Ancient Achievements

Play Audio | Get the Book |

Whatever the power which Solon gave to the people, and however great their subsequent encroachments, it cannot be doubted that he was the first to lay the foundations of constitutional government,--that is, one in which the people took part in legislation and in the election of rulers. The greatest benefit which he conferred on the State was in the laws which gave relief to poor debtors, those which enabled people to protect themselves by constitutional means, and those which prohibited fathers from selling their daughters and sisters for slaves,--an abomination which had long disgraced the Athenian republic.

Some of Solon's laws were of questionable utility. He prohibited the exportation of the fruits of the soil in Attica, with the exception of olive-oil alone,--a regulation difficult to be enforced in a mercantile State. Neither would he grant citizenship to immigrants; and he released sons from supporting their parents in old age if the parents had neglected to give them a trade. He encouraged all developments of national industries, knowing that the wealth of the State depended on them. Solon was the first Athenian legislator who granted the power of testamentary bequests when a man had no legitimate children. Sons succeeded to the property of their parents, with the obligation of giving a marriage dowry to their sisters. If there were no sons, the daughters inherited the property of their parents; but a person who had no children could bequeath his property to whom he pleased. Solon prohibited costly sacrifices at funerals; he forbade evil-speaking of the dead, and indeed of all persons before judges and archons; he pronounced a man infamous who took part in a sedition.

When this enlightened and disinterested man had finished his work of legislation, 494 B.C., he visited Egypt and Cyprus, and devoted his leisure to the composition of poems. He also, it is said, when a prisoner in the hands of the Persians, visited Croesus, the rich king of Lydia, and gave to him an admonitory lesson on the vicissitudes of life. After a prolonged absence, Solon returned to Athens about the time of the usurpation of his kinsman Peisistratus (560 B.C.), who, however, suffered the aged legislator and patriot to go unharmed, and even allowed most of his laws to remain in force.

The constitution and laws of Athens continued substantially for about a hundred years after the archonship of Solon, when the democratic party under Cleisthenes gained complete ascendency. Some modification of the laws was then made. The political franchise was extended to all free native Athenians. The command of the military forces was given to ten generals, one from each tribe, instead of being intrusted to one of the archons. The Ecclesia, a formal assembly of the citizens, met more frequently. The people were called into direct action as _dikasts_, or jurors; all citizens were eligible to the magistracy, even to the archonship; ostracism,--which virtually was exile without disgrace,--became a political necessity to check the ascendency of demagogues.

Next Page