SOLON’S EARLY GREEK LEGISLATION
Introduction by Charles F. Horne, Ph.D. & John Rudd, LL.D.
Lycurgus, the reputed Spartan lawgiver, is credited with the construction, about B.C. 800, of the earliest Grecian commonwealth founded upon a specific code of laws. These laws had mainly a military basis, and through obedience to them the Spartans became a people of great hardiness, accustomed to self-discipline, famous for their prowess and endurance in war, and for sternness of individual and social virtues.
In Athens there were no written laws until the time of Draco, B.C. 621, the government before that period having been long in the hands of an oligarchy. In the year above named Draco was archon, and to him was intrusted the work of framing a legal code, conditions under the oligarchic rule having become intolerable to the people at large. The chief features of Draco’s legislation had reference to the punishment of crime, and so extreme were the severities of the system and so cruel the penalties it prescribed that in later times it was declared to have been written in blood.
The Draconian laws remained in force until superseded by the great system of Solon, whose advent as the new lawgiver was brought about mainly through the conspiracy of Cylon, twelve years after the legislation of Draco. Affairs in Athens were in a deplorable state of confusion and violence, the revolt of the poor against the power and privilege of the rich leading to dangerous dissensions and collisions. Solon, who enjoyed a universal reputation for wisdom and uprightness, was called upon by the oligarchy, which again held rule, to assume what was, in fact, almost absolute power. The character of his legislation and its influence upon the course of Greek history have been set forth by many authors, and the following account is perhaps the best that has appeared in modern literature.
Solon, son of Execestides, was a Eupatrid of middling fortune, but of the purest heroic blood, belonging to the gens or family of the Codrids and Neleids, and tracing his origin to the god Poseidon. His father is said to have diminished his substance by prodigality, which compelled Solon in his earlier years to have recourse to trade, and in this pursuit he visited many parts of Greece and Asia. He was thus enabled to enlarge the sphere of his observation, and to provide material for thought as well as for composition. His poetical talents displayed themselves at a very early age, first on light, afterward on serious subjects. It will be recollected that there was at that time no Greek prose writing, and that the acquisitions as well as the effusions of an intellectual man, even in their simplest form, adjusted themselves not to the limitations of the period and the semicolon, but to those of the hexameter and pentameter. Nor, in point of fact, do the verses of Solon aspire to any higher effect than we are accustomed to associate with an earnest, touching, and admonitory prose composition. The advice and appeals which he frequently addressed to his countrymen were delivered in this easy metre, doubtless far less difficult than the elaborate prose of subsequent writers or speakers, such as Thucydides, Isocrates, or Demosthenes. His poetry and his reputation became known throughout many parts of Greece, so that he was classed along with Thales of Miletus, Bias of Priene, Pittacus of Mitylene, Periander of Corinth, Cleobulus of Lindus, Cheilon of Lacedæmon—altogether forming the constellation afterward renowned as the seven wise men.
The first particular event in respect to which Solon appears as an active politician, is the possession of the island of Salamis, then disputed between Megara and Athens. Megara was at that time able to contest with Athens, and for some time to contest with success, the occupation of this important island—a remarkable fact, which perhaps may be explained by supposing that the inhabitants of Athens and its neighborhood carried on the struggle with only partial aid from the rest of Attica. However this may be, it appears that the Megarians had actually established themselves in Salamis, at the time when Solon began his political career, and that the Athenians had experienced so much loss in the struggle as to have formally prohibited any citizen from ever submitting a proposition for its reconquest. Stung with this dishonorable abnegation, Solon counterfeited a state of ecstatic excitement, rushed into the agora, and there on the stone usually occupied by the official herald, pronounced to the surrounding crowd a short elegiac poem which he had previously composed on the subject of Salamis. Enforcing upon them the disgrace of abandoning the island, he wrought so powerfully upon their feelings that they rescinded the prohibitory law. “Rather (he exclaimed) would I forfeit my native city and become a citizen of Pholegandrus, than be still named an Athenian, branded with the shame of surrendered Salamis!” The Athenians again entered into the war, and conferred upon him the command of it—partly, as we are told, at the instigation of Pisistratus, though the latter must have been at this time (B.C. 600-594) a very young man, or rather a boy.
The stories in Plutarch, as to the way in which Salamis was recovered, are contradictory as well as apocryphal, ascribing to Solon various stratagems to deceive the Megarian occupiers. Unfortunately no authority is given for any of them. According to that which seems the most plausible, he was directed by the Delphian god first to propitiate the local heroes of the island; and he accordingly crossed over to it by night, for the purpose of sacrificing to the heroes Periphemus and Cychreus on the Salaminian shore. Five hundred Athenian volunteers were then levied for the attack of the island, under the stipulation that if they were victorious they should hold it in property and citizenship. They were safely landed on an outlying promontory, while Solon, having been fortunate enough to seize a ship which the Megarians had sent to watch the proceedings, manned it with Athenians and sailed straight toward the city of Salamis, to which the Athenians who had landed also directed their march. The Megarians marched out from the city to repel the latter, and during the heat of the engagement Solon, with his Megarian ship and Athenian crew, sailed directly to the city. The Megarians, interpreting this as the return of their own crew, permitted the ship to approach without resistance, and the city was thus taken by surprise. Permission having been given to the Megarians to quit the island, Solon took possession of it for the Athenians, erecting a temple to Enyalius, the god of war, on Cape Sciradium, near the city of Salamis.
