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.1
However, he was chosen archon2
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. It is also said that a certain utterance of his which was current before his election, to the effect that equality bred no war, pleased both the men of substance and those who had none; the former expecting to have equality based on worth and excellence, the latter on measure and count.
Therefore both parties were in high hopes, and their chief men persistently recommended a tyranny to Solon, and tried to persuade him to seize the city all the more confidently now that he had it completely in his power. Many citizens, too, who belonged to neither party, seeing that it would be a laborious and difficult matter to effect a change by means of argument and law, were not reluctant to have one man, the justest and wisest of all, put at the head of the state.
Furthermore, some say that Solon got an oracle at Pytho which ran as follows:—
Take thy seat amidships, the pilot's task is thine;
Perform it, many in Athens are thine allies.
And above all, his familial friends chid him for being averse to absolute power because of the name of tyranny, as if the virtues of him who seized it would not at once make it a lawful sovereignty. Euboea (they argued) had formerly found this true of Tynnondas, and so had the Mitylenaeans, now that they had chosen Pittacus to be their tyrant.
None of these things shook Solon from his resolution. To his friends he said, as we are told, that a tyranny was a lovely place, but there was no way down from it. And in his poems he writes to Phocus:—
‘And if,’ he says, “I spared my land,
My native land, and unto tyranny and violence implacable
Did not set hand, polluting and disgracing my fair fame,
I'm not ashamed; in this way rather shall my name be set above
That of all other men.”
From this it is clear that even before his legislation he was in high repute.
And as for the ridicule which many heaped upon him for refusing the tyranny, he has written as follows;—
Solon was a shallow thinker and a man of counsel void;
When the gods would give him blessings, of his own will he refused.
When his net was full of fish, amazed, he would not pull it in,
All for lack of spirit, and because he was bereft of sense.
I had certainly been willing, for the power, and boundless wealth,
And to be tyrant over Athens no more than a single day,
Then to have a pouch flayed from me, and my lineage blotted out.4