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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The debts of the Greeks

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There are many European citizens who are appalled by the claim of the government and the Greek people that it applied them a release or reduction of the huge debt incurred in previous years themselves. There are also other citizens who analyzed the origin of that debt, which is largely considered abusive and they are more comprehensive. The current situation is not at all comparable with the old, but I will offer two series of texts, some referring to Solon, who faced the untenable situation legal situation of many Athenian citizens back in the sixth century BC with legal modifications, they are indebted to the slavery; and other texts that reveal the particular attitude of an individual, also knocked down by particular debt, which is reflected for example by Aristophanes in his comedy the Clouds.

Broadly speaking, ancient Athens, and similarly the rest of Greece, went from a monarchy atomization of several villages to the union of these centers around one more important, the polis or city-state  in which  the monarchy gives way to aristocracy and tyranny and this then in Athens to democracy.

In this long process, about which we have a lot of information but also a lot of confusion, the the ownership of the land was a serious problem, never solved, which led to the ruin and slavery of many citizens by debt. At the beginning of the sixth century B.C. small farmers depended on aristocratic families that concentrated ownership of most of the land. These small farmers had fallen into slavery and dependence by  continued borrowing.

In that scenario Solon (c. 638 a. C.-558 BC.), one of the Seven Sages of Greece, lived as the great lawgiver respected by rich and poor, who tried to improve the situation of the impoverished citizen and put the foundations on which later the first democracy (government of the people) on  the world would be built.

About Solon we have much information especially from Aristotle's work "The Constitution of Athens", but also from  the biography of Plutarch in his famous work "Parallel Lives" and also Diogenes Laertius tells us on him  in his "Lives and Opinions of the eminent philosophers. "

Diogenes begins this biography precisely with information that is relevant to the case:

Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, I, 45

45. Solon, the son of Execestides, was born at Salamis. His first achievement was the σεισάχθεια or Law of Release, which he introduced at Athens; its effect was to ransom persons and property. For men used to borrow money on personal security, and many were forced from poverty to become serfs or daylabourers. He then first renounced his claim to a debt of seven talents due to his father, and encouraged others to follow his example. This law of his was called σεισάχθεια, and the reason is obvious.

He next went on to frame the rest of his laws, which would take time to enumerate, and inscribed them on the revolving pillars. (translated by Robert Drew Hicks)

Aristotle gives us the best information about Solon, referring also to the doubts raised about the performance of Solon when his friends took advantage of inside information they had. Then collects all Plutarch.

Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 6

Solon having become master of affairs made the people free both at the time and for the future by prohibiting loans secured on the person, and he laid down laws, and enacted cancellations of debts both private and public, the measures1 that are known as 'the Shaking-off of Burdens,' meaning that the people shook off their load. In these matters some people try to misrepresent him;  for it happened that when Solon was intending to enact the Shaking-off of Burdens, he informed some of the notables beforehand, and afterwards, as those of popular sympathies say, he was outmaneuvered by his friends, but according to those who want to malign him he himself also took a share. For these persons borrowed money and bought up a quantity of land, and when not long afterwards the cancellation of debts took place they were rich men; and this is said to be the origin of the families subsequently reputed to be ancestrally wealthy. Nevertheless, the account of those of popular sympathies is more credible; for considering that he was so moderate and public-spirited in the rest of his conduct that, when he had the opportunity to reduce one of the two parties to subjection and so to be tyrant of the city, he incurred the enmity of both, and valued honor and the safety of the state more than his own aggrandizement, it is not probable that he besmirched himself in such worthless trifles.  And that he got this opportunity is testified by the disordered state of affairs, and also he himself alludes to it in many places in his poems, and everybody else agrees with him. We are bound therefore to consider this charge to be false. (Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1952.)

It should be noted that from the V century the abolition of debts was seen as an act of anarchy; and this remains without doubt the prevailing view today between policies and financial institutions. This is indicated for example by Plato on Republic 565e, (and also Isocrates on Panathenaic 259 and Demosthenes on Against Timocrates 149).