The citizens of Megara, however, made various efforts for the recovery of so valuable a possession, so that a war ensued long as well as disastrous to both parties. At last it was agreed between them to refer the dispute to the arbitration of Sparta, and five Spartans were appointed to decide it—Critolaidas, Amompharetus, Hypsechidas, Anaxilas, and Cleomenes. The verdict in favor of Athens was founded on evidence which it is somewhat curious to trace. Both parties attempted to show that the dead bodies buried in the island conformed to their own peculiar mode of interment, and both parties are said to have cited verses from the catalogue of the Iliad—each accusing the other of error or interpolation. But the Athenians had the advantage on two points: first, there were oracles from Delphi, wherein Salamis was mentioned with the epithet Ionian; next Philæus and Eurysaces, sons of the Telamonian Ajax, the great hero of the island, had accepted the citizenship of Athens, made over Salamis to the Athenians, and transferred their own residences to Brauron and Melite in Attica, where the deme, or gens, Philaidæ still worshipped Philæus as its eponymous ancestor. Such a title was held sufficient, and Salamis was adjudged by the five Spartans to Attica, with which it ever afterward remained incorporated until the days of Macedonian supremacy. Two centuries and a half later, when the orator Æschines argued the Athenian right to Amphipolis against Philip of Macedon, the legendary elements of the title were indeed put forward, but more in the way of preface or introduction to the substantial political grounds. But in the year 600 B.C. the authority of the legend was more deep-seated and operative, and adequate by itself to determine a favorable verdict.
In addition to the conquest of Salamis, Solon increased his reputation by espousing the cause of the Delphian temple against the extortionate proceedings of the inhabitants of Cirrha, and the favor of the oracle was probably not without its effect in procuring for him that encouraging prophecy with which his legislative career opened.
It is on the occasion of Solon’s legislation that we obtain our first glimpse—unfortunately but a glimpse—of the actual state of Attica and its inhabitants. It is a sad and repulsive picture, presenting to us political discord and private suffering combined.
Violent dissensions prevailed among the inhabitants of Attica, who were separated into three factions—the Pedieis, or men of the plain, comprising Athens, Eleusis, and the neighboring territory, among whom the greatest number of rich families were included; the mountaineers in the east and north of Attica, called Diacrii, who were, on the whole, the poorest party; and the Paralii in the southern portion of Attica from sea to sea, whose means and social position were intermediate between the two. Upon what particular points these intestine disputes turned we are not distinctly informed. They were not, however, peculiar to the period immediately preceding the archonship of Solon. They had prevailed before, and they reappear afterward prior to the despotism of Pisistratus; the latter standing forward as the leader of the Diacrii, and as champion, real or pretended, of the poorer population.
But in the time of Solon these intestine quarrels were aggravated by something much more difficult to deal with—a general mutiny of the poorer population against the rich, resulting from misery combined with oppression. The Thetes, whose condition we have already contemplated in the poems of Homer and Hesiod, are now presented to us as forming the bulk of the population of Attica—the cultivating tenants, metayers, and small proprietors of the country. They are exhibited as weighed down by debts and dependence, and driven in large numbers out of a state of freedom into slavery—the whole mass of them (we are told) being in debt to the rich, who were proprietors of the greater part of the soil. They had either borrowed money for their own necessities, or they tilled the lands of the rich as dependent tenants, paying a stipulated portion of the produce, and in this capacity they were largely in arrear.
All the calamitous effects were here seen of the old harsh law of debtor and creditor—once prevalent in Greece, Italy, Asia, and a large portion of the world—combined with the recognition of slavery as a legitimate status, and of the right of one man to sell himself as well as that of another man to buy him. Every debtor unable to fulfil his contract was liable to be adjudged as the slave of his creditor, until he could find means either of paying it or working it out; and not only he himself, but his minor sons and unmarried daughters and sisters also, whom the law gave him the power of selling. The poor man thus borrowed upon the security of his body (to translate literally the Greek phrase) and upon that of the persons in his family. So severely had these oppressive contracts been enforced, that many debtors had been reduced from freedom to slavery in Attica itself, many others had been sold for exportation, and some had only hitherto preserved their own freedom by selling their children. Moreover, a great number of the smaller properties in Attica were under mortgage, signified—according to the formality usual in the Attic law, and continued down throughout the historical times—by a stone pillar erected on the land, inscribed with the name of the lender and the amount of the loan. The proprietors of these mortgaged lands, in case of an unfavorable turn of events, had no other prospect except that of irremediable slavery for themselves and their families, either in their own native country robbed of all its delights, or in some barbarian region where the Attic accent would never meet their ears. Some had fled the country to escape legal adjudication of their persons, and earned a miserable subsistence in foreign parts by degrading occupations. Upon several, too, this deplorable lot had fallen by unjust condemnation and corrupt judges; the conduct of the rich, in regard to money sacred and profane, in regard to matters public as well as private, being thoroughly unprincipled and rapacious.
