In the late 7th and early 6th century BC, ancient Athens fell into crisis. As is often the case with the classical period, historians disagree about the particular causes. One issue upon which everyone agrees is that economics played a part. The wealthy families had become an oligarchy, owning the majority of the land. Debt-bondage was common in the classical period. The collateral for loans in that age was the person. This meant that if the Athenian tenant farmers did not pay their rents, they and their children could be seized as slaves.
The way it worked is the farmer would borrow to finance the operations of the farm. If the farm did not produce enough to pay the debt , he would fall into debt bondage. In theory, he literally worked off his debt, so it was a temporary status. There was a special status in the law for someone in bondage for a debt, versus the normal type of slave. The reality at this time was that debt bondage was becoming a permanent state for a large fraction of the population. The result was increasing social strife between the classes.
Rivalry between the leading families was also a problem. As is always the case when there is social unrest, some factions tried to take advantage of it and gain power for themselves at the expense of their rivals. An Athenian nobleman named Cylon, made an unsuccessful attempt to seize power in Athens in 632 BC. Many Greek city-states had seen opportunistic noblemen take power on behalf of sectional interests. Factions sought to gain control of the state, in order to gain an edge over rivals.
There were also regional rivalries that exacerbated the personal and economic turmoils of the age. The rural population had different interests than the urban population. Traders had different interests than farmers. Since most Athenians lived in rural settlements, and debt bondage was an increasing problem, Attika was increasingly resembling Sparta, where a small elite ruled over a large population of helots. This exacerbated the personal and economic rivalries convulsing Athens at the time.
Regardless of the causes, Athens was at a crisis point and fear of a tyrant rising up to impose order, led the Athenians to turn to the wisest man in Athens. That man was Solon, a statesman, lawmaker and poet. He was of noble birth, but he was sometimes described as a self-made man, suggesting his family was of modest means. In 595 BC Solon had led the Athenian forces against the Megarians, resulting in a heroic victory. Allegedly, it was the power of his poetry that inspired the Athenians to carry the day.
By the time the Athenians turned to Solon, he was rich, a famous poet and a famous military leader. Solon was awarded temporary autocratic powers by Athenian citizens on the grounds that he had the “wisdom” to sort out their differences for them in a peaceful and equitable manner. His task was to find a way to resolve the factional rivalries. The result was a series of economic, legal and moral reforms that are remembered to this day as the Reforms of Solon. Once instituted, Solon gave up his position and left Athens.
The Athenians agreed to abide by these reforms for a period of ten years, but within a few years the old problems and rivalries were back. In addition to the old problems, the defects in the reforms created new problems. Some officials refused to perform their duties as described, while other posts were left vacant. The reforms worked as long as Solon was around to to lend his name to them. Once Solon was gone, the result was worse than before the reforms. As a result, the people blamed Solon for the break down of order.
Eventually one of Solon’s relatives, Peisistratos, ended the factionalism by force, becoming tyrant and confirming what everyone feared would happen prior to Solon’s reforms. Solon was still alive and he mocked the Athenians for allowing Peisistratos to seize power, by standing outside his home, wearing his uniform. Despite being driven into exile twice, Peisistratos was eventually able to impose order on Athens and he ruled as tyrant until his death. His sons succeeded him and ruled until 510 BC.
Solon gets positive treatment from history for having tried to preserve Athenian democracy and for having some success at curbing the power of the aristocrats. On the other hand, Aristotle credited Peisistratos with laying the foundation for the eventual rise of Athens. He changed the economy to be based on trade and he reformed agriculture, away from grains to olives. He did this by offering loans to farmers so they could make the transition. He also built a water system capable of sustaining a large population.
The lesson here is that reform is rarely successful, unless it is imposed by force. The reason is the status quo will always be preferable to those in power. Any reform through mutual consent must involved trade-offs that do nothing to alter the fundamental power arrangements. That was the defect of Solon’s reforms. While they temporarily alleviated the results of the power arrangements in Athenian society, they never attempted to alter them. The result of Solon’s reforms was nothing more than a pause in the factionalism.
This is something to keep in mind in the current age. The problems we see are not caused by errors in voting or mistakes in public policy. There is an underlying systemic problem that cannot be voted away. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, similar problems existed, but the political class was strong enough to impose reforms on the industrial barons and alter the power relationships in American society. That was possible because politics was a power center, one with the monopoly on violence.
Today, the political class is composed entirely of hired men, speaking on behalf of the interests that back their political careers. In fact, most are just actors, hired because they fit the right profile and look good on television. They have no power. This is the problem Trump is confronting as he tries to push through reforms. It’s not that Congress opposes these reforms. It’s that their paymasters oppose the reforms. He’s dealing with flunkies and errand boys. We don’t need a Solon right now. We need a Peisistratos.