Solon Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Solon (SOH-luhn) achieved prominence in Athens as a statesman, legislator, reformer, poet, and war veteran during an age of social crisis. Athens was experiencing dislocating economic conditions, and debt slavery was distorting what Athenians felt was their political culture. In his poetry, Solon reproached the rich for “avarice and arrogance.” Solon was elected archon, or chief magistrate, for 594-593 b.c.e. and introduced sweeping, radical, but not revolutionary reforms.

He forbade the borrowing of money that took a security interest in the person and family of the borrower. He canceled all debts and current mortgages. This freed those who had been placed in servitude or enslaved for debt. In the name of family integrity, he produced a conservative reform that preserved private property and guided Greek democracy. Solon drew up a new law code, softening the laws created by Draco, whose severe punishments spawned the word “draconian,” and adding laws in new areas. Attempts at repatriation of slaves sent to colonies were only partially successful. There was opposition to Solon’s reforms, especially from the debt holders, and the founding charters of some Greek colonies contained provisions in which leaders pledged not to cancel debts.


Solon is the earliest Greek politician whose philosophy and deeds continue to resonate in the modern world.

Further Reading:

Andrewes, Anthony. “The Growth of the Athenian State.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 3, part 3, The Prehistory of the Balkans, and the Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries b.c. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A concise and balanced assessment of the literary sources for the political and social development of the Athenian state, from the earliest times to the reforms of Solon. The Cambridge Ancient History is the standard reference work for Greek history.

Aristotle. Aristotle: “The Athenian Constitution.” Translated by P. J. Rhodes. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984. Fine translation, with excellent introduction and notes, of one of the main sources for Solon’s reforms.

Edmonds, John Maywell. Greek Elegy and Iambus. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Parallel edition of the original Greek texts with a fairly literal translation of all the surviving fragments of several early Greek poets’ works, including Solon.

Finley, Moses I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Marcus Wiener, 1998. Brilliant discussion of modern attitudes toward ancient slavery and the logic of slave economies, including an analysis of the relationships between Solon’s reforms and the...

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