Solon (ancient Greek: Σόλων, c. 638 BC–558 BC) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and Lyric poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short term yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.
Our knowledge of Solon is limited by the lack of documentary and archeological evidence covering Athens in the early 6th Century BC. He wrote poetry for pleasure, as patriotic propaganda and in defence of his constitutional reforms. However his works only survive in fragments, they appear to feature interpolations by later authors and it is possible that fragments have been wrongly attributed to him (see Solon the reformer and poet). Ancient authors such as Herodotus and Plutarch are our main source of information yet they wrote about Solon hundreds of years after his death, when history was by no means an academic discipline (see for example Anecdotes). Fourth Century orators such as Aeschines tended to attribute to Solon all the laws of their own, much later times. Archeology reveals glimpses of Solon's period in the form of fragmentary inscriptions but little else. For some scholars, our 'knowledge' of Solon and his times is largely a fictive construct based on insufficient evidence while others believe a substantial body of real knowledge is still attainable. Solon and his times can appear particularly interesting to students of history as a test of the limits and nature of historical argument.
During Solon's time, many Greek city-states had seen the emergence of tyrants, opportunistic noblemen who had grabbed power on behalf of sectional interests. In Sicyon, Cleisthenes had usurped power on behalf of an Ionian minority. In Megara, Theagenes had come to power as an enemy of the local oligarchs. The son-in-law of Theagenes, an Athenian nobleman named Cylon, made an unsuccessful attempt to seize power in Athens in 632 BC. Solon, on the other hand, was temporarily awarded autocratic powers by his fellow citizens on the grounds that he had the wisdom to sort out their differences for them in a peaceful and equitable manner.
The social and political upheavals that characterised Athens in Solon's time have been variously interpreted by historians from ancient times to the present day. Two contemporary historians have identified three distinct historical accounts of Solon's Athens, emphasizing quite different rivalries - economic and ideological rivalry, regional rivalry and rivalry between aristocratic clans. These different accounts provide a convenient basis for an overview of the issues involved.
Economic and ideological rivalry is a common theme in ancient sources. This sort of account emerges from Solon's poems (e.g. see below Solon the reformer and poet), in which he casts himself in the role of a noble mediator between two intemperate and unruly factions. This same account is substantially taken up about three centuries later by the author of the Athenaion Politeia but with an interesting variation:
Regional rivalry is a theme commonly found among modern scholars.
Regional factionalism was inevitable in a relatively large territory such as Athens possessed. In most Greek city states, a farmer could conveniently reside in town and travel to and from his fields every day. According to Thucydides, on the other hand, most Athenians continued to live in rural settlements right up until the Peloponnesian War. The effects of regionalism in a large territory could be seen in Laconia, where Sparta had gained control through intimidation and resettlement of some of its neighbours and enslavement of the rest. Attika in Solon's time seemed to be moving towards a similarly ugly solution with many citizens in danger of being reduced to the status of helots.
Rivalry between clans is a theme recently developed by some scholars, based on an appreciation of the political significance of kinship groupings. According to this account, bonds of kinship rather than local loyalties were the decisive influence on events in archaic Athens. An Athenian belonged not only to a phyle or tribe and one of its subdivisions, the phratry or brotherhood, but also to an extended family, clan or genos. It has been argued that these interconnecting units of kinship reinforced a hierarchic structure with aristocratic clans at the top. Thus rivalries between aristocratic clans could engage all levels of society irrespective of any regional ties. In that case, the struggle between rich and poor was the struggle between powerful aristocrats and the weaker affiliates of their rivals or perhaps even with their own rebellious affiliates.
The historical account of Solon's Athens has evolved over many centuries into a set of contradictory stories or a complex story that might be interpreted in a variety of ways. As further evidence accumulates, and as historians continue to debate the issues, Solon's motivations and the intentions behind his reforms will continue to attract speculation (see for example John Bintliff's 'Solon's Reforms: an archaeological perspective': and other essays published with it).
Solon's laws were inscribed on large wooden slabs or cylinders attached to a series of axles that stood upright in the Prytaneum. These axones appear to have operated on the same principle as a Lazy Susan, allowing both convenient storage and ease of access. Originally the axones recorded laws enacted by Draco in the late 7th Century (traditionally 621BC). Nothing of Draco's codification has survived except for a law relating to homicide, yet there is consensus among scholars that it did not amount to anything like a constitution. Solon repealed all Draco's laws except those relating to homicide. Fragments of the axones were still visible in Plutarch's time but today the only records we have of Solon's laws are fragmentary quotes and comments in literary sources such as those written by Plutarch himself. Moreover, the language of his laws was archaic even by the standards of the fifth century and this caused interpretational problems for ancient commentators. Modern scholars doubt the reliability of these sources and our knowledge of Solon's legislation is therefore actually very limited in its details.
