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The Reforms of Solon

In desperation, the Athenians in 594 B.C. gave Solon special authority to revise their laws1 to deal with the economic crisis and its dire social consequences that had brought their society to the brink of internecine war. As he explains in his autobiographical poetry, Solon tried to steer a middle course2 between the demands of the rich to preserve their financial advantages and the call of the poor for a redistribution of land to themselves from the holdings of the large landowners. His famous “shaking off of obligations”3 somehow freed those farms whose ownership had become formally encumbered without, however, actually redistributing any land. He also forbade the selling of Athenians into slavery for debt and secured the liberation of citizens who had become slaves4 in this way, commemorating his success in the verses he wrote about his reforms: “To Athens, their home established by the gods, I brought back many who had been sold into slavery, some justly, some not ...”5

Attempting to balance political power between rich and poor, , Solon ranked male citizens into four classes according to their income6: “five-hundred-measure men” (pentakosiomedimnoi , those with an annual income equivalent to that much agricultural produce), “horsemen” (hippeis , income of three hundred measures), “yoked men” (zeugitai , two hundred measures), and “laborers” (thetes, less than two hundred measures). The higher a man's class, the higher the governmental office for which he was eligible, with the laborer class barred from all posts. Solon did reaffirm the right of this class to participate in the assembly (ekklesia ), however. Solon probably created a council (boule) of four hundred7 men to prepare an agenda for the discussions in the assembly, although some scholars place this innovation later than Solon's time. Aristocrats could not dominate the council's deliberations because its members were chosen by lot, probably only from the top three income classes. Solon may also have initiated a schedule of regular meetings for the assembly. These reforms gave added impetus to the assembly's legislative role and thus indirectly laid a foundation for the political influence that the “laborer” (thete ) class would gradually acquire over the next century and a half.

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