Plato, referring to tyrants, expressed his negative opinion on the cancellation of debts and tactics of tyrants to win over these people and then promote wars to establish himself in chief:

Plato, Republic, 565e

“And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who, getting control of a docile mob,1 does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood,2 but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out3 a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands1—is it not the inevitable consequence and a decree of fate2 that such a one be either slain by his enemies or become a tyrant and be transformed from a man into a wolf?”


“Then at the start and in the first days does he not smile2 upon all men and greet everybody he meets and deny that he is a tyrant, and promise many things in private and public, and having freed men from debts, and distributed lands to the people and his own associates, he affects a gracious and gentle manner to all?” (Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.).

Soon later, Aristotle refers the actions of Solon in monetary policy reference. You can also see here a parallel: if Athens in ancient times lived in the commercial and monetary framework of Aegina and wanted to create its own monetary system to promote their development, now there is also a monetary problem between the current euro and previous drachma.

Aristotle, Athenian Constitution, 10

Solon therefore seems to have laid down these enactments of a popular nature in his laws; while before his legislation his democratic reform was his cancellation of debts, and afterwards his raising the standard of the measures and weights and of the coinage. [2] For it was in his time that the measures were made larger than those of Pheidon,1 and that the mina, which previously had a weight of seventy drachmae,2 was increased to the full hundred. The ancient coin-type was the two-drachma piece. Solon also instituted weights corresponding to the currency, the talent weighing sixty-three minae, and a fraction proportionate to the additional three minae was added to the stater3 and the other weights. (Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1952.)

Obviously neither the causes nor the situation look like today, though perhaps the old  landed aristocrats are predatory bankers today; in any case certainly the suffering of poor people is very similar.

Most authors interpret  the abolition of debts as a complete cancellation and not as a reduction, Moreover, but another some think that  the abolition of debts by Solon probably was not total, but what he did a release or reduction.  What he  got was the completely abolishing of slavery by debt.

Plutarch tells us at greater length in a text which will not fail to surprise us, for example when he tells how in those times of severe economic situation there is always some indecent willing to take advantage of public performance taking advantage of inside information. Again, and they are thousands of times, I repeat “nihil novum sub sole ".

Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Solón, 13-16:

At that time, too, the disparity between the rich and the poor had culminated, as it were, and the city was in an altogether perilous condition; it seemed as if the only way to settle its disorders and stop its turmoils was to establish a tyranny. All the common people were in debt to the rich. For they either tilled their lands for them, paying them a sixth of the increase (whence they were called Hectemorioi and Thetes), or else they pledged their persons for debts and could be seized by their creditors, some becoming slaves at home, and others being sold into foreign countries.  Many, too, were forced to sell their own children (for there was no law against it), or go into exile, because of the cruelty of the money-lenders. But the most and sturdiest of them began to band together and exhort one another not to submit to their wrongs, but to choose a trusty man as their leader, set free the condemned debtors, divide the land anew, and make an entire change in the form of government.

At this point, the wisest of the Athenians cast their eyes upon Solon. They saw that he was the one man least implicated in the errors of the time; that he was neither associated with the rich in their injustice, nor involved in the necessities of the poor. They therefore besought him to come forward publicly and put an end to the prevailing dissensions. And yet Phanias the Lesbian writes that Solon of his own accord played a trick upon both parties in order to save the city, and secretly promised to the poor the distribution of land which they desired, and to the rich, validation of their securities.

But Solon himself says that he entered public life reluctantly, and fearing one party's greed and the other party's arrogance. However, he was chosen archon to succeed Philombrotus, and made mediator and legislator for the crisis, the rich accepting him readily because he was well-to do, and the poor because he was honest.