The manifold and long-continued suffering of the poor under this system, plunged into a state of debasement not more tolerable than that of the Gallic plebs—and the injustices of the rich, in whom all political power was then vested—are facts well attested by the poems of Solon himself, even in the short fragments preserved to us. It appears that immediately preceding the time of his archonship the evils had ripened to such a point, and the determination of the mass of sufferers to extort for themselves some mode of relief had become so pronounced, that the existing laws could no longer be enforced. According to the profound remark of Aristotle—that seditions are generated by great causes but out of small incidents—we may conceive that some recent events had occurred as immediate stimulants to the outbreak of the debtors, like those which lent so striking an interest to the early Roman annals, as the inflaming sparks of violent popular movements for which the train had long before been laid. Condemnations by the archons of insolvent debtors may have been unusually numerous; or the maltreatment of some particular debtor, once a respected freeman, in his condition of slavery, may have been brought to act vividly upon the public sympathies; like the case of the old plebeian centurion at Rome—first impoverished by the plunder of the enemy, then reduced to borrow, and lastly adjudged to his creditor as an insolvent—who claimed the protection of the people in the forum, rousing their feelings to the highest pitch by the marks of the slave-whip visible on his person. Some such incidents had probably happened, though we have no historians to recount them. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to imagine that that public mental affliction which the purifier Epimenides had been invoked to appease, as it sprung in part from pestilence, so it had its cause partly in years of sterility, which must of course have aggravated the distress of the small cultivators. However this may be, such was the condition of things in B.C. 594 through mutiny of the poor freemen and Thetes, and uneasiness of the middling citizens, that the governing oligarchy, unable either to enforce their private debts or to maintain their political power, were obliged to invoke the well-known wisdom and integrity of Solon. Though his vigorous protest—which doubtless rendered him acceptable to the mass of the people—against the iniquity of the existing system had already been proclaimed in his poems, they still hoped that he would serve as an auxiliary to help them over their difficulties. They therefore chose him, nominally as archon along with Philombrotus, but with power in substance dictatorial.
It had happened in several Grecian states that the governing oligarchies, either by quarrels among their own members or by the general bad condition of the people under their government, were deprived of that hold upon the public mind which was essential to their power. Sometimes—as in the case of Pittacus of Mitylene anterior to the archonship of Solon, and often in the factions of the Italian republics in the middle ages—the collision of opposing forces had rendered society intolerable, and driven all parties to acquiesce in the choice of some reforming dictator. Usually, however, in the early Greek oligarchies, this ultimate crisis was anticipated by some ambitious individual, who availed himself of the public discontent to overthrow the oligarchy and usurp the powers of a despot. And so probably it might have happened in Athens, had not the recent failure of Cylon, with all its miserable consequences, operated as a deterring motive. It is curious to read, in the words of Solon himself, the temper in which his appointment was construed by a large portion of the community, but more especially by his own friends: bearing in mind that at this early day, so far as our knowledge goes, democratical government was a thing unknown in Greece—all Grecian governments were either oligarchical or despotic—the mass of the freemen having not yet tasted of constitutional privilege. His own friends and supporters were the first to urge him, while redressing the prevalent discontents, to multiply partisans for himself personally, and seize the supreme power. They even “chid him as a mad-man, for declining to haul up the net when the fish were already enmeshed.” The mass of the people, in despair with their lot, would gladly have seconded him in such an attempt; while many even among the oligarchy might have acquiesced in his personal government, from the mere apprehension of something worse if they resisted it. That Solon might easily have made himself despot admits of little doubt. And though the position of a Greek despot was always perilous, he would have had greater facility for maintaining himself in it than Pisistratus possessed after him; so that nothing but the combination of prudence and virtue, which marks his lofty character, restricted him within the trust specially confided to him. To the surprise of every one—to the dissatisfaction of his own friends—under the complaints alike (as he says) of various extreme and dissentient parties, who required him to adopt measures fatal to the peace of society—he set himself honestly to solve the very difficult and critical problem submitted to him.
Of all grievances, the most urgent was the condition of the poorer class of debtors. To their relief Solon’s first measure, the memorable Seisachtheia, or shaking off of burdens, was directed. The relief which it afforded was complete and immediate. It cancelled at once all those contracts in which the debtor had borrowed on the security either of his person or of his land: it forbade all future loans or contracts in which the person of the debtor was pledged as security; it deprived the creditor in future of all power to imprison, or enslave, or extort work, from his debtor, and confined him to an effective judgment at law authorizing the seizure of the property of the latter. It swept off all the numerous mortgage pillars from the landed properties in Attica, leaving the land free from all past claims. It liberated and restored to their full rights all debtors actually in slavery under previous legal adjudication; and it even provided the means (we do not know how) of repurchasing in foreign lands, and bringing back to a renewed life of liberty in Attica, many insolvents who had been sold for exportation. And while Solon forbade every Athenian to pledge or sell his own person into slavery, he took a step farther in the same direction by forbidding him to pledge or sell his son, his daughter, or an unmarried sister under his tutelage—excepting only the case in which either of the latter might be detected in unchastity. Whether this last ordinance was contemporaneous with the Seisachtheia, or followed as one of his subsequent reforms, seems doubtful.
By this extensive measure the poor debtors—the Thetes, small tenants, and proprietors—together with their families, were rescued from suffering and peril. But these were not the only debtors in the state: the creditors and landlords of the exonerated Thetes were doubtless in their turn debtors to others, and were less able to discharge their obligations in consequence of the loss inflicted upon them by the Seisachtheia. It was to assist these wealthier debtors, whose bodies were in no danger—yet without exonerating them entirely—that Solon resorted to the additional expedient of debasing the money standard. He lowered the standard of the drachma in a proportion of something more than 25 per cent., so that 100 drachmas of the new standard contained no more silver than 73 of the old, or 100 of the old were equivalent to 138 of the new. By this change the creditors of these more substantial debtors were obliged to submit to a loss, while the debtors acquired an exemption to the extent of about 27 per cent.
