Chapter 2. SOLON (archon 594 B.C.)
Solon, the son of Execestides, was born at Salamis.
His first achievement was the
or Law of
Release, which he introduced at Athens; its effect
was to ransom persons and property. For men used
to borrow money on personal security, and many
were forced from poverty to become serfs or daylabourers. He then first renounced his claim to a
debt of seven talents due to his father, and encouraged others to follow his example. This law of
his was called
reason is obvious.
He next went on to frame the rest of his laws,
which would take time to enumerate, and inscribed
them on the revolving pillars.
His greatest service was this: Megara and Athens
laid rival claims to his birthplace Salamis, and after
many defeats the Athenians passed a decree punishing with death any man who should propose a renewal of the Salaminian war. Solon, feigning madness, rushed into the Agora with a garland on his
head; there he had his poem on Salamis read to
the Athenians by the herald and roused them to
fury. They renewed the war with the Megarians
and, thanks to Solon, were victorious.
the lines which did more than anything else to
inflame the Athenians1
Would I were citizen of some mean isle
Far in the Sporades! For men shall smile
And mock me for Athenian: "Who is this?"
"An Attic slave who gave up Salamis";
Then let us fight for Salamis and fair fame,
Win the beloved isle, and purge our shame!
He also persuaded the Athenians to acquire the
And lest it should be thought
that he had acquired Salamis by force only and not
of right, he opened certain graves and showed that
the dead were buried with their faces to the east,
as was the custom of burial among the Athenians;
further, that the tombs themselves faced the east,3
and that the inscriptions graven upon them named
the deceased by their demes, which is a style peculiar
to Athens. Some authors assert that in Homer's
catalogue of the ships after the line4
Ajax twelve ships from Salamis commands,
Solon inserted one of his own:
And fixed their station next the Athenian bands.
Thereafter the people looked up to him, and
would gladly have had him rule them as tyrant; he
refused, and, early perceiving the designs of his
kinsman Pisistratus (so we are told by Sosicrates),
did his best to hinder them. He rushed into the
Assembly armed with spear and shield, warned them
of the designs of Pisistratus, and not only so, but
declared his willingness to render assistance, in these
words: "Men of Athens, I am wiser than some of
you and more courageous than others: wiser than
those who fail to understand the plot of Pisistratus,
more courageous than those who, though they see
through it, keep silence through fear." And the
members of the council, who were of Pisistratus'
party, declared that he was mad: which made him
say the lines5
A little while, and the event will show
To all the world if I be mad or no.
That he foresaw the tyranny of Pisistratus is proved
by a passage from a poem of his6
On splendid lightning thunder follows straight,
Clouds the soft snow and flashing hail-stones bring;
So from proud men comes ruin, and their state
Falls unaware to slavery and a king.
When Pisistratus was already established, Solon,
unable to move the people, piled his arms in front
of the generals' quarters, and exclaimed, "My
country, I have served thee with my word and
sword!" Thereupon he sailed to Egypt and to
Cyprus, and thence proceeded to the court of Croesus.
There Croesus put the question, "Whom do you
consider happy?" and Solon replied, "Tellus of
Athens, and Cleobis and Biton," and went on in
words too familiar to be quoted here.
There is a story that Croesus in magnificent array
sat himself down on his throne and asked Solon if
he had ever seen anything more beautiful. "Yes,"
was the reply, "cocks and pheasants and peacocks;
for they shine in nature's colours, which are ten
thousand times more beautiful." After leaving that
place he lived in Cilicia and founded a city which he
called Soli after his own name. In it he settled
some few Athenians, who in process of time corrupted
the purity of Attic and were said to "solecize."
Note that the people of this town are called Solenses,
the people of Soli in Cyprus Solii. When he learnt
that Pisistratus was by this time tyrant, he wrote to
the Athenians on this wise7
If ye have suffered sadly through your own wickedness,
lay not the blame for this upon the gods. For it is you
yourselves who gave pledges to your foes and made them
great; this is why you bear the brand of slavery. Every
one of you treadeth in the footsteps of the fox, yet in the
mass ye have little sense. Ye look to the speech and fair
words of a flatterer, paying no regard to any practical
Thus Solon. After he had gone into exile Pisistratus
wrote to him as follows:
Pisistratus to Solon
"I am not the only man who has aimed at a tyranny
in Greece, nor am I, a descendant of Codrus, unfitted
for the part. That is, I resume the privileges which
the Athenians swore to confer upon Codrus and his
family, although later they took them away. In
everything else I commit no offence against God or
man; but I leave to the Athenians the management
of their affairs according to the ordinances established
by you. And they are better governed than they
would be under a democracy; for I allow no one to
extend his rights, and though I am tyrant I arrogate
to myself no undue share of reputation and honour,
but merely such stated privileges as belonged to the
kings in former times. Every citizen pays a tithe
of his property, not to me but to a fund for defraying
the cost of the public sacrifices or any other charges
on the State or the expenditure on any war which
may come upon us.
