The world's first extended experiment in democracy took place in the ancient Greek polis (city-state) of Athens. In 594 B.C.E., Solon, a great statesman and lawgiver, was entrusted with special powers to revise the political, social, and economic structure of Athens. His work began the evolution from rule by an elite aristocratic clique toward a more egalitarian constitution; in short, Solon set Athens firmly on a course toward democracy. He successfully arbitrated a settlement between Athenian aristocrats and commoners and allowed for participation of many more citizens in the political process. In the first of the passages that follow, Plutarch outlines the reforms that Solon undertook and the kinds of opposition that confronted him.

Solon was justly proud of his achievements and sang of them in remarkable lyric poems; he is in fact the earliest Athenian man of letters known to us by name. The second passage is a poem in which Solon commemorates his solid accomplishments in a dangerous atmosphere of social and political instability and potential revolutionary violence.

Much like Abraham Lincoln in the American historical consciousness, Solon quickly became a stereotype of legendary sagacity. His stature as a sage is evident in the third passage, in which the historian Herodotus reports a famous conversation between the Athenian wise man and Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia.


1) Were the social and economic problems that existed in Athens prior to Solon's reforms typical or atypical as compared to conditions in other cases of revolutionary unrest?

2) Solon claimed to have been fair to both the aristocrats and the common people in making his reforms. Do you agree with that claim?

3) What is the moral of Herodotus's story of Solon's conversation with Croesus?

Plutarch, Solon, chaps. 13-18, 24-25:

Athens was in danger of violent revolution and tyranny appeared the only course by which to end civil dissension and stabilize the government. The mass of commoners were deeply in debt to the wealthy few aristocrats. Many worked land for their wealthy creditors; because they handed over a sixth part of their yearly produce, they came to be known as Hektemoroi ["Sixth-Parters"]; others, having made their own persons over as loan collateral, had been sold into slavery both at home and abroad. There being no laws to prevent it, many sold their own children or were forced into exile by their creditors.

The majority of men, however, had more spirit and began to conspire to oppose these injustices and to back some popular leader. In particular, they aimed to free debt-slaves, reallocate land, and thoroughly revamp the constitution. The more astute of these men saw Solon as an ideal choice; since he was neither one of the extortionate rich nor one of the destitute poor, they called on him to arbitrate these class conflicts.... He was chosen archon [chief magistrate] ... with special powers of arbitration and legislation; the rich saw him as a man of substance, the poor saw him as a man of moral probity. His opinion that "equality engenders no discord" brought him favor with the whole electorate, both the rich and the poor; the former thought that by "equality" he meant quality and attainments, the latter that he meant by it simply the quantitative equality of the head-count. As a result, both sides encouraged Solon to capitalize on his special powers by seizing the powers of a tyrant. People unattached to either faction were also willing to see a single just and sage individual at the head of affairs, since they felt real change could be effected only very slowly and tediously through the usual legislative procedures. But Solon was unpersuaded, saying to his friends that tyranny, though well and good in itself, could never be relinquished....

His first official act was to cancel existing debts and forbid the practice of taking the person of the debtor as loan guarantee.... He also ... [brought] back from foreign lands some of those who had been sold for non-payment of debts.

At first, both factions were dissatisfied with these measures, the rich at being divested of their loan securities, the poor at Solon's failure to reallocate land or to dictate a strictly equal style of living on all citizens .... However, they soon realized the advantages of Solon's policies ... and granted him plenipotentiary powers to revise the constitution and code of law....

Solon first revamped the law code of Draco [Athenian lawgiver of 621 B.C.E.], which was extremely stringent and stipulated penalties disproportionate to offenses (with the exception of the homicide laws). Draco's code specified the death penalty for all manner of crimes .... Fruit and vegetable thieves were punished quite the same as murderers and the sacrilegious. This was the reason for the ... witty observation that Draco's code had been written in blood, not ink.

Solon was also concerned both to leave the offices of state as the prerogative of the rich and to give the commoners an unprecedented share in the organs of government. To this end, he conducted a census according to citizens' property. The first class consisted of Pentakosiomedimnoi ["five hundred measure men"], that is, all who commanded an annual income of 500 or more measures (wet or dry) of agricultural produce. Comprising the second class were the Hippeis [Knights], who were able to afford a horse (and to pay a "horse-tax" on it) or whose annual produce amounted to 300-500 measures. Comprising the third class were the Zeugitai ["yoke-of-oxen-men"], with annual income of 200-300 measures. The remainder of the citizenry were designated Thetes [landless]; though debarred from holding office, they were eligible to attend the ecclesia [assembly of citizens] and to serve on juries....

Solon made oil the only legally exportable farm product of Attica, requiring that violators of this law were to be cursed by the archon or made to pay 100 drachmas into the state treasury.... All his laws, which were to remain in effect for one hundred years, were written on axones [wooden tablets] that revolved on their rectangular frames....

