Debt and disorder in Athens

Athens – the debt crisis has reached its crisis point. As the economy crumbles, more and more citizens are pushed into destitution and civil unrest grows. Desperate for a way out of the crisis, the voters turn to an outsider candidate who promises a radical programme of reform. Once elected, the new leader faces a daunting task. The old elites view him with suspicion, denouncing him as a dangerous radical who will undermine the social order.  The poorer citizens, on the other hand, have vested in him all their hopes, and will react with anger and resentment if he fails to live up to his promise. Meanwhile, darker forces lurk in the background, hoping to exploit the economic crisis to seize power.

The picture I have sketched will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the news from Greece over the last few years and in recent weeks. But I am not, in fact, talking about the Hellenic Republic in the early twenty-first century AD, but about the Athenian republic in the middle of the sixth century BC. The radical new leader is not Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA, but a poet and politician named Solon, who confronted his own debt crisis more than two and a half thousand years ago.

Solon’s Athens was not a democracy – that would come a hundred years after his time.  Like most Greek cities of the time, it was dominated by a small number of wealthy families, who monopolized economic and political power.  These aristocratic clans owned most of the land and other wealth, and only they were allowed to be elected to political office.  Calling themselves “The Good”, “The Beautiful” or “The Useful”, these nobles looked with stark contempt on the poorer citizens, in their eyes the Bad, the Ugly and the Useless.  This situation often led to civic strife, not only between rich and poor, but also between the various noble families in a vicious, zero-sum competition for power and honour.  The crises that such conflicts spawned could lead to radical changes in the political system.  In Sparta, for example, class conflict is said to have led to the creation of a military collectivist society, converting all Spartans into “peers”, roughly equal members of a vast citizen-army.  In other states, one aristocrat might manage to establish a monopoly on political power and set himself up as tyrant, sole ruler of his community.  In Athens, the tensions caused by social and economic inequality did not, initially, lead either to radical restructuring or to tyranny. They led to Solon.


Unlike the modern Greek debt crisis, the Athenian crisis of Solon’s day was based not on public but on private debt. In order to survive, poor Athenians routinely took out loans from their richer neighbors. Having few possessions with which to guarantee the loans, poor citizens were obliged to put up their own bodies as surety. If a debtor defaulter, his creditor was free to enslave him, either selling him for the amount owed, or forcing him to work off the debt on the rich mans estate. We do not know exactly why, but by Solon’s time the tension created by this practice had come to a crisis point. The poor were clearly angry enough that the rich had to take notice; to avoid civil war, the Athenians looked about for a saviour, someone to mediate between the hostile classes and bring order and trust back to Athenian society.

We know little about Solon’s life, but what we do know goes some way to showing why he was chosen for this task. He came from an old and illustrious family, said to be descended from one of Athens’ ancient kings, and so was clearly noble enough to satisfy the blue-bloods. At the same time, his family was not particularly wealthy, and so he may well not have been personally involved in the exploitation of the poor. As a young man, he had established a reputation for boldness and patriotism, rallying the Athenians to conquer the island of Salamis and to defeat their long-time rivals in the neighbouring city of Megara.  The fearlessness he had shown in the face of foreign wars would now be needed in his struggle with Athenian social problems.

Solon was elected as Archon, the chief magistrate of Athens, and was additionally made Lawgiver, given special powers to reframe the Athenian laws however he judged best.  He set about his work with a will. First, he abolished the practice of debt-slavery. No Athenian was ever again to be enslaved, and those who were already slaves were set free. Second came the Seisachtheia, the “Shaking Off of Burdens.” This, essentially, meant debt relief.  Depending on our sources, Solon either completely forgave all existing debts, or allowed debtors to pay back only a manageable portion of them.  Finally, he remade the Athenian constitution, giving the vote to all citizens, where before it had been limited to those with a certain amount of wealth. This was not, however, full democracy: political offices remained closed to all but the wealthiest citizens, and most of the land and wealth in Athens remained in the hands of the privileged few.

