28. The Wise Man Who Laid the Foundations of Classical Athens
For millennia, wealth equated power, both were based on land ownership, and that ownership was disproportionately concentrated in the hands of hereditary aristocrats. Ancient Athens, like the rest of Greece, was dominated by nobles who owned the best land and monopolized government. The Athenian region of Attica was made of three parts: The Plains, a prosperous agricultural interior; The Coast, which relied on fishing and trade; and The Hills, an impoverished region containing a majority of the population, mostly shepherds and small farmers scratching a living from poor soil. Over the centuries, a pattern had developed in which poor farmers borrowed seed from rich aristocrats to plant, then repaid the loan at harvest time with grain and labor. That pattern was disrupted in the 7th century BC when the non aristocratic Athenians of the coast got into seaborne trade, and bought land with their profits.
Using slave labor, the newly enriched merchants farmed their lands more efficiently than the aristocrats. The aristocrats, outcompeted by the nouveau riche, resorted to squeezing their poorer neighbors, enslaving them and seizing their farms whenever they failed to repay their loans on time. That outraged other Athenians – not that they objected to slavery per se, but to the enslavement of Athenians. Between that, and the resentment of the middling farmers, craftsmen, and rising merchants at their exclusion from government, Athens was on the brink of revolution. So the citizens met in the Ecclesia, the Athenian Assembly, and entrusted Solon (circa 630 – 560 BC), a respected aristocrat, to reform Athens, binding themselves with solemn oaths to accept his decisions. His reforms ended up laying the foundations of Athenian democracy, and earned him the nickname “The Lawgiver”.