Drakon and Solon
Draco and Solon Drako and Solon Dracon and Solon
In comparative studies of European
civilization versus the others, one of the things that pops up is the
republican form of government -- government without a despot or hereditary
monarch. In a republic, leadership is institutional rather than personal
and rotates from one man to another, so that the same man can be ruled,
ruler, and then ruled again during the course of his life. Some degree of
democracy is inherent in republican government, which tends to minimize
the hereditary principle which holds that some men or families are noble
by nature (or that some are servile by nature.)
Most early political forms were
organized around some mix of kinship and despotism (rule by fear). Kinship
is a weak organizing principle, since cousins, second cousins, or third
cousins eventually split, and most egalitarian and decentralized forms
tend to be weakly unified and susceptible to fission. Where there is unity
it is usually personalized, hereditary, one-man royal or imperial rule
ultimately descended from despotism and the rule of fear. (Successful
despots usually try to turn their rule into legitimate hereditary
The search for the origins of the
republic always leads to Athens, and especially
to the period a little before and
after 600 BC during which Drakon, Solon, Pisastratus, and Cleisthenes
successively transformed the Athenian government. The information on this
transformation of Athens is sketchy, and my conclusions are a
reconstruction or conjecture based on comparative studies.
Societies organized in clans tend
to fragment easily, and normally political unity is achieved when one
group (often foreign conquerors) attains dominance over all the others by
processes of murder and intimidation. Usually the new rulers pass down
their rule within their own clan, but the new state is no longer a loose
confederation of more-or-less equal clans, but a two-level heierarchal
system with a hereditary monarchy.
In Athens, Drakon and Solon ended
the domination of the wealthy, powerful, aristocratic clans over everyone
else. Ultimately they founded a unified state within which the clans did
not play a major role and noble birth and kinship were much less important
than they had been, and which extended the rights of citizenship to a much
larger class of men than ever before.
But in Athens, when the power of
the clans was broken, it was not replaced by a hereditary monarchy, but by
a political system which was not organized on kinship terms at all. How
did that happen?
The general procedure by which
decentralized clan rule is reasonably well known. Normally the leader of
one clan (or of a military group organized on non-kinship grounds) defeats
the leaders of all the other clans and kills them or makes them his
servants. At the same time, the internal organization of the clan is
disrupted so that it can’t unite under new leadership. The Athenian
evidence is skimpy, but the legends about Drakon stress the harshness and
cruelty of his rule.
I would speculate that Drakon, a
“tyrant” who seized absolute personal rule, probably in the service of the
commoners at the cost of the nobility, is regarded as cruel above all
because he applied criminal law to the members of the aristocratic clans,
who in aristocratic societies normally are above the law. Drakon also
rewrote the homicide law, which by limiting or forbidding feud, vendetta,
and private revenge, weakened the power of the great clans over the lesser
clans and also, to a degree, over their own members.
The institution of clan feud,
which was really the only order which preceded the state, gave the
powerful clans dominance over the weaker ones, and also effectively
enforced the clan’s power over its individual members (who could not defy
the clan leaders, since if the clan’s protection were withdrawn from an
individual, he would be at the mercy of everyone who had any reason or
desire to harm him: on this, see Black-Michaud.)
However, when Solon was granted
power (as a rather desperate attempt at preventing civil war), the
aristocratic clans were still tyrannizing the commoners and peasantry –
enslaving them and in some way also enslaving their land. (My guess is
that the large clans profiting from Athens’ new trade enterprises used
their fiscal leverage, in an age-old pattern, to bankrupt the lesser
landowners, turning them into debt-slaves or into serfs tied to the land
which they had formerly owned, which was now encumbered by debt and now
effectively belonged to the creditor.)
What Solon did was first, to
cancel all debts, liberate all debt-slaves, and “free the land” from its
encumbrances. He also forbade debt-slavery and loans upon the security of
the person in the future. He made all free citizens eligible for jury
duty, and authorized lawsuits by anyone on the grounds of the public good
(whereas earlier only family members of the aggrieved could bring suit).
Altogether the effect was to
weaken the distinction between the nobles and the commoners, to reduce the
power of the clans to function as powerful political units, to guarantee
the freedom of every free Athenian and to give all of them some political
power, and to establish a public space where Athenians interacted
independently of their clan affiliation. In later reforms by others,
fictitious clans not based on kinship were formed to give Athenians a
sense of belonging to something more private and local Athens as a whole.
There is reason to believe that Athenian democratization usually was a
result of the need for soldiers to defend the city; resentful slaves tend
not to be loyal.
So why didn’t Athens follow the
common path from clan anarchy to royal rule? On the average, societies
like Athens end up being ruled by hereditary dynasties founded by someone
like Drakon, Solon, or Pisastratus. Why didn’t this happen?
