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AO Solon

Plutarch's Life of Solon

This study represents a great deal of research, thought and work. We offer it to be used freely, and hope it will be a blessing to many students and parents. However, out of respect for this work, please honor our long-standing terms of use, and do not repost this or any of the AO curriculum anywhere else, in any form. This copyrighted material is free to use, not free to repost or republish. Please be conscientious in your desire to share AO, and link instead of copying.

Study Notes Prepared by Anne White for AmblesideOnline, 2011

How is this study different from some of the others?

In the past, we have recommended that students new to Plutarch start with Poplicola, as that study is relatively simple. In Plutarch's pairings of Greeks with Romans, Solon and Poplicola "go together." I have written this study and edited the text to be somewhat shorter than others I have done, and more appropriate (like Poplicola) for younger students (years 4 to 6). I think this is within the bounds of what Charlotte Mason did with her students, particularly the younger ones.

Who was Solon?

Solon, according to the dates given on Wikipedia, was an Athenian statesman, poet, and lawgiver who lived from 638 BC-558 BC. (Other sources vary by a year or so.) He is best known for reforming his city's laws and economic policies, beginning an era of political, economic and cultural growth that would culminate in the "Golden Age of Athens" in the 400's.

Geography to Know About

If your student is not familiar with the basics of ancient Greece and its surroundings, you should probably provide a map that shows places such as Athens, Sparta, and Megara.

History to Know About

Plutarch's text refers to people and events from other times; for example, Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta. I will try to point those out in the notes, but you may also want to look them up online or in a history book.

Version(s) Used

For this study, I have included the text within each lesson. The first lesson is taken from Rosalie Kaufman's Our Young Folks' Plutarch, available at The Baldwin Project. The rest are taken from Dryden's translation of Plutarch, with omissions for length and occasional mature content. Older students may prefer to use the original text, since, aside from the first page or so, there is nothing too objectionable in it.

Things to watch out for?

The main part of the story that you will probably want to edit or omit is the beginning. Although some students may read of Solon's love for a friend and understand it in the same terms as the friendship of David and Jonathan, it is clear from other references that more than that is meant. Children's versions of Plutarch that are available online (Gould, Kaufman, White) omit the beginning paragraphs.



Solon was an Athenian statesman, poet, and lawgiver who lived from about 638 BC-558 BC. He is best known for reforming his city's laws and economic policies, beginning an era of political, economic and cultural growth that eventually led to the "Golden Age of Athens" in the 400's.

If you have a world timeline such as The Timechart History of the World, have a look at the around-600 B.C. era in Athens. Our timeline shows that the Athenian rulers during the lifetime of Solon included Creon, Draco, and Pisistratus (right at the end of his life). If you look up and down the chart at what was happening in other parts of the world, you will notice that Solon lived during the time of Aesop, Nebuchadnezzar, Assur-bani-pal, King Josiah, the prophet Jeremiah, and even Daniel.

Plutarch, as he often does, begins the biography by telling us something about Solon's family background. In Greek and Roman culture, it was very important to know who your ancestors were, and to come from a noble family.


The text for this lesson is taken from Rosalie Kaufman's Our Young Folks' Plutarch, available at The Baldwin Project.

This philosopher was descended from a noble stock. His father was Execestides, a man whose power was great in Athens, though his means were small. So generous was he in the benefits he conferred on others that he actually ruined his own estates thereby. When this happened, his son Solon resolved to leave home and become a merchant. He had friends enough who would have been pleased to assist him, but as he came of a family who were in the habit of conferring favors, he would not consent to receive any. Besides, Solon lived at a time when the merchant's was considered a noble calling, on account of its bringing different nations in contact with each other, encouraging friendship between their kings, and serving as a means for increasing one's experience.

Solon was always anxious to gain knowledge, and when he grew old he used to say that "each day of his life he learned something new." There can be no doubt of this, for he made excellent laws, and became one of the seven sages of Greece. His reputation for wisdom extended so far that learned men from other parts of the world often sought his acquaintance. Once Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher, who was on a visit to Athens, knocked at Solon's door and announced that he wished to become his friend.

"It is better to make friends at home," said Solon.

"Then you that are at home form a friendship with me," replied Anacharsis.

Solon was so pleased at the readiness of this answer that he admitted the stranger and kept him in Athens for several years.


Most lessons will have definitions of difficult words; however, since we are using the retelling in Lesson One, we assume that most students will understand most of the vocabulary used.

Narration and Discussion

After narrating, answer one or more of these questions:

1. At the time that Plutarch wrote (he lived from approximately 46-120 CE/AD), there seems to have been a belief that merchants were not to be respected, since he explains that the beliefs of Solon's time were different. What are the advantages of being a merchant, according to Plutarch? Why might the people of Plutarch's time and place have thought differently?

