Those who visit this blog on a regular basis know that I'm a fan of Solon and his reformations of the political landscape of Athens in the sixth century BC. I wrote about some of his reforms a little while ago. Solon (Σόλων) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, who lived from 638 BC to 558 BC. He spent most of his adult life trying to legislate against political, economic, and moral decline in archaic Athens. His ideologies are often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy. Today, I want to discuss one of his most important reforms: the move from a judicial system where the Zeus-born kings decided the fate of the accused, to the basic foundations of democracy. I fully admit that I'm hanging this off of a 'J'-post, because 'J' is a hard letter for a Hellenist--no such letter in the Greek language--so expect the 'jury' part to be a somewhat loose interpretation.

I have written about the Zeus-born kings and the democracy in ancient Athens before, in separate Pagan Blog Posts. I suggest reading those posts before reading this one, but I'll add the highlights of those post below just in case, with links to these articles (mostly) so you know where to find more information on the terms.

Back in ancient Hellas, if you were a citizen--and especially one from an important family--you could trace your family line back to a Theos. For Athenians, this divine link was first through Gaea (autochthonous, αὐτός χθών, 'earth-born') and/or Athena (with links to Zeus), and then through Poseidon. The kings of Athens were legendary, mythological, even in the time of ancient Hellas. With the death of Codrus, this system came to an end and was replaced by a political system were the decadents of these kings became árchōntes.

The árchōntes did not rule as kings; where kings were sole rulers of the city state, archons ruled first in threes, then in nines, then in tens and their power did not extend to law-making. Indeed, the Athenians had a clear understanding of the difference between sovereign power and executive government, and they kept the two separate far more than any modern government. The system started with three árchōntes: the 'Archōn Epōnymos' (ἄρχων Ἐπώνυμος), the 'Polemarchos' (πολέμαρχος), and the 'Archōn Basileus' (Ἄρχων Βασιλεύς). Together, these three oversaw the tasks the ancient kings had carried alone.

Originally the árchōntes were chosen from the 'eupatridae'--those who were 'good fathered'--by elections every ten years, but after 508 BC the titles were held for only a single year. Other changes came in 487 BC, when the archonships became assigned by lot to any citizen. Before this assignment by lots, for which I have described the procedures here, there was another system in place for a while: Solon's system, which still operated by lot, but with a few more rules to placate the aristocracy.

When Solon came to power, he pushed a few very important changes through the system. As a statesman, Solon put principles before expediency. In a time when Athens was struggling under the burden of civil war, his reforms strove to bridge the gap between the rich an the poor. He cancelled all debts, and purchased the freedom of all slaves, allowing everyone to start with a clean slate. This caused a massive financial crisis, for which new reforms were necessary, including new trade ties, and an halt in the export of all foodstuffs but olive oil, of which there was plenty. Solon did not stop there, however. Once he was given full legislative powers, he abolished political distinctions of birth in politics. Instead, he created four new groups:
  • Thetes, the lowest group, who paid no taxes, provided no equipment city state or its army, and who were not eligible to hold an office of any kind.
  • Zeugitae, the second lowest group, who paid tax at the lowest rate, provided body armor to the Athenian army, and who were eligible to hold office.
  • Hippeus, the second highest group, who paid higher taxes at the middle rate, provided their own war horse when they served in the army, and they were eligible for higher offices.
  • Pentacosiomedimni, the top class of citizens, who paid the highest amount of taxes, and were eligible for all top positions of government in Athens. Archōntes were chosen from this class.
A person belonged to the first class if he could produce more than five hundred measures of goods, to the second class for more than three hundred, to the third class for more than two hundred, and everybody else belonged to the last class, the thetes. Members of the first three classes could hold offices such as those of the archons and the treasurers. The last class gathered at the assembly and could act as jury in court.
Especially the latter of the reforms created a system where the power was in the hands of the people, because instead of leaving justice to be administered by the aristocracy, Solon formed a 'boule' (βουλή), who met at the 'bouleterion'. The term comes from the ancient Greek word for 'citizens': bouleutai (βουλευταί). About a hundred years after these reforms took place, in 508 BC, the árchōntes Kleisthénês (Κλεισθένης) organized the citizens of Athens into ten tribes, but in Solons time, there were only four, and every Athenian belonged to one of them. It may have been that these tribes were originally small villages which came together to form the foundation of Athens, but this is pure speculation on my part. No evidence of this--or any other theory--survives. At any rate, in Kleisthénês' time, the boule was assembled from 50 men, chosen from each of the ten tribes of Athens, for a total of 500 men. Solon founded the boule with 400 men, one hundred from each of the four tribes, but only with members from the three most wealthy of classes. This council was responsible for processing  public matters before bringing them to the assembly, or 'ekklesia'.
In the ancient Athens after Solon and Kleisthénês, sovereign power was held by the ekklesia, and only by the ekklesia: they were the jurors of ancient Athens. The árchōntes didn't factor into lawmaking at all. Every citizen in ancient Hellas had the right to vote on new or changing laws and was thus required to be aware of them and have an opinion on them; a direct democracy. In fact, Solon introduced a controversial law punishing those who did not take part in public decisions on crucial matters, following the view that everybody should care about public issues. This law was overturned in later times, but there were still reminders of it in Athenian life afterwards, like the miltos. In Solon's time, however, the árchōntes did still have the power to act as judge in disputes, as they--and he kings before them--had always had. However, after Solon's reforms, anyone could appeal to the jury of the ekklesia if a decision of the árchōntes was not acceptable. Furthermore, one could seek justice for other persons who could not represent themselves, something that had not been possible before. 
When I say 'everyone' it is important to distinguish that there were quite a few people who were not entitled to serve on the ekklesia; women, for example, and children, but also métoikos--resident aliens--and slaves, because in no way did Solon's reforms end slavery; his reforms only bought the freedom of indentured citizens. Very roughly measured, about a quarter of the inhabitants of ancient Athens were eligible to vote.

Solon's reforms were substantial, and took a lot of power away from the aristocracy. They gave every free man the hope that they could hold office one day, if they worked hard to reach the upper class. For those without political aspirations, Solon's reforms provided judicial safety and a sense of power: no matter who you were, if you were an adult male citizen, your opinion counted, and you could influence the course of the city's political and social landscape. Obviously, Solon's reforms did not create a democracy, but they did lay the groundwork for further reforms, and they did so wisely, and with consent from the elite--at least for his lifetime.