Solon, the Athenian politician and lawmaker: Solon (638-558 BC) was an Athenian politician, lawmaker and poet. He is considered as the first innovative lawmaker that set the ground for the creation of democracy, the governmental system that made Athens powerful and granted the city its fame all over the centuries. Although his reforms lasted for short in his time, he laid the foundations for the economic, cultural and military development of the town.
Solon was born into a noble family in 638 B.C. He was a merchant by profession and a poet. In 594 BC, he was elected an Archon, kind of governor, in ancient Athens. That time, the society of Athens was facing an economic and moral depression due to an agricultural crisis. Farmers could not repay their debts to the wealthy landowners and in return they were sold as slaves, including their wives and children.
Political and social instability
This caused instability and rivalry in the society. As Athens was kind of divided in regions and families, there was much controversy over which family rules and which would prove better than the other. In this miserable point, Solon was elected and made the necessary reforms to improve the local society. In fact, he mostly reformed three domains: constitution, economy and morality.
The Laws of Solon
The first thing of Solon was to set all enslaved Athenians free and to relieve them from their debts. This made him very popular among the people. Also, as he had understood that farming couldn't get people enough for living, he envisioned to make Athens a powerful trade centre and to have Athenian ships traverse the Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea.
He prohibited exporting any other product than olive oil and he gave benefits for foreign tradesmen to settle in Athens. This was he set the foundation for the economic growth of Athens, which would also grant the city its cultural development and military power.
New political system
Another important contribution of Solon was in the formation and establishment of democracy, the governmental system that would mark the history of the city and would influence the entire world in the centuries to come. Depending on their income and not their noble origin, Solon divided the Athenian society in classes. Only the top three classes had political rights and could be elected in public posts, but still this was a very important measure for that time.
Solon permitted all citizens to participate in the Ekklesia, the council that discussed public issues, and had the right to vote for any particular issue. Also, some of them by turns would become members of the Heliea, the court that could call the officials into account, when needed.
With certain rules, Solon also tried to reform the morals of the Athenians. He abolished some laws that gave only men the right to have property and that required a large amount if dowries. Also, he gave any citizen the right to take legal action on behalf of another citizen and forced every man to take part in wars. This way he stressed out the importance to be politically active for the good of the state.
Travelling around the world
When Solon completed his reformation works, he left Athens to sail around the world. It is said that before he left, he made the Athenians sign a contract that they would keep those reformations for at least 10 years before they make any change in the political system. This way Solon wanted to prevent any political instability until the town gets strong again and recover from its political problems.
However, only four years after Solon had left, Pesistratus took over the power in Athens and established tyranny. Solon, a strong opponent of Pesistratus, got killed in Cyprus shortly after the tyrant had taken over control.
During his trips around the world, Solon met new people and civilizations and this made him a wise man. In fact, Plutarch includes him among the ten wisest men of the Greek antiquity. In one of these trips in Egypt, as Plato narrates, Solon met a priest who told him the story of a prosperous town that got submerged in a single day and night due to the wrath of gods. This town is today known as the lost Atlantis.
In another journey to Lydia, Solon met the local king Croesus who praised that he was the happiest man on earth. Then, Solon replied Call no man happy before he dies, meaning that luck can turn unexpectedly and things might change from one day to the other. In fact, a few years later, king Croesus lost his kingdom to the Persians.
In the years to follow his death, Solon was remembered as a wise man with innovative ideas. Upon these ideas, Pericles, a few decades later, established the famous Athenian democracy. Today he is thought as the founder of this governmental system.