2. Solon became a merchant rather than accept financial help from his friends, because his family's tradition was to confer favours, not to receive them. St. Paul quotes Jesus as saying that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." Do you agree with his decision? Do you agree with his reasoning?

3. Anacharsis was persistent in his attempt to win Solon's friendship. Why do you think Solon was initially reluctant to welcome him? Have you ever been rebuffed by someone when you tried to be friendly? Did you keep trying? What happened? (On the other foot: have you ever tried to put someone off who didn't give up? What happened?) Can you think of any examples from books you have read (fiction or non-fiction)? Older students may be interested in stories of persistent pastors and missionaries, such as The Cross and the Switchblade, or Brother Andrew's experiences as a young man working in a chocolate factory with a difficult co-worker (God's Smuggler); younger students may think of characters like Pollyanna, who eventually won over her cross neighbour Mrs. Snow.

4. What does Solon's eventual response to Anacharsis show about his character?

LESSON 2: "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love"


This reading is fairly short--there's not much to preview, except that you might want to introduce Thales.


Thales at Miletus (c. 624 BC-c. 546 BC) a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist; called one of the Seven Sages of Greece.


repartee -- the sharp comeback that Anacharsis made
compilation of his laws -- he was putting together a number of new laws
covetousness -- greed
the event rather agreed with . . . -- what eventually happened was more like . . .
conveniences -- nice things
solicitude -- anxiety


Solon, somewhat surprised at the readiness of the repartee, received him kindly, and kept him some time with him, being already engaged in public business and the compilation of his laws; which, when Anacharsis understood, he laughed at him for imagining the dishonesty and covetousness of his countrymen could be restrained by written laws, which were like spiders' webs, and would catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but easily be broken by the mighty and rich. To this Solon rejoined that men keep their promises when neither side can get anything by the breaking of them; and he would so fit his laws to the citizens, that all should understand it was more eligible to be just than to break the laws. But the event rather agreed with the conjecture of Anacharsis than Solon's hope. Anacharsis, being once at the Assembly, expressed his wonder at the fact that in Greece wise men spoke and fools decided.

Solon went, they say, to Thales, at Miletus, and wondered that Thales took no care to get him a wife and children. To this, Thales made no answer for the present; but a few days after procured a stranger to pretend that he had left Athens ten days ago; and Solon inquiring what news there, the man, according to his instructions, replied, "None but a young man's funeral, which the whole city attended; for he was the son, they said, of an honourable man, the most virtuous of the citizens, who was not then at home, but had been travelling a long time." Solon replied, "What a miserable man is he! But what was his name?" "I have heard it," says the man, "but have now forgotten it, only there was a great talk of his wisdom and his justice." Thus Solon was drawn on by every answer, and his fears heightened, till at last, being extremely concerned, he mentioned his own name, and asked the stranger if that young man was called Solon's son; and the stranger assenting, he began to beat his head, and to do and say all that is usual with men in transports of grief. But Thales took his hand, and, with a smile, said, "These things, Solon, keep me from marriage and rearing children, which are too great for even your constancy to support; however, be not concerned at the report, for it is a fiction." This Hermippus relates, from Pataecus, who boasted that he had Aesop's soul.

However, it is irrational and poor-spirited not to seek conveniences for fear of losing them, for upon the same account we should not allow ourselves to like wealth, glory, or wisdom, since we may fear to be deprived of all these; nay, even virtue itself, than which there is no greater nor more desirable possession, is often suspended by sickness or drugs. Now Thales, though unmarried, could not be free from solicitude unless he likewise felt no care for his friends, his kinsman, or his country; yet we are told be adopted Cybisthus, his sister's son. For the soul, having a principle of kindness in itself, and being bornto love, as well as perceive, think, or remember, inclines and fixes upon some stranger, when a man has none of his own to embrace [snip] . . . We must not provide against the loss of wealth by poverty, or of friends by refusing all acquaintance, or of children by having none, but by morality and reason. But of this too much.

Discussion Questions

1. Anacharsis teased Solon by saying that written laws "were like spiders' webs, and would catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but easily be broken by the mighty and rich." What did he mean by this? Was he right? How did Solon respond?

2. Plutarch passes on a story about Solon and Thales that he found in the writings of Hermippus (a writer of plays and poems from a later time). Do you find Thales' "practical joke" amusing or mean-spirited? What point was he trying to make?

3. Plutarch steps in after the story about Thales, and gives his own view about whether love can eventually lead only to tears. He says, "We must not provide against the loss of wealth by poverty, or of friends by refusing all acquaintance, or of children by having none, but by morality and reason." Do you understand what he means by this? (A small example might be our pets; we know that they will probably not live as long as we do, particularly if we have small animals like hamsters. Is it better not to get a hamster, or a dog, in the first place?)

A Scriptural thought on this: 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, "Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded [discouraged, fainthearted], support the weak, be patient toward all." How can we encourage those who are fearful about friendships, for example?

