Solon and the Seisakhtheia – Sixth Form Introduction


“‘Eγώ δέ τούτων έν μεταιχμίω | όρος кατέστην…“ (I stood like a horos in the middle ground between them) frag. 37

One of the most highly complex questions of the Archaic period is that of what Solon actually did and why. The scant references we have rely on a series of statements which are almost completely   beyond interpretation given the fact that Solon wrote in poetic form and Aristotle and Plutarch are centuries later. Modern interpretations are equally complex and at variance – Finley, (Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, 86–9) posited that the reforms were per se responsible for the inauguration of the Attic slave based economy, as the chattel slaves were required to replace the indentured labourers from the pre reform era. Indeed, he went so far as to state “one aspect of Greek history is the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery” (ibid, 115).

This question to a great extent rests upon the true meaning of one word –  σεισάχθεια – seisakhtheia. Literally, it is the ‘throwing off of burdens’, and is often taken as meaning the cancellation of debts – debts which had left the social structure of the Athens of the time in a state of stasis – discord, an apparently insurmountable division in the populace which was on the verge of tearing apart the social structure and the subsequent dangers that such would bring. Was the seisakhtheia a freeing of the many from a vassal state where one sixth of their goods were payable in tax to the land owner (the hektemoroi) or was it a simple cancellation of the debts which they had built up, and is it a question which we can definitively answer?

“To the ancient historian searching for clues about Solon’s mysterious Seisachtheia, lines 3–7 of fragment 36 of the lawgiver’s poetry appear initially to offer a valuable hint. In the passage Solon boasts of removing from the land the horoi, which had been planted far and wide (őρους άνεîλον πολλαχή πεπηγότας). As a result, the land, once enslaved, is now free (πρόσθεν δέ δουλεύουσα, νϋν έλευθέρη). The author of the Constitution of the Athenians (12.4), followed by Plutarch (Solon 15), used these lines to support the view that the Seisachtheia was in effect a cancellation of debts.” (Harris, A NEW SOLUTION TO THE RIDDLE OF THE SEISACHTHEIA in The Dev. of the Polis in Archaic Greece, 2005, 65)

The change that Solon instigated was on perhaps the most fundamental level – it was to involve a change in the most basic identity of the citizen body. The division of the aristocratic and the non aristocratic based on birth was abandoned in favour of the divisions of social class based upon wealth. Meier sums this change in society, in practical, theoretical and, perhaps most importantly psychological levels, succinctly:

“Knowledge of public affairs and claims to participation must become so firmly rooted in the whole complex of common interests and attitudes that the relatively minor abstract interest in politics shared by many of the citizens can increase and, transcending all the obvious divisions among them, become a major interest shared by all. A usurper knows roughly what he wants and simply has to seek the power and opportunity he needs in order to realize his aims, but where the broad mass of the people is concerned it is necessary, at such an early stage of political evolution, first to awaken, and then to reinforce and perpetuate, the idea that they can win a regular and powerful position in the community. A new political role has to appear, not just a new player to take over an old role. This calls for social reasoning of a quite different and more abstract kind. Finally, since the first democracies in world history could presumably arise only as direct democracies, a readiness for serious commitment had to take shape among the citizens, and this meant nothing less than a transformation of social identity.” (Meier, The Greek Discovery of Politics,1990; 29)

In order for the changes to be implemented, they have to be first accepted, and this required, as stated, the ‘new political role’ in order that the altered system not be perceived as a simple change in nomenclature of the previous system. This does raise questions, however. The new census classes which Solon used to divide up the social structure, with the exception of the pentekosiomadimnoi were not new terms. The top class is the only one which had the numerical name – the others, (hippeis, zeugetai and thetes) appear to be more archaic terms, associated with the eupatridai – the ‘well-born’. Solon had been severely critical of the ruling classes, those who seemed to all intents desirous of resurrecting the full blown aristocracies of the Dark Ages:

“you who have pushed through to glut yourselves with many good things” (fr. 4c.2)

“(who) do not know how to restrain their greed or how to order their present festivities in the peacefulness of the banquet” (fr. 4.9-10)

The eupatridai dominated a system which

“…was oligarchic in all other respects and in particular the poor were enslaved to the rich…they worked the fields of the rich. All the land was in the hands of a few, and if the poor failed to pay their rents both they and their children were liable to seizure.” (Ath Pol 2.1)

The labour here was, by insinuation, indentured with the possibility of slavery for not only the labourer but also his family on the failure of payment. This is the situation to which Harris, cited above, was referring, and indeed the situation the reforms of Solon in his social restructuring were battling in the creation of the new roles to which Meier referred. These were, by intuitive process, necessary as there must, by definition have been those outside of the eupatridai who were prospering on an economic level, as, had there not been, it is questionable as to whether the class reforms based on wealth would have had any point – after all, the majority of those who, in the seventh century, had been the indentured labourers were to remain in the lowest theses class post reform, and as such main outside the high political roles with only a membership of the ekklesia as their sole political right. In liberating the land (πρόσθεν δέ δουλεύουσα, νϋν έλευθέρη) Solon was not claiming to have removed the horoi:

“The act of removing boundary-markers was considered a serious crime. Horoi that marked boundaries to private land were expected to remain fixed and enjoyed the protection of Zeus Horios ([Dem.] 7.39–40). Plato in the Lam (8.842e–843b) condemns their removal as an act of sacrilege, the crime of ‘moving what must not be moved’. Other sources reveal that in several poleis magistrates could punish this crime with severe fines. Are we to believe that Solon in fr. 36 was boasting about committing a crime?” (Harris, op. cit, 56)

Solon, as said at the start, proclaims that HE stood as a horos – a boundary marker which, under threat of divine punishment, could neither be moved nor ignored. He, as the reformer, was the immutable boundary marker between the two sides – the eupatridai and those who stood outside the ruling oligarchic class. Had the meaning by Solon been such that he referred to a literal moving of the boundary stones, then not only would he be boasting of what was both a criminal and indeed sacrilegious act, but also rendering his metaphorical incarnation as a horos an irrelevancy, thereby invalidating any claims to reform that he would make – the fact that his reforms DID take place and were followed through shows that this was not the case: fr. 5

“έστην άμφιβαλών кρατερòν σάкος άμφοτέροισι, νιкάν δ’ ούк εϊασ’ ούδετέρους άδίкως”

(held a mighty shield over both sides and did not allow either side to enjoy an unjust triumph)

The constant refrain is holding the middle ground and showing favour to neither one side nor the other. This was NOT, however, any move towards an egalitarian system, despite the move towards the democratic processes of the following centuries. Ath. Pol. names him “the first champion of the people” – the oppression of the people in Solon’s own words “πόλεμόν θεϋδοντ επεγείρει” (rouses war from its slumber) fr. 4, a decidedly overt warning of the unavoidable consequences of a pre reform status quo. A remaining question is why those who were already in the position of the ruling class were willing to accept the reforms when these would apparently undermine their politically and ergo legally dominant position? Solon’s

“poems too testify to his concern to foster a wider understanding of political affairs. We do not know the size of the circle in which Solon wished to encourage and facilitate a stronger commitment to politics. It is clear, that political discussion took place among a wide public. Solon himself put his program to the citizens. Admittedly none of this produced a readiness for regular political commitment, and Athens subsequently succumbed to tyranny, which the great majority of its citizens apparently did not find unwelcome.” (Meier, op cit, 47)

Did they recognise that the neighbouring states problems and civil wars and serious strife were uncontrollable in the long run under an oligarchic or a tyrannical system, yet that the insecurity would lead to their playing a part in the dominant subsequent tyranny under the Pesistratids, a tyranny which, as Meier points out, was at least accepted if not openly welcomed by the greater part of the Athenian citizen body? In the 620’s (?), as Plutarch recounts:

“When the Megarians had expelled Theagenes their tyrant, for a short time they were sober and sensible in their government (politeia). But later when the popular leaders (demagogoi) poured out untempered freedom for them, as Plato says, they were completely corrupted, and, among their shocking acts of misconduct toward the wealthy, the poor would enter their homes and insist upon being entertained and banqueted sumptuously. But if they did not receive what they demanded, they would treat all the household with violence and insult (hubris). Finally, they enacted a decree whereby they received back again the interest that they happened to have paid their creditors, calling the measure “return interest.” (Mor. 295c–d)

The Athenians could look to next door Megara and see what the results of an unfettered freedom for the people could, and likely would, bring to Athens were she to undergo a similar revolution – the Megaran situation was still fresh in the minds of the eupatridai and they would evidently have no desire to experience the same as their fellows, many of whom would be relations either by marriage or terms of guest friendship. Yet the warnings of the impending disaster for the eupatridai are made clear, and, despite his birth as one of the eupatritid class, where his sympathies on this front lay:

“Restrain your mighty hearts in your breasts, you who have pursued every good thing to excess, and let your pride be in moderation ; for WE shall not obey, nor will these things be perfect for you.” (fr. 4c, 5-8 (Ath Pol 5.3))

Solon’s achievement, IF his own words are to be believed, were in that ‘ξυνήγαγον δήμον’ (I brought the people together). Whether he did or not remains a highly debated question. The ideas and the moving to the fore of the right thinking and the readiness to participate – the opening of the social progression now dependant upon changes in circumstances as opposed to birth were certainly long term results of the consequent changes after Solon. In his own words cited in Plutarch’s “Life of Solon” to finish:

“πολλοὶ γὰρ πλουτεῦσι κακοί, ἀγαθοὶ δὲ πένονται:

ἀλλ’ ἡμεῖς αὐτοῖς οὐ διαμειψόμεθα

τῆς ἀρετῆς τὸν πλοῦτον: ἐπεὶ τὸ μὲν ἔμπεδον αἰεί,

χρήματα δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἄλλοτε ἄλλος ἔχει.”

(Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor;

We will not change our virtue for their store:

Virtue’s a thing that none can take away,

But money changes owners all the day.)


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