Solon, son of Execestides, was born to a noble family. Athens at that time followed laws laid down by Draco—laws so cruel that the word draconian still connotes harsh and pitiless treatment. All power rested with the aristocrats; the poor became poorer and were often imprisoned for debt. Violent rebellion was a constant threat.
Not yet a center of culture or learning, Athens suffered several losses as it battled with a smaller city, Megara, over control of the island of Salamis. Solon returned to Athens after years of travel and trading and led the Athenians to victory against Megara c. 600 b.c.e. In six years he was elected archon, or chief magistrate, and given unusual power. The city—or at least, the all-male, wealthy electorate—knew it faced a crisis.
Plutarch says Solon was empowered as a lawmaker by the rich because he was wealthy and by the poor because he was honest. Solon warned that enslavement and oppression would lead to civil war, destroying rich and poor alike, and avoided it with the power he was given.
Solon cancelled all debts and mortgages, enabling the poor to keep their farms and allowing those who had fled indebtedness to return. Families who had been sold into slavery to pay off debts were brought home as well.
To further safeguard the economy, Solon restricted food exports, standardized weights and measures, offered citizenship to craftsmen who settled in Athens, obligated children to support their aged parents, and ordered parents to provide for their children’s futures with either land or training.
Solon reclassified Athenian society so that taxes and duties were fairly distributed and created the Council of Four Hundred, a legislative body that would debate issues prior to a populace vote.
Solon repealed the death sentence that Draco had assigned to trivial crimes so that only manslaughter and murder received such punishment. Some of his laws were innovative, such as the one that stripped a citizen of his rights if he did not join a side during a civil war.
Presumably, Solon saw danger in the inaction and apathy of citizens. Solon’s laws were written on wooden tablets, mounted on display panels in public, and all citizens swore obedience to them.
Solon was urged to assume absolute authority and become a tyrant—at that time, an acceptable role. He refused and left Athens for 10 years. Popular legend tells that he met with the wealthy King Croesus and Aesop, the teller of fables.
Solon learned of Atlantis during a trip to Egypt and wrote part of the story in his old age. He did not complete the work, but a distant relative, Plato, took up the story in his dialogues some 200 years later.
Returning to Athens, Solon found the people had split into factions. He took on the role of adviser and peacemaker. Eventually, his own cousin, Peisastratus, became a tyrant. Solon spoke against him without fear of reprisal and urged the people of Athens to throw off tyranny and servitude. When they did not, Solon retired to write and died in 559 b.c.e.