Legislation of Solon Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The legislation of Solon allowed Athens temporarily to avoid revolution in the sixth century b.c.e. and gave greater rights and authority to the nonnoble citizens of Athens.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e., Athens was threatened with disaster. The aristocratic families fought among themselves for supremacy, and their struggles sometimes verged on civil war. The nobles also used their power against farmers of middle and low income in order to expand their own estates. Some poor farmers became serfs or were enslaved through debt. The resultant tendency was to diminish the class of men on which the military strength and safety of Athens depended. Solon

Other states solved similar problems by resorting to tyranny, a kind of one-man benevolent despotism which tended to favor the nonaristocrats, including the poor. The great magnates of Athens, fearful lest such a tyrant might arise and dispossess them, agreed to have limits set upon their power. Solon, himself a member of the aristocracy, was chosen archon, or ruler, about 594 b.c.e. In that year, and probably later as well, as special “conciliator” he brought about social and political relief by revising the laws of Athens.

Solon’s social reforms were important; he himself referred to them as the “lifting of burdens.” He abolished serfdom and slavery for debt, ridding Athens of those curses once and for all. New laws on debt were enacted, though details have been lost, and in this way the number of men eligible for military service was maintained.

Solon also appears to have considered building up the commerce of Athens, possibly to provide employment for skilled foreigners such as potters and shipbuilders who were allowed to settle in Athens with the protected status of metic, or resident alien. How far Solon went along these lines is disputed. The tyrant Pisistratus (c. 612-527 b.c.e.) undoubtedly did more later, so that by the end of the sixth century, Athens was successfully competing with important trading states such as Aegina and Corinth.

To protect his social gains, Solon sought to strengthen political institutions through which the middle income group could voice its desires. The citizens were divided into four census classes based on wealth: The richest men were the pentacosiomedimni with an income of five hundred measures of olive oil, wine, or grain, a measure being 11.5 gallons (43.5 liters) wet or 1.85 bushels (0.65 hectoliter) dry; next came the hippeis or cavalry, whose farms produced three hundred measures and enabled them to keep a warhorse; then there were the zeugitae, who plowed their land with a yoke of oxen, had an income of two hundred measures, could afford armor, and served as infantrymen; and last were the remaining citizens, who belonged to the lowest class of the thetes, the laborers or hired men.

The top three classes had certain duties and privileges in the public affairs of the city and served in the first-line field army. Only members of the two richest classes, however, could hold the office of archon. Three archons were selected annually, each having jurisdiction over a specific sphere of public business. The archon eponymus had charge of internal affairs and presided over the assembly. The archon basileus was responsible for the conduct of the state religion. The archon polemarchos commanded the army. These three officials and the other six archons called thesmothetes were also magistrates of the courts. Solon probably believed that only the nobility, by reason of birth and training, had sufficient knowledge and experience to carry out these important duties. The archons were, however, selected by lot by the people sitting as the Ecclesia or assembly. It is disputed whether the thetes were members of this body. The same people differently organized were the heliaea, or court. All citizens now had the right of appeal to this court from a judgment handed down by one of the archons, an advantage for the poor. This right, and the right of the assembly to examine the acceptability of candidates for archonship and to scrutinize the conduct of the magistrates in office, were safeguards of the few rights enjoyed by nonnoble Athenians. There is no reason to believe that the assembly did more than elect the archons once a year and assent to declarations of war. There is no sure evidence that it passed laws, although it may have done so from time to time. How the laws of Solon were enacted is not known.

Solon is also said to have created an annual Council of Four Hundred whose function was to act as a steering committee for the whole assembly. Considerable doubt has been cast on the existence of this body. There was certainly another council at this time, the areopagus, made up of former archons serving for life, and it was also important. Although scholars are unsure of its exact duties, it had some sort of power to safeguard the laws. It was also claimed in antiquity that Solon handed down a mass of detailed legislation amounting to a whole written code. It is extremely unlikely that he did, in fact, do so.

Significance

Solon’s work was of great significance for Athens. He found the state dominated by a hereditary aristocracy, and he left it an aristocratic republic. The nobles had accepted limitation of their power, which gave the downtrodden peasantry a chance to develop. This paved the way for the reforms of Cleisthenes of Athens in 508 b.c.e. and eventually for the democratic system of government that is one of ancient Greece’s major contributions to the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anhalt, Emily Katz. Solon the Singer. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993. A broad analysis of Solon and his influence, exploring not only his political contributions but also his poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brock, Roger, and Stephen Hodkinson, eds. Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A collection of essays that illuminates the alternatives to democracy that existed in ancient Greece, contextualizing why Athens was different from its surrounding city-states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Lynette G. “New Wine in Old Wineskins: Solon, Arete, and the Agathos.” In The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece, edited by Lynette G. Mitchell and P. J. Rhodes. New York: Routledge, 1997. Solon’s legislation is placed in the context of the civic institutions of Greece as a whole. Discusses the significance of written legislation in the development of the polis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Neil, James. The Origins and Development of Ancient Greek Democracy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Solon’s position in Greece’s political history is analyzed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sealey, Raphael. A History of the Greek City States, 700-338 b.c. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. A clear analysis of the distinction between the historical and mythical elements in the tradition of Solon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stroud, Ronald S. The Axones and Kyrbeis of Drakon and Solon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. A brief but scholarly examination of the legal codes of Draco and Solon. (Axones and kyrbeis are technical terms for legal codes and are derived from the tablets on which laws were inscribed.)
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Alcibiades of Athens; Cleisthenes of Athens; Draco; Pausanias of Sparta; Pericles; Pisistratus; Solon. Law codes;Solon Solon

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