Lastly, Solon decreed that all those who had been condemned by the archons to atimy (civil disfranchisement) should be restored to their full privileges of citizens—excepting, however, from this indulgence those who had been condemned by the Ephetæ, or by the Areopagus, or by the Phylo-Basileis (the four kings of the tribes), after trial in the Prytaneum, on charges either of murder or treason. So wholesale a measure of amnesty affords strong grounds for believing that the previous judgments of the archons had been intolerably harsh; and it is to be recollected that the Draconian ordinances were then in force.
Such were the measures of relief with which Solon met the dangerous discontent then prevalent. That the wealthy men and leaders of the people—whose insolence and iniquity he has himself severely denounced in his poems, and whose views in nominating him he had greatly disappointed—should have detested propositions which robbed them without compensation of many legal rights, it is easy to imagine. But the statement of Plutarch that the poor emancipated debtors were also dissatisfied, from having expected that Solon would not only remit their debts, but also redivide the soil of Attica, seems utterly incredible; nor is it confirmed by any passage now remaining of the Solonian poems. Plutarch conceives the poor debtors as having in their minds the comparison with Lycurgus and the equality of property at Sparta, which, in my opinion, is clearly a matter of fiction; and even had it been true as a matter of history long past and antiquated, would not have been likely to work upon the minds of the multitude of Attica in the forcible way that the biographer supposes. The Seisachtheia must have exasperated the feelings and diminished the fortunes of many persons; but it gave to the large body of Thetes and small proprietors all that they could possibly have hoped. We are told that after a short interval it became eminently acceptable in the general public mind, and procured for Solon a great increase of popularity—all ranks concurring in a common sacrifice of thanksgiving and harmony. One incident there was which occasioned an outcry of indignation. Three rich friends of Solon, all men of great family in the state, and bearing names which appear in history as borne by their descendants—namely: Conon, Cleinias, and Hipponicus—having obtained from Solon some previous hint of his designs, profited by it, first to borrow money, and next to make purchases of lands; and this selfish breach of confidence would have disgraced Solon himself, had it not been found that he was personally a great loser, having lent money to the extent of five talents.
In regard to the whole measure of the Seisachtheia, indeed, though the poems of Solon were open to every one, ancient authors gave different statements both of its purport and of its extent. Most of them construed it as having cancelled indiscriminately all money contracts; while Androtion and others thought that it did nothing more than lower the rate of interest and depreciate the currency to the extent of 27 per cent., leaving the letter of the contracts unchanged. How Androtion came to maintain such an opinion we cannot easily understand. For the fragments now remaining from Solon seem distinctly to refute it, though, on the other hand, they do not go so far as to substantiate the full extent of the opposite view entertained by many writers—that all money contracts indiscriminately were rescinded—against which there is also a further reason, that if the fact had been so, Solon could have had no motive to debase the money standard. Such debasement supposes that there must have been some debtors at least whose contracts remained valid, and whom nevertheless he desired partially to assist. His poems distinctly mention three things: 1. The removal of the mortgage-pillars. 2. The enfranchisement of the land. 3. The protection, liberation, and restoration of the persons of endangered or enslaved debtors. All these expressions point distinctly to the Thetes and small proprietors, whose sufferings and peril were the most urgent, and whose case required a remedy immediate as well as complete. We find that his repudiation of debts was carried far enough to exonerate them, but no farther.
It seems to have been the respect entertained for the character of Solon which partly occasioned these various misconceptions of his ordinances for the relief of debtors. Androtion in ancient, and some eminent critics in modern times are anxious to make out that he gave relief without loss or injustice to any one. But this opinion seems inadmissible. The loss to creditors by the wholesale abrogation of numerous preëxisting contracts, and by the partial depreciation of the coin, is a fact not to be disguised. The Seisachtheia of Solon, unjust so far as it rescinded previous agreements, but highly salutary in its consequences, is to be vindicated by showing that in no other way could the bonds of government have been held together, or the misery of the multitude alleviated. We are to consider, first, the great personal cruelty of these preëxisting contracts, which condemned the body of the free debtor and his family to slavery; next, the profound detestation created by such a system in the large mass of the poor, against both the judges and the creditors by whom it had been enforced, which rendered their feelings unmanageable so soon as they came together under the sentiment of a common danger and with the determination to insure to each other mutual protection. Moreover, the law which vests a creditor with power over the person of his debtor so as to convert him into a slave, is likely to give rise to a class of loans which inspire nothing but abhorrence—money lent with the foreknowledge that the borrower will be unable to repay it, but also in the conviction that the value of his person as a slave will make good the loss; thus reducing him to a condition of extreme misery, for the purpose sometimes of aggrandizing, sometimes of enriching, the lender. Now the foundation on which the respect for contracts rests, under a good law of debtor and creditor, is the very reverse of this. It rests on the firm conviction that such contracts are advantageous to both parties as a class, and that to break up the confidence essential to their existence would produce extensive mischief throughout all society. The man whose reverence for the obligation of a contract is now the most profound, would have entertained a very different sentiment if he had witnessed the dealings of lender and borrower at Athens under the old ante-Solonian law. The oligarchy had tried their best to enforce this law of debtor and creditor with its disastrous series of contracts, and the only reason why they consented to invoke the aid of Solon was because they had lost the power of enforcing it any longer, in consequence of the newly awakened courage and combination of the people. That which they could not do for themselves, Solon could not have done for them, even had he been willing. Nor had he in his position the means either of exempting or compensating those creditors who, separately taken, were open to no reproach; indeed, in following his proceedings, we see plainly that he thought compensation due, not to the creditors, but to the past sufferings of the enslaved debtor, since he redeemed several of them from foreign captivity, and brought them back to their homes. It is certain that no measure simply and exclusively prospective would have sufficed for the emergency. There was an absolute necessity for overruling all that class of preëxisting rights which had produced so violent a social fever. While, therefore, to this extent, the Seisachtheia cannot be acquitted of injustice, we may confidently affirm that the injustice inflicted was an indispensable price paid for the maintenance of the peace of society, and for the final abrogation of a disastrous system as regarded insolvents. And the feeling as well as the legislation universal in the modern European world, by interdicting beforehand all contracts for selling a man’s person or that of his children into slavery, goes far to sanction practically the Solonian repudiation.
