As civil war beckoned, Solon, the poet, was selected by Athenians to be the mediator of a dispute between the rich landowners of Athens, and their serfs. So great as the respect that all classes had for his judgment, reason and fairness, that Solon was given carte blanche to rewrite the laws and the constitution of the Athenian state.

He did not disappoint, crafting laws which in some regards have lasted to modern times (e.g. the elimination of personal bondage to secure a debt) and in others, inspired Rome’s great Law of the Twelve Tables (i.e. limiting the wailing of women at funerals).

Historians comment on a legal drafting technique of Solon. In order to address a sensitive subject, Solon would simply give it a technical name and then deal with it under that banner. For example, he coined the cancellation of mortgaged debts, a reform very unpopular with the rich, as a seisacthea.

Plutarch wrote:

"The way which, the moderns say, the Athenians have of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation, calling harlots, for example, mistresses; tributes, customs; a garrison, a guard; and the jail, the chamber, seem originally to have been Solon's contrivance, who called cancelling debts ‘seisacthea’."

According to Plutarch, the preamble of Solon’s Laws was (translation by John Dryden): "We humbly beg a blessing on our laws, from mighty Jove, and honour and applause."

In regards to government, Solon divided the population into four tribes (classes), and distributed government offices in proportion to approximate property holdings of the top three classes. This reduced the artificial birthrights and based political standing on assets instead.

He created a Council of 400, a hundred from each tribe, thus creating an embryonic democracy in which all people had political rights, albeit still unequal.

All citizens had to declare themselves with arms in the event of any civil disobedience, failing which he was exiled. Plutarch describes the offence as "standing neutral in a sedition".

Plutarch purports to set out Solon's 13th table of law verbatim:

"13th Table: Whoever before Solon's archonship were disfranchised, let them be restored, except those that, being condemned by the Areopagus, Ephetae, or in the Prytaneum by the kings, for homicide, murder, or designs against the government, were in banishment".

He repealed Draco’s laws and allowed capital punishment only for a limited number of serious offences, such as murder or military or political offenses against the state.

He gave the right of representation, of every person to claim redress on behalf of another to whom wrong was being done. Plutarch describes it:

"And for the greater security of the weak commons, he gave general liberty of indicting for an act of injury; if any one was beaten, maimed, or suffered any violence, any man that would and was able might prosecute the wrong-doer; intending by this to accustom the citizens, like members of the same body, to resent and be sensible of one another's injuries.

"And there is a saying of his agreeable to his law, for, being asked what city was best modeled, 'That,' said he, 'where those that are not injured try and punish the unjust as much as those that are.'"

The first right of an appeal to another court, called a "jury court" even for decisions of the person of highest governing rank, called an archon. Retired archons became judges.

All debts secured by mortgages on the person were forgiven.

No man was allowed to secure a debt with his person or the person of another.

It was forbidden to defame the dead. As for the living, from Plutarch:

"(Solon) likewise forbade them to speak evil of the living in the temples, the courts of justice, the public offices, or at the games, or else to pay three drachmas to the person, and two to the public. For never to be able to control passion shows a weak nature and ill-breeding; and always to moderate it is very hard, and to some impossible. And laws must look to possibilities, if the maker designs to punish few in order to their amendment, and not many to no purpose."

This latter phrase has been much quoted as supportive of moderation in legislation. The statement, which is Plutarch’s, and not Solon’s, has elsewhere been translated as follows:

"If the aim is to punish a few, moderately, as an example -- rather than many, severely, to no purpose -- the lawmaker must confine his law to the limits of human nature, and not try to legislate perfection."

Solon’s revolutionized the law of wills and of estates, extending for the first time some freedom of distribution by will. Plutarch describes it as follows:

"He is likewise much commended for his law concerning wills; before him none could be made, but all the wealth and estate of the deceased belonged to his family; but he by permitting them, if they had no children to bestow it on whom they pleased, showed that he esteemed friendship a stronger tie than kindred, affection than necessity; and made every man's estate truly his own. Yet he allowed not all sorts of legacies, but those only which were not extorted by the frenzy of a disease, charms, imprisonment, force, or the persuasions of a wife; with good reason thinking that being seduced into wrong was as bad as being forced, and that between deceit and necessity, flattery and compulsion, there was little difference, since both may equally suspend the exercise of reason."

To address economic conditions then prevailing at Athens, he ordered that each man’s occupations be examined and the idle be punished. He sought to promote and free the development of trades and professions. According to Plutarch:

"He turned his citizens to trade, and made a law that no son be obliged to relieve a father who had not bred him up to any calling.

"He declared the sons of unmarried mothers not obliged to relieve their fathers; for he that avoids the honourable form of union shows that he does not take a woman for children, but for pleasure, and thus gets his just reward, and has taken away from himself every title to upbraid his children, to whom he has made their very birth a scandal and reproach."

In the area of family law, he first prohibited dowries. Plutarch:

"The wife was to have three suits of clothes, a little inconsiderable household stuff, and that was all; for he would not have marriages contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children."

"(Solon’s laws) permitted any one to kill an adulterer that found him in the act- but if any one forced a free woman, a hundred drachmas was the fine; if he enticed her, twenty; except those that sell themselves openly, that is, harlots, who go openly to those that hire them. He made it unlawful to sell a daughter or a sister, unless, being yet unmarried, she was found wanton."

He regulated farm and land law to bring order to these areas. The detail is set out by Plutarch:

"Since the country has but few rivers, lakes, or large springs, and many used wells which they had dug, there was a law made, that, where there was a public well within a hippicon, that is, four furlongs, all should draw at that; but when it was farther off, they should try and procure a well of their own; and if they had dug ten fathoms deep and could find no water, they had liberty to fetch a pitcher-full of four gallons and a half in a day from their neighbours'; for he thought it prudent to make provision against want, but not to supply laziness.

"He showed skill in his orders about planting, for any one that would plant another tree was not to set it within five feet of his neighbour's field; but if a fig or an olive not within nine; for their roots spread farther, nor can they be planted near all sorts of trees without damage, for they draw away the nourishment, and in some cases are noxious by their effluvia.

"He that would dig a pit or a ditch was to dig it at the distance of its own depth from his neighbour's ground; and he that would raise stocks of bees was not to place them within three hundred feet of those which another had already raised."

In regards to injuries suffered by another’s animal (Plutarch):

"He made a law, also, concerning hurts and injuries from beasts, in which he commands the master of any dog that bit a man to deliver him up with a log about his neck, four and a half feet long."

REFERENCES AND NOTES:

  • Editor’s note: No original copy of his laws has yet been found nor does any complete copy of the originals, although over 90 fragments exist. What follows is extracted from the writings of Greek historians Plutarch (46-120) and Herodotus (484-425 BC), each having stated that they saw for themselves copies or "relics" of the originals.
  • See also the companion article on Solon.
  • Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume IV, Chapter XLIV.
  • Plutarch (46-120), Solon. See translation by John Dryden at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), The Internet Classics Archives, classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/solon.html
  • 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