Born: 638 BC
Died At Age: 80
Born in: Classical Athens
Famous as: Laid the foundations for Democracy in Athens.
Died on: 558 BC
place of death: Cyprus
Who was Solon?
Solon was an Athenian politician, lawmaker and poet and is considered the person who laid the foundation of democracy in Athens, through his constitutional reforms. He was the social reformer who brought in moderation into the social, economic and political system of Athens by dividing the citizens into four income groups according to their annual income, which also ensured their respective privileges in the political system. Before Solon, Athens was suffering with bonded labor and slavery, the first reform that he brought was to relive the enslaved citizens off their debts. He also introduced new forms of livelihood like export of olive oil and circulation of new coinage. His poetry was a medium for him to spread his messages and warnings to the citizens. Not a lot of information is available on his personal life except for that fact that he belonged to an influential family and was a merchant, who travelled a lot, for a big part of his early life. Before the end of the 5th century the Greeks made a list of the ‘Seven Wise Men’ who prominently influenced the intellectual and political growth of their nation and Solon’s name is held in high regard in that list.
Childhood & Early Life
Solon was born in Athens around 638 B.C. into a notable family of Attica. Not a lot is known about Solon’s personal life, especially his childhood because during his lifetime the Greeks had not started to write history.
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It was in the 5th century that the sporadic information on his life was put together, mainly through information from his poetries and laws. Solon might have been a merchant as he travelled a lot in his early life.
Solon gained prominence in around 600 BC, at the time when Athenians were dismayed by their defeat in a war with their neighbors of Megara and Megara’s ultimate ownership of the island of Salamis.
Athenians resumed the war with Megara and this time captured the island, owing it to a public recital of Solon’s poem by Solon himself, which encouraged them to save their honor and give their all to the war.
During Solon’s time, Athens was going through a troubled political system as the society was dominated by aristocracy and the political monopoly of eupatridae, which led poor farmers into debt. People were excluded from the government.
People came to Solon to get a moderate solution for their problems as he was not a revolutionary but a reformer and he believed in the society where each class had its well defined place and function.
During 594 BC, Solon was made an annual chief ruler and it was after working for 20 years that he was recognized as a legislator. The first reform he brought was to relive the enslaved citizens off their debts.
Amongst other things, Solon introduced alternative occupations for the citizens - for example, trading and export of olive oil was encouraged.
He did not believe in redistributing the land but made sure that enough grain is produced to feed the population. He also encouraged the circulation of coined money, which was also invented in his lifetime.
This led to the economic enhancement through circulation of new coinage and regular export of products from Athens like, olive oil and pottery. Although these reforms did not eliminate poverty completely but brought remarkable improvements.
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One of the major political reforms that Solon brought in Athens was dividing the citizens into four income groups according to their annual income, which decided the extent of their political privilege in the society, without regard to birth.
Solon laid the foundations of democracy by introducing ‘Council of Four Hundred’, in which people from the poor sections served one year at a time, ensuring that every class in the society was involved with the government.
Solon wrote code of laws which escalated Athens’ social, political and economical progress. He revised ‘Darco law’ and made it more humane. The codes that he designed became the foundation of Athenian statute law.
Although Solon’s reforms were a breath of fresh air for the citizens of Athens but he failed to satisfy everyone and different sects of the society complained about how they were not served very well under his reforms.
He decided to set off on travel for 10 years as he did not want to defend the intentions behind his reforms. When he returned back, his friend Peisistratus had become a tyrant, something he had warned everyone against before.
Solon’s legal reforms have been considered as one of his greatest works. These laws were inscribed on large wooden slabs attached to a series of axles that stood upright in the Prytaneum, for people’s reference and convenience.
Personal Life & Legacy
After finishing the work of reforms, Solon surrendered his extraordinary authority and went travelling for 10 years. His first stop was Egypt where he acquainted himself with the Pharaoh of Egypt Amasis II and with Egyptian priests, Psenophis and Sonchis.
He also went to capital of Lydia where he met with Croesus and gave the Lydian king advice, which Croesus appreciated later and Solon established himself as a wise man.
Within 4 years of Solon's departure, the old social rifts re-appeared, with Peisistratos, one of Solon's relatives, ending the factionalism by force. Peisistratos established an unconstitutional tyranny. Upon his return, Solon accused Athenians of stupidity and cowardice as they had allowed this to happen.
After his return to Athens, Solon became a staunch opponent of Peisistratos and stood outside his own home in full armour, and urged everyone to oppose Peisistratos, the would-be tyrant. His efforts, however, did not bear fruit and he died shortly after Pisistratus usurped by force the autocratic power.
He died in Cyprus at the age of 80 and his ashes were scattered around Salamis, the island where he was born.
Solon established publicly funded brothels in Athens in order to democratize the availability of sexual pleasure.
The only records available of Solon's laws are fragmentary quotes and comments in literary sources such as those written by Plutarch.