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Biography of Solon

SOLON, the most famous of all the ancient Greek lawgivers, was born at Athens about 638 B.C., and belonged to one of the most distinguished families of Attica. His earliest appearance in the field of politics was occasioned by the contest between Athens and Megara, for the possession of Salamis, an island off the coast of Attica. Solon revived the martial spirit of his countrymen, which had sunk under the effect of repeated disasters, obtained command of a body of troops, and conquered the island, about 595 B.C. From this point his career is conspicuously noble and honorable. The Athenians had thorough confidence in his integrity; and in 594 B.C., he was chosen archon, or chief magistrate, and received unlimited permission to act as he saw best for the good of the state. He now devoted himself to dispel the distractions, partly social and partly political, that rent his native city. He repealed the cruel laws of Draco, by which the aristocracy had oppressed the people, and formed a code which released the debtor class from the power of their creditors, by whom they had been held in slavery. He then proceeded to remodel the constitution. Abandoning the semi-civilized idea which regards the noble as alone worthy of citizenship, and of the honors of public office in the state, he introduced the great body of the people to participation in the government. He divided the citizens into four classes according to the amount of their respective incomes. All citizens of the first class were eligible to the office of archon, which had hitherto been held only by nobles, while minor offices were made accessible to the second and third classes. The first three classes were liable to direct taxation; the fourth not. The old Senate, or Assembly of Four Hundred, chosen from the upper classes, was continued, but its power was limited by a creation of a new assembly of the citizens, whose ratification was necessary to all measures originating in the Upper House. On the other hand the popular assembly could originate nothing, and thus the aristocracy and the common people could continually check each other's assumptions. After their completion, Solon caused his laws to be engraved on wood, and having bound the Athenians by oath not to make any alteration in them for ten years, he left the country, visiting Egypt, Lydia and Cyprus. After spending ten years abroad, he returned to find the fickle Athenians arrayed in contending factions. These dissensions Solon struggled in vain to suppress, and they were eventually put down only by the strong hand of Pisistratus, the Usurper. Meantime Solon withdrew from Athens, and is supposed to have died at Cyprus at the age of 80.