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The Greek statesman and poet Solon (active 594 B.C.) formulated an influential code of laws and has been regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy.

As a statesman, Solon put principles before expediency. Elected chief magistrate in 594 B.C., he was given special powers to deal with the emergency brought on by civil war. The war had arisen mainly because of the oppression of the poor by the rich, who were entitled under the existing laws to tie some bankrupt debtors to the land and exact a sixth part of the produce (hence the victims were called hectemoroi, "sixth-parters") and to sell others into slavery. Solon canceled all debts. He freed the land and those tied to it, and he purchased the freedom of those who had been enslaved. He enacted new laws of debt which were the same for both groups. "The laws I passed were alike for low-born and for high-born; my aim was straightforward justice for each." He proclaimed a general amnesty except in cases of bloodshed or an attempted coup d'etat. The principles of habeas corpus and of equality before the law were thus implemented by Solon. The price was a grave economic crisis, during which he banned the export of foodstuffs except olive oil, always plentiful in the land of the olive. For the future he took steps to align Athens commercially with Corinth, the leading exporter to overseas markets.

Reorganization of Athenian Institutions

The principles enunciated by Solon were in advance of the existing constitution. In 592 he was entrusted with full legislative powers. As he had done in regard to debt, he abolished distinctions of birth in politics. Henceforth all Athenians were classified by income into four groups. Liability for tax and military service and eligibility for office were defined in terms of the new classification. For example, the lowest group—that of the thetes—paid no tax, provided no equipment, and was not eligible for any office, whereas the next lowest—that of the zeugitae—paid tax at the lowest rate, provided body armor, and was eligible for minor offices. The effective organ in the existing constitution was the Areopagus Council, recruited from former magistrates, who held office for life. Solon introduced alongside it a second house, the Council of Four Hundred, nominated by Solon no doubt for their liberal and progressive views. The new house was designed not only to break the monopoly of the Areopagus Council but also to guide the Assembly of Citizens (Ekklesia), in which men of all classes sat. This Assembly was sovereign in theory; but at a time of social and economic disruption Solon did not intend it to be sovereign in practice. He regarded the two councils as stabilizers. "The ship of state, riding upon two anchors, will pitch less in the surf and make the people less turbulent." In particular, the Assembly was debarred from considering any motion on which the Council of Four Hundred had not already reported its own recommendation. Thus snap decisions were ruled out.

Politics and justice were closely related in ancient society. Solon championed the poor more in justice than in politics. Every citizen was to have the right of appeal against the edict of a magistrate. Every citizen was to be entitled to prosecute at law. And every citizen was to be eligible to sit on a new court of state, the Heliaea, or People's Court, before which appeals were heard (the actual panel for each case being selected by lot). He drew up a new code of laws, designed to protect the underprivileged and the deprived. Only fragments survive.

Having established the basic equalities on which a democratic society is founded, Solon went into voluntary exile for 10 years. Returning to find party strife, he censured the leaders and the people for their stupidity. He died at an advanced age.

His Poetry

Solon's poetry, esteemed for its ideas rather than its literary form, was a basic element in Athenian education. His few extant poems reveal an original and profound thinker. Earlier poets had attributed to the gods not only natural calamities such as epidemics or drought but also national and individual disasters, and they had deduced that the gods always punished wickedness. Solon first distinguished between events beyond human control and events within human control; and he thought more deeply about the ways of the gods. Thus in a poem written during a civil war at Athens, Solon attributed the destruction of society not to the gods but to the citizens. It was their greed, cruelty, and injustice which had caused chaos. Order could be restored only if the citizens agreed to obey the laws. "Where law reigns, all human affairs are sensible and sound." In essence, men are responsible for human relations within a group; and if they are to achieve order within the group, they must seek social justice and they must accept the reign of law.

In his longest surviving poem Solon reflected on a man's personal aspirations. Success is not his to command. It is the gods who give success and who take success away. Their purposes are not clear. Success is not awarded in accordance with human merits. "Many bad men are rich, many good men are poor." "One who tries to work well falls without any premonition into utter disaster, while complete success is granted by the gods to a bad worker." In the long run wickedness is punished but not necessarily the actual sinner. Sometimes "the innocent pay—the children of the sinner or his descendants thereafter." These ideas are the stuff from which Attic tragedy and indirectly later tragedy were made. Intellectual awareness and religious faith were fused to produce the tragic view of man.

