Solon also outlawed Athenian citizens from being held as slaves, establishing the principle of the natural right to freedom (at least insofar as it was selectively applied to Athenian citizens and not the people they enslaved). He did this through a comprehensive mortgage-loan forgiveness program that rebalanced the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, and presaged Athenian democracy.
An irony in the development of Athenian democracy is that after Solon, some of the most important financial innovations were made by monarchs. The tyrant Peisistratus ruled intermittently from 561 to 527 BCE, followed by his sons Hippias and Hyparchus, who ruled until 508 BCE. According to Van Wees, during this period Athens was transformed into a monetary economy.
Peisistratus introduced a silver coinage system that was used, among other things, to pay the salaries of a growing municipal workforce, the judiciary, and the military. For example, the courts and other institutions were staffed by citizens chosen by lot or appointed for limited spans of time; if one wondered why the court system required hundreds of jurors selected at random—and mandated a limited number of times any one of them could serve—the answer might lie in the perceived political benefits of salaried compensation by the state. Indeed, this was a means by which money was fairly dispensed through Athenian citizenry and allegiance to the state was developed. To pay for this, Athens exacted tribute from its protectorate states and levied a progressive tax on citizens to generate a steady flow of revenues. It was a fiscal system that increasingly engaged citizens in a direct, economic relationship with the state.
Financial literacy—the ability to calculate costs and benefits—was recognized by the Greeks as an important underpinning of Athens’s special political structure. According to the fourth-century Pythagorean philosopher Archytas,
The discovery of calculation (logismos) ended civil conflict and increased concord. For when there is calculation there is no unfair advantage, and there is equality, for it is by calculation that we come to agreement in our transactions.
Who might have guessed that the roots of democracy lay in financial literacy? The conceptual ability—the logismos—to follow Demosthenes as he valued his father’s estate was regarded by Archytas as the mental tool on which a political system could be built. The principles of quantitative valuation were the “software” that increased agreement and reduced civil conflict. Athenian numeracy was not simply a skill required for successful business. It was a trait on which the democratic process fundamentally relied. The challenge of democracy is to accommodate a wide diversity of opinion and resolve this cacophony into governance. Even when there is vast disagreement on principles, it is hard to argue with numbers.