The Relief of Burdens

Realistic or imaginative? This detailed bust, titled ‘Solon’ (National Museum, Naples) is technically more sophisticated than anything produced in Solon’s own time. Most of the ancient literary records, from which history derives its knowledge of Solon, were also constructed long after his death.

Solon (ancient Greek: Σόλων, c. 638 BC–558 BC) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and Lyric poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short term yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.[1][2][3][4]

Our knowledge of Solon is limited by the lack of documentary and archeological evidence covering Athens in the early 6th Century BC.[5][6] He wrote poetry for pleasure, as patriotic propaganda and in defence of his constitutional reforms. His works only survive in fragments. They appear to feature interpolations by later authors, and it is possible that fragments have been wrongly attributed to him (see Solon the reformer and poet). Ancient authors such as Herodotus and Plutarch are our main source of information, yet they wrote about Solon hundreds of years after his death, when history was by no means an academic discipline (see for example Anecdotes). Fourth Century orators, such as Aeschines, tended to attribute to Solon all the laws of their own, much later times.[7] Archeology reveals glimpses of Solon’s period in the form of fragmentary inscriptions but little else. For some scholars, our ‘knowledge’ of Solon and his times is largely a fictive construct based on insufficient evidence[8][9] while others believe a substantial body of real knowledge is still attainable.[10] Solon and his times can appear particularly interesting to students of history as a test of the limits and nature of historical argument.[11]

Seisachtheia (Greek: seiein, to shake, and achthos, burden, i.e. the relief of burdens) was a set of laws instituted by the Athenian lawmaker Solon in order to rectify the wide-spread serfdom and slavery that had run rampant in Athens by the 6th Century BC, by debt relief. Under the pre-existing legal status, according to the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, debtors unable to repay their creditors would surrender their land to them, then becoming hektemoroi, i.e. serfs who cultivated what used to be their own land and gave one sixth of produce to their creditors. Should the debt exceed the perceived value of debtor’s total assets, then the debtor and his family would become the creditor’s slaves as well. The same would result if a man defaulted on a debt whose collateral was the debtor’s personal freedom.

The seisachtheia laws immediately cancelled all outstanding debts, retroactively emancipated all previously enslaved debtors, reinstated all confiscated serf property to the hektemorioi, and forbade the use of personal freedom as collateral in all future debts. A ceiling to maximum property size was also instituted regardless of the legality of its acquisition (i.e. by marriage), meant to prevent excessive accumulation of land by powerful families.

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