Now later writers observe that the ancient Athenians used to cover up the ugliness of things with auspicious and kindly terms, giving them polite and endearing names. Thus they called harlots "companions," taxes "contributions," the garrison of a city its "guard," and the prison a "chamber." But Solon was the first, it would seem, to use this device, when he called his cancelling of debts a "disburdenment." For the first of his public measures was an enactment that existing debts should be remitted, and that in future no one should lend money on the person of a borrower.  Some writers, however, and Androtion is one of them, affirm that the poor were relieved not by a cancelling of debts, but by a reduction of the interest upon them, and showed their satisfaction by giving the name of "disburdenment" to this act of humanity, and to the augmentation of measures and the purchasing power of money which accompanied it. For he made the mina to consist of a hundred drachmas, which before had contained only seventy-three, so that by paying the same amount of money, but money of lesser value, those who had debts to discharge were greatly benefited, and those who accepted such payments were no losers. But most writers agree that the "disburdenment" was a removal of all debt, and with such the poems of Solon are more in accord. For in these he proudly boasts that from the mortgaged lands

"He took away the record-stones that everywhere were planted;
Before, Earth was in bondage, now she is free."

And of the citizens whose persons had been seized for debt, some he brought back from foreign lands,

"uttering no longer Attic speech,
So long and far their wretched wanderings;
And some who here at home in shameful servitude
Were held"

he says he set free.

This undertaking is said to have involved him in the most vexatious experience of his life. For when he had set out to abolish debts, and was trying to find arguments and a suitable occasion for the step, he told some of his most trusted and intimate friends, namely, Conon, Cleinias, and Hipponicus, that he was not going to meddle with the land, but had determined to cancel debts. They immediately took advantage of this confidence and anticipated Solon's decree by borrowing large sums from the wealthy and buying up great estates. Then, when the decree was published, they enjoyed the use of their properties, but refused to pay the moneys due their creditors. This brought Solon into great condemnation and odium, as if he had not been imposed upon with the rest, but were a party to the imposition.However, this charge was at once dissipated by his well-known sacrifice of five talents. For it was found that he had lent so much, and he was the first to remit this debt in accordance with his law. Some say that the sum was fifteen talents, and among them is Polyzelus the Rhodian. But his friends were ever after called "chreocopidae," or debt-cutters.

He pleased neither party, however; the rich were vexed because he took away their securities for debt, and the poor still more, because he did not re distribute the land, as they had expected, nor make all men equal and alike in their way of living, as Lycurgus did. But Lycurgus was eleventh in descent from Heracles, and had been king in Lacedaemon for many years. He therefore had great authority, many friends, and power to support his reforms in the commonwealth. He also employed force rather than persuasion, insomuch that he actually lost his eye thereby, and most effectually guaranteed the safety and unanimity of the city by making all its citizens neither poor nor rich. Solon, on the contrary, could not secure this feature in his commonwealth, since he was a man of the people and of modest station; yet he in no wise pacted short of his real power, relying as he did only on the wishes of the citizens and their confidence in him. Nevertheless he gave offence to the greater part of them, who expected different results, as he himself says of them in the lines:—

"Then they had extravagant thoughts of me, but now, incensed,
All look askance at me, as if I were their foe."

And yet had any other man, he says, acquired the same power,

"He had not held the people down, nor made an end
Until he had confounded all, and skimmed the cream."

Soon, however, they perceived the advantages of his measure, ceased from their private fault-finding, and offered a public sacrifice, which they called Seisactheia, or Disburdenment. They also appointed Solon to reform the constitution and make new laws, laying no restrictions whatever upon him, but putting everything into his hands, magistracies, assemblies, court-of law, and councils. He was to fix the property qualification for each of these, their numbers, and their times of meeting, abrogating and maintaining existing institutions at his pleasure. (Translation by Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Library edition, Cambridge, MA and London, 1914).

Let us now turn from drawing  the situation from the point of view of political or public life to the opinion of a private and knocked down  citizen  by debt.

"Clouds" is one of the eleven preserved comedies of Aristophanes (444 BC -.. 385 BC) and it is one of the most famous because in it a merciless caricature of Socrates is portrayed as a charlatan sophist; the comedy certainly contributed significantly to creating the bad citizen and social environment conducive to put him to death, the wisest man of Greece as the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi says.