4. (Want to go a little further?) Plutarch says that the way NOT to lose your possessions, friends, etc. (except through inevitable things like death) is "by morality and reason." How would "morality" help you keep friendships alive? How might "reason" help you keep hold of your possessions, or feel less anxious about their loss? (For instance, remembering to lock the door when you go out.) On the other hand, consider the generous father of Solon, who ruined his family by his generosity. Did he act unreasonably? (Or is that a different kind of "reason?")



Plutarch, writing several centuries after the lives of his subjects, often has the problem of trying to fit several accounts of an event into one reasonable story. Sometimes he simply gives up and presents two different versions of the same story. This is the case in the story of how the Athenians captured the island of Salamis from the Megarians. Did they really trick the Megarians by getting young soldiers to dress up like girls on the beach? Or did they capture a Megarian ship and use it to fight against the islanders? Either way, Solon led the Athenians to success . . . and they were the ones who said they didn't want to hear one more word about "Salamis."

Megarians - The people of Megara, a port city in Greece, in the northern section of the Isthmus of Corinth, opposite the island of Salamis.

Salamis - A large island that had been occupied (up to this time) by Megara.

Colias - A strip of land (promontory) on the western side of Attica (the territory around Athens)

Pisistratus, also spelled Peisistratus or Peisistratos - He was a tyrant (dictator) of Athens from 546 to 527/8 BC (but had not taken power yet at the time of this story).

Asopia, Asopus, Cychreus, Salamis - All of these names come from Greek mythology. Cychreus was the son of Poseidon (god of the sea) and Salamis, who was the daughter of the river god Asopus.


made a law that it should be death for any man, by writing or speaking, to assert that the city ought to endeavour to recover it -- made it illegal for anyone to say that Athens should continue the war for Salamis
counterfeited a distraction -- tried a ruse; created a deception
elegiac -- Greek poems written in a formal style and in a particular meter
extempore -- without much preparation
with a cap upon his head -- F.J. Gould in Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch (available on The Baldwin Project) explains that "It was the custom for only sick people to wear caps."
they recalled the law -- they cancelled the law
renegade -- traitor
reconnoiter -- meet with
securing -- capturing
solemnity -- ritual
upon conditions -- with a particular punishment, e.g. that they could not come back for ten years


Now, when the Athenians were tired with a tedious and difficult war that they conducted against the Megarians for the island Salamis and made a law that it should be death for any man, by writing or speaking, to assert that the city ought to endeavour to recover it, Solon, vexed at the disgrace, and perceiving thousands of the youth wished for somebody to begin, but did not dare to stir first for fear of the law, counterfeited a distraction, and by his own family it was spread about the city that he was mad. He then secretly composed some elegiac verses, and getting them by heart, that it might seem extempore, ran out into the market-place with a cap upon his head, and, the people gathering about him, got upon the herald's stand, and sang that elegy which begins thus--

"I am a herald come from Salamis the fair,
My news from thence my verses shall declare."

The poem is called Salamis; it contains an hundred verses very elegantly written; when it had been sung, his friends commended it, and especially Pisistratus exhorted the citizens to obey his directions; insomuch that they recalled the law, and renewed the war under Solon's conduct.


The popular tale is, that with Pisistratus he sailed to Colias, and, finding the women, according to the custom of the country there, sacrificing to Ceres, he sent a trusty friend to Salamis [to talk to the Megarians there], who should pretend himself a renegade, and advise them, if they desired to seize the chief Athenian women, to come with him at once to Colias; the Megarians presently sent off men in the vessel with him; and Solon, seeing it put off from the island, commanded the women to be gone, and some beardless youths, dressed in their clothes, their shoes and caps, and privately armed with daggers, to dance and play near the shore till the enemies had landed and the vessel was in their power. Things being thus ordered, the Megarians were lured with the appearance, and, coming to the shore, jumped out, eager who should first seize a prize, so that not one of them escaped; and the Athenians set sail for the island and took it.


Others say that it was not taken this way, but that he first received this oracle from Delphi:--

"Those heroes that in fair Asopia rest,
All buried with their faces to the west,
Go and appease with offerings of the best;

and that Solon, sailing by night to the island, sacrificed to the heroes Periphemus and Cychreus, and then taking five hundred Athenian volunteers (a law having passed that those that took the island should be highest in the government), with a number of fisher-boats and one thirty-oared ship, anchored in a bay of Salamis that looks towards Nisaea; and the Megarians that were then in the island, hearing only an uncertain report, hurried to their arms, and sent a ship to reconnoiter the enemies. This ship Solon took, and, securing the Megarians, manned it with Athenians, and gave them orders to sail to the island with as much privacy as possible; meantime he, with the other soldiers, marched against the Megarians by land, and whilst they were fighting, those from