Law and Justice – Economic Justice in Early Greece – 4.2 Life of Solon
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Law and Justice – Economic Justice in Early Greece – 4.2 Life of Solon

October 14, 2019

>>>>Dr. Kyle Harper: Athens – the birthplace
of democracy. Democracy itself is a Greek word which means rule by the people, and Athenian
democracy would begin to take shape in the 6th century BC in the Archaic period. And
above all, the Athenian democracy was shaped at its beginnings by one towering figure:
the great Athenian lawgiver Solon. Solon came into power in Athens in the 590s, in the year
594, when he was elected Chief Archon. He was elected the high magistrate of the Athenian
people at a time of extreme crisis. The 590s were a political moment of enormous consequence
in the Greek world because of the crisis at Athens. Now, the Athenians had already before
the rise of Solon been ruled by an oligarchy. That is, they’d been ruled by a political
and social elite who controlled the affairs of state. And in fact this is a fairly common
pattern across the Greek world at this time. And it’s worth noting two structural features
of this society. One is that it’s not monarchy. And in fact it’s highly unique that this part
of the world is ruled not by monarchs or even chiefs, but by a shared kind of authority
among oligarchs, a group of small elite rulers. Two is that the divisions the units of political
life in this world are small-scale, based around the polis. This is not an age of empires
or great kingdoms but in fact, small-scale local city-based politics that would become
the laboratories of political systems, of constitutions as we think of them now to this
day. And the crisis in the 590s in Athens would give rise to a period of political experimentation
unlike any that had ever occurred. And it’s worth thinking about what this means in terms
of the grand sweep of history. We talked in our previous lessons when we considered the
law code of Hammurabi, the fact that the king had executive and judicial powers but that
there was no sense that the king himself was a lawgiver or a creator of laws, of rules.
He was just the enforcer of justice who gathered the customs. We talked about the rise of casuistic
law, the collection of case-based law that accumulated, something like common law providing
the standards of justice in that society. But in Archaic Greece we see a new period,
a new phase when we see what we might call the birth of legislation, the idea that laws
can be created by a society for itself, and with that comes extraordinary possibility.
And this period in the Greek world saw the rise of a series of lawgivers that is in some
cases semi-legendary figures who would give shape to their own individual polis. Men like
Lycurgus, who was credited with creating the Spartan constitution, the characteristic way
of life of the Spartans. Lycurgus is, we could say, a largely legendary figure. Solon by
contrast, the great lawgiver of the Athenians, is a truly historical figure even if many
legends did accrue around his name. There is a kernel of historicity, an element of
undeniable factual truth in the career of Solon as we know it. Now, our primary source
this day for the life of Solon is the biography, “The Life of Solon” that was written by Plutarch,
a Greek living some 700 years later in the Roman Empire: in itself an enormous chasm
of time. Plutarch’s “Lives” are one of the great classic works. They’ve survived across
history been read generation after generation. They have been an inspiration to statesmen
and leaders across times. And “The Life of Solon” is the story of the character of the
great Athenian lawgiver. Solon inherited an Athens that was in profound economic crisis.
There was deep division even within the ruling classes. The rich were opposed to the poor.
Those who were traders, that is, those who were engaged in commerce, were opposed to
those who were farmers. Those who were landowners were opposed to those who worked the land.
And in fact we’re told that the poor were virtually enslaved to the rich in this society.
Now remember that at this time coinage had just been imported into the Greek world. Money
is something that we take profoundly for granted, but in fact it’s a human invention, a convention
that arises at particular moments in history. And at this time it was new in the Greek world
and it certainly, this new technology of commerce, would have contributed to exacerbating the
social divisions of Athens. And indeed, the poor were effectively enslaved to the rich.
Now to understand this we have to appreciate that this is an agricultural economy. And
when the crops failed, if you were a small farmer, there were very few recourses. There
we no public banks where you could go to. There were no government welfare programs.
You could only turn to the wealthy for help. And imagine that you’re a wealthy farmer,
that you have resources and someone comes knocking at your door asking for, for aid,
for help. Should you give them a loan? Well you could give them a loan, but a bank won’t
give you a loan to this day if you don’t have what’s called collateral, if you can’t securitize
the loan. Lending money means taking a risk and in our society we’re accustomed to the
idea that there are interest rates, there are securitization and that the lender can
charge a certain amount of interest and expect something to securitize the loan in case the
borrower’s unable to pay it back. But this was all highly novel in the Greek world, and
in the Athens of Solon’s day there are no public banks, there are only wealthy individuals.
And so what do you do if you’re a wealthy individual and a poor person knocks at your
door and asks for money? You want some security. Some guarantee that those poor peasants will
pay you back. Nobody gives away their money for free in this world. And so, what can the
poor man provide as security? Well first maybe his family farm, but then what happens if
the crops fail and he can’t pay back his load and the farm is seized? The farm goes to the
wealthy and the rich get richer. What happens then if he needs to make another loan and
he this time has no land to secure the, the loan with? He can only use himself, his own
person, his body, his wife, her body, his children. And indeed this seems to be what
had happened in Athens. There’re no laws against it, there are no laws regulating credit exchanges
in this world and so the wealthy begin to make loans securitizing them with the bodies,
the individual persons of the debtors. Now to us that may seem totally unacceptable,
but in this world it was novel and it had led to a grave social crisis in which the
poor had become literally debt bondage. They’d become debt slaves to the wealthy, and that
was the kind of world that Solon inherited and it was into this crisis that he would
step with a series of reforms that would not only pull Athens out of the crisis, but would
set her on the path to become the most glorious city in all of Greece.

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