But some parallels could be established between the argument of the Clouds and the current situation in Greece   in which some sectors intend not to  pay State debts owed to creditor banks.

The point of the comparison is certainly risky and reader (whom I invite to do a complete reading of a work, which, like all the comedies, is not too long, I think that in just over an hour you can make your reading)  can see parallels and similarities and striking differences.

Note to turn a profit that  the comedy of Aristophanes is not critical to lenders, who are different at all, fair and abusive greedy, and the proposed learn not to pay lenders turns against creditors to the point to subvert the natural order of respect of  children to parents; in the comedy the son, he forced by the father to study with the Sophists for not paying debts, just attacks  his own father  justifying "sophistically" this aggression. As a result, the debtor just burns  the Socratic school where he was taught to turn the injustice to right.

That is, basically the "sophistry" attitude of some Greeks  not to want to pay debts is not a good proposal.

Of course, we,  to have a more accurate picture of the current Greek problem, should know better what is the current debt, how it was generated, how are the conditions imposed by a ruthless bank whose sole purpose is to make money and more money regardless of the consequences and what role they play the states and European Institutions whose primary goal should be to consolidate the welfare of all Europeans, that's why they invented the Union.

Well, I transcribe some texts from comedy of Aristophanes and each reader can think it reasonably.

In the comedy, an old man named Strepsiades, burdened by debts owed because of the love of their child rearing horse, asked the him  to go to school of Socrates and learn the Lower Argument to defeat their creditors and not return anything to any of the lenders holding in court contrary to justice reasons.

Note: Strepsiades is a "speaking name"; it means “who spins, goes back, gives, does laps”, by he turns in bed because his  debts or because he turns the Socratic system, whose school (physicallyIt it did not exist) he burns. Estrpsiades could therefore be "rebellious, the restless.

Verses 1-131:

Strepsiades: O dear ! O dear !
O Lord ! O Zeus ! these nights, how long they are.
Will they ne'er pass ? will the day never come ?
Surely I heard the cock crow, hours ago.
Yet still my servants snore. These are new customs.
O 'ware of* war for many various reasons ;
One fears in war even to flog one's servants.
And here's this hopeful son of mine wrapped up
Snoring and sweating under five thick blankets.
Come, we'll wrap up and snore in opposition.
{Tries to sleep,)
But I can't sleep a wink, devoured and bitten
By ticks, and bugbears, duns ; and race-horses,
All through this son of mine. He curls his hair,
And sports his thoroughbreds, and drives his tandem ;
Even in dreams he rides : while I — Fm ruined,
Now that the Moon has reached her twentieths,
And paying-time comes on. Boy ! light a lamp,
And fetch my ledger : now I'll reckon up
Who are my creditors, and what I owe them.
Come, let me see then. Fifty pounds to Pasias !
Why fifty pounds to Pasias ? what were they for ?
O, for the hack from Corinth. O dear ! O dear !
I wish my eye had been hacked out before —

Pheidippides.:  (in his sleep.) You are cheating, Philon ; keep to your own side.

Streps.: Ah ! there it is ! that's what has ruined me !
Even in his very sleep he thinks of horses.

Pheid.: (in Ms sleep.) How many heats do the war-chariots run ?

Streps.: A pretty many heats you have run your father.
Now then, what debt assails me after Pasias ?
A curricle and wheels. Twelve pounds. Amynias.

Pheid.: (in his sleep.) Here, give the horse a roll, and take him home.

Streps.: You have rolled me out of house and home, my boy,
Cast in some suits already, while some swear
They'll seize my goods for payment.

Pheid.: Good, my father,
What makes you toss so restless all night long ?

Streps.: There's a bumbailiff from the mattress bites me.

Pheid.: Come now, I prithee, let me sleep in peace.