One thing is never to be forgotten in regard to this measure, combined with the concurrent amendments introduced by Solon in the law—it settled finally the question to which it referred. Never again do we hear of the law of debtor and creditor as disturbing Athenian tranquillity. The general sentiment which grew up at Athens, under the Solonian money-law and under the democratical government, was one of high respect for the sanctity of contracts. Not only was there never any demand in the Athenian democracy for new tables or a depreciation of the money standard, but a formal abnegation of any such projects was inserted in the solemn oath taken annually by the numerous Dicasts, who formed the popular judicial body called Heliæa or the Heliastic jurors: the same oath which pledged them to uphold the democratical constitution, also bound them to repudiate all proposals either for an abrogation of debts or for a redivision of the lands. There can be little doubt that under the Solonian law, which enabled the creditor to seize the property of his debtor, but gave him no power over the person, the system of money-lending assumed a more beneficial character. The old noxious contracts, mere snares for the liberty of a poor freeman and his children, disappeared, and loans of money took their place, founded on the property and prospective earnings of the debtor, which were in the main useful to both parties, and therefore maintained their place in the moral sentiment of the public. And though Solon had found himself compelled to rescind all the mortgages on land subsisting in his time, we see money freely lent upon this same security throughout the historical times of Athens, and the evidentiary mortgage-pillars remaining ever after undisturbed.
In the sentiment of an early society, as in the old Roman law, a distinction is commonly made between the principal and the interest of a loan, though the creditors have sought to blend them indissolubly together. If the borrower cannot fulfil his promise to repay the principal, the public will regard him as having committed a wrong which he must make good by his person. But there is not the same unanimity as to his promise to pay interest: on the contrary, the very exaction of interest will be regarded by many in the same light in which the English law considers usurious interest, as tainting the whole transaction. But in the modern mind, principal, and interest within a limited rate, have so grown together, that we hardly understand how it can ever have been pronounced unworthy of an honorable citizen to lend money on interest. Yet such is the declared opinion of Aristotle and other superior men of antiquity; while at Rome, Cato the censor went so far as to denounce the practice as a heinous crime. It was comprehended by them among the worst of the tricks of trade—and they held that all trade, or profit derived from interchange, was unnatural, as being made by one man at the expense of another; such pursuits therefore could not be commended, though they might be tolerated to a certain extent as a matter of necessity, but they belonged essentially to an inferior order of citizens. What is remarkable in Greece is, that the antipathy of a very early state of society against traders and money-lenders lasted longer among the philosophers than among the mass of the people—it harmonized more with the social idéal of the former, than with the practical instincts of the latter.
In a rude condition such as that of the ancient Germans described by Tacitus, loans on interest are unknown. Habitually careless of the future, the Germans were gratified both in giving and receiving presents, but without any idea that they thereby either imposed or contracted an obligation. To a people in this state of feeling, a loan on interest presents the repulsive idea of making profit out of the distress of the borrower. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that the first borrowers must have been for the most part men driven to this necessity by the pressure of want, and contracting debt as a desperate resource, without any fair prospect of ability to repay: debt and famine run together in the mind of the poet Hesiod. The borrower is, in this unhappy state, rather a distressed man soliciting aid than a solvent man capable of making and fulfilling a contract. If he cannot find a friend to make him a free gift in the former character, he will not, under the latter character, obtain a loan from a stranger, except by the promise of exorbitant interest, and by the fullest eventual power over his person which he is in a condition to grant. In process of time a new class of borrowers arise who demand money for temporary convenience or profit, but with full prospect of repayment—a relation of lender and borrower quite different from that of the earlier period, when it presented itself in the repulsive form of misery on the one side, set against the prospect of very large profit on the other. If the Germans of the time of Tacitus looked to the condition of the poor debtors in Gaul, reduced to servitude under a rich creditor, and swelling by hundreds the crowd of his attendants, they would not be disposed to regret their own ignorance of the practice of money-lending. How much the interest of money was then regarded as an undue profit extorted from distress is powerfully illustrated by the old Jewish law; the Jew being permitted to take interest from foreigners—whom the lawgiver did not think himself obliged to protect—but not from his own countrymen. The Koran follows out this point of view consistently, and prohibits the taking of interest altogether. In most other nations laws have been made to limit the rate of interest, and at Rome especially the legal rate was successively lowered—though it seems, as might have been expected, that the restrictive ordinances were constantly eluded. All such restrictions have been intended for the protection of debtors; an effect which large experience proves them never to produce, unless it be called protection to render the obtaining of money on loan impracticable for the most distressed borrowers. But there was another effect which they did tend to produce—they softened down the primitive antipathy against the practice generally, and confined the odious name of usury to loans lent above the fixed legal rate.
