Law Hall of Fame logoSolon was a reluctant law-maker (see, also, the article with specific reference to the content of Solon's Laws).

As a youth, Solon choose a path of learning, and undertook the traveling required to obtain it. He took to poetry with a vengeance and wrote poems right to his dying days.

The story of Solon must be pieced together from Greek historians, especially Plutarch and Aristotle. Herodotus wrote some 200 years after Solon’s death; Plutarch, 600.

Modern historians – at the understandable altar of hi-tech standards and multiple cross-referencing - are highly suspicious of the accuracy of these historical sources. Especially Plutarch who, 600 years later, relates many of Solon's quotes, witty remarks and brilliant comebacks, all purportedly verbatim, which now seem contrived.

SolonLawyers crave direct evidence but the reality is that if any subsequent law-maker had of been responsible for reforms credited to Solon, he would of made arrangements to be recognized.

"Virtue’s a thing that none can take away, but money changes owners every day"

But most of what Plutarch and Aristotle write of Solon has been reiterated by other, albeit not as well-known or prolific Greek historians, so it with some confidence that Solon can be placed on the pedestal he deserves as one of the most wise and prescient law-makers that ever lived.

Upon reaching middle-age, Solon had acquired some assets and was an aristocrat; a member of the wealthy class. He had achieved military genius in leading the Athenians in a successful assault upon the island of Salamis, as related by the historian Homer.

The Athenian society in which he lived was ripe for revolution, with the working class laboring under the ruthless laws of Draco, not much different to what would soon happen in ome between the plebians and patricians.

Draco had the wherewithal to establish law and order by listing and prohibiting a wide variety of crimes.

But the issue with Draco was stated by Plutarch:

"Draco's laws ... were too severe, and the punishment too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily, that Draco's laws were written not with ink but blood; and (Draco) himself, being once asked why be made death the punishment of most offences, replied, Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes.

"The Athenians ... fell into their old quarrels about the government, there being as many different parties as there were diversities in the country. The Hill quarter favoured democracy, the Plain, oligarchy, and those that lived by the Seaside stood for a mixed sort of government, and so hindered either of the other parties from prevailing. And the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor, at that time, also reached its height; so that the city seemed to be in a truly dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances and settling it to be possible but a despotic power.

"All the people were indebted to the rich; and either they tilled their land for their creditors, paying them a sixth part of the increase ... or else they engaged their body for the debt, and might be seized, and either sent into slavery at home, or sold to strangers.

"Some (for no law forbade it) were forced to sell their children, or fly their country to avoid the cruelty of their creditors.

"But the most part and the bravest of them began to combine together and encourage one another to stand to it, to choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government."

Pherodotus added:

"The whole country was in the hands of a few persons, and if the tenants failed to pay their rent they were liable to be haled into slavery, and their children with them. All loans secured upon the debtor's person....

(T)he hardest and bitterest part of the constitution in the eyes of the masses was their state of serfdom....

(M)any were in slavery to the few, the people rose against the upper class. The strife was keen, and for a long time the two parties were ranged in hostile camps against one another, till at last, by common consent, they appointed Solon to be mediator ... and committed the whole constitution to his hands."

During his law reform deliberations, Solon made the mistake of sharing one of his ideas with three close friends; to institute a mortgage amnesty - to pardon all mortgages. This, of course, would have the effect of freeing most citizens who had fallen into slavery as a result of defaulting on their debts, on which they had mortgaged their person.

Before the law could be implemented, the three friends went out and borrowed as much money as they could and used it to buy land.

Another story, related by Plutarch, of Solon’s travails in law writing was a visit by his friend Anarcharsis who:

"... laughed at him for imagining the dishonesty and covetousness of his countrymen could be restrained by written laws, which were like spiders' webs, and would catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but easily be broken by the mighty and rich.

"To this Solon rejoined that men keep their promises when neither side can get anything by the breaking of them; and he would so fit his laws to the citizens, that all should understand it was more eligible to be just than to break the laws."

When the reforms were announced, the windfall to his friends was discovered and it cast public suspicion upon Solon of corruption, which was only tempered by the eventual disclosure that Solon, too, had lost a considerable amount of money in the mortgage amnesty.

In the result, Solon laws first repealed most of Draco’s laws and, according to Plutarch, he ordered that they remain in force for:

"... a hundred years, and wrote them on wooden tables or rollers, named axones, which might be turned round in oblong cases; some of their relics were in my time still to be seen in the Prytaneum, or common hall at Athens."

Solon, like Hammurabi before him, added a new dimension to this thing called "law": writing it down; codification.

From since men left caves and lived in groups, the only weapon of law had been force. Now, a foray into writing it down began and with the Greeks and the poet turned-lawmaker Solon, this met with tremendous general acceptance, respect and success.

Solon’s laws were the model for the great Roman Twelve Tables of which Edward Gibbon simply wrote that:

"… the laws of Solon were transfused into the twelve tables."

Solon’s story did not end with the publication of his laws.

Soon, citizens from all Athens were hounding him for interpretations of his laws. So he left Athens for a 10-year self-imposed exile, to Egypt and Cyrus.

When he returned to Athens, a new dispute arose between the wealthy and the workers which was only resolved at the point of arms by one of Solon’s protégé from the Salamis campaign, Pisistratus.

Solon was too old to confront Pisistratus saying:

"(H)e was wiser than some and stouter than others; wiser than those that did not understand the design (of Pisistratus), stouter than those that, though they understood it, were afraid to oppose the tyranny.
"Solon, though he was now very old, and had none to back him, yet came into the marketplace and made a speech to the citizens, partly blaming their inadvertency and meanness of spirit, and in part urging and exhorting them not thus tamely to lose their liberty; and likewise then spoke that memorable saying, that, before, it was an easier task to stop the rising tyranny, but now the great and more glorious action to destroy it, when it was begun already, and had gathered strength. But all being afraid to side with him, he returned home, and, taking his arms, he brought them out and laid them in the porch before his door, with these words: ‘I have done my part to maintain my country and my laws.’"

It took Pisistratus some time to maintain power and his efforts earned the moniker of tyrant from many historians, but to his immense credit, Pisistratus upheld Solon’s laws in all respects and even made a few improvements of his own, such as providing for public pensions for the war injured. Some historians even credit him for some laws generally credited to Solon, such as the punishment of idleness.

Pesistratus consulted with Solon right up to Solon’s death in 539 BC.

REFERENCES:

  • See also the companion article, Solon’s Laws.
  • Some legal historians are not content to give credit for any law reforms directly to Solon. One snotty writer (G. Calhoun) refers to the "among the multifarious enactments traditionally attributed to Solon, those we have been able to pronounce unquestionably authentic seem pitifully few."
  • Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume IV, Chapter XLIV
  • Plutarch (46-120), Solon
  • Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution, 350 BC, F. Kenyon translation at The Constitution Society, constitution.org/ari/athen_00.htm
  • Herodotus, (484-425 BC) Solon and Croesus, from The Histories