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Solon (b. 630 - d. 560 B.C.)

Solon, the Athenian statesman, is known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He ended exclusive aristocratic control of the government, substituted a system of control by the wealthy, and introduced a new and more humane law code. He was also a noted poet.

Unfortunately it was not until the 5th century B.C. that accounts of his life and works began to be put together, mostly on the evidence of his poems and his law code. Although certain details have a legendary ring, the main features of his story seem to be reliable. Solon was of noble descent but moderate means.

He first became prominent in about 600 B.C. The early 6th century was a troubled time for the Athenians. Society was dominated by an aristocracy of birth, who owned the best land, monopolized the government, and were themselves split into rival factions. The social, economic, and political evils might well have culminated in a revolution and subsequent tyranny (dictatorship), as they had in other Greek states, had it not been for Solon, to whom Athenians of all classes turned in the hope of a generally satisfactory solution of their problems. Because he believed in moderation and in an ordered society in which each class had its proper place and function, his solution was not revolution but reform.

Solon's great contribution to the future good of Athens was his new code of laws. The first written code at Athens, that of Draco, was still in force. Draco's laws were shockingly severe (hence the term draconian) so severe that they were said to have been written not in ink but in blood. On the civil side they permitted enslavement for debt, and death seems to have been the penalty for almost all criminal offenses. Solon revised every statute except that on homicide and made Athenian law altogether more humane.


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"Let the Body Be Brought..."

In Britain, the United States and many other English-speaking countries, the law of Habeas Corpus guarantees that nobody can be held in prison without trial. Habeas Corpus became a law because of a wild party held in 1621 at the London home of a notoriously rowdy lady, Alice Robinson. When a constable appeared and asked her and her guests to quiet down, Mrs. Robinson allegedly swore at him so violently that he arrested her, and a local justice of the peace committed her to jail.

When she was finally brought to trial, Mrs. Robinson's story of her treatment in prison caused an outcry. She had been put on a punishment diet of bread and water, forced to sleep on the bare earth, stripped, and given fifty lashes. Such treatment was barbaric even by the harsh standards of the time; what made it worse was that Mrs. Robinson was pregnant.

Public anger was so great that she was acquitted, the constable who had arrested her without a warrant was himself sent to prison, and the justice of the peace was severely reprimanded. And the case, along with other similar cases, led to the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act in: Britain in 1679. The law is still on the British statute books, and a version of it is used in the United States, where the law is regarded as such an important guarantee of liberty that Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution declares that "Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended except in cases of rebellion or invasion".

Habeas Corpus is part of a Latin phrase — Habeas corpus ad subjiciendum — that means "Let the body be brought before the judge." In effect, a writ of Habeas Corpus is an order in the name of the people (or, in Britain, of the sovereign) to produce an imprisoned person in court at once.


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The Legal Heritage of Greece and Rome | Hammurabi's Code of Laws (1758 B.C.)

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