Solon (640-560 B.C.), known as «one of the wise men of Greece», was one of the most famous lawgivers of all times. A well-educated Athenian who supported himself by foreign trade, he was elected archon of Athens and was given authority to change the laws. He thereupon initiated many social and legal reforms, including a reformed constitution for Athens. Most of the money was in the hands of a few powerful citizens, placing the ordinary citizen in financial straits. The small farmers had to mortgage their lands, giving themselves and their family as security; many of them became slaves. Solon passed a law that canceled these debts and mortgages, and freed those who had become slaves.
His constitutional reforms divided the citizens into four classes, but any citizen could become a member of the assembly and the public law courts. He established a council of four hundred to which citizens could appeal the decisions of the officials. Although he maintained an oligarchy, he had made definite steps toward democracy.
Solon made the Athenians promise to keep the laws for ten years, during which period he left the state. Where and how he wandered for that period has never been documented. Some say that he returned to Athens and found a civil war in progress and that the tyrant Pisistratus was in control. Others say that Solon died while wandering in the East.
Solon was known for his love poems and political verse. Some word sleuths, but not all, credit him with the proverbial «Call no man happy till he is dead». In any event, everyone agrees that Solon was a great statesman and lawgiver and that his motto, «Know thyself», deserves as much consideration today as it did then.
The word solon today is used ironically to mean «representative», «legislator», «congressman», and «lawmaker», because solon is a short word that fits neatly into many headlines. And yet none may be solons in the true sense of the word.