Drakon and Solon

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 authority).

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.[1]

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.[2]

 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.[3]

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. [4]

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, Cambridge, 1986.

Linforth, Ivan M., Solon the Athenian, Berkeley, 1919.

Maine, Henry S., Ancient Law, Arizona, 1986.

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).

[1] 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 Google-based life-form.

[2] 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 time.

 [3] 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 Culture.)

 [4] 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.