In this way alone could they operate beneficially, and their tendency to counterwork the previous feeling was at that time not unimportant, coinciding as it did with other tendencies arising out of the industrial progress of society, which gradually exhibited the relation of lender and borrower in a light more reciprocal, beneficial, and less repugnant to the sympathies of the bystander.
At Athens the more favorable point of view prevailed throughout all the historical times. The march of industry and commerce, under the mitigated law which prevailed subsequently to Solon, had been sufficient to bring it about at a very early period and to suppress all public antipathy against lenders at interest. We may remark, too, that this more equitable tone of opinion grew up spontaneously, without any legal restriction on the rate of interest—no such restriction having ever been imposed and the rate being expressly declared free by a law ascribed to Solon himself. The same may probably be said of the communities of Greece generally—at least there is no information to make us suppose the contrary. But the feeling against lending money at interest remained in the bosoms of the philosophical men long after it had ceased to form a part of the practical morality of the citizens, and long after it had ceased to be justified by the appearances of the case as at first it really had been. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plutarch, treat the practice as a branch of the commercial and money-getting spirit which they are anxious to discourage; and one consequence of this was that they were, less disposed to contend strenuously for the inviolability of existing money-contracts. The conservative feeling on this point was stronger among the mass than among the philosophers. Plato even complains of it as inconveniently preponderant, and as arresting the legislator in all comprehensive projects of reform. For the most part, indeed, schemes of cancelling debts and redividing lands were never thought of except by men of desperate and selfish ambition, who made them stepping-stones to despotic power. Such men were denounced alike by the practical sense of the community and by the speculative thinkers: but when we turn to the case of the Spartan king, Agis III, who proposed a complete extinction of debts and an equal redivision of the landed property of the state, not with any selfish or personal views, but upon pure ideas of patriotism, well or ill understood, and for the purpose of renovating the lost ascendancy of Sparta—we find Plutarch expressing the most unqualified admiration of this young king and his projects, and treating the opposition made to him as originating in no better feelings than meanness and cupidity. The philosophical thinkers on politics conceived—and to a great degree justly, as I shall show hereafter—that the conditions of security, in the ancient world, imposed upon the citizens generally the absolute necessity of keeping up a military spirit and willingness to brave at all times personal hardship and discomfort: so that increase of wealth, on account of the habits of self-indulgence which it commonly introduces, was regarded by them with more or less of disfavor. If in their estimation any Grecian community had become corrupt, they were willing to sanction great interference with preëxisting rights for the purpose of bringing it back nearer to their ideal standard. And the real security for the maintenance of these rights lay in the conservative feelings of the citizens generally, much more than in the opinions which superior minds imbibed from the philosophers.
Such conservative feelings were in the subsequent Athenian democracy peculiarly deep-rooted. The mass of the Athenian people identified inseparably the maintenance of property in all its various shapes with that of their laws and constitution. And it is a remarkable fact, that though the admiration entertained at Athens for Solon was universal, the principle of his Seisachtheia and of his money-depreciation was not only never imitated, but found the strongest tacit reprobation; whereas at Rome, as well as in most of the kingdoms of modern Europe, we know that one debasement of the coin succeeded another. The temptation of thus partially eluding the pressure of financial embarrassments proved, after one successful trial, too strong to be resisted, and brought down the coin by successive depreciations from the full pound of twelve ounces to the standard of one half ounce. It is of some importance to take notice of this fact, when we reflect how much “Grecian faith” has been degraded by the Roman writers into a byword for duplicity in pecuniary dealings. The democracy of Athens—and indeed the cities of Greece generally, both oligarchies and democracies—stands far above the senate of Rome, and far above the modern kingdoms of France and England until comparatively recent times, in respect of honest dealing with the coinage. Moreover, while there occurred at Rome several political changes which brought about new tables, or at least a partial depreciation of contracts, no phenomenon of the same kind ever happened at Athens, during the three centuries between Solon and the end of the free working of the democracy, Doubtless there were fraudulent debtors at Athens; while the administration of private law, though not in any way conniving at their proceedings, was far too imperfect to repress them as effectually as might have been wished. But the public sentiment on the point was just and decided. It may be asserted with confidence that a loan of money at Athens was quite as secure as it ever was at any time or place of the ancient world—in spite of the great and important superiority of Rome with respect to the accumulation of a body of authoritative legal precedent, the source of what was ultimately shaped into the Roman jurisprudence. Among the various causes of sedition or mischief in the Grecian communities, we hear little of the pressure of private debt.
