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Solon and the Origins of Athenian Democracy by Aristotle

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2002)
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Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was born nearly a generation after the Peloponnesian Wars during the period when Greece was divided between democrats and oligarchs. Aristotle returned to Athens after 334 BCE and founded a school, the Lyceum, to compete with Plato's Academy. He died just as Alexander of Macedonia invaded the Persian Empire.

Note to the reader of Aristotle's work: The problem with Aristotle's writings is that much has been lost. The surviving material was mostly notes and essays that were not intended for public consumption. They have been altered as they were translated and recopied, so that our modern versions of Aristotle's writings are not exactly what he originally wrote, and not what he would have presented to the public.




Aristotle questioned many things during his lifetime, not least of which was the way that humans lived together in urban settings. This reading provides some of Aristotle's thoughts on how power should be distributed in a world that was composed of wealthy land-owning aristocrats, rural farmers and residents of the city of Athens. In it, he describes three approaches to government--rule by an aristocratic oligarchy, rule by tyrants, and rule by a council of citizens.

The political organization of Athens went through a series of stages including monarchy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. In general, Attica (the region that included the city of Athens) was prosperous, thanks to fertile soil and mineral deposits, plus good harbors like that at Piraeus that enabled Attica to develop a prosperous trading economy. The first Athenian leaders were military men who organized armies that brought an end to the wars of the Dark Ages (roughly 1100-800 BCE). They led societies that were organized in clans led by patriarchs.

Map of Athens and
Athens and its surrounding region

After the wars of the Dark Ages ended, Athenian social structure began to change. The farmers who lived on the best farm land in the middle of the valley (nearest the river) became the most productive, while farmers who lived on more marginal land towards the edge of the valley were more likely to encounter bad harvest years. Over time, this led to the development of social classes based on wealth, with the wealthiest people occupying the land in the center of the valley.

It was not a coincidence that the wealthiest families were also the oldest families in Attica. The first farming families settled on the best land, which was located at the center of the valley (near the water). In Greek society, inheritance passed from father to son, so the good land remained in the same families for generations. Newcomers and younger siblings had to settle on land closer to the edge of the valley (or leave Attica for one of the Mediterranean colonies).

The land at the edge of the valley, being further from water, was more marginal than the land owned by the oldest families, so even in good years, the marginal land almost always produced less than the land occupied by the oldest families. In bad years, the occupants of marginal land might even have to borrow food and seed from the oldest families in order to survive until the following harvest.

Indebtedness created classes in Greek society. Debts could be repaid with the produce of agriculture, but since the marginal land already produced less, it was difficult to get ahead once a family had fallen behind. Debts could also be repaid with labor by working on land owned by the old families, but that took time away from work on the indebted family's own land. If a family fell far enough behind, they ended up owing all of their labor and everything they produced to the older families. They might even have to mortgage the labor of their children and future generations. Over a long period of time, indebted servitude became a form of serfdom, in which one individual owed all of his or her labor to another from birth.

This process of social segmentation into wealthy landowners and indebted laborers was aggravated by the introduction of vine and olive agriculture. Since both of these types of agriculture were even more productive than raising grain or animals, they improved the economic output of Athenian society as a whole. Only the wealthiest farmers could produce wine or olives, however, because they required large amounts of wealth to invest in land and labor for years before any kind of profitable crop could be produced.

This form of social organization introduced changes in political organization that ended the military monarchy. Once peace was restored after the Dark Ages, the most important problems of government dealt with land use and food production. The most important government officers became magistrates (judges) not generals. In Athens, the wealthiest farmers won control of the government around 700 BCE, and forced the rest of the farmers into serfdom.

Over time, the land-owning oligarchy was challenged by others who became powerful thanks to new developments in warfare and trade. Armies began to depend on massed armies of well-equipped infantrymen called "hoplites," instead of military nobles equipped with horses and chariots. Although metal armor and weapons were expensive, they were cheaper than horses and chariots. Metal weapons made it both possible and necessary to employ larger armies, so the loyalty of the "masses" became crucial to success in war.

The growth of armies composed of ordinary men (women did not fight in ancient Greece under normal circumstances) led to a redistribution of political power away from the wealthiest families. The landowning members of the oligarchies that ruled Athens needed the armies to defend "their" land, amd to obtain the loyalty of enough people to maintain their armies, they began to include more people in the decisions of government. NOTE: This development has occurred at other times in history, such as in the United States after World War I, when women got the right to vote right after making sacrifices to support the war.

The breakthrough in Athens occurred in 594 BCE, when Solon (lived roughly 638-559 BCE) became chief magistrate ("archon") with the support of members of the oligarchy. Solon instituted reforms designed to appease the demands of ordinary soldiers for political power, thereby insuring that enough people would serve in the military. Solon increased the number of people who shared in political decisions by creating a "Council of the 400" that included the heads of the most prominent merchant and farming families, and an "Assembly" that included all males of military age. This idea that power should be shared widely among the members of Athenian society (the demos) was called democracy.

Solon also proposed economic reforms to make Athenian society more equal by canceling all existing debts, prohibiting enslavement for debt, and limiting how much land an individual could own. Other economic reforms were designed to increase prosperity, such as a prohibition against "idleness," a requirement that all men teach their sons a trade, a new system of coins to promote trade, and the offer of citizenship to foreign craftsmen.

Solon's reforms probably attempted to do too much, too fast, because numerous revolts broke out in Attica in the next generation after his death. By 560 BCE, that led to a new form of government in which leaders called tyrants exercised power like kings, but without the justification of royal birth. Tyrants were usually able to end revolts for a time, but problems occurred each time there was a need for a new leader (the succession of power). In 508 BCE, renewed attempts at revolt ended when Cleisthenes, a popular aristocrat, created a new form of government that extended Solon's reforms. Cleisthenes' government is considered the first Athenian democracy.


  1. On what basis did Solon's constitution organize Athenian society?
  2. How did some people try to take advantage from the "Shaking-off of Burdens" declared by Solon? What were the consequences?
  3. What social divisions existed in Athens before the time of Solon?
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