The Birth of Democracy
Did you know that one Athenian man is credited with the establishment of an assembly that allowed all male citizens to participate in government, which later developed into the central institution of the world’s first democratic state?
In 594 B.C., in an attempt to head off civil strife and return their city state to prosperity, the people of Athens appointed the prominent statesman Solon as Archon (chief magistrate)—the highest position in the Athenian government.
“Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens,” illustration by Walter Crane, from The Story of Greece: Told to Boys and Girls, by Mary Macgregor, 1914.
Acting with authority to revise the laws, Solon introduced constitutional and economic reforms that would later act as a model for future Athenian governments and provide the foundations for genuine democracy.
During the early 6th century B.C., Athens was experiencing a period of social upheaval that was threatening its economic stability. The good governance of the city state was becoming increasingly hampered by conflict between rival aristocratic clans and social tension between rich landowners and poorer citizens.
A small aristocracy had accumulated a disproportionate amount of land, and an increasing number of serfs had little choice but to sell or mortgage portions of their own property in order to finance their debts. Numerous serfs had lost all their land and were reduced to the status of tenant-farmers working in conditions of near slavery.
Solon was charged with resolving the crisis and set about devising a constitution that would be more equitable.
He introduced a plan, referred to as “shaking off of burdens,” that cancelled many of the debts incurred by the serfs and freed those who had become subjugated to landowners.
In addition to relieving the burden on the poor, Solon restructured the social system by dividing Athenians into four groups based on agricultural output rather than family ties and standing.
While only members from the top two social groups could stand for high political office, the financial requirements for election to minor positions in public office were lowered, and citizens from the lower groups were given certain political and legal rights for the first time.
These included the right of all male Athenians to participate in the Assembly: to listen, discuss, and vote on decrees, and the right to serve on a jury.
In addition, all Athenians were allowed to participate in the process to choose the city’s Nine Archons—the chief magistrates—albeit from a list limited to members of the upper social groups.
Bust of Solon, copy from a Greek original (c. 110 BC) from the Farnese Collection, now at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Solon was careful not to deny the Athenian elite ultimate authority and created a council of 400 members from the top social groups, which had the power to decide on the agenda for discussion in the larger Assembly.
Despite the introduction of Solon’s reforms, social stability in Athens didn’t last long following the magistrate’s retirement, and the city state even went through subsequent periods of tyranny.
Nevertheless, the changes brought about by Solon weakened the supremacy of the Athenian aristocracy and allowed citizens from lower social groups greater participation in the processes of governance and law.
Today, Solon is recognized by historians for his contribution to the development of the democratic principles and institutions that formed a significant part of the direct democracy that took shape in Athens during the 5th century B.C.
“Seek to learn constantly while you live; do not wait in the faith that old age by itself will bring wisdom.” —Solon
“Let no man be called happy before his death. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky.” —Solon
“In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend.” —Solon
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” —Winston Churchill
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” —Abraham Lincoln
How did you like the episode?
Get the word out!
Love Curious Peoples? Your friends will too.