Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ A Reformer and a Tyrant.
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
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In the earliest history of the Greek world, as far as anyone can tell, the political landscape consisted of small-time “kings” ruling over their own homes and immediate surroundings. In certain places, individual kings acquired power over larger territories, and influence over neighboring kings. This is what the world depicted in the Homeric epics looks like.
The Athenians thought that the mythological hero Theseus was their first king, and they attributed to him the birth of the Athenian state. Before Theseus, the peninsula of Attica was home to various, independent towns and villages, with Athens being the largest. Theseus, when he had gained power in Athens, abolished the local governments in the towns; the people kept their property, but all were governed from a single political center at Athens. The Greeks called this process of bringing many settlements together into a political unity synoikism (συνοίκισις) (See Thuc. 2.15.1-2). Whether or not Theseus had anything to do with this, the fact remains that, when the Greek world moved from prehistory into historical times, the Attic peninsula was a unified political state with Athens at its center.
In the latter part of the
About ten years later, in
Draco’s laws did not avert the next crisis, which pitted the wealthy against the poor. Poor citizens, in years of poor harvests, had to mortgage portions of their land to wealthier citizens in exchange for food and seed to plant. Having lost the use of a portion of their land, they were even more vulnerable to subsequent hardships (see Aristot. Ath. Pol. 2.1-2). Eventually, many of these Athenians lost the use of their land altogether, and became tenant-farmers, virtually (or perhaps actually) slaves to the wealthy. The resulting crisis threatened both the stability and prosperity of Athens. In
Read about the evidence
Andocides (Andoc. 1).
Solon’s laws, even though they did not establish a democracy as radical as what would follow, nevertheless became the template for all future Athenian government. It was common for Athenians, for the next 200 years, to describe subsequent legal innovations in terms of their fidelity to the “Solonian Constitution” (whether or not those innovations remotely resembled the laws of Solon). So, after the brief rule of the “Thirty Tyrants” at the end of the
Solon took steps to alleviate the crisis of debt that the poor suffered, and to make the constitution of Athens somewhat more equitable. He abolished the practice of giving loans with a citizen’s freedom as collateral, the practice that had made slaves of many Athenians (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 9.1). He gave every Athenian the right to appeal to a jury, thus taking ultimate authority for interpreting the law out of the hands of the Nine Archons and putting it in the hands of a more democratic body, since any citizen could serve on a jury (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 9.1; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.3). Otherwise, he divided the population into four classes, based on wealth, and limited the office of Archon to members of the top three classes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.3).
Formerly, the Council of the Areopagus, which consisted of former Archons, chose the Nine Archons each year—a self-perpetuating system that ensured that the office of Archon was held only by aristocrats. Solon had all of the Athenians elect a short-list of candidates for the Archonship, from which the Nine Archons were chosen by lot (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.1); the office was still limited to citizens of a certain class, but it was no longer limited to members of a few families. How, precisely, laws came to be passed under the Constitution of Solon is not entirely clear, but there was an Assembly, in which every citizen could participate (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 7.3), a Council of 400 citizens chosen probably from the top three property classes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4), with the Areopagus being charged with “guarding the laws” (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 8.4). Regardless of the details, it does seem that the Archons were still a very important element of Athenian government, since (as Aristotle notes), in subsequent years, much political strife seemed to focus on them (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 13.2).
Plot on a Map
So Athens under Solon had many elements that would later be a part of the radical democracy—democratic juries, an Assembly and a Council, selection of officials by lot rather than by vote—while retaining many oligarchic elements in the form of property qualifications and a powerful Council of the Areopagus.
According to the Constitution of the Athenians attributed traditionally to Aristotle, Solon himself was from an aristocratic family, while his personal wealth put him in the middle-class of Athenians, and his sympathy for the injustices against the poor made him a champion of the people generally. This combination was a recipe for tyranny—tyrannies were common in the Greek world during the
Solon’s constitution did not solve all of Athens’ problems, and the city descended back into a state of strife, with various factions, each with its own interests, vying for power (Hdt. 1.59; Plut. Sol. 29). This state of affairs continued from about
The reign of the tyrant Pisistratus seems to have been relatively benign. The
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