The selfish rule of the aristocrats raises discontent in Athens. The first issue is the law. The aristocrats play games with the law. Aristocrats control religion in Athens. It is believed that law comes from the gods. Whoever controls religion controls what is the law. Aristocrats change the law whenever it benefits them. Citizens of Athens are angered by this corruption. They demand change. They want written law made public for all to see and read.
In 621 BCE, the aristocrats have Draco write down the laws. Draco means dragon in Greek. Like a dragon, Draco burns the common Athenian. The laws he writes are brutally harsh. The witty Athenians say sadly that he must have written them in blood to make them so harsh.
Draco gives Athenians harsh laws, but he also gives them written law. In the future, the laws are softened. Through the future, Athenians will always demand written laws.
Draco's written laws did not remove the tension. The middle class and the poor are still very angry. The aristocrats then select Solon and give him extraordinary powers to change Athens. He is charged with reforming Athenian government to prevent revolution. Solon draws up a plan. The aristocrats will have to accept this plan or face rebellion.
Solon made a number of economic changes.
- He softened the terribly harsh laws of Draco. He retained the death penalty only for murder.
- He stopped the export of grain. This stops mainly the aristocrats from exporting grain grown on their estates They did this to make more money. However, Athens needs all the grain it grows and more. This practice of exporting grain was starving the poor.
- He encourages the planting of more and more olive groves. Athens can easily grow olives, press them for olive oil, and export the oil for handsome profits.
- He supports the expansion of vineyards. The grapes can be used to make wine. Athenian wine is high grade wine. Exported, it fetched a high price.
- He uses some of the profits from exports to pay for imported grain from the Black Sea colonies. He also puts part of the profits into expanding olive and grape cultivation. More product, more exports, more profits for Athens.
- He convinces the very best craftsmen in Greece to locate in Athens. There they made pottery and furniture for export. Again these items fetch high prices. More profits for Athens. More profits equal more money to buy more Black Sea grain.
Solon's reforms made the polis of Athens a great economic success.
Solon reformed the government of Athens. To do this
- He increases the number of Athenians who can participate in government. To hold office one had to be born an aristocrats. Solon changes that. Anyone with a certain amount of wealth can now hold office. The middle class merchants moves into Athenian government.
- He allows the poor to participate in the popular assembly that debates laws and to serve on juries.
- He gives the popular assembly more decision-making power than ever before This is the first step to full democracy in Athens.
- He forgives the independent farmers their debts. He also ends debt slavery. The debts and slavery are part of a scam by the aristocrats. They gain ownership of all the farmland in Attica. Aristocrats drive up prices. They loan independent farmers money knowing the farmers can never repay the loans. When the farmers fail to pay, aristocrats seize their land and add it to their estates. They make the independent farmers a slaves working their former farms for the aristocrats' benefit. Solon puts and end to this scam. He restores independent farming.
Solon's reforms slow the movement for revolt. Eventually, revolt happens. Athens is ruled by a number of tyrants. It will take more reforms to bring back and grow democracy.
Later Cleisthenes will make further reforms. He recognizes the dangers of the tribes of Attica. His solution? Abolish the four tribes. Create twelve new tribes. Assign people randomly to the twelve tribes. This ends tribal loyalties. He replaces tribal loyalty with loyalty to Athens.
These reforms created the strong, democratic Athens we admire in the Western World.