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Solon

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

B. C. 638-558

THE BEGINNING OF POPULAR GOVERNMENT

Solon was an Athenian sage whose wise legislation at a critical period in the history of Athens laid the foundation of its greatness. Unfortunately, while we have very complete accounts of his work of reform, but few facts in his life have come down to us.

The birth of Solon may be placed about the year B. C. 638. He belonged to one of the most aristocratic of the Athenian families, though in moderate circumstances, tracing his genealogy to Codrus, the last of the Kings of Attica, and through Codrus to Neptune, the god of the sea. His father is said to have diminished his substance by prodigality, which compelled Solon in his earlier years to have recourse to trade. In this pursuit he visited many parts of Greece and Asia, and doubtless profited by the opportunity to extend his knowledge of men and institutions. Solon early distinguished himself by his poetical compositions, or perhaps it would be more exact to say by his philosophical writings, for in his clay the art of prose writing had not yet arisen, and every treatise, on whatever subject, was put into a metrical form. To judge from the few fragments which have come down to us, Solon's writings dealt largely with matters of common, every-day interest. They were rich in shrewd observation and in sensible advice, and so widely did they extend Solon's reputation for wisdom that he came to be reckoned one of the Seven Sages of Greece.

The first appearance of Solon in public life was in connection with a long-standing contest between Athens and the little state of Megara over the possession of the island of Salamis. The Athenians had repeatedly met with reverses in attempting to establish their claim to the island, and finally in despair or in disgust they had decreed sentence of death against any one who should propose a renewal of the contest. Fired with indignation at this spiritless conduct of his countrymen, Solon rushed one day into the market place, feigning, it is said, the action of a madman to evade the penalty, and mounting the stone from which the heralds were accustomed to make their proclamations, read to the bystanders a poem in which he upbraided the Athenians for their pusillanimity, and called upon them to make one more effort to recover the "lovely island." The stratagem had its desired effect. He was seconded by friends ; popular enthusiasm was aroused ; the death penalty was repealed ; a new expedition was decreed, and Solon was given its command. In a single campaign he drove the Megarans from the island; but a tedious war followed, until at last both parties united in a request to the Lacedaemonians to appoint commissioners to settle the matter in dispute between them. Solon was one of those chosen to plead the cause of Athens before this commission, and so skillfully did he conduct the case citing the evidence of old burial customs on the island, inscriptions on tombstones, etc. that the decision was in favor of the Athenians, who were given and ever after retained possession of the island. Solon is said, on this occasion, to have forged the line in the Iliad in which Ajax is represented as ranging his ships by the side of the Athenians.

The reputation which Solon acquired in this affair of Salamis was soon after heightened and more widely diffused through Greece by the leading part which he took in the Sacred War, waged in behalf of the Temple of Delphi, and which resulted in the destruction of Cirrha. We find him, too, at this time actively engaged in quieting internal disturbances in his own state. It was Solon who persuaded the powerful family of the Alcmaeonids, which in the popular estimation had become tainted with sacrilege through the act of Megacles, who had torn from the sanctuary of Minerva some of the followers of Cylon to stand trial and to submit to a sentence of perpetual banishment.

We may picture Solon at this time as by far the most prominent man in Athens a man who, by his able leader-ship, had won the respect and confidence of all classes, and who, moreover, though belonging to the nobility, had by his sympathetic, fatherly nature, endeared himself in a peculiar way to the common people. We have now to consider the great work of his life. To understand how he came to be entrusted with it, we must review, even though hastily, the political condition of Athens in the time of Solon.

Athens was then governed by an oligarchy. All political power was in the hands of a few families of the "well-descended," as they styled themselves, who chose from their own number the Archons, or Governors, and other public officers, while the low-born common people had no part either in making or administering the laws. Like all other one-sided governments, this of Athens was oppressive. It was conducted wholly in the interest of the governing class. Though the history of the times is exceedingly fragmentary, it affords abundant evidence that Athens had long been vexed by internal dissensions, the result of the harsh government of the aristocracy. It was, apparently, in the hope of quieting the popular discontent that some thirty years before the period we are now considering Draco had been appointed to draw up a new code of laws, which, however, seems not to have accomplished the desired result; and, indeed, the code of Draco must have been practically a dead letter from the first, for it is hardly conceivable that laws which provided a death penalty for every offense can ever have been strictly administered. The attempt of Cylon a few years later to accomplish the overthrow of the nobility with the aid of the common people, and to establish himself despot of Athens, though the attempt miscarried, shows that there was a recognized hostility between the lower and the upper classes, which, skillfully organized, might result in the overthrow of the existing government. The warning seems not to have been heeded, however. On the contrary, the unscrupulous and short-sighted aristocracy had continued to mismanage affairs until the condition of the common people had become one of intolerable wretchedness. The poor had become reduced to a state of abject poverty. Many of them had borrowed money of the wealthy at exorbitant rates of interest, on the security of their per-sons or property. Every debtor unable to fulfill his con-tract was liable to be adjudged a slave of his creditor until he could find the means of paying his debt or of working it out, and not only himself, but also his minor sons and his unmarried daughters and sisters, whom the law gave him the power of selling. In this way a very great number of the poor had become reduced to bondage, and in some instances they had been sold out of Athens to foreign masters. Moreover, a large number of the small properties were heavily mortgaged. All over Attica might be seen stone pillars testifying to these transactions bearing each the name of the creditor for whom the little farm on which it stood might at any time be sold.

