Revenge Of The Herds; Roots Of Democracy In Ancient Greece; Part Two

by bria4123 on December 25, 2012


The big boys in early Athens were having a grand old time. But ancient Athens wasn’t ancient China.


Changes were brewing as more people wanted to live comfortably, like the guy in the 5th century BCE bowl in the above photo. Things happened just after 600 BCE to keep Athens on a path which made Western Civ distinct.

Athens’ population was increasing. Land-ownership was becoming concentrated in the hands of a small minority, and as the population kept going up, farms were subdivided between sons until the units were too small to support a family. Many people thus had to borrow grain and pledge their land as security. Those who lost their land kept rights to work on it by giving 1/6 of the produce to the new owners. As gaps between have’s and have not’s increased, discontent mounted.

But in contrast to China’s Shang Dynasty, trade was central. As Greek cities formed colonies, many towns specialized in certain goods. Athens was known for olives. If too many people had said, “Take this job and shove it!” Athens’ economy would have collapsed.

But a man named Solon became the chief archon in the first decade of the 6th century, and averted the coming crisis in ways that distinguish the West from ancient China.

1. He boldly cancelled all debts for which land or personal freedom was the security. He was one of history’s great moderates–from the aristocratic class of archons, but wanting to safeguard people who were disadvantaged. This measure created later problems because the wealthy had to import more and more slaves to make up for the lost labor, but at least Solon avoided an immediate disaster, and set a precedent for compromise between classes.

2. Solon established the right of any citizen to initiate legal action.

3. He made it illegal for the family of a murdered person to slay the killer. Justice would be done in court. The civic community centered on the Agora (pictured above, with Athens’ Acropolis presiding overhead) became more important than the older blood feuds between families.

4. Solon encouraged foreign craftsman (called metics) to settle in Athens. Though they couldn’t become citizens or own land, they enjoyed full protection of the law and payed only a modest tax. Solon realized trade’s central importance.

5. Ancient writers say that he established a new council, the Boule. It’s not known for certain what its 400 members did, but Michael Grant, in The Rise of the Greeks, said that it worked with the Areopagus to keep society peaceful. Since the Areopagus was aristocratic and conservative, the Boule gave more Athenians a say in government and helped balance the needs of more people.


Solon didn’t solve Athens’ class problems permanently. More clashes followed on the bumpy road to democracy, but he set a standard for moderation which made him one of the ancient West’s greatest statesmen.

He also reinforced ways of thinking in the West which were distinct from the most common thought in China:

1. The individual taking his own initiatives has a key place in the world.

2. The individual has rights that are safe from abuses from elites.

3. Social stability doesn’t come from some king issuing orders from the top-down, but from laws independent from any single person. These laws are hammered out by thoughtful citizens balancing people’s different interests.

4. Reality is less of the unified field which most Chinese thinkers held as basic, and more of a geography of distinct agents and places with their own integrity. This Greek sense of the world already had deep roots. Solon’s reforms reinforced them at the beginning of the century when Greek philosophy emerged.

Sadly, interest in the ancient West has declined in schools over the last 30 years. But it generated one of the world’s greatest civs, and shaped how most Westerners have thought ever since. It’s been said that all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. But Plato’s mind was nurtured by a very rich root system that had been established in Greek soil for many centuries. Anyone who lives in the West, or who has been influenced by it, still feeds from it.

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