By the measures of relief above described, Solon had accomplished results surpassing his own best hopes. He had healed the prevailing discontents; and such was the confidence and gratitude which he had inspired, that he was now called upon to draw up a constitution and laws for the better working of the government in future. His constitutional changes were great and valuable: respecting his laws, what we hear is rather curious than important.
It has been already stated that, down to the time of Solon, the classification received in Attica was that of the four Ionic tribes, comprising in one scale the Phratries and Gentes, and in another scale the three Trittyes and forty-eight Naucraries—while the Eupatridæ, seemingly a few specially respected gentes, and perhaps a few distinguished families in all the gentes, had in their hands all the powers of government. Solon introduced a new principle of classification—called in Greek the “timocratic principle.” He distributed all the citizens of the tribes, without any reference to their gentes or phratries, into four classes, according to the amount of their property, which he caused to be assessed and entered in a public schedule. Those whose annual income was equal to five hundred medimni of corn (about seven hundred imperial bushels) and upward—one medimnus being considered equivalent to one drachma in money—he placed in the highest class; those who received between three hundred and five hundred medimni or drachmas formed the second class; and those between two hundred and three hundred, the third. The fourth and most numerous class comprised all those who did not possess land yielding a produce equal to two hundred medimni. The first class, called Pentacosiomedimni, were alone eligible to the archonship and to all commands: the second were called the knights or horsemen of the state, as possessing enough to enable them to keep a horse and perform military service in that capacity: the third class, called the [Greek: Zeugitæ], formed the heavy-armed infantry, and were bound to serve, each with his full panoply. Each of these three classes was entered in the public schedule as possessed of a taxable capital calculated with a certain reference to his annual income, but in a proportion diminishing according to the scale of that income—and a man paid taxes to the state according to the sum for which he stood rated in the schedule; so that this direct taxation acted really like a graduated income-tax. The ratable property of the citizen belonging to the richest class (the Pentacosiomedimnus) was calculated and entered on the state schedule at a sum of capital equal to twelve times his annual income; that of the Hippeus, horseman or knight, at a sum equal to ten times his annual income: that of the Zeugite, at a sum equal to five times his annual income. Thus a Pentacosiomedimnus, whose income was exactly 500 drachmas (the minimum qualification of his class), stood rated in the schedule for a taxable property of 6,000 drachmas or one talent, being twelve times his income—if his annual income were 1,000 drachmas, he would stand rated for 12,000 drachmas or two talents, being the same proportion of income to ratable capital. But when we pass to the second class, horsemen or knights, the proportion of the two is changed. The horseman possessing an income of just 300 drachmas (or 300 medimni) would stand rated for 3,000 drachmas, or ten times his real income, and so in the same proportion for any income above 300 and below 500. Again, in the third class, or below 300, the proportion is a second time altered—the Zeugite possessing exactly 200 drachmas of income was rated upon a still lower calculation, at 1,000 drachmas, or a sum equal to five times his income; and all incomes of this class (between 200 and 300 drachmas) would in like manner be multiplied by five in order to obtain the amount of ratable capital. Upon these respective sums of schedule capital all direct taxation was levied. If the state required 1 percent of direct tax, the poorest Pentacosiomedimnus would pay (upon 6,000 drachmas) 60 drachmas; the poorest Hippeus would pay (upon 3,000 drachmas) 30; the poorest Zeugite would pay (upon 1,000 drachmas) 10 drachmas. And thus this mode of assessment would operate like a graduated income-tax, looking at it in reference to the three different classes—but as an equal income-tax, looking at it in reference to the different individuals comprised in one and the same class.
All persons in the state whose annual income amounted to less than two hundred medimni or drachmas were placed in the fourth class, and they must have constituted the large majority of the community. They were not liable to any direct taxation, and perhaps were not at first even entered upon the taxable schedule, more especially as we do not know that any taxes were actually levied upon this schedule during the Solonian times. It is said that they were all called Thetes, but this appellation is not well sustained, and cannot be admitted: the fourth compartment in the descending scale was indeed termed the Thetic census, because it contained all the Thetes, and because most of its members were of that humble description; but it is not conceivable that a proprietor whose land yielded to him a clear annual return of 100, 120, 140, or 180 drachmas, could ever have been designated by that name.
Such were the divisions in the political scale established by Solon, called by Aristotle a timocracy, in which the rights, honors, functions, and liabilities of the citizens were measured out according to the assessed property of each. The highest honors of the state—that is, the places of the nine archons annually chosen, as well as those in the senate of Areopagus, into which the past archons always entered (perhaps also the posts of Prytanes of the Naukrari) were reserved for the first class: the poor Eupatrids became ineligible, while rich men, not Eupatrids, were admitted. Other posts of inferior distinction were filled by the second and third classes, who were, moreover, bound to military service—the one on horseback, the other as heavy-armed soldiers on foot. Moreover, the liturgies of the state, as they were called—unpaid functions such as the trierarchy, choregy, gymnasiarchy, etc., which entailed expense and trouble on the holder of them—were distributed in some way or other between the members of the three classes, though we do not know how the distribution was made in these early times. On the other hand, the members of the fourth or lowest class were disqualified from holding any individual office of dignity. They performed no liturgies, served in case of war only as light-armed or with a panoply provided by the state, and paid nothing to the direct property-tax or Eisphora. It would be incorrect to say that they paid no taxes, for indirect taxes, such as duties on imports, fell upon them in common with the rest; and we must recollect that these latter were, throughout a long period of Athenian history, in steady operation, while the direct taxes were only levied on rare occasions.