Generally, Solon's reforms appear to have been constitutional, economic and moral in their scope. This distinction, though somewhat artificial, does at least provide a convenient framework within which to consider the laws that have been attributed to Solon. This section also considers the possibility that Solon might have regulated the sexual habits of his countrymen. Some short term consequences of his reforms are considered at the end of the section.
According to Aristotle, Solon legislated for all citizens to be admitted into the Ekklesia and for a court (the Heliaia) to be formed from all the citizens. The Heliaia appears to have been the Ekklesia, or some representative portion of it, sitting as a jury. By giving common people the power not only to elect officials but also to call them to account, Solon appears to have established the foundations of a true democracy. However some scholars have doubted whether Solon actually included the Thetes in the Ekklesia, this being considered too bold a move for any aristocrat in the archaic period. Ancient sources credit Solon with the creation of a Council of Four Hundred, drawn from the four Athenian tribes to serve as a steering committee for the enlarged Ekklesia. However, many modern scholars have doubted this also.
There is consensus among scholars that Solon broadened the financial and social qualifications required for election to public office. The Solonian constitution divided citizens into four political classes defined according to assessable property a classification that might previously have served the state for military or taxation purposes only. The standard unit for this assessment was one medimnos (approximately 12 gallons) of corn and yet the kind of classification set out below might be considered too simplistic to be historically accurate.
According to Aristotle, only the Pentacosiomedimnoi were eligible for election to high office as archons and therefore only they gained admission into the Areopagus. A modern view affords the same privilege to the hippeis. The top three classes were eligible for a variety of lesser posts and only the Thetes were excluded from all public office.
Depending on how we interpret the historical facts known to us, Solon's constitutional reforms were either a radical anticipation of democratic government, or they merely provided a plutocratic flavour to a stubbornly aristocratic regime, or else the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Solon's reforms can thus be seen to have taken place at a crucial period of economic transition, when a subsistence rural economy increasingly required the support of a nascent commercial sector. The specific economic reforms credited to Solon are these:
It is generally assumed, on the authority of ancient commentators that Solon also reformed the Athenian coinage. However, recent numismatic studies now lead to the conclusion that Athens probably had no coinage until around 560 BC, well after Solon's reforms.
Solon's economic reforms succeeded in stimulating foreign trade. Athenian black-figure pottery was exported in increasing quantities and good quality throughout the Aegean between 600 BC and 560 BC, a success story that coincided with a decline in trade in Corinthian pottery. The ban on the export of grain might be understood as a relief measure for the benefit of the poor. However, the encouragement of olive production for export could actually have led to increased hardship for many Athenians since it would have led to a reduction in the amount of land dedicated to grain. Moreover an olive produces no fruit for the first six years. The real motives behind Solon's economic reforms are therefore as questionable as his real motives for constitutional reform. Were the poor being forced to serve the needs of a changing economy, or was the economy being reformed to serve the needs of the poor?
Solon's reform of these injustices was later known and celebrated among Athenians as the Seisachtheia (shaking off of burdens). . As with all his reforms, there is considerable scholarly debate about its real significance. Many scholars are content to accept the account given by the ancient sources, interpreting it as a cancellation of debts, while others interpret it as the abolition of a type of feudal relationship, and some prefer explore new possibilities for interpretation.. The reforms included:
The removal of the horoi clearly provided immediate economic relief for the most oppressed group in Attica, and it also brought an immediate end to the enslavement of Athenians by their countrymen. Some Athenians had already been sold into slavery abroad and some had fled abroad to escape enslavement - Solon proudly records in verse the return of this diaspora. It has been cynically observed, however, that few of these unfortunates were likely to have been recovered. It has been observed also that the seisachtheia not only removed slavery and accumulated debt, it also removed the ordinary farmer's only means of obtaining further credit.
The seisactheia however was merely one set of reforms within a broader agenda of moral reformation. Other reforms included:
The personal modesty and frugality of the rich and powerful men of Athens in the city's subsequent golden age have been attested to by Demosthenes. Perhaps Solon, by both personal example and legislated reform, established a precedent for this decorum. A heroic sense of civic duty later united Athenians against the might of the Persians. Perhaps this public spirit was instilled in them by Solon and his reforms.
According to a surviving fragment from a work ("Brothers") by the comic playwright Philemon, Solon, in order to "democratize" the availability of sexual pleasure and to place it within the reach of even those of modest means, established publicly funded brothels at Athens. While the veracity of this account is open to doubt, it is considered significant that in Classical Athens, three hundred or so years after the death of Solon, there existed a discourse that associated the availability of heterosexual pleasure with democratic values.