Streps.: Well then, you sleep : only be sure of this,
These debts will fall on your own head at last.
Alas, alas ! For ever cursed be that same matchmaker,
Who stirred me up to marry your poor mother.
Mine in the country was the pleasantest life,
Untidy, easy-going, unrestrained,
Brimming with olives, sheepfolds, honey-bees.
Ah ! then I married — I a rustic — her
A fine town-lady, niece of Megacles.
A regular, proud, luxurious, Coesyra.
This wife I married, and we came together,
I rank with wine-lees, fig-boards, greasy woolpacks ;
She all with scents, and saffron, and tongue-kissings,
Feasting, expense, and lordly modes of loving.
She was not idle though, she was too fast.
I used to tell her, holding out my cloke,
Threadbare and worn ; Wife, you re too fast by half.

Servant-boy.: Here's no more oil remaining in the lamp.

Streps.: O me ! what made you light the tippling lamp ?
Come and be whipp'd.

Seev.: Why, what would you whip me for?

Streps.: Why did you put one of those thick wicks in ?
Well, when at last to me and my good woman
This hopeful son was born, our son and heir,
Why then we took to wrangle on the name.
She was for giving him some knightly name,
" Callippides/" " Xanthippus," or " Charippus : "
I wished " Pheidonides," his grandsire's name.
Thus for some time we argued : till at last
We compromised it in Pheidippides.
This boy she took, and used to spoil him, saying,
Oh ! when you are driving to the Acropolis, clad
Like Megacles, in your purple ; whilst I said
Oh ! when the goats you are driving from the fells,
Clad like your father, in your sheepskin coat.
Well, he eared nought for my advice, but soon
A galloping consumption caught my fortunes.
Now cogitating all night long, I've found
One way, one marvellous transcendent way,
Which if he'll follow^ we may yet be saved. 
So, — but, however, I must rouse him first ;
But how to rouse him kindliest ? that's the rub.
Pheidippides, my sweet one.

Pheid.: Well, my father.

Streps.: Shake hands, Pheidippides, shake hands and kiss me.

Pheid.: There ; what's the matter ?

Streps.: Dost thou love me, boy ?

Pheid.: Ay ! by Poseidon there, the God of horses.

Streps.: No, no, not that : miss out the God of horses,
That God's the origin of all my evils.
But if you love me from your heart and soul,
My son, obey me.

Pheid.: Very well : what in ?

Streps.: Strip with all speed, strip off your present habits,
And go and learn what I'll advise you to.

Pheid.: Name your commands.

Streps.: Will you obey ?

Pheid.: I will,
By Dionysus !

Streps.: Well then, look this way.
See you that wicket and the lodge beyond ?

Pheid.: I see : and prithee what is that, my father ?

Streps.: That is the thinking-house of sapient souls.
There dwell the men who teach — aye, who persuade us,
That Heaven is one vast fire-extinguisher
Placed round about us, and that we're the cinders.
Aye, and they'll teach (only they'll want some money,)
How one may speak and conquer, right or wrong.

Pheid.: Come, tell their names.

Streps.: Well, I can't quite remember,
But they're deep thinkers, and true gentlemen.

Pheid.: Out on the rogues ! I know them. Those rank pedants,
Those palefaced, barefoot vagabonds you mean :
That Socrates, poor wretch, and Chaerephon.

Streps.: Oh ! Oh ! hush ! hush ! don't use those foolish words ;
But if the sorrows of my barley touch you,
Enter their Schools and cut the Turf for ever.

Pheid.: I wouldn't go, so help me Dionysus,
For all Leogoras's breed of Phasians !

Streps.: Go, I beseech you, dearest, dearest son,

Go and be taught.

Pheid.: And what would you have me learn ?

Streps.: 'Tis known that in their Schools they keep two Logics,
The Worse, Zeus save the mark, the Worse and Better.
This Second Logic then, I mean the Worse one,
They teach to talk unjustly and — prevail.
Think then, you only learn that Unjust Logic,
And all the debts, which I have incurred through you, —
I'll never pay, no, not one farthing of them.

Pheid.: I will not go. How could I face the knights
With all my colour worn and torn away !

Streps.: O ! then, by Earth, you have eat your last of mine,
You, and your coach-horse, and your sigma-brand :
Out with you ! Go to the crows, for all I care.