"I do not blame you for disclosing my designs;
you acted from loyalty to the city, not through any
enmity to me, and further, in ignorance of the sort
of rule which I was going to establish; since, if you
had known, you would perhaps have tolerated me
and not gone into exile. Wherefore return home,
trusting my word, though it be not sworn, that Solon
will suffer no harm from Pisistratus. For neither
has any other enemy of mine suffered; of that you
may be sure. And if you choose to become one of
my friends, you will rank with the foremost, for I
see no trace of treachery in you, nothing to excite
mistrust; or if you wish to live at Athens on other
terms, you have my permission. But do not on my
account sever yourself from your country.
So far Pisistratus. To return to Solon: one of his
sayings is that 70 years are the term of man's life.
He seems to have enacted some admirable laws;
for instance, if any man neglects to provide for his
parents, he shall be disfranchised; moreover there
is a similar penalty for the spendthrift who runs
through his patrimony. Again, not to have a settled
occupation is made a crime for which any one may,
if he pleases, impeach the offender. Lysias, however,
in his speech against Nicias ascribes this law to Draco,
and to Solon another depriving open profligates of
the right to speak in the Assembly. He curtailed
the honours of athletes who took part in the games,
fixing the allowance for an Olympic victor at 500
drachmae, for an Isthmian victor at 100 drachmae,
and proportionately in all other cases. It was in
bad taste, he urged, to increase the rewards of these
victors, and to ignore the exclusive claims of those
who had fallen in battle, whose sons ought, moreover,
to be maintained and educated by the State.
The effect of this was that many strove to acquit
themselves as gallant soldiers in battle, like Polyzelus,
Cynegirus, Callimachus and all who fought at Marathon; or again like Harmodius and Aristogiton, and
Miltiades and thousands more. Athletes, on the
other hand, incur heavy costs while in training, do
harm when successful, and are crowned for a victory
over their country rather than over their rivals, and
when they grow old they, in the words of Euripides,8
Are worn threadbare, cloaks that have lost the
and Solon, perceiving this, treated them with scant
Excellent, too, is his provision that the
guardian of an orphan should not marry the mother
of his ward, and that the next heir who would succeed
on the death of the orphans should be disqualified
from acting as their guardian.
no engraver of seals should be allowed to retain an
impression of the ring which he has sold, and that
the penalty for depriving a one-eyed man of his
single eye should be the loss of the offender's two
eyes. A deposit shall not be removed except by the
depositor himself, on pain of death. That the magistrate found intoxicated should be punished with death.
He has provided that the public recitations of
Homer shall follow in fixed order10
: thus the
reciter must begin from the place where the first
left off. Hence, as Dieuchidas says in the fifth book
Solon did more than
Pisistratus to throw light on Homer. The passage in
Homer more particularly referred to is that beginning "Those who dwelt at Athens ..."11
Solon was the first to call the 30th day of the
month the Old-and-New day, and to institute
meetings of the nine archons for private conference,
as stated by Apollodorus in the second book of his
When civil strife began, he
did not take sides with those in the city, nor with
the plain, nor yet with-the coast section.
One of his sayings is: Speech is the mirror of
action; and another that the strongest and most
capable is king. He compared laws to spiders' webs,
which stand firm when any light and yielding object
falls upon them, while a larger thing breaks through
them and makes off. Secrecy he called the seal of
speech, and occasion the seal of secrecy.
to say that those who had influence with tyrants
were like the pebbles employed in calculations; for,
as each of the pebbles represented now a large and
now a small number, so the tyrants would treat each
one of those about them at one time as great and
famous, at another as of no account. On being asked
why he had not framed any law against parricide,
he replied that he hoped it was unnecessary. Asked
how crime could most effectually be diminished, he
replied, "If it caused as much resentment in those
who are not its victims as in those who are," adding,
"Wealth breeds satiety, satiety outrage." He required the Athenians to adopt a lunar month. He
prohibited Thespis from performing tragedies on the
ground that fiction was pernicious.
Pisistratus appeared with self-inflicted wounds, Solon
said, "This comes from acting tragedies." His
counsel to men in general is stated by Apollodorus
in his work on the
more trust in nobility of character than in an oath.
Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Do not be
rash to make friends and, when once they are made,
do not drop them. Learn to obey before you command. In giving advice seek to help, not to please,
your friend. Be led by reason. Shun evil company.
Honour the gods, reverence parents. He is also said
to have criticized the couplet of Mimnermus:
Would that by no disease, no cares opprest,
I in my sixtieth year were laid to rest;
and to have replied thus12
Oh take a friend's suggestion, blot the line,
Grudge not if my invention better thine;
Surely a wiser wish were thus expressed,
At eighty years let me be laid to rest.