A crisis seems finally to have been reached in this wretched state of affairs, though whether an actual uprising of the people against their oppressors occurred or only a .threatened uprising, we do not know. At any rate, it became clear to the dominant party that there must be reform or there must be revolution. They very sensibly decided for reform, and Solon, a man of their own class, but immensely popular with all classes, was the man to whom they turned instinctively to help them out of their difficulties. Solon was elected Archon B. C. 594, and was given full authority to make any changes which he might deem beneficial to the State.

There can be little doubt that Solon could now easily have overthrown the oligarchy with the aid of the people and have rendered himself the "tyrant" of Athens, as did his kinsman, Pisistratus, a few years later, and he was urged to do this by many of his friends. But he turned a deaf ear to all advice of this sort. "Despotism," he said, "may be a fine country, but there is no way out of it." Dismissing, therefore, all thought of personal aggrandizement, he devoted all his energies to the difficult task imposed upon him.

He began by relieving the poorer class of debtors from their overwhelming burden. He canceled at once all these contracts in which the debtor had borrowed money on the security of his person or his land, and forbade such contracts for the future. He abolished imprisonment or enslavement for debt. He swept away all the mortgages, and had the hateful pillars removed, leaving the land free of all past claims. He released and restored to their full rights as citizens all those debtors who were in actual slavery, and made provision for repurchasing and restoring to their homes all Athenians who had been sold into foreign slavery. These sweeping measures released the poorest class from their difficulties; but many of their creditors must have been left, in consequence, unable to discharge their own obligations. To give relief to these, Solon debased the currency, thus practically scaling down their indebtedness. The amount thus taken off from all debts which had not been wholly extinguished was, according to Mr. Grote, about 27 per cent.

These measures must have exasperated the feelings as well as diminished the fortunes of many persons, but they gave to the large body of the lower order and to the small proprietors all which they could reasonably have hoped for, and we are told that after a short interval they became generally acceptable to the public mind and procured for Solon a great increase of popularity.

The purpose for which Solon had been appointed dictator was now accomplished. He had succeeded in healing effectually the prevailing discontent. So great was the general satisfaction in consequence, and so complete the confidence he had inspired, that he was now asked to undertake the still greater work of drawing up a new Constitution for the State and a complete code of laws.

As a preliminary to this new work Solon had an assessment made of all the property in the State, to serve as a basis for a new classification of the citizens. Henceforward the title of the citizens to the offices and honors of the State was to be dependent on the amount of their property and not on their birth. This was a distinguishing feature of Solon's Constitution, and it led eventually to important consequences, though probably at first the change was not great, since there must have been then but few wealthy citizens who were not also of the nobility. All the citizens were distributed into four classes, according to the amount of their annual income, and it is interesting to note as a characteristic of the times that the incomes were reckoned, not in money, but in measures of grain. Those whose income amounted to 500 measures (medimni) or upward formed the first class; those whose income ranged between 300 and 50o measures formed the second class ; the third class was made up of those whose income was etween 200 and 300 measures. All other citizens, including, of course, the poorest, who could hardly be said to have an income, were grouped into the fourth and doubt-less the most numerous class.

The members of the first three classes were required to pay an income tax proportionate to the amount of their property; but the fourth class were exempt from taxation altogether. Members of the first class alone were eligible to the Archonship and other high offices of the State. Those of the second and third classes might fill inferior posts, and they were liable to military service, the former as horsemen and the latter as heavy-armed infantry. The fourth class were excluded from all public offices, and served in the army only as light-armed infantry, equipped at the expense of the State. They were permitted, however, to vote in the public Assembly, in which were elected the Archons and other public officers, and they thus became an important political element in the State. In giving to every citizen the right of suffrage, even though the wealthy alone could be elected to office, Solon introduced an innovation of which very probably he did not foresee the consequence. Eventually the property restriction was removed, the public offices were thrown open to all classes of citizens alike, so that the humblest Athenian citizen became in the end politically the peer of the wealthiest.

The public Assembly not only elected the Archons the number of which was nine, as under the old Constitution but it sat in judgment upon them at the close of their term of office. Every Archon was required at the end of his year of office to render an account of his administration to the public Assembly, and if the report was unsatisfactory he might be punished by being deprived of the dignities and privileges which by ancient usage were bestowed upon those who had filled this high office.