Further Reading

Solon's poems are translated in Kathleen Freeman, The Work and Life of Solon (1926). Ancient sources on Solon include the biography by Plutarch and Aristotle's Athenaion politeia. Modern works include Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (1919); W. J. Woodhouse, Solon the Liberator (1938); and N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece (2d ed. 1967). □

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Circa 630-circa 560 b.c.e.

Athenian statesman, poet


Respect . Although Solon was born into a noble family, he was a man of moderate means. He appears to have been a respected merchant whom the people trusted. Around 600 b.c.e. he distinguished himself by publicly reciting a poem that inspired the Athenians to capture Salamis from the Megarians. When competing groups in Athens were about to fall into civil war six years later, they turned to Solon to rule and reconcile them.

Archon . Solon became archon during a period of acute political and economic distress in Athens, and for that reason he was given broad powers to initiate reforms. He ended the practice of Athenians’s falling into slavery as a result of their debts and reorganized the government, basing it on wealth rather than birth. He wrote laws that were inscribed for all to see and permitted anyone who wished to seek legal compensation from those who wronged them. In his most important contribution to the development of democracy, he allowed any magistrate’s or council’s decision to be appealed to a court of law, which was manned by a randomly selected group of Athenians.

Exile . Many of the reforms implemented by Solon were bitterly opposed by certain elements in the city. In order to avoid becoming a tyrant or giving into the temptation of undoing his own reforms, Solon left Athens for a period of ten years. He traveled to Egypt, Cyprus, and Lydia before returning home, where he found the citizenry divided into regional factions. Solon died around 560, at roughly the same time his friend Peisistratus seized power.

Poetry . Solon is known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece and is considered to be the first great poet of Athens. In fact, he used poetry a great deal to publicize his efforts, as is seen below:

I gave to the people as much wealth as sufficient
Without minimizing or expanding their honor;
Those having power and respected for their possessions
To them also I decreed nothing unfair.
I stood holding a strong shield toward both
And allowed neither an unjust victory.


Emily Katz Anhalt, Solon the Singer: Politics and Poetics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993).

Kathleen Freeman, The Work and Life of Solon (Cardiff: University of Wales Press Board; London: H. Milford, 1926).

Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1919).

William John Woodhouse, Solon the Liberator (London: Oxford University Press & H. Milford, 1938).

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Solon (sō´lən), c.639–c.559 BC, Athenian statesman, lawgiver, and reformer. He was also a poet, and some of his patriotic verse in the Ionic dialect is extant. At some time (perhaps c.600 BC) he led the Athenians in the recapture of Salamis from the Megarians. He was elected chief archon in 594 at a time of social, economic, and political stress in Athens. With most of the land and political power in the hands of the nobles, the peasants were rapidly losing not only their land but their freedom as well. Solon annulled all mortgages and debts, limited the amount of land anyone might add to his holdings, and outlawed all borrowing in which a person's liberty might be pledged. This last reform put an end to serfdom in Attica. Other economic reforms included a ban on the export of all agricultural products except olive oil and the granting of citizenship to immigrant artisans. Solon also made important constitutional changes. The assembly was opened to all freemen, the Areopagus was continued with new powers, and the Council of Four Hundred was created to represent the propertied classes and to prepare the agenda for the popular assembly. Although there was opposition to Solon's reforms, they subsequently became the basis of the Athenian state. He also introduced a more humane law code to replace the code of Draco.

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Solon (c.630–c.560 bc), Athenian statesman and lawgiver. One of the Seven Sages, he revised the code of laws established by Draco), making it less severe. His division of the citizens into four classes based on wealth rather than birth laid the foundations of Athenian democracy.

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Solon (sōlən), city (1990 pop. 18,548), Cuyahoga co., NE Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland; founded 1820, inc. as a city 1960. Its manufactures include metal products, machinery, electrical products and equipment, tools, and chemicals.