After Solon had made these reforms ... people constantly wanted to query him and press him to explain his intent in proclaiming particular laws. He realized he could neither satisfy all these requests nor flatly refuse them altogether; he very much wanted to avoid controversies and evade the nitpicking and criticism of his compatriots.... For this reason, he claimed that business interests (he was a shipowner) would require him to be away from Athens for ten years; he then left the city in hopes that his fellow citizens would become habituated to his laws in the interval.

* * * * *

Solon, poem 24:

Did I stop then before I had accomplished my task in gathering back the common people? Great Olympian Mother Earth will swear before time's court that I took from her breast the mortgage-markers, freed her from bonds. I repatriated many sons of Athens--slaves (by law or not) or debt-exiles. Some had lost our Attic tongue so far from home. Others, fearfully cowed by masters here, I also freed. Fitting might to right, I worked the deed I'd promised, set straight laws alike for lords and lowly. Another man, less sage, less honest, could not have checked the mob. Had I favored one side over the other, our polis would have grieved many sons. Like the wily wolf amid a pack of hounds, I showed my strength toward all around.

* * * * *

Herodotus 1.23-33:

After Solon left Athens, he visited the court of Egyptian Amasis and then went to see Croesus in Sardis. Croesus treated him hospitably at the royal palace and, after he had been there three or four days, bid his servants show Solon the magnitude and splendor of his royal possessions and treasures. After Solon had seen all this, Croesus said to him: "Your legendary wisdom is well known to me, my Athenian friend, and I know too that you have traveled far and wide in your thirst for knowledge. I must ask you a question: "who, of all the men you have seen, is the happiest?"

Croesus of course put this question believing he himself was the happiest of men. Solon, however, choosing not to cajole the king but to tell the truth as he saw it, said "an Athenian named Tellus." Croesus, stunned by this reply, asked with some irritation what led him to give this answer.

"Two things," asserted Solon, "in the first place, he lived in a prospering polis where he survived to see his sons' children (and all these children still living); in addition, he had sufficient wealth and met an admirable death. Fighting side by side with his countrymen in conflict with neighboring Eleusis, he died a soldier's death after routing the enemy. The Athenians granted him the impressive tribute of a state funeral on the very spot he fell in battle."

Solon had narrated the story of fortunate Tellus to point a moral for the king. Croesus nevertheless pressed on and asked who was the second happiest person Solon had seen (again expecting to take the prize himself).

Solon responded "two youths of Argos--Kleobis and Biton. They were comfortably well off and blessed with great physical gifts; evidence of the latter was their success in athletics, but particularly the glory they won in the following episode. The Argive festival of Hera was going on, and the youths' mother was to drive her ox-cart to the temple of the goddess. Since the oxen were late in returning from the fields and time was short, the woman's two sons yoked themselves to the cart and drew their mother to the temple nearly six miles distant. After this feat, witnessed by the assembled festival-goers, the two youths met an enviable death, a divine indication that death is to be preferred to life. The men were praising the youths and complimenting them on their strength, while the women were congratulating their mother on having borne such fine sons. Just then, the mother, euphoric at this public commendation of her sons' actions, besought Hera in her shrine before them to bestow on Kleobis and Biton the best godsend that man can receive in recognition of their mother's gratitude.

"After this prayer, the sacrificial rites and feasting were concluded, and the two youths went to sleep in the temple of the goddess. They never awoke again, having died there during the night. The Argives commemorated them with statues sent to Delphi."

Croesus was now properly irked at Solon for awarding the second prize for happiness to these two Argive youths. He growled "All well and good, my dear Athenian, but what about me? Is my happiness so despicable that you give preference to such common folk as you have spoken of?"

Solon answered, "My lord, the gods begrudge human prosperity and like to afflict us, and you are inquiring about human destiny here. Consider: in the course of a life, we must see and endure many things we could have wished away. If we grant seventy years as the limit of life, those years comprise ... 26,250 days, and each day unlike the last in what it brings. You see, Croesus, what an unpredictable and risky thing life is. Though you are rich and rule many subjects, I cannot truthfully answer your question till I know the manner of your death. Great wealth is no better than moderate means unless a man's luck holds out to the end. Rich men have known bad luck and those with modest means have known good....

"If the man favored by wealth dies as he has lived, then you will have the man you seek--one who merits the label 'happy.' But do not grant that label till he is dead, for till then he is merely lucky and not truly happy....

"Whoever possesses the most of the good things I described before and retains them till he meets a peaceful death, that man, Croesus, ought to be called happy. In all things, you should look to the end, for the gods can let a man taste happiness and then completely shatter him."


Sources: Ziegler, K., ed., Plutarchi vitae parallelae, vol. 1.1, 4th ed. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1969); Diehl, Ernestus, ed., Anthologia Lyrica Graeca (Leipzig: Teubner, 1954), 43-45; Legrand, Ph.-E., ed., Hérodote: Histoires, vol. 1 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1932; rpt. 1970).  Translations by James P. Holoka, in Lives and Times: A World History Reader, ed. J.P. Holoka & J-H. L. Upshur (Minneapolis/St. Paul: West Publishing, 1995), 133-136.