But though this fourth class, constituting the great numerical majority of the free people, were shut out from individual office, their collective importance was in another way greatly increased. They were invested with the right of choosing the annual archons, out of the class of Pentacosiomedimni; and what was of more importance still, the archons and the magistrates generally, after their year of office, instead of being accountable to the senate of Areopagus, were made formally accountable to the public assembly sitting in judgment upon their past conduct. They might be impeached and called upon to defend themselves, punished in case of misbehavior, and debarred from the usual honor of a seat in the senate of Areopagus.
Had the public assembly been called upon to act alone without aid or guidance, this accountability would have proved only nominal. But Solon converted it into a reality by another new institution, which will hereafter be found of great moment in the working out of the Athenian democracy. He created the pro-bouleutic, or pre-considering senate, with intimate and especial reference to the public assembly—to prepare matters for its discussion, to convoke and superintend its meetings, and to insure the execution of its decrees. The senate, as first constituted by Solon, comprised four hundred members, taken in equal proportions from the four tribes; not chosen by lot, as they will be found to be in the more advanced stage of the democracy, but elected by the people, in the same way as the archons then were—persons of the fourth, or poorest class of the census, though contributing to elect, not being themselves eligible.
But while Solon thus created the new pre-considering senate, identified with and subsidiary to the popular assembly, he manifested no jealousy of the preëxisting Areopagitic senate. On the contrary, he enlarged its powers, gave to it an ample supervision over the execution of the laws generally, and imposed upon it the censorial duty of inspecting the lives and occupation of the citizens, as well as of punishing men of idle and dissolute habits. He was himself, as past archon, a member of this ancient senate, and he is said to have contemplated that by means of the two senates the state would be held fast, as it were with a double anchor, against all shocks and storms.
Such are the only new political institutions (apart from the laws to be noticed presently) which there are grounds for ascribing to Solon, when we take proper care to discriminate what really belongs to Solon and his age from the Athenian constitution as afterward remodelled. It has been a practice common with many able expositors of Grecian affairs, and followed partly even by Dr. Thirlwall, to connect the name of Solon with the whole political and judicial state of Athens as it stood between the age of Pericles and that of Demosthenes—the regulations of the senate of five hundred, the numerous public dicasts or jurors taken by lot from the people—as well as the body annually selected for law-revision, and called nomothets—and the open prosecution (called the graphe paranomon) to be instituted against the proposer of any measure illegal, unconstitutional, or dangerous. There is indeed some countenance for this confusion between Solonian and post-Solonian Athens, in the usage of the orators themselves. For Demosthenes and Æschines employ the name of Solon in a very loose manner, and treat him as the author of institutions belonging evidently to a later age—for example: the striking and characteristic oath of the Heliastic jurors, which Demosthenes ascribes to Solon, proclaims itself in many ways as belonging to the age after Clisthenes, especially by the mention of the senate of five hundred, and not of four hundred. Among the citizens who served as jurors or dicasts, Solon was venerated generally as the author of the Athenian laws. An orator, therefore, might well employ his name for the purpose of emphasis, without provoking any critical inquiry whether the particular institution, which he happened to be then impressing upon his audience, belonged really to Solon himself or to the subsequent periods. Many of those institutions, which Dr. Thirlwall mentions in conjunction with the name of Solon, are among the last refinements and elaborations of the democratical mind of Athens—gradually prepared, doubtless, during the interval between Clisthenes and Pericles, but not brought into full operation until the period of the latter (B.C. 460-429). For it is hardly possible to conceive these numerous dicasteries and assemblies in regular, frequent, and long-standing operation, without an assured payment to the dicasts who composed them. Now such payment first began to be made about the time of Pericles, if not by his actual proposition; and Demosthenes had good reason for contending that if it were suspended, the judicial as well as the administrative system of Athens would at once fall to pieces. It would be a marvel, such as nothing short of strong direct evidence would justify us in believing, that in an age when even partial democracy was yet untried, Solon should conceive the idea of such institutions; it would be a marvel still greater, that the half-emancipated Thetes and small proprietors, for whom he legislated—yet trembling under the rod of the Eupatrid archons, and utterly inexperienced in collective business—should have been found suddenly competent to fulfil these ascendant functions, such as the citizens of conquering Athens in the days of Pericles, full of the sentiment of force and actively identifying themselves with the dignity of their community, became gradually competent, and not more than competent, to exercise with effect. To suppose that Solon contemplated and provided for the periodical revision of his laws by establishing a nomothetic jury or dicastery, such as that which we find in operation during the time of Demosthenes, would be at variance (in my judgment) with any reasonable estimate either of the man or of the age. Herodotus says that Solon, having exacted from the Athenians solemn oaths that they would not rescind any of his laws for ten years, quitted Athens for that period, in order that he might not be compelled to rescind them himself. Plutarch informs us that he gave to his laws force for a century. Solon himself, and Draco before him, had been lawgivers evoked and empowered by the special emergency of the times: the idea of a frequent revision of laws, by a body of lot-selected dicasts, belongs to a far more advanced age, and could not well have been present to the minds of either. The wooden rollers of Solon, like the tables of the Roman decemvìrs, were doubtless intended as a permanent “fons omnis publici privatique juris“.