This debt crisis isn’t the first. Lessons on a revolution from ancient Greece…
There was a time in Athens were you could be executed for stealing a cabbage.
This was around the 6th or 7th century BC, under the constitution laid down by Draco (he was old school ‘Draconian’.)
But then Draco’s laws were an improvement on things. At least the laws were written down, and you didn’t just have to trust the judge’s word on it.
But by around 600 B.C, Athens was at risk of falling apart. Economic inequality was growing and there was a massive under-class on the brink of, or actually in, slavery.
But then the aristocracy did something amazing. They gave absolute power to a man named Solon, and asked him to set out a new constitution.
Solon was from a distinguished family, and he had successfully commanded armies through several battles. However, through failing family fortunes he had also been forced into commerce, where, it turns out, he proved to be quite a successful businessman.
He had a unique background.
And so Solon set to work and he completely worked over the constitution – like totally.
Before Solon, Athens was governed by 9 Archons, appointed by a council of former Archons, and limited to men of noble birth and wealth. They had a total hold on power and there was no mechanism to hold them to account.
Solon opened the doors of power up. He gave common people the power to elect officials, created a judicial system based on a jury of your peers (400 of them), and made it much easier for people of lower-birth to hold public office (though they had to have certain levels of wealth).
He also allowed people to sue on other people’s behalf, and encouraged Athenian society to be more litigious.
He also went to work on the economy. Fathers had to give their sons a trade. If they did not, then the sons didn’t have to look after their fathers in old age.
The export of all agricultural produce was also prohibited (famine was a constant threat). Olives were the exception, and Athens became a global power in olives.
Some say Solon also introduced Athens’ first coins.
But the big change was the debt jubilee. All debts became nullified, and people who had fallen into debt slavery were set free.
It was pretty common practice at the time to use yourself, or your children as collateral. However, if you couldn’t pay back your debts, then you ended up in slavery.
Solon put a ban on selling yourself or your children into slavery, and forgave all debts, setting many former debt slaves free.
It was a big deal.
He then said, right, there you go. There are your laws. Don’t touch them for 100 years and we’ll see what happens.
How’s that for vision. He knew the changes wouldn’t bear fruits immediately. It would take some time for society to change.
Then he went travelling, and didn’t come home again for 10 years (after some Egyptian Priests sold him on the idea of the lost city of Atlantis.)
A lot of people weren’t happy with the new laws – especially the wealthy folks who had just seen the debts owed to them absolved and many of their slaves set free.
And a lot of the poorer folks had hoped the new laws would have gone further redistributing land. But the proof was in the pudding.
Solon had planted the seeds of modern democracy. He had created a system with the potential for upward mobility, and more potent democratic power. He also upheld the dignity of the individual with the abolition of slavery.
In time, free Athens became one of the most cohesive and powerful cities of its time. And the participation of free Greeks was one of the factors that helped Athens and Sparta defeat the might of the Persian army.
Solon has given Greece, and the world, a lot to be thankful for.
It’s pretty amazing really. Could anything like this ever be achieved today?
A lot of people would argue that we need a modern Solon to right the wrongs of the world – poor countries (and several richer ones) suffer under massive debts, growing inequality, and an unequal distribution of opportunity.
Modern Greece is crying out for it.
But I can’t see it happening.
First up, it requires the powerful elite to recognise the problem, and recognise that they will probably need to give up some of their wealth and power if the situation is going to be fixed.
Do you see that happening? I don’t.
In large part this is because power is no longer anchored into place. It has become more global. The elite of ancient Athens would have realised that if they didn’t get things together, then the city would be lost to Sparta, or Persia or somebody.
They needed a strong society to survive. Nothing motivates like self-interest.
Secondly, it needs a man like Solon. He was given absolute power, but then chose to give it away. It is a rare man who can hold that power in his hands and say, no thanks. He was wise, principled and patriotic.
Vested interests just couldn’t get a hold of him. Where can we find such a man or woman these days?
Well, obviously Donald Trump is the first name that springs to mind.
No, I’m kidding. No really, I’m joking. I love The Donald, but you need someone with wisdom, vision and selflessness. Trump is no Solon. But then who is?
Trump is his own man but I don’t think he has the vision. The people with wisdom and vision remain locked out of the system by vested interests and their hold on power.
It’s a tough nut to crack.
So as much as we might need change, I can’t see it happening just yet.
Might need another century or two.
What’s it going to take to reset the world?