Ancient Greek History

Solon and the Origins of Anarchy

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Ancient Greek DemocracyThe term anarchy has its roots in Ancient Greece. Following Solon’s period of reforms (roughly around 589 BC), the aristocrats of Athens tried to recover their control of the Athenian government after Solon’s policies worked to equalize the masses. As a result between the aristocrats and the government, the archons (magistrates) were not elected for two years in a row. A term developed out of this known as anarchy which translated to meaning “no archons,” which is how we now define anarchy as being a state of disorder or chaos due to lack of authority.

Even though Solon’s reforms were designed to create some unity among the classes in Athens, he didn’t anticipate such backlash from the aristocrats. So what exactly was it that had the high class in such a tizzy? His economic and social reforms made it so that a man could amass wealth and work his way up, which could make him eligible for office. Prior to this, you had to be a noble blood or the utmost wealth to vie for a seat as an archon or other elected official.

The Four Levels

Without even realizing it, Solon’s reforms set the basis for the modern-day democracy. He knew that there was a huge gap of power between the aristocrats and the lower classes and wanted to try to even things out. In an attempt to balance political power between the rich and the poor, Solon started a ranking system that categorized men into four different categories based on their income.

        1) Pentakosiomedimnoi – Five Hundred Measure Men
        2) Hippeis – Horsemen  (Income of Three Hundred Measures)
        3) Zeugitai – Yoked Men (Income of Two Hundred Measures)
        4) Thetes – Laborers (Less Than Two Hundred Measures)

The “measures” equated income to an amount of agricultural produce. Those who reaped the most of their crops took in the most income, which put them in the highest class. While the reforms weren’t perfect (the Thetes or laborers were barred from running for or holding any form of office), the higher the level of income a man had, the higher level of office he could run for.

Aristocratic Exasperation

The Athenian aristocrats, who for years basked in the glory that they were of the elite class, and only they could control what went on in government, were enraged at Solon’s reforms. They could see power shifting among the classes and were angry (and fearful) of losing their highly coveted positions as the leaders of Athens. Towards the end of Solon’s career, the Aristocrats (known as Eupatridae) began to seize back control. As soon as Solon retired from office, the Aristocrats did everything in their power to undo the political reforms Solon had worked so hard to get put in place. This pull back of power resulted in Athens being thrown into anarchy (without Archons) and subject to new tyrants trying to seize control.

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This post was written by Greek Boston

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