Of the songs sung this is attributed to Solon13
Watch every man and see whether, hiding hatred in his
heart, he speaks with friendly countenance, and his tongue
rings with double speech from a dark soul.
He is undoubtedly the author of the laws which
bear his name; of speeches, and of poems in elegiac
metre, namely, counsels addressed to himself, on
Salamis and on the Athenian constitution, five thousand lines in all, not to mention poems in iambic
metre and epodes.
His statue has the following inscription14
At Salamis, which crushed the Persian might,
Solon the legislator first saw light.
He flourished, according to Sosicrates, about the
46th Olympiad, in the third year of which he was
archon at Athens15
; it was then that he
laws. He died in Cyprus at the age of eighty. His
last injunctions to his relations were on this wise:
that they should convey his bones to Salamis and,
when they had been reduced to ashes, scatter them
over the soil. Hence Cratinus in his play,
makes him say16
This is my island home; my dust, men say,
Is scattered far and wide o'er Ajax' land.
An epigram of my own is also contained in the
Epigrams in Various Metres
above, where I have discoursed of all the illustrious
dead in all metres and rhythms, in epigrams and
lyrics. Here it is17
Far Cyprian fire his body burnt; his bones,
Turned into dust, made grain at Salamis:
Wheel-like, his pillars bore his soul on high;
So light the burden of his laws on men.
It is said that he was the author of the apophthegm
"Nothing too much,"
Ne quid nimis.
Dioscurides in his
when he was
for the loss of his son, of whom nothing more is
known, and some one said to him, "It is all of no
avail," he replied, "That is why I weep, because it
is of no avail."
The following letters are attributed to Solon:
Solon to Periander
"You tell me that many are plotting against you.
You must lose no time if you want to get rid of them
all. A conspirator against you might arise from a
quite unexpected quarter, say, one who had fears
for his personal safety or one who disliked your
timorous dread of anything and everything. He
would earn the gratitude of the city who found out
that you had no suspicion. The best course would
be to resign power, and so be quit of the reproach.
But if you must at all hazards remain tyrant, endeavour to make your mercenary force stronger than
the forces of the city. Then you have no one to
fear, and need not banish any one."
Solon to Epimenides
"It seems that after all I was not to confer much
benefit on Athenians by my laws, any more than you
by purifying the city. For religion and legislation
are not sufficient in themselves to benefit cities; it
can only be done by those who lead the multitude
in any direction they choose. And so, if things are
going well, religion and legislation are beneficial; if
not, they are of no avail.
"Nor are my laws nor all my enactments any better;
but the popular leaders did the commonwealth harm
by permitting licence, and could not hinder Pisistratus
from setting up a tyranny. And, when I warned
them, they would not believe me. He found more
credit when he flattered the people than I when I
told them the truth. I laid my arms down before
the generals' quarters and told the people that I
was wiser than those who did not see that Pisistratus
was aiming at tyranny, and more courageous than
those who shrank from resisting him. They, however, denounced Solon as mad. And at last I protested: "My country, I, Solon, am ready to defend
thee by word and deed; but some of my countrymen
think me mad. Wherefore I will go forth out of
their midst as the sole opponent of Pisistratus; and
let them, if they like, become his bodyguard." For
you must know, my friend, that he was beyond
measure ambitious to be tyrant.
He began by being
a popular leader; his next step was to inflict wounds
on himself and appear before the court of the Heliaea,
crying out that these wounds had been inflicted by
his enemies; and he requested them to give him a
guard of 400 young men. And the people without
listening to me granted him the men, who were
armed with clubs. And after that he destroyed the
democracy. It was in vain that I sought to free
the poor amongst the Athenians from their condition
of serfdom, if now they are all the slaves of one
Solon to Pisistratus
"I am sure that I shall suffer no harm at your
hands; for before you became tyrant I was your
friend, and now I have no quarrel with you beyond
that of every Athenian who disapproves of tyranny.
Whether it is better for them to be ruled by one man or
to live under a democracy, each of us must decide for
himself upon his own judgement.
You are, I admit,
of all tyrants the best; but I see that it is not well
for me to return to Athens. I gave the Athenians
equality of civil rights; I refused to become tyrant
when I had the opportunity; how then could I
escape censure if I were now to return and set my
approval on all that you are doing?"
Solon to Croesus
"I admire you for your kindness to me; and, by
Athena, if I had not been anxious before all things
to live in a democracy, I would rather have fixed my
abode in your palace than at Athens, where Pisistratus is setting up a rule of violence. But in truth
to live in a place where all have equal rights is
more to my liking. However, I will come and see
you, for I am eager to make your acquaintance."