Ancient and modern

How Solon would have solved the Greek crisis

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

The combination of terror and outrage with which Brussels has greeted Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s referendum tells us everything we ever needed to know about the EU, i.e. stuff the people — what have they to do with us?

The farmer-hero Dikaiopolis in Aristophanes’ comedy Acharnians (425 BC) felt much as modern Greeks must do when the Athenian Assembly refused to do anything about the war against Sparta. All the executives cared about was getting the best seats, he complains: ‘For peace, they don’t give a toss. Oh Athens, Athens, what are you coming to?… I’m longing for peace. All I want is to get back to my little village — ah, my village!’ So he makes a personal 30-year peace with Sparta, marks out the boundaries of a market on his farm and opens it to everyone — Spartans and all — who want to trade with him. It is a triumphant success, and the play ends with Dikaiopolis drunkenly celebrating a festival with a girl on either arm. All very Tsipras.


The EU would do well to be driven by the spirit of another great Athenian, the arkhon Solon. In 594 BC pre-democratic Athens was in serious social and economic trouble, primarily because of debt laws. Debtors unable to repay their creditors lost their land, but were allowed to work it as serfs, giving a sixth of the produce to their creditors; if the debt was far larger than their assets, they would be enslaved. All good, solid EU policy, causing untold misery.

Solon was invited to sort it out. He restored all their original property to the serfs; freed those who had been enslaved; and enslavement for debt was banned. Naturally it did not satisfy everyone, but it freed up the peasants, removed some of the power from wealthy aristocrats and with other measures laid the foundations for the radical democracy to come. Solon then left Athens for ten years to allow his proposals to bed in.

No chance of the EU doing anything so imaginative. Colin Leach well summarised their view: timeo Danaos referenda ferentes.

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Show comments
  • So what you are saying is that the Greeks should not have to pay their debts?

    • Dominic Stockford

      Debt that has, in fact, been forced upon them by the EU. Remember, the EU forced a President upon them, against their will, then forced more and more debt on them. Before the EU began Greece was chugging along as a pleasant if occasionally overly hot country. Not it is a disaster zone where people are dying due to EU interference.

      • Forced to borrow? Do you mean enticed? While the EU is clearly responsible for causing mayhem in many places, in many ways, I don’t see how the Greeks can be excused for getting themselves into such a mess.
        And if they end up getting away with it, I dread to think what will be the effect on the the economy and the probity of many other countries.

        • ClausewitzTheMunificent

          Not really, the Greek debt situation in 2011 was severe, but not terminal. Since then, the EU has indebted them to the tune of hundreds of billions to repay loans to exposed French and German banks – hindsight is great, but it’s now clear that giving someone a short term loan to pay another loan is not going to work out well in the long run, and the loan repayment crisis becomes permanent..

          • post_x_it

            This is all true, but the assertion above that the debt was “forced upon them by the EU” is clearly rubbish. The debt was already there. The EU might have forced on Greece the terms of the bailout, but it did not force them to borrow and spend all the money in the first place. That was all their own doing.

          • ClausewitzTheMunificent

            True, but the debt to GDP ratio, as measured by (perhaps overly severe Maastricht rules) was around 110% in 2011 and is now over 175%, and this was eminently forseeable, but the EU could not tolerate (and still cannot!) one of its members leaving, because this would mean a beginning of the end to this farce. The EU’s political responsibility is without question. This crisis has also rather conveniently shielded the Germans from a close look of their rather dodgy financing practices.

          • post_x_it

            I disagree. If the Greeks had wanted to exit the euro and default, they could have done so at any point. There is nothing that Germany can do to force them not to. It’s actually the Greeks themselves who have insisted on keeping the euro, and (by all accounts) continue to do so. What the EU/Troika have done is to dictate the terms of the financial support Greece has required in order to keep the euro.

          • ClausewitzTheMunificent

            What the Troika have also done is terrorize the population of Greece into believing that leaving the Euro would mean the apocalypse to establish political control. A similar game was played against Italy in 2011 with the hype about the rising spread which was used to bring down Berlusconi because he had gotten tired of the EU diktats and was trying to rally public opinion against the German domination of EU institutions.

          • Bonkim

            Wonga Rides again.

        • Bonkim

          They didn’t read the fine print – and they were not offered the customary 14 day cooling off period. Not Greece’s fault they can’t pay, won’t pay.

      • Bonkim

        I am already feeling sorry for the Greeks. The same EU interference has now brought civil war in Ukraine.

    • Bonkim

      No chance they will ever pay yes or no. Cot down your losses and don’t spend good money chasing bad.

  • Write it off and let the games begin again.

  • galataria

    First, I recommend that the Greek people give a resounding “No” to the creditors in the referendum on their demands this weekend.
    Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/greece-debt-crisis-eurozone-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-2015-07#7IdhKGU4dEIJgTEi.99

    • Bonkim

      … and they get out of the EU and Euro. they would have kept their dignity and pride.

      • davidofkent

        Poor and bankrupt, but with pride!

        • Bonkim

          .. false pride and laughing stock.

  • John Carins

    Following a close “yes” vote, the next step will be for the EU to take over the administration of Greece. The voters/Greek people are irrelevant. Bizarrely, many Greeks will welcome this as their only salvation and enslavement..

  • Bonkim

    If Solon was to arbitrate and write off all Greek debts today, Greece will still be in chaos when he returns in ten years. The moral is don’t give free heroin to an addict.

  • Precambrian

    I remember my granny telling me “don’t throw good money after bad”.

    Apparently 90% of the Europe’s politicians did not have grannies who gave such advice.

    • Alpha Farnell

      If Grannies ran the world – a penny saved is a penny earned, waste not want not etc… the world would be a much better place. How right you are.

  • The Greeks haven’t got Solon, instead they’ve got a bunch of left wing fundamentalists who do not understand the meaning of the word ‘compromise’. It seems to be forgotten that the sticking point for Merkel, Dijstelbloom and the others is: Greece must reform. Whatever arrangment is made, Greece cannot continue riddled with corruption, without a coherent system of taxation or property rights and devoid of any awareness that the country has to compete.

    That is what the real crux of the matter is. Yes, a wise man like Solon would be welcome. The EU hasn’t caused this crisis. Greece has.

    • carl jacobs

      The EU didn’t cause the crisis. But the EU sure enabled the crisis. They knew what they were doing.

  • Alpha Farnell

    Didn’t Solon also buy up large amounts of land on the back of loans he could never repay just before implementing his reforms? Sounds very Greek to me!

  • jim

    No good solutions but burning the creditors (i.e the EU taxpayers) may be the best was of ensuring banker scum never get their bad bets socialized ever again. Remember,the Greeks didn’t borrow money from EU taxpayers.They borrowed from banks.It was the EU political class which dumped these bad loans on taxpayers,principally one Jean Claude Trichet. And who helped formulate the accounting rules which made it possible for the banks to hide their bad loans for so long? That’s right folks:the same Jean Claude Trichet who now wants a european banking union..Reason enough to get out of the EU .

  • davidofkent

    On the other hand, it might do well to remember that the Greeks have been living on tick, not lent by the wealthy but by the taxpayers of countries like Germany and to a lesser extent the UK. Furthermore, the Greeks have not been borrowing to stay alive but to live well above their means (well we know all about that in Britain, don’t we?).

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