show that the land track was mortgaged out. Also, Solon is believed to introduce the first currency of Athens since before the city had used coins of other cities (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 2). He strived to set a standard for weights and measures and made laws promote the pottery and olive oil export. He made reforms that made it easier to obtain other professions, except farming that not only provided new career opportunities for poorer people of the Athenian society but also led to the professionalization of craftsmanship in the city.
Solon was famous not only for economic reforms but also for political initiatives. He managed to break the power of eupatridae by dividing male citizens into four groups, the membership in which was determined by the level of ones financial condition, according to the annual census (Solon and the Early Athenian Government3). Four classes included the wealthy Athenians that had landed properties, which produced five hundred or more bushels of crops annually, people with enough wealth to own horses for battle, citizens with wealth to equip themselves as hostilities, particularly, infantryman, in battle and poorer people that mostly were manual workers or tenant farmers (Solon and the Early Athenian Government3). Only the first class was able to maintain the archon office, while the top three classes could serve in the boule. There is a suggestion that Solon shaped the boule. Instead of holding an election for four hundred seats in the council, he stated that the membership would be seeded in the draw from all eligible people from other three wealthiest classes (Solon and the Early Athenian Government3).
Solon introduced a new body that was named Ecclesia or Assembly, in which all people in Athens were able to vote for the state members. This body became the most crucial body in the government because it acted as the jury for crucial court cases, elected higher officials and passed laws. Therefore, it was the crucial step toward the establishment of the Athenian democracy (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 3). However, the model proposed by Solon was not a democracy in the full sense. The Assembly could only deliberate on issues assigned to it by the boule. It is not clear how laws were passed under the constitution of Solon, but it is possible to suggest that Aeropause retained control over the laws. Hence, the real power still was concentrated in hands of the elite.
The shift of Solon from the traditional class system was a great move toward democracy. The crucial element of his reforms was the restructuring of the social system regarding economic classes. From the first sight, the change to monetary distinction could not significantly influence the peoples stratification (Hesiod 46). Nonetheless, since it was possible to accumulate wealth through good business ventures and trade, the new economic system contributed to the social mobility. It was a stark difference with the previous aristocratic system, in which recently wealthy people had to pass their status to those that gained their wealth and political influence (Hesiod 46). Moreover, Solon provided the chance to any member of the top three out of four tiers he had created to preserve their political role. At the same time, the lowest economic class that could not hold official positions had the right to serve as jurors.
In general, reforms of Solon targeted reaching the main compromise for all strata of the Athenian society. He promoted citizens to obey his laws and constitution for ten years in order to see the results (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 4). After that period, it is believed that he had left Athens for a decade in order to avoid being forced by angry citizens to change the constitution before the trial ended. Reforms of Solon did not change the situation in Athens fully; very soon, previous rules returned to the city. By the time, Solon had come back from his travel; he realized that it was impossible to avoid the situation when the power was seized by a tyrant. The nobles were divided into several hostile groups, while lower classes were still dissatisfied with the economic reforms and wanted to see the land redistribution (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 4). Solon stated that his friend, Pisistratus, the general that conquered Salamis, aimed to become a tyrant, but the warning was ignored.
In 560 BCE, Peisistratus managed to gain control over Athens. He became the tyrant that overturned the constitution of Solon and ruled as he wanted. He redistributed the lands of the wealthy in order to satisfy the poor in the society. However, he allowed archons to save their places because they experienced the lack of power. Peisistratus was well accepted by a great number of Athenians and he held religion's celebrations and supported literature and art. Nonetheless, he was a great threat to the wealthy (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 4). Aristocrats managed to defeat him twice, but every time he returned and took the power. In response, Peisistratus exiled a lot of aristocrat families that threatened his power. He died in 528 BCE, and his time was considered the period of prosperity and peace (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 4). The ruling of Peisistratus was continued by his two sons, Hipparchus and Hippias. However, in 514, Hipparchus was murdered. Consequently, another brother was afraid of the same destiny, and his ruling was even more despotic. One of the aristocratic, wealthy families exiled by Peisistratus desired to regain control over Athens. They were led by Cleisthenes and persuaded Spartans to assist them. Hence, the Spartan army entered Athens, and Hippias fled from Athens to Persia (Solon and the Early Athenian Government 5). Cleisthenes tried to rebuild the government based on reforms of Solon. However, he decided to go further and established the truly democratic power in Athens. It was based on the model of Solon, whose activities became the inspiration for the new government form.
Solon was a famous man that responded to the Athenian crisis. He managed to resolve the situation with land debts and set people free from the debt slavery. Nonetheless, he refused to provide the land redistribution; consequently, he failed to deal with the core reason for the economic crisis. Similarly to economic reforms, political changes were also based on the compromise. Solon provided people with a chance to participate in the government; still, the problem of Athens was not fixed. Despite such failures, he was a person that managed to extend the phenomenon of democracy and Solons model became a strong ground for building the democracy in its full meaning.
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