Pheid.: But uncle Megacles won't leave me long
Without a horse : I'll go to him : good-bye.

Streps.: I’m thrown, by Zeus, but I won't long lie prostrate.
I'll pray the Gods and send myself to school :
I'll go at once and try their thinking-house.
Stay : how can I, forgetful, slow, old fool,
Learn the nice hair-splittings of subtle Logic ?
Well, go I must.

(Translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers(London G. Bell and Sons,Limited, 1916)

Then  later in verse 236 et seq. Strepsiades  goes to Docrates, who hanging in a basket observes  celestial phenomena and asks him to teach him to argue not to pay his many debts.

Verses 235-246

Streps.: Hello ! what's that ?
Thought draws the essence into water-cress ?
Come down, sweet Socrates, more near my level,
And teach the lessons which I come to learn.

Socr.: And wherefore art thou come ?

Streps.: To learn to speak.
For owing to my horrid debts and duns,
My goods are seized, I'm robbed, and mobbed, and plundered.

Socr.: How did you get involved with your eyes open ?

Streps.: A galloping consumption seized my money.
Come now : do let me learn the unjust Logic
That can shirk debts : now do just let me learn it.
Name your own price, by all the Gods I'll pay it.

(Translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, London G. Bell and Sons,Limited, 1916)

Later Strepsiades gets that his son Pheidippides  learn from Socrates the art of the word. Strepsiades confident in the ability of his son refuses debts to creditors, denied the principal and interest.

Verses: 1154-1164

Strepsiades.: " Then shall my song be loud and deep."
Weep, obol-weighers, weep, weep, weep,
Ye, and your principals, and compound interests,
For ye shall never pester me again.
Such a son have I bred,
(He is within this door),

Born to inspire my foemen with dread,

Born his old father's house to restore :
Keen and polished of tongue is he,
He my Champion and Guard shall be,
He will set his old father free,

(Translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, London G. Bell and Sons,Limited, 1916)

Interestingly the word “obol-weighers” , ὧβολοστάται, money-lender, is formed from “obol”, which is the currency, with the same sense that we say that someone is a "stingy", a money-grabbing. It seems that the interests were a daily obol,  per mina. (6 obols = 1 drachma; 100 drachmas = 1 mina; 60 minas = 1 talent = about 27 kg .; a laborer earned two obolos a day  and a qualified worker earned four).

It is also curious that the words “principal” , to Archaion,  τἀρχαῖον, the old, is what has been settled with the time,  and interest, "what day to day and month to month increases more and more with the passage of time" ,as he says in verse 1286, are today Tokoi, τόκοι, children, the “product” as we say.

Strepsiades denies their money the creditors and the announce they  will come to justice and shall put a lawsuit.

Finally Strepsiades regret education that he gave his son, able to argue to deny the debt, but also able to justify any injustice, for example the aggression he as  son makes his father with the argument that who loves you, he will make you weep.

Chorus announces it in verses 1302-1319.

Chorus:  What a thing it is to long for matters which are wrong !
For you see how this old man
Is seeking, if he can
His creditors trepan :
And I confidently say
That he will this very day
Such a blow
Amid his prosperous cheats receive, that he will deeply deeply grieve.

For I think that he has won what he wanted for his son,
And the lad has learned the way
All justice to gainsay,
Be it what or where it may :
That he'll trump up any tale,
Right or wrong, and so prevail.
This I know.
Yea ! and perchance the time will come when he shall wish his son were dumb.

(Translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, London G. Bell and Sons,Limited, 1916)

And so it happened suddenly, when Strepsiades receives from its own medicine and have to endure how his  child arguments justified the beating he is sticking to himself, to his father. Repented therefore Strepsiades of the "sophistry" education that he gave his son and hurt with their teachers Chaerophon and Socrates, he ends by burning school.

These texts give us an idea of the complexity of things in Greece since ancient times and on this it is not worth the simplicity and opportunism with which some current European politicians, including some Spaniards, act.


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