It has also been argued that Solon systematized the pederastic educational tradition in Athens, adapting the ancient custom to the new environment of the Athenian polis. According to the orator Aeschines, ancient lawgivers (and therefore Solon by implication) drew up a set of laws that were intended to promote and safeguard the institution of pederasty and to control abuses against freeborn boys. Specifically, they excluded slaves from the wrestling halls, and from pederastic relationships with the sons of citizens.
Against these arguments, it should be noted that our knowledge of Solon's legislation is originally sourced in accounts by 4th Century writers and orators and these often feature anachronisms.
Besides the alleged legislative aspect of Solon's involvement with pederasty, there was also according to some ancient authors a personal component. According to the later histories of Plutarch and Aelian, Solon took the future tyrant Peisistratus as eromenos. Aristotle, however, claims that the difference in age between the two (31 years) would have been too great, making the relationship "impossible".
Some surviving fragments of Solon's poetry have been argued by some to be proof of his interest in the ideals of pederasty. However, Solon's authorship of such fragments is not universally accepted (see belowSolon the reformer and poet)
Solon's verses are significant for historical rather than aesthetic reasons, as a personal record of his reforms and attitudes. However, poetry is not an ideal genre for communicating facts and very little detailed information can be derived from the surviving fragments According to Solon the poet, Solon the reformer was a voice for political moderation in Athens at a time when his fellow citizens were increasingly polarized by social and economic differences:
Solon also gave voice to Athenian 'nationalism', particularly in the city state's struggle with Megara, its neighbour and rival in the Saronic Gulf. Megara had seized the island of Salamis and Solon was an eloquent advocate of the island's return to Athenian control:
Solon's works are preserved only in fragments.
According to Plutarch, Solon was related to the tyrant Pisistratus (their mothers were cousins). Solon's father Execestides could trace his ancestry back to Codrus, the last King of Athens. Solon's family belonged to a noble or Eupatrid clan yet it possessed only moderate wealth. and Solon was therefore drawn into an unaristocratic pursuit of commerce. According to Diogenes Laertius, he had a brother named Diopidas and was an ancestor (six generations removed) of Plato. Solon was given leadership of the Athenian war against Megara on the strength of a poem he wrote about Salamis Island. Supported by Pisistratus, he defeated the Megarians either by means of a cunning trick or more directly through heroic battle. The Megarians however refused to give up their claim to the island. The dispute was referred to the Spartans, who eventually awarded possession of the island to Athens on the strength of the case that Solon put to them.
When he was archon, he discussed his intended reforms with some friends. Knowing that Solon was about to cancel all debts, these friends took out loans and promptly bought some land. Solon repaid these scandalous loans out of his own capital, amounting to 5 (or even 15) talents.
After he had finished reforming the country, Solon travelled abroad. His first stop was Egypt. There he visited Heliopolis, where he discussed philosophy with an Egyptian expert on the subject, Psenophis. Subsequently, at Sais, he visited Neith's temple and received from the priests there an account of the history of Atlantis. Solon wrote out this history as a poem, to which Plato subsequently made references in his dialogues Timaios and Critias.Next Solon sailed to Cyprus, where he oversaw the construction of a new capital for a local king, in gratitude for which the king named it Soloi.
Solon's travels finally brought him to Sardis, capital of Lydia. His meeting there with King Croesus is the stuff of legend and it is attested to by both Herodotus and Plutarch. Solon gave the Lydian king some very wise advice, which however Croesus failed to appreciate until it was too late. Croesus had considered himself to be the happiest man alive and Solon had advised him, "Count no man happy until he be dead," because at any minute, fortune might turn on even the happiest man and make his life miserable. It was not till after his kingdom had been taken from him by Cyrus, the Persian, while he lugubriously waited to be incinerated on a pyre, that Croesus acknowledged the wisdom of Solon's advice.
After his return to Athens, Solon became a staunch opponent of Pisistratus. In protest and as an example to others, Solon stood outside his own home in full armour, urging all who passed to resist the machinations of the would-be tyrant. But his efforts were in vain. Solon died shortly after Pisistratus usurped by force the autocratic power that Athens had once freely bestowed upon him.
There is an anecdote in the Florilegium of Stobaeus that relates the story about a symposium, where Solon's young nephew was singing a poem of Sappho's; Solon, upon hearing the song, asked the boy to teach him to sing it. When someone asked, "Why should you waste your time on it?" Solon replied ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω, "So that I may learn it then die.