Drakon is shadowy figure, but
Solon left writings and from them we can tell something about how he
thought of what he did. He wrote ironically that everyone thought that
when he refused to make himself dictator (which would have allowed him to
take revenge on his enemies and enrich himself) public opinion thought
that he had acted foolishly. He also says that as a lawmaker, he stood
between the two warring parties (the wealth nobles, and everyone else) and
was a friend of neither -- he even compared himself to a wolf surrounded
by a pack of dogs. Most tellingly he described the Athenians as
tremendously shrewd as individuals, but idiots as a group.
Early Greek society was intensely
agonistic, and individual self-assertion was the rule. Every man strove to
better himself at the expense of every other man (and above all, at the
expense of non-kin). In that society, the dictator would be the victor in
the war of each against all, and would capitalize on his personal triumph
and take pleasure in humiliating everyone else. Solon, however, refused to
do this; he did not act as a normal Athenian, but acted like an outsider
and worked for the common good.
And after his laws were in place,
he left for Egypt. While he was in Athens, every faction would have been
petitioning him to change the laws or grant exemptions and favors. Once he
was gone, the Athenians had only two choices: accept Solon's laws as they
were, or return to the civil wat which everyone dreaded (and which was the
motive behind Solon's original appointment). In short, for the first time
the Athenians were ruled not by clans or clan leaders or persons, but by
abstract, impersonal laws: the 'public
thing" or republic". Furthermore, revenge was depersonalized too: instead
of the endless cycle of revenge and counter-revenge, justice was executed
impersonally by agents of the transcendant state who were not themselves
subject to revenge.
From a contemporary ideological point of view, the Athenian venture is
interesting. In Athens the republican state and the individual (and to a
degree, the market society) emerged simultaneously -- at the expense of
myth, tradition, and the extended family. Individualism was made possible
by the new state form, but this state form also forbade citizens to act on
their desires for revenge and required them to restrain their
impulses toward self-assertion. And finally, in Athens equality
consisted of extending to commoners the old rights or privileges of the
nobility (e.g. jury service, and the right to bring cases to trial),
rather than simply stripping the nobles of their privileges and thus
attaining a servile equality.
Anhalt, Emily Katz, Solon the
Singer, Rowman and Littlefield, 1993.
Aristotle, The Athenian
Constitution, Penguin, 1984.
Black-Michaud, Jacob, Cohesive
Force, Blackwell, 1975.
Ehrenberg, Victor, From Solon
to Socrates, Methuen, 1973.
Emerson, John, “Yang Chu’s
Discovery of the Body”, Philosophy East and West,
Volume 46-4, October 1996, pp. 533-566.
Fried, Morton, The Evolution of
Political Society, Random House, 1967.
Gagarin, Michael, Early Greek
Law, California, 1989.
Gagarin, Michael, Drakon and
Early Athenian Homicide Law, California, 1981.
Glotz, Gustave, La Solidarite
de la famille dans le droit criminel en Grece, Paris, 1904.
Goody, Jack, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society,
Linforth, Ivan M., Solon the
Athenian, Berkeley, 1919.
Maine, Henry S., Ancient Law,
Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of
Athens, Penguin, 1960.
Sagan, Eli, At the Dawn of
Tyranny, Fishdrum Press, 1993.
Will, Frederic, “Solon’s
Consciousness of Himself”, in Transactions and Proceedings of the
American Philological Society, vol. LXXXIX, 1958, pp. 301-311.
Woodhouse, W.J., Solon the
Liberator, Octagon, 1965 (Oxford,1938).
I have especially relied on Fried,
Sagan, and Black-Michaud. The kind of clan law which ruled
Athens before Drakon was probably roughly similiar to that in medieval
Iceland, which consisted of a large number of conventions regulating
feuds, but which left enforcement up to the aggrieved parties. This
article describes a similiar system in contemporary Albania: Anderson,
Scott, "The Curse of Blood and Vengeance", New York Times Magazine,
December 26, 1999.
I wrote this piece
because a couple casual mentions of Drakon and Solon shot me to the
top of the Google rankings for the topic. Idiocentrism is a
Athens was a relatively democratic,
male-dominated, slave-holding state. The superiority of Athens was in
comparison to other male-dominated slaveholding states, not in
comparison to even-more-democratic states, which did not exist at that
I disagree with Victor Davis Hansen’s
politics, but what he says on this question is worth thinking about.
He believes that democracy was the result of the Athenian phalanx.
(See The Western Way
of War or Carnage and
I originally intended to write about the influence of Drakon's and
Solon's laws on Greek tragedy, but will have to postpone that for
later. Many and perhaps most of the tragedies hinge on a conflict
between personal or familial desires for revenge, and public law. The
Oresteia, in particular, seems to have been a dramatized
version of the transition from the rule of revenge and feud, and the
rule of law.
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.