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Greeks, Democracy and Slavery (650-501 BCE)

Draconian Athens and Reforms | Solon's Failure and the Tyrant Pisistratus | Sparta versus Democracy in Athens | An imperfect Democracy | Slavery and the Ancient Greeks

Acropolis of Athens

Acropolis of Athens, by Leo von Klenze, 1846

Draconian Athens and Reforms

Athens was a city on the water's edge and, unlike Sparta, it was a city of maritime trade and commerce. But like Sparta it was devoted mainly to agriculture. By the 600's BCE (a century that included the fall of the great Assyrian Empire) Athens governed an area of about twenty-five by fifty miles. And with enough land the Athenians prospered for a while. They were emerging from a time when there was no overcrowding. They launched no wars of conquest. They enjoyed peace as well as prosperity.

Like most other cities in the 600s, Athens was authoritarian and divided by economic classes. It was ruled by an oligarchy. Power within Athens and in the surrounding countryside was distributed among local families of wealth, each ruling over the common people in its locality, providing the kind of protection that the Sicilian Mafia would provide people in the 20th century.

Then came change. With success in agriculture in the 600s came a rise in population. There might have been a problem with rains washing away topsoil, reducing the amount of land for farming, but there was definitely the problem of fathers dividing land among their sons. Trouble was brewing in what was essentially a laissez-faire economy. Land was divided into smaller and smaller plots. People were plowing land that was only marginally arable, and over-plowing increased soil exhaustion.

Those who owned and worked small plots of land were at times obliged to borrow money to tide themselves over until their next successful harvest. Money was lent at high interest rates, and across Attica small farms became covered with stones on which mortgage bonds were written. Increasingly, small farmers were working the lands of their debtor, giving up a sixth of their crop to those whom they owed wealth, or they were being sold as slaves abroad – diminishing the population only minimally.

Another source of trouble was the one-third in Athens who were foreign slaves. The availability of slave labor bid down wages. Landless freemen could be hired to work in fields or small shops at what some might call starvation wages. City jobs were also occupied by slaves. People of wealth and the city saw themselves as benefiting from slavery. And those with wealth felt no responsibility for those who had grown poor.

In 621 BCE, while unrest was rising among the poor of Athens, a man named Draco led the ruling oligarchy. Draco had existing laws put into writing. He made a legal distinction between intentionally killing someone and accidental homicide. He used state power to intervene in blood feuds. And for almost everything that the ruling elite considered a crime he devised one penalty: death. Not only were rebellion and murder punished by death, so too were idleness and the stealing of vegetables and fruit. It was from Draco's name that the word Draconian would be derived.

If Draco's laws could have been enforced effectively and allowed to work long enough, they might have ended rebellion by killing most of the city's malcontents. But before this could happen, unrest among common Athenians grew, and fearing revolution the elite decided to try appeasement through reform. In the year 594 the elite chose as their leader a 44-year-old fellow aristocrat named Solon. He was one of only a few aristocrats in Athens who was interested in philosophy, and he was religiously devout. He believed in the innate superiority of his own class but he also believed in a justice that was decreed by Zeus for all Athenian citizens.

Solon described Athens as having fallen into "base slavery." Under Solon, slavery was to continue, but he put restrictions on it. Solon prohibited enslavement of the poor and rescued many Athenians who had been sold and sent abroad. He forbade Athenians to sell their children into slavery – except for girls who had committed fornication before marriage. And he made a master responsible for protecting his slaves and liable for his slave's actions.

Solon wished to protect the poor from the rich and the rich from the poor, and using dictatorial powers given him by his fellow aristocrats he overturned Draco's death penalties, except for murder. To preserve the justice of Zeus he increased state intervention in society. He had the state give relief to the poor. He canceled mortgages. He passed a law against debt-bondage. He put an end to tenant farming by returning farms to those who had lost them through debt. And he limited the size of land that any one person could own.

Solon left the aristocracy with much of their land. He also left the aristocracy with top government jobs and seats on ruling bodies. Under his laws only those whose lands produced a certain amount could hold office.

But Solon took a step in the direction of democracy: the Athenian citizen would be given a voice in an assembly. Solon also gave common people a greater role in Athens' system of justice: positions on the city's courts. Judges were chosen by lot so that the poorest people would have their turn sitting with the panel of judges that decided cases. And Solon maintained a check on judges by allowing them to be accused of wrongdoing after their service as judges had ended.

Solon reduced the penalty for idleness to a small fine. He enacted laws to care for widows and orphans. Under Solon it was illegal to strike another person, and parents could be punished for mistreating their children. Under Solon it was illegal to slander others, to use abusive language or to engage in other forms of offensive conduct. Solon outlawed pimping and male prostitution, and he had the city remove the dead from its streets.


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