The extension of the duties of the old public Assembly led to the institution of a new body. Solon created a Senate, or Council of Four Hundred, with the special object of preparing matters for the discussion of the public Assembly, presiding over its meetings, and carrying into effect its decrees and resolutions. No subject could be brought before the people in the public Assembly which had not previously been acted upon by the Four Hundred. The members of this Council were chosen annually by the public Assembly, and they, as well as all the other public servants, were accountable at the close of their term of office to the people.

Already there existed as a part of the old Government of Athens a Senate, which consisted of those who had held the office of Archon. This institution Solon did not see fit to abolish. On the contrary, he enlarged its powers, giving it a general supervision over the laws and institutions of the State, and imposing upon it the special duty of inspecting the lives and occupations of the citizens. To distinguish this ancient from the newly created Senate, it was called henceforward the Senate of the Areopagus, a designation borrowed from the place (Mars' Hill) in which its sittings were held.

The laws of Solon were inscribed upon wooden rollers and triangular tablets, which were kept at first in the Acropolis and afterward in the Prytaneum, or Town Hall. They related to almost every subject connected with the public or the private life of the citizen. They provided punishment for crimes, restricted the occupation of citizens, prescribed rules for marriage and for burial, for the common use of springs and wells, and for the mutual interest of neighboring farmers in planting and hedging their adjoining lands. The most important of these laws were those relating to debtor and creditor, which have already been spoken of. Several of them had for their object the encouragement of trade and manufactures. Foreigners were induced to settle in Attica by the promise of protection and valuable privileges, provision being made for granting citizenship to those who should settle permanently in Athens for the purpose of carrying on some industrial profession. In order to prevent idleness, Solon directed the Senate of the Areopagus to keep a watch on the citizens and to punish every one who had no course of regular labor to support him. If a father had not taught his son some art or profession, the son was relieved from all obligation to support him in his old age. In order to encourage the growth of industrial arts he forbade the exportation of all products of the soil except olive oil, it being his wish that trade with foreigners should be carried on by exporting the produce of artisan labor instead of the produce of the land.

One of the most curious of Solon's laws was that which declared a man dishonored and disfranchised who in a civil sedition stood aloof and took no part with either side. The object of this celebrated law seems to have been to create a public spirit in the citizens, and a lively interest in the affairs of the State. The ancient governments, unlike those of modern times, could not summon to their assistance any regular police or military force, and unless the citizens came forward in civil commotions, any ambitious man, supported by a powerful party, might easily make himself master of the State.

The wisdom of Solon's laws is proved by the fact that they continued to be the basis of Athenian legislation and jurisprudence down to the latest times. His admission of the common people to a share in the government, even though only to the extent of having a vote in the public Assembly, is the more remarkable since it is the first instance in the world's history of any attempt at popular government. Solon had no model from which to copy, since in his day all governments were either monarchical or aristocratic. He can have been inspired only by a conviction, based upon his own keen observation of human nature, of the innate good sense of even the most humble member of a community in cases in which his own best interests are concerned. What has become in our own time the dominant political idea, that of a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," was thus foreshadowed, however dimly, in the legislation of this most remarkable of ancient lawgivers.

Solon was well aware that there were many imperfections in his government. But these very imperfections add to his credit as a statesman. He had not attempted to accomplish impossibilities. His was no visionary scheme of government, temptingly philosophical, but quite impossible of realization. On the contrary, with sober, practical good sense, he adapted his constitution and laws to the people as he found them and the conditions with which he had to deal. His legislation contained within it, however, the germs out of which developed in no long time the now most renowned institution of the ancient world the Athenian democracy, as we find it in the age of Pericles.

Solon bound the government and people of Athens by a solemn oath to maintain unaltered his laws for a period of ten years. But no sooner had his constitution gone into effect than he was besieged by those who came to inquire respecting the meaning of certain provisions or to suggest changes. Foreseeing constant annoyance of this sort if he remained in Athens, he determined to go into voluntary exile for the period of the ten years during which the Athenians were bound to maintain his laws inviolate. He first visited Egypt and afterward proceeded to Cyprus, where he appears to have resided during the greater part of the time of his absence from Athens.

Soon after his return to Athens Solon had the mortification and pain of seeing his government overthrown by his own kinsman, Pisistratus (B. C. 560). He had detected the ambitious purpose of this popular leader and had vainly attempted to dissuade him from it, and, more-over, had denounced him in verses addressed to the people. When the usurpation of Pisistratus was finally accomplished, he still continued to denounce him, and upbraided the people with their cowardice. "You might," he said., "with ease have crushed the tyrant in the bud, but nothing now remains but to pluck him up by the roots." But no one responded to his appeal. He refused to fly, and when his friends asked him upon what he relied for protection, "On my old age," was his reply. It is creditable to Pisistratus that he left his aged relative unmolested, and even asked his advice in the administration of the government.

Solon did not long survive the overthrow of the constitution. He died a year or two afterward at the advanced age of eighty. His ashes are said to have been scattered, by his own direction, round the island of Salamis, which he had won for the Athenian people.

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