The Athenian Constitution: A review

by Aristotle

I know of few men when they had power, they used it for the benefit of mankind. I guess Abe Lincoln is known to most if not all of you as being one of the great American presidents. Robert Ingersoll, in his speeches, pays tribute to him in ways that yours truly cannot match. He says

Abraham Lincoln, in his judgement, the grandest man ever president of the US of A and upon whose monument these words could truthfully be written: Here lies the only man in the history of the world who, having been clothed with almost absolute power, never abused it except in the side of mercy.

I think Abraham Lincoln should come second for before him lived Solon in ancient Greece, who when he had almost absolute power, did not abuse it, but used it for the benefit of his fellow men. For, among other things, he enacted laws that freed men, who hitherto, on taking a loan gave for security their person, he saw to the cancellation of all debts, public and private, made weights corresponding to coinage and drafted the constitution.

Aristotle tells of a poem by Solon after enacting some of his laws. Thus

I gave to the mass of the people such rank as befitted  their need.

I took not away their honour,

and I granted naught to their greed:

While those who were rich in power, who in wealth were glorious and great,

I bethought me that naught should befall them unworthy their splendour and state:

So I stood with my shield outstretched, and both were safe in its sight,

And I would not that either should triumph, when the triumph was not with right.

In this book, Aristotle narrates about Athens at different times, times when the government was led by tyrants- Pisistratus and then his sons, times when the government was led by despots, the 30 and the 10, when it was a government of the people by the people and so on.

Bribery, theft, corruption and other evils against the state, once proved were punishable by death. They had jurors- several of them- sometimes up to 1500 for cases where a person is accused against the state. The magistrates take lots, so you cannot know in advance what court you will sit in or what cases you would handle.

They also established a welfare state where those who were disabled or old were entitled to some allowance per day to take care of their daily wants- and this was when the state was stable and not in the hands of despots.

Taxes were a serious matter and failing to honour your obligations would land one in jail with a fines double or even ten-fold the money owed to the commonwealth.

Wealth declaration for officers of the state was a matter of course and there were auditors who checked your accounts if there were cases of embezzlement or abuse of office, such was the strictness with which those who were elected to rule were treated.

There were Commissioners for games, roads, horses, for sacrifices, of public worship, of corn, of weights and measures, market commissioners each group with duties and responsibilities for the common good.

I must say here in conclusion that the Athenian people, when they had a government for the people by the people, had a really great government and to this end, they enacted laws that ensured that no one person ever became so powerful as to be a tyrant. I don’t know why we don’t learn from these great men.


About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

21 thoughts on “The Athenian Constitution: A review

  1. Mordanicus says:

    Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the gods aren’t immune.


  2. john zande says:

    Be interesting to see which great thinkers (and what great science) emerged at this time as contrasted to the times under tyrants. A correlation would indeed be interesting.


    • makagutu says:

      In the constitution, Aristotle doesn’t mention any sciences though there was an increase in war activity when they were attacked by the Persians.
      I hope Pericles will mention something about science if any since that’s my next read.
      On thinkers, Solon is one of the great thinkers of his time.


  3. Heavy punishments were levied for crimes back then, including hubris being a high crime. Wouldn’t that be something for it, hubris, to be once again recognized as criminal. He would surely wipe out congress and the senate. Good post, my friend. Paulette


    • makagutu says:

      And sometimes there was no trial! In as much I love the Greeks, I think there were times they were extreme in their punishments.
      Thank you my friend and be well


  4. fojap says:

    Wonderful post! Thank you so much.

    A Taiwanese friend one told me about what he described as a Chinese idea about power. He said that a regime could only last about two hundred or two hundred and fifty years without severe upheaval. The idea was that no matter how well devised the system, people would find a way to minipulate the power and eventually it would become unbalanced. He described it as being almost like an inevitable force, the way water can wear away stone. There are days that I wonder if that’s not what is happening in the U.S. currently.

    So it may not be a question of learning from the past as a matter of natural decline.


    • makagutu says:

      That is a great insight and looking at ancient Greece and Rome, one sees this so much at play. There was always a reason for upheavals. Or it is just that we can’t learn from the past and will repeat the same mistakes.
      Maybe nature intends that we self destruct.


  5. aguywithoutboxers says:

    No system of government is perfect because it is made up of humans who, despite their belief, are far from perfection. Hence the era of tyrants. The punishments were severe for any ill committed against the people or the state. However, corruption and abuse were few and dealt with in a swift manner. Great post, my Nairobi brother. Best wishes for a fun weekend! 🙂


  6. Eric Alagan says:

    “I know of few men when they had power, they used it for the benefit of mankind.”

    I would like to add to this tiny list, two more people:

    Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and Nelson (Madiba) Mandela – are equally shining luminaries who wielded immense power for the good of man.


  7. I think you can find one Solon in each of the ancient societies, which is strange if you think about it. Everyone knows what a person should do when they’re in power, but few actually do what is good.

    Plutarch paralleled Solon’s life with Publicola, but my favorite Roman was probably Cincinnatus.


    • makagutu says:

      My favorite Roman is Cicero.
      Oh yes, it is true that every society, I think even the present generation has a Solon, the one guy who is the conscience of the entire civilization.
      In God’s Debris, the author creates such a figure, the one person who sees through the moral chaos of his time and who wishes to see things change.


  8. I vividly remember gravitating towards Athenian democracy at a very early age. In comparison, the Persians were feudal monarchists. The Spartans were cultural militarists, and the Romans devolved into imperialists. Athens stood out as exceptional to me even as a child.


    • makagutu says:

      The Roman republic would have done well if they had maintained the democracy but thanks to Caesar and Pompey, the republic set on a path to self destruct which it did so fast! Fell like a house of cards, to use the oft repeated cliche’.


  9. shelldigger says:

    Thanks Mak, good stuff. I hate to admit, I am not as widely read as you and Culpeper. It is always good to learn something today, you did not know yesterday 🙂 This Solon, sounds like an interesting individual, when I get time, I will look into his history.


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