Solon was that rare beast, a professional politician who was also an accomplished literary figure. A few dozen of his poems survive, usually quoted by other, later authors.  While not his only subject, a great deal of Solon’s poetry deals with his political struggles, defending himself from the attacks of both the rich, who thought his reforms went too far, and the poor, equally convinced they didn’t go far enough.


Well, if I must upset the people and upbraid them:

what they have now they never saw before,

not even in their dreams.

And as for the greater men, the “better” men, the men with power:

They should praise me, and consider me their friend. 

If someone else had won the honour I held,

he would not have restrained the people,

would not have stopped

before he had thoroughly churned

the fat and the milk apart. 

I, however, stood as if between two armies,

a boundary stone. 


Solon’s self-identification as “a boundary stone” between the rich and the poor suggests his desire to act as a neutral and honest broker, belonging to neither side and trying to deal fairly with both. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this moderate stance only gained him the hatred of both sides. The rich bitterly resented him for taking away a major source of revenue, and for allowing the “bad people” a voice in government, and may well have considered the nobly-descended Solon a traitor to his class. This certainly seems the sort of sentiment Solon confronts when pleading that his reforms did not greatly diminished the aristocracy’s power or prestige: 


I gave the people as much as they deserved.

I took away none of their honours;  but I did not give them new ones. 

And those who have power and money, they are honoured.

I never intended that they should suffer anything.

I held a mighty shield over both sides,

and let neither win an unjust victory. 


On the other hand, however, Solon’s protestation that he gave the poor “as much as they deserved” would hardly go down well with the lower classes, who remained greatly disadvantaged under the new system.  Wealth and above all land remained deeply unequally held. Though freed from the threat of slavery, the poor were likely still economically dependent on the great landowners. Despite being granted the vote, a poor citizen, bound to his meagre farm, may not have had the time or energy to take much part in politics. Unsurprisingly, then, it seems that many citizens called on Solon to go further still, and bring about a major redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. For Solon, however, such radical change would have been a step too far. 


They came for plunder, rich in hope,

and every one of them thought he’d find his fortune.

They begged me slickly, to harden up my heart.

Their hopes proved empty.  And now they’re mad at me. 

All look at me, eyes sideways.  I’m their enemy. 

I don’t deserve this. 

What I said I’d do, with the gods’ help, I have done.

Other things, stupid things, I have not done. 

To act with force, to act like a tyrant?  I had no desire for that –

not to have the rich soil of our fatherland parcelled out,

to give the Good the same share as the Bad. 


For Solon, forcibly stripping citizens of their land would be the act of a tyrant, a man who ruled arbitrarily and unjustly.  In rejecting tyrannical behaviour, Solon paints himself as particularly virtuous. Many of his contemporaries, like the anonymous critic Solon mocks in one poem, might not have been so scrupulous:


“Solon was not a deep thinker, not a clever man. 

God gave him great things and he didn’t take them.

Everyone admired him, he had the prey in his mighty net,

but he didn’t pull it tight.  He let it go.  Flawed mind, flawed spirit. 

Just let me have power, and more wealth than I can count,

and be tyrant of Athens for just one day,

and I’d let you flay me like a wineskin and wipe out my family forever.”


While the wealth and power that came with tyranny were seen as desirable to some, for Solon the price was too high. “I am happy to have wealth,” he says in another of his poems, “but I will not get it without justice.”

Given the hostility he experienced from both sides, it is no surprise that many of Solon’s poems have a defensive tone, perhaps none more so than one of his longest works, an impassioned defence of his programme:


By my policies, I brought the people together.

Did I stop before I fulfilled all my promises?

I will have a witness in the Court of Time:

The Great Mother of the Olympian gods,

the good black Earth.  I pulled out

the boundary-stones stabbed into her.

Before, she was a slave.  Now she is free.

And those many Athenians – some sold into slavery,

some with law, and some without, some driven out by need,

no more to speak their Attic tongue

as they wandered across the world,

and still others in bitter slavery here at home,

trembling at a  master’s whims – I brought them back

to our god-founded fatherland.  I made them free. 

I yoked together might and right, and I succeeded.  I finished as I promised. 

I wrote laws for the Bad and the Good alike,

I gave to each and every one straight justice.

Another man, holding the whip as I did,

a worthless-witted man, in love with gain,

would not have restrained the people.  If I had agreed

to what so pleased the men who stood opposite me,

this city would be widowed of many men. 

And so I blended the power of every class,

turning like a wolf surrounded by dogs. 


In this poem, Solon portrays himself as a misunderstood genius, whose attempts to make his country free and unified have gone unappreciated by his short-sighted people.  Rejected by his contemporaries, Solon falls back on the comfort of failed politicians throughout the ages, “history will vindicate me.” Though reviled now, Solon eagerly looks forward to victory in “the court of time.”

If he had hoped that his poems would convince the Athenians to support him, however, Solon was to be bitterly disappointed. Attacked from all sides, he was forced to go into exile. Far from being “brought together” by his reforms as Solon hoped, the Athenians swiftly resumed their civic conflict.  Perhaps like Gold Dawn in Greece today, those ambitious for power saw in the unrest a chance for glory. Not long after Solon’s departure, Peisistratus, a less scrupulous aristocrat than Solon, made himself tyrant of Athens and imposed solutions to its social problems through brute force. Solon, some traditions say, had tried to warn the Athenians of the danger this charismatic and ambitious politician posed:


From clouds comes the power of rain and hail,

and thunder from the blazing lightning-bolt;

and from great men comes destruction for the city,

And through its stupidity the people falls into slavery to a monarch.

It is hard to restrain a man who has risen too high,

not once he has gotten there. 

Now is when you must realize all this. 


Of course, the Athenians did not listen, and Solon, watching from exile, could only enjoy the dubious pleasure of saying “I told you so”:


If you have suffered through your own wickedness,

do not blame the gods.

You yourselves puffed him up, gave him bodyguards –

That is why what you have now is dreadful slavery.

Every one of you followed the fox’s track,

In every one of you is an empty mind.

You looked to that man’s tongue and the glitter of his words

And no-one paid attention to what he was doing. 


Having failed to listen to Solon and limit their ambitions for the sake of the greater good, both rich and poor will now have to endure an autocratic ruler. As for Solon, his hope to “bring the people together” and reconcile rich and poor seemed dashed against the rock of human intransigence. His feelings looking back on his attempts at reform seem perfectly summed up in a poignantly banal single-line fragment:  “In great matters,” says Solon “it is difficult to please everyone.”

Solon’s hope that he would be vindicated in the court of time, however, proved largely correct. Later Greek writers saw him as a noble and philosophically-minded statesman, whose genius was unappreciated in his own time. Though his contemporaries rejected him, their descendants would embrace him wholeheartedly. Under the Athenian democracy of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, starkly different political factions all claimed Solon as one of their own. Radical democrats anachronistically saw him as a champion of the poor against the rich and credited him with laying the foundations for democracy;  at the same time, wealthy conservatives saw him as having created the sort of “balanced” constitution they desired, where the poor were prevented from getting too far above their station.  Solon was included among the “Seven Sages”, a group of archaic thinkers whose sayings were thought to encapsulate the values of Greek civilization.  In his post-exile travels, Solon could be depicted as a sort of wandering philosopher, visiting barbarian kings and schooling them in the values of Greek civic culture.  In modern times, Solon continues to be used as a symbol of law and civilization, as witnessed by his placement on the pediment of the United States Supreme Court, together with Moses and Confucius.

The Solon who emerges from his own poetry is less mythical, and more appealingly human. He is self-righteous, tetchy, and occasionally sarcastic, and he does not grant his opponents any ground in his self-defence; but he also comes across as someone passionately committed to his conception of justice, who dearly wants to do his best for the community that has elected him.

Daniel Unruh holds degrees from the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Ontario and just completed his PhD in Classics at the University of Cambridge with a dissertation entitled "Talking to Tyrants: Interaction between Citizens and Monarchs in Classical Greek Thought".