G(r)eek Of The Week: Solon

G(r)eek Of The Week: Solon

Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short-term, yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy. He wrote poetry for pleasure, as patriotic propaganda, and in defense of his constitutional reform.

Before Solon’s reforms, the Athenian state was administered by nine archons appointed or elected annually by the Areopagus on the basis of noble birth and wealth. The Areopagus comprised former archons and it therefore had, in addition to the power of appointment, extraordinary influence as a consultative body. The nine archons took the oath of office while ceremonially standing on a stone in the agora, declaring their readiness to dedicate a golden statue if they should ever be found to have violated the laws. There was an assembly of Athenian citizens (the Ekklesia) but the lowest class (the Thetes) was not admitted and its deliberative procedures were controlled by the nobles. There therefore seemed to be no means by which an archon could be called to account for breach of oath unless the Areopagus favoured his prosecution.

According to the Constitution of the Athenians, Solon legislated for all citizens to be admitted into the Ekklesia and for a court (the Heliaia) to be formed from all the citizens.The Heliaia appears to have been the Ekklesia, or some representative portion of it, sitting as a jury. By giving common people the power not only to elect officials but also to call them to account, Solon appears to have established the foundations of a true republic. However some scholars have doubted whether Solon actually included the Thetes in the Ekklesia, this being considered too bold a move for any aristocrat in the archaic period. Ancient sources credit Solon with the creation of a Council of Four Hundred, drawn from the four Athenian tribes to serve as a steering committee for the enlarged Ekklesia. However, many modern scholars have doubted this also. There is consensus among scholars that Solon lowered the requirements – those that existed in terms of financial and social qualifications – which applied to election to public office. The Solonian constitution divided citizens into four political classes defined according to assessable property a classification that might previously have served the state for military or taxation purposes only.

Solon’s laws were inscribed on large wooden slabs or cylinders attached to a series of axles that stood upright in the Prytaneion. These axones appear to have operated on the same principle as a turntable, allowing both convenient storage and ease of access. Originally the axones recorded laws enacted by Draco (from where we get the term Draconian) in the late 7th Century (traditionally 621 BC). Nothing of Draco’s codification has survived except for a law relating to homicide, yet there is consensus among scholars that it did not amount to anything like a constitution.[55][56] Solon repealed all Draco’s laws except those relating to homicide.[57]

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