Athenian Democracy Began With Shaking Off Debt Burdens


Solon of Athens, the Father of Democracy

In Ancient Athens, the establishment of the world’s first  democracy began with Solon’s drafting of a constitution which legislated a law known as “the shaking off of burdens”, the ending of Draconian laws of debt slavery.

Today Greece is again mired in a economic and moral crisis not unlike that which faced the ancient city-state of Athens in 594 B.C.E.

If you have the desire to see an economic recovery rather than a repeat  great depression or world war, it would benefit you to study economic history from an ethical perspective and consider the parallels between our present global economic crisis and the ancient economic crisis in Athens. Then as now Athenians were oppressed by unpayable debt. Solon came up with a solution : a “shaking off of burdens”, his name for a debt cancellation that established the first Democracy in history.

Here’s how Aristotle described the crisis prior to Solon`s economic reforms:

There was contention between the nobles and the mass of the people for a long time.. the poor were in servitude to the rich…now the whole country was in the hands of a few…the hardest and bitterest feature for the masses was their servitude…for in nothing, one might say, had they any share.

The average Greek was burdened with a heavy debt load, besides paying 1/6 of everything he produced as a tax to the rich. If the people did not pay rents, they were seized as slaves, and if they defaulted on loans they were sold in the slave-market. Many sought their own freedom by selling their children or fled the country to escape their creditors.

Bondage to the inbred oligarchy who enslaved the population

Fields were marked with mortgage-stones that proclaimed the farmers’ financial bondage to the nobility, which consisted of a few inbred families who were simultaneously the judges, bankers, priests, and lawyers. Solon described them in this way:

They have wealth through their following of unjust works and ways… Neither the sacred treasure nor that of their state do they spare in any wise, but they steal, each in his own corner, like men pillaging. They take no heed of the holy foundations of Justice...

The laws enforced by the nobility were those drafted by Draco in 621 B.C.E. Draco’s lawcode specified one penalty for all offenses, large or small: death. The historian Plutarch testified that *those convicted of idleness were put to death, and those who steal vegetables or fruit were punished in the same way as temple-robbers or killers…Draco wrote his laws in blood, not in ink.

On the Verge of Civil War, A Solution Was Essential

All the ancient Greek historians concur that the greed of the rich was so oppressive and the plight of the poor so desperate that Athens was on the verge of civil war, while the city’s external enemies were preparing an invasion.

Three parties rose up with solutions to the crisis. One group favored the rich, wanting an official aristocracy .  A group favoring the poor advocated confiscation and redistribution of the assets of the rich.  A third group would combine elements of both solutions. To avoid bloodshed, all groups agreed to settle their disputes in a peaceful manner by choosing a man of integrity and honesty that they could trust. A man would be chosen to mediate a solution, to write a new constitution. Solon, a most respected poet, was picked as the new lawgiver. He was accepted by the rich because he was wealthy, and by the poor because he had not participated with the rich in their injustices against the poor.

Solon’s main concern, as he stated in his own writings on the subject, was that “Many of the poor go sold into a foreign land and are bound with shameful chains.”

Solon attributed the blame for the crisis to the rich: “the citizens themselves it is who, attracted by wealth, would fain destroy our great city by imprudence, and the unjust mind of the people’s leaders who surely will experience great sufferings for their great arrogance. They know not how to restrain their greed…they grow rich by yeilding to unjust actions.”

Yet he did not yield to the demands of the poor: “They came to me with mind to plunder, their hopes were not restrained, they expected, each of them to find a fortune immense and me with a coaxing tongue to publish a radical plan.”

Solon’s Solution: Freedom from Debt

Solon’s first action was to proclaim the celebrated law known as the “shaking off of burdens”. He cancelled the debts of the poor. That’s right, he cancelled debt! And every citizen who had been sold abroad into slavery was brought back to Athens with public funds. “Shaking off of burdens” became the name of a festival of thanksgiving held every year in Solon’s honor, and the Athenians never tired of extolling Solon, whom they proudly called the “Father of Democracy”.

Solon also required every man to teach his son a trade, and forbade the export of selected raw materials to foreigners. That is, he mandated local production before “free trade”.

Today there is great concern that Greece will default on its debts. Austerity, higher taxes and the selling off of Greek assets are advocated as a solution. Yet how many know that the first democracy in history, the ancient city state of Athens, inspiration for many of our cherished ideals and western “democratic” institutions, began with a debt cancellation, Solon’s “shaking off of burdens”?

Ancient Athenian democrats celebrated freedom from debt. The Greeks could use another party.