With the study of history, there is an interplay between what happened, what we know about what happened, and what stories we tell about it. You could choose any subject, but for me, nothing beats 6th-century Athenian economic reform – the Seisachtheia. It’s always a timely topic, and puts all of us on the spot about what side we would be on then, and what side we are on now.
Seisachtheia literally means “shaking off of burdens”. It refers to a series of reforms of the early 6th century BCE in Athens and the surrounding countryside that were pushed through by the politician Solon (who lived c. 630–560 BCE). However, no one knows for sure quite what those reforms were. The two main elements were probably these: first, the Seisachtheia ended the practice whereby people could be sold into slavery for non-payment of debts; second, it abolished a serfdom system in which some or all farmers were compelled to pay one sixth of their harvest to the local big man. Those smaller farmers were known as the hektemoroi (“sixth-parters”). The ancient sources also talk about a general debt cancellation in Athens, and a limit on personal wealth, but both of these are today viewed as unlikely.
Our sources are very scarce. Plutarch (46–120 CE), writing over six hundred years later but relying on earlier authors, talks the most about the Seisachtheia. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) touches on it slightly, but is more interested in Solon’s subsequent constitutional reforms. Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) has stories about Solon spending his subsequent career as a travelling advice-giving sage, but does not touch on his economic reforms.
We also have fragments of Solon’s own poetry that are quoted by other ancient authors. He wrote poems about his political work, which can sometimes read like the 6th-century equivalent of tweets. They certainly had the same goal as tweets: to set the public narrative for what he had done.
As for the name Seisachtheia, we have no idea when it was first used: whether it was the term used at the time, or whether it was invented at some later point as a celebration of these historical reforms, we cannot say. One of the complaints of the ‘Old Oligarch’, a somewhat grumpy Athenian writer in the late 5th century, is that the Athenians voted themselves a large number of public festivals.
Overall, these reforms paint a picture of an unpleasant situation. Most people then were subsistence-level farmers, and on top of that some or all of them found themselves saddled with debt that they had no way of escaping. And, to be clear, they found themselves in that situation because the rules had been set up to allow that to happen. It was legal to loan money using people’s future income and their very bodies as security for the loan. It was also legal to loan money to people who had no reasonable means of ever paying the sum back.
Yet how Solon accomplished the change is a mystery. Maybe he appealed to the better nature of those who were benefiting from the situation. More likely, he persuaded them that these changes were better than the alternative of a violent revolution, or the mass redistribution of property.
In subsequent years the Athenians viewed what Solon did as a good thing. Closer to the event, maybe it was not all so rosy: after his economic changes, and subsequent constitutional changes (among his radical reforms was writing the laws in a place where people could read them), Solon decided to skip town for ten years. And it was not a straight path from him through to the emergence of Athenian democracy. Like many other Greek cities in the 6th century, Athens spent time under the rule of a tyrannos. But with the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508/7 BCE it started on the path to a fully participatory democracy – if, that is, you were a man – that lasted until 322 BCE. And the Seisachtheia was part of that; unfortunately, we don’t know just how large a part.
In 478, the Athenians formed an alliance with other Ancient Greek city states which modern scholars have customarily labelled the Delian League. The League was successful in the goals of keeping the allies safe from the Persians, and even taking the fight to the Persians, but it also changed into a scheme where all the other cities paid money to Athens, and if they tried to leave or to avoid payment then an Athenian force would be dispatched to compel them to pay. There was no Seisachtheia for members of the Delian League; it only ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 BCE.
Why do I find this so interesting? There are several reasons.
First, it’s an example of how we really don’t know much, and will never know much, about ancient history. We’re not going to find archaeological evidence about the Seisachtheia, and we’re extremely unlikely to discover a manuscript by Aristotle or the Old Oligarch writing about it. So we’re left to fill in the gaps, whether by imagination, or comparative studies of other societies. But ultimately we’re never going to know more about it.
Second, and in tension to knowing so little about it, it’s a reminder that history is about people, and people really have not changed in the past 2,500 years. We don’t have hektemoroi any more, but we still have plenty of schemes to keep people down, and to extract resources from those who don’t have enough to begin with.
Third, history is often depressing, and the Seisachtheia stands out as an event which is a “good thing”. Even without making up extra stuff about it, it’s pleasing to see the little guy get a break for once. However, going back to the point above, we need to be careful not to let this desire for there to have been a good thing to override our critical judgement about what it actually was. We don’t know how many little guys there were, and we don’t know how much of a break they got.
Finally, events from ancient history are sometimes used, out of context, for modern-day political or cultural point-scoring: the “Thucydides trap”, the fall of Rome being caused by immigration, the Spartans. Wouldn’t it be awesome if people would throw around the Seisachtheia instead as something to be emulated, admired, and repeated, no matter how out of context?
Steve O’Sullivan read Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford. He works for a computer software company, and lives in Washington DC.
Among ancient sources, there is Plutarch’s Life of Solon. Herodotus is full of stories, most of them true, and is always worth reading, but does not talk directly about the Seisachtheia.
Of modern treatments the most useful are Oswyn Murray, Early Greece (2nd ed., HarperCollins, New York, 2010), and L. Mitchell and P.J. Rhodes (eds.) The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece (Routledge, London, 1997).
|⇧1||Don’t believe anyone who claims to know exactly what was involved in the Seisachtheia! For a selection of scholarly articles on this subject, see e.g. O. Murray, Early Greece (2nd ed., HarperCollins, New York, 2010) 189–94; P.J. Rhodes’s commentary on The Athenian Constitution at 6.1; E.M. Harris, “A new solution to the riddle of the Seisachtheia,” in L. Mitchell and P.J. Rhodes (eds.), The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece (Routledge, London, 1997) 64–9.|
|⇧2||Generally, if you are going to use Plutarch as a source for Greek history, you should also read some of the speeches of his contemporary Dio Chrysostom (40–115 CE) to get a sense of the political concerns of Greek cities in Plutarch’s time. There’s lots of talk in Dio Chrysostom about building contracts, self-dealing and misappropriation of funds. When you then read the same thing in Plutarch about Ancient Athens, you should take it with a grain of salt.|
|⇧3||We get this word from the Greek term τύραννος. In the 6th century BCE, many Greek cities had their oligarchic forms of government replaced in practice by the rule of an individual – the tyrannos. In the oligarchies, the magistracies where shared and rotated among a small group of families, but the tyrannos did not willingly give up power. It’s arguable that the rule of the tyrannos was better for the people than the rule of the oligarchs, at least initially. But by the 5th century BCE the title tyrannos had become pejorative, having more of the modern meaning of the word “tyrant”.|
|⇧4||There is an archaeological record of the Delian League payments for several years from 453 BCE onwards. The Athenians inscribed the record of the payments in marble, and large parts of them have survived.|
|⇧5||Hostilities with Persia ended around 450 BCE. There was possibly a formal peace treaty (the “Peace of Kallias”).|
|⇧6||Doubtless the Old Oligarch would complain that Solon’s reforms cut into his great-grandfather’s income stream.|
|⇧7||The “Thucydides trap” is a concept in 20th-century American political science that war is likely between established powers and rising powers. It gets its name from the part towards the start of his History of the Peloponnesian War where Thucydides (c. 460–400 BCE) talks about how the “fear of Athens becoming great” required the Spartans to go to war (1.23.6). It ignores the reality that Thucydides, like most of us, goes back and forth about whether historical events are driven by such geopolitical necessities, or by the decisions, whether wise or foolish, of individuals.|
|⇧8||What’s interesting about this is the apparently unconscious association of the current state with the late-imperial western Roman Empire, and that the end of Roman power was a bad thing.|