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Solon: Seisachtheia reforms by debt relief.

Athens 6th century BC.
Seisachtheia was a set of laws instituted by the Athenian lawmaker Solon ( 638 BC-558 BC ).
Copyright (c) Wikipedia. 
Seisachtheia (Greekσεισάχθεια, from σείειν seiein, to shake, and ἄχθος achthos, burden, i.e. the relief of burdens) was a set of laws instituted by the Athenian lawmaker Solon(c. 638 BC–558 BC) in order to rectify the widespread serfdom and slavery that had run rampant in Athens by the 6th century BC, by debt relief.
                      Bas-relief of Solon from the chamber of the U.S House of Representatives.  
Debt in Athenian society.
Under the pre-existing legal status, according to the account of the Constitution of the Athenians attributed to Aristotle, debtors unable to repay their creditors would surrender their land to them, then becoming hektemoroi, i.e. serfs who cultivated what used to be their own land and gave one sixth of produce to their creditors.
Should the debt exceed the perceived value of debtor's total assets, then the debtor and his family would become the creditor's slaves as well. The same would result if a mandefaulted on a debt whose collateral was the debtor's personal freedom.
Seisachtheia reforms.
The seisachtheia laws immediately cancelled all outstanding debts, retroactively emancipated all previously enslaved debtors, reinstated all confiscated serf property to thehektemoroi, and forbade the use of personal freedom as collateral in all future debts. The laws instituted a ceiling to maximum property size - regardless of the legality of its acquisition (i.e. by marriage), meant to prevent excessive accumulation of land by powerful families.
Moral reform
In his poems, Solon portrays Athens as being under threat from the unrestrained greed and arrogance of its citizens.[100] Even the earth (Gaia), the mighty mother of the gods, had been enslaved.[101] The visible symbol of this perversion of the natural and social order was a boundary marker called a horos, a wooden or stone pillar indicating that a farmer was in debt or under contractual obligation to someone else, either a noble patron or a creditor.[102] Up until Solon's time, land was the inalienable property of a family or clan[103] and it could not be sold or mortgaged. This was no disadvantage to a clan with large landholdings since it could always rent out farms in a sharecropping system. A family struggling on a small farm however could not use the farm as security for a loan even if it owned the farm. Instead the farmer would have to offer himself and his family as security, providing some form of slave labour in lieu of repayment. Equally, a family might voluntarily pledge part of its farm income or labour to a powerful clan in return for its protection. Farmers subject to these sorts of arrangements were loosely known as hektemoroi[104] indicating that they either paid or kept a sixth of a farm's annual yield.[105][106][107] In the event of 'bankruptcy', or failure to honour the contract stipulated by the horoi, farmers and their families could in fact be sold into slavery.


This 6th Century Athenian black-figure urn, in the British Museum, depicts the olive harvest. Many farmers, enslaved for debt, would have worked on large estates for their creditors.
Solon's reform of these injustices was later known and celebrated among Athenians as the Seisachtheia (shaking off of burdens).[108][109] As with all his reforms, there is considerable scholarly debate about its real significance. Many scholars are content to accept the account given by the ancient sources, interpreting it as a cancellation of debts, while others interpret it as the abolition of a type of feudal relationship, and some prefer to explore new possibilities for interpretation.[3] The reforms included:

  • annulment of all contracts symbolised by the horoi.[110]
  • prohibition on a debtor's person being used as security for a loan.[108][109]
  • release of all Athenians who had been enslaved.[110]
The removal of the horoi clearly provided immediate economic relief for the most oppressed group in Attica, and it also brought an immediate end to the enslavement of Athenians by their countrymen. Some Athenians had already been sold into slavery abroad and some had fled abroad to escape enslavement – Solon proudly records in verse the return of this diaspora.[111] It has been cynically observed, however, that few of these unfortunates were likely to have been recovered.[112] It has been observed seisachtheia not only removed slavery and accumulated debt, it also removed the ordinary farmer's only means of obtaining further credit.[113]
also that the
The seisachtheia however was merely one set of reforms within a broader agenda of moral reformation. Other reforms included:
  • the abolition of extravagant dowries.[114]
  • legislation against abuses within the system of inheritance, specifically with relation to the epikleros (i.e. a female who had no brothers to inherit her father's property and who was traditionally required to marry her nearest paternal relative in order to produce an heir to her father's estate).[115]
  • entitlement of any citizen to take legal action on behalf of another.[116][117]
  • the disenfranchisement of any citizen who might refuse to take up arms in times of civil strife, a measure that was intended to counteract dangerous levels of political apathy.[118][119][120][121][122]
Demosthenes claimed that the city's subsequent golden age included "personal modesty and frugality" among the Athenian aristocracy.[123] Perhaps Solon, by both personal example and legislated reform, established a precedent for this decorum. A heroic sense of civic duty later united Athenians against the might of the Persians. Perhaps this public spirit was instilled in them by Solon and his reforms. 
References.

  • Project Gutenberg's The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol. 1, Editor: Rossiter Johnson, Charles Horne and John Rudd; Release Date July 24, 2005 [EBook #16352] Copyright, 1905 by The National Alumni - Solon's Early Greek Legislation B.C. 594 by George Grote (See: Location 3949 et. seq.)

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