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Solon, A Biography

Whatever the connection between Cylon and Draco--and one must beware the trap of bringing all the meager facts about the Archaic period into relation with each other--firmer grounds for postulating economic and social unrest in late 7th-century Attica are to be found in the poetry of Solon. Solon is the first European politician who speaks to the 20th century in a personal voice (Tyrtaeus reflects an ethos and an age). Like the other archaic poets mentioned, Solon wrote for symposia, and his more frivolous poetry should not be lost sight of in preoccupation with what he wrote in self-justification. He was a man who enjoyed life and wanted to preserve rather than destroy.

Solon's laws, passed in 594, were an answer to a crisis that has to be reconstructed largely from his response to it. Most scholars believe that Solon's laws continued to be available for consultation in the 5th and 4th centuries; this (as noted above) did not prevent distortion and manipulation. In any case, by the 4th century, the age of treatises like the Constitution of Athens and other works by local historians of Attica ("Atthidographers"), much about early Attica had been forgotten or was misunderstood. Above all, there was a crucial failure to understand the dependent status of those who worked on the land of Attica before Solon abolished that status, which was conceived of as a kind of obligation or debt; this abolition, or "shaking off of burdens," was the single most important thing Solon did. When one divides Solon's work, as will be done here for convenience, into economic, political, and social components, one may fail to grasp the possibility that there was a unified vision organizing it all and that in this sense no one reform was paramount. Perhaps the poem of Solon's that sums up best what he stood for is a relatively neglected and not easily elucidated one, but an important one nonetheless, in which he seems to claim that nobody else could have done what he did and still have "kept the cream on the milk." That is to say, his was, in intention at least, a more just though still a stratified society that sought to retain the cooperation of its elite.

Solon canceled all "debt" (as stated, this cannot yet have been debt incurred in a monetary form). He also abolished enslavement for debt, pulling up the boundary markers, or horoi, which indicated some sort of obligation. This act of pulling up the horoi was a sign that he had "freed the black earth." The men whose land was designated by these horoi were called "sixth-parters" (hektemoroi) because they had to hand over one-sixth of their produce to the "few" or "the rich" to whom they were in some sense indebted. Solon's change was retrospective as well as prospective: he brought back people from overseas slavery who no longer spoke the Attic language (this is the evidence, hinted at above, for thinking that the problems facing Solon went back at least a generation, into the period of Draco or even Cylon).

Enslavement for debt was not an everyday occurrence in the world of Aristotle or Plutarch (although the concept never entirely disappeared in antiquity), and they seem to have misunderstood the nature of the debt or obligation that the horoi indicated. It is not only Aristotle and Plutarch who found the situation bewildering. It has seemed odd to modern scholars that mere defaulting on a conventional debt should result in loss of personal freedom. Hence they have been driven to the hypothesis that land in Archaic Greece was in a strong sense inalienable and thus not available as security for a loan (of perhaps seed-corn or other goods in kind). Only the person of the "debtor" and members of his family could be put up as a kind of security. Incurable damage has, however, been done to this general theory by the independent dismantling of any idea that land in Archaic Greece was in fact inalienable (such Greek prohibitions on alienation as one hears of tend to date from late and semi mythical contexts such as the 4th-century literary reworking of tradition about Sparta or from post-Archaic colonial contexts where the object of equal and indivisible land-portions was precisely to avoid the injustices and agricultural buying-up and asset stripping left behind at home).Evidently then, some new approach is needed, and it can be found in the plausible idea that what Solon got rid of was something fundamentally different from ordinary debt. In fact, hektemorage was a kind of originally voluntary contractual arrangement whereby the small man gave his labor to the great man of the area, forfeiting a sixth of his produce and symbolically recognizing this subordination by accepting the installation of a horos on the land. In return the other perhaps provided physical protection. This would go back historically to the violent and uncertain Dark Age when Attica was being resettled and there was danger from cattle rustlers, pirates (nowhere in Attica is far from the sea), or just greedy neighbors. Alternatively, hektemorage may simply have been the contractual basis on which powerful men assigned land to cultivators in the 9th and 8th centuries, when Attica was being reclaimed after the previous impoverished period. As the 7th century wore on, however, there was scope in Attica for enrichment of an entirely new sort, involving concentration of precious metal in marketable or at least exchangeable form as a result of contacts with elegant, rich, and sophisticated new worlds across the sea. This produced more violent disparities of wealth and a motive for "cashing" the value of a defaulting labourer. On his part, the labourer may have felt that his low social status, once acceptable or inevitable, was no longer commensurate with his military value in the new hoplite age. So Solon's abolition of hektemorage was as much a social and political as an economic change.

This theory of the origin of hektemorage is attractive and explains much. It is disconcerting, however, that the best analogies that can be offered for such semi-contractual "servitude for debt" are from older hierarchical civilizations dependent on highly organized exploitation of man-made irrigation systems (so-called "hydraulic economies"). It is hard to see whom or what institution, in Geometric Attica, had the authority--in the absence of any kind of priest-king--to impose the hektemorage system generally throughout the large area of Attica. Nonetheless, one can accept that hektemorage was as much a matter of status as of economic obligation.

Solon's main political changes were first to introduce a Council of 400 members alongside the old "Thesean" council of elders known as the Areopagus, from the Hill of Ares next to the Acropolis, where it met. The functions of this new Council of Solon are uncertain, but that is no reason to doubt its historicity. Solon's Council is perhaps important not so much for itself as for what it anticipated--the replacement Council of Five Hundred, introduced by Cleisthenes at the end of the 6th century.

Second, Solon allowed appeal to the heliaia, or popular law court. The composition of this body is the subject of fierce scholarly dispute; one view sees it as a new and wholly separate body of sworn jurors, enjoying even at this date a kind of sovereignty within the state. The more usual view is that the heliaia was the Assembly in its judicial capacity. This view is preferable: neither in Solon's time nor later is it plausible to posit large juries whose makeup or psychology was distinct from that of the political Assembly. In later times, such appeal to the people was regarded as particularly democratic. But this is just the kind of anachronism one must be careful of when estimating Solon: until pay for juries was introduced in the 460s, such juries could not be a buttress of democracy. Moreover, it would take a courageous peasant (there were no professional lawyers or speech writers as yet) to get up and articulately denounce a bribe-swallowing basileus, especially if--as seems possible--unsuccessful appeal could actually result in increase of sentence.

Third, Solon admitted to the Assembly the lowest economic "class" in the Athenian state, the thetes, whose status was henceforth defined in terms of agricultural produce. The quotes are necessary because investing such fixed economic statuses, or tele, with political significance was an innovation of Solon himself; that is, his fourth political reform was to make eligibility for all political office (not just the bare right of attending the Assembly) dependent on wealth and no longer exclusively on birth (a "timocratic" rather than an "aristocratic" system). Solon's four classes were the "five-hundred-bushel men," or pentakosiomedimnoi; the hippeis, or cavalry class; the zeugitai, or hoplites; and the thetes, the class that later provided most of the rowers for the fleet. Again, the immediate impact of the change need not have been cataclysmic: many of the older aristocracy (whether or not one should think of them as a closely defined group of "eupatridae"--that is, "people of good descent") would still have been eligible for office even after the change. But there was also a need to cater to men who were outsiders in the technical sense of not belonging to the older gene: the name of one such excluded but high-status category of families has perhaps come down to the present, the so-called orgeones. Nor were Solon's four classes themselves entirely new (as indeed the Constitution of Athens actually admits in an aside). Thus there were horsemen and even hoplites before Solon, and thetes are mentioned in Homer. The phrase five-hundred-bushel men, which at first sight looks like a prosaic and unimaginative new coinage, acquired in 1968 a 9th-century archaeological analogue: a set of five model granaries was found in a female grave excavated in the Agora. It clearly was a pre-Solonian status symbol ("I was the daughter of a pentakosiomedimnos"). An interesting suggestion sees the four classes as originally religious in character: their members may have had allocated functions in the festivals of the synoecized Athenian state. This is not strictly provable but is plausible because the political and military life of Athens and Attica was at all times seen in religious terms.

Solon's social legislation seems generally designed to reduce the primacy of the family and increase that of the community, or polis. To that extent it can be regarded as embryonically democratic. For instance, his laws on inheritance made it easier to leave property away from the family. He also legislated to restrict ostentatious mourning at funerals and to prevent spectacular burials, which were potentially a way for aristocratic families to assert their prestige. (And not just a potential way, either: a great noble called Cimon was buried later in the 6th century in true "Lefkandi style"--that is, close to the horses with which he had won three times at the Olympic games. This burial was surely in defiance of the Solonian rules.) As can be seen from the Antigone of the 5th-century tragic poet Sophocles, death and funerary ritual were always an area in which the family, and especially the women, had traditional functions. For the state to seek to regulate them was a major shift of emphasis.

The whole thrust of Solon's reforms was to define and enlarge the sphere of activity of the polis. He was concerned to recognize and increase the power of the ordinary Athenian thete and hoplite, while containing without destroying the privileges of the aristocratic "cream." By uprooting the horoi, symbols of a kind of slavery, he created the Attica of independent smallholders one encounters as late as the 4th century. And he gave them political rights to match, "as much as was sufficient," as a poem of his puts it. One result of Solon's reforms cannot have been intentional: the abolition of hektemorage created, in modern terms, a "gap in the work force." From then on it was beneath the dignity of the emancipated Athenian to work for a master. Some other source of labor had to be found, and it was found in the form of chattel slaves from outside. That means that the whole edifice of culture and politics rested on the labor of men and women who by "right" of purchase or conquest had become mere things, mere domestic, agricultural, or mining equipment, and whose presence in Classical Attica rose into the tens of thousands. For by the 5th century, slave owning was not confined to the aristocratic few but had been extended to the descendants of that very class Solon had liberated from another kind of slavery.

Initially the Solonian solution was an economic failure, however true it is to attribute to him the economic shape of Classical Attica. Solon himself was almost, but not quite, a tyrant. The orthodox Greek tyrant was associated with redistribution of land and cancellation of debts, though this association was to a large extent a mere matter of popular perception because wholesale redistribution of land is extraordinarily rare in Greek history. Solon did cancel debts. He also redistributed the land in the sense that the former hektemoroi now had control without encumbrance of the land they had previously worked with strings attached. He did not, however, redistribute all the land, because he left the rich in possession of the land the hektemoroi had previously worked for them. In this respect Solon's rule differed from tyranny. It also differed in his simple avoidance of the word; after his year of legislative activity he simply disappeared instead of supervising the implementation of that legislation. This was unfortunate for the former hektemoroi, who needed to be supported in the early years. Growing olive trees, which were a staple of Attica, was an obvious recourse for the farmer in new possession of his own plot, but it takes 20 years for olive trees to reach maturity. Such farmers could hardly look for charity to their former masters, whose wealth and privilege Solon had curtailed. Instead they looked to a real tyrant, Peisistratus.


 

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