ATHENS AND SOLON: A BRIEF HISTORY
The world’s oldest and most stable democracy emerged in Ancient Athens. The current Greek capital, Athens has remained prosperous and cultural for millennia. First settled in Neolithic times, some six thousand years ago, the city would go on to birth Western philosophy, democracy, art, architecture, politics and many of the very bedrocks of the West today. The statesman Solon implemented reforms around the beginning of the 6th century BC, which primarily focused on lowering the power of the few, wealthy aristocrats in the city in favour of a citizens assembly, called the “ekklesia”. It was the later reforms of Cleisthenes over a century later that Athens’s democracy really came into affect, but it was Solon’s reforms that started this. The city would later beat back the Persians in battle and blossom into a Golden Age as it formed an Aegean-based empire.
(Location of Athens within the Greek mainland)
Athens is located of the coast of Attica, 20 kilometres inland from the Saronic Gulf, located within a fertile valley surrounded by rivers, and protected by mountain ranges, like Mount Hymettus to the East and Mount Pentelicus to the North. In its early Archaic days, it would have encompassed an area of no more than 2 kilometres wide. Its location within the Greek world made it a centre of prosperous trade within the region, alongside Lefkandi and Knossos. Its foundation atop a hillside known to us as the Acropolis provided excellent defensive advantages over invaders, and served as the political head and centre of Athenian life to come.
The rocky citadel called the Acropolis homed many great architecturally and historically important buildings within Athens, most notably the Parthenon. ‘Acropolis’ literally means ‘city extremity’, with ‘polis’ meaning ‘city’ and ‘akron’ meaning ‘extremity’ or ‘highest point’. It was Pericles during the 5th century BC that ordered for the construction of other famous structures located on the Acropolis, which included the Temple to Athena Nika, the Erechtheion and the Propylaia.
(View of the Athenian mountaintop known as the Acropolis)
(Modern-day view of the 2nd Parthenon atop the Acropolis, built in 447, completed in 432 BC)
A Greek Agora was simply a central meeting place, often a market square alike to a Roman Forum, within the centre of a Greek city. In Athens, the Agora lay about 400 metres North-West of the Acropolis, built roughly 2,700 years ago and dedicated to a supposed Greek hero named Strategos, a name that would go on to mean military commander in later Greek history (pl. Strategoi). The Agora included a court, a mint and a meeting room for Athens’ ten strategoi, who would meet here to discuss financial, political and foreign policies. Famous Athenian Strategoi would include Aristides, Themistocles and Pericles.
(Plan view of Athens's Agora/Market square)
SOLON - A SUMMARY
Born around 630 BC, Solon was, according to the poet Philocles, the son of Euphorion, a playwright, but most living in his time agree he was the son of Execestides instead, a wealthy politician and a descendant of Codrus, a semi-mythical King of Athens in the early 11th century BC. His mother was Heraclides of Pontus, who recorded that she was cousin of Pisistratus’ mother, making Solon and Pisistratus quite close to each other.
SOLON OF ATHENS
BORN: c.630 BC
DIED: c.538 BC
OCCUPATION: Statesman, lawmaker, poet
While his poems didn’t go into huge detail on his actual reforms, his inscribed law codes did, and they are known to us today as they were preserved to writers at the time, like Plutarch, at Athens. The code was officially revised during the fifth century - the Golden Age for Athens - and it’s entirely possible that some provisions ascribed with Solon reflect later-made alterations.
Solon’s reforms at the end of the seventh century BC addressed the following issues:
• Control of the land was in the hands of a restricted aristocratic elite instead of the poorer workers. Vast amounts of farmers were in debt and on the verge of being slaves. Solon’s debt relief act, known as the “seisachtheia”, mostly resolved this issue.
• Eligibility to being in a political office was given through birth rite and was not dependent on wealth. Solon flipped this system, braking the power of the aristocrats, even though they would remain in control for the next 150 years to come; it was certainly a good first step. New political expression could also be heard from the economic power now held by more non-aristocratic land owners and merchants, as well as from the growing power of citizen hoplite soldiers.
• The Areopagus council, unelected advisors to the king, now had an elected body alongside them, giving more people power to appeal in citizen courts and laying down what would become the bedrock for democracies under Cleisthenes and Pericles.
Solon spent 10 years travelling the Mediterranean following the implementing of his laws. Most notably, he visited Egypt to become educated in Philosophy, he visited Cyprus to aid in a local town dispute, and visited the Lydian capital city, Sardis, where he famously spoke with King Croesus to discuss the meaning of the kings masses of wealth.
(Painting of Solon meeting Croesus, by Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst)
Returning home to political intrigue and turmoil, he was now in his old age, and declared himself unfit to aid the people in political affairs and rousing public speeches, although he attempted to. As he put it, the cowardice of the lower classes to suppress the will of those seeking personal gain and higher offices led to Pisistratus’s tyranny. Solon would go on to write poems expressing his anger at the people for their inaction. In spite of this, he would go on to serve under the tyrant for 2 years, as his laws were already implemented and were never tarnished during his time under the tyrant.
The next blogs will go far more in depth into the life and times of Solon, as well as the many tyrants that occupied the major Greek cities across the Mediterranean, including in Athens, and the many other forms of government and rule that governed the Greek world - Democracy is around the corner!
• Philip Parker, World History
• Herodotus, Histories
• Plutarch, Life of Solon
• Early Greece, Second Edition, by Oswyn Murray
• Greek History: War, Society and Change in the Archaic Age (CL1GH) lectures, by Professor Emma Aston, University of Reading
(All images used are royalty-free, or have been created by myself)
Historia Civilis on the Athenian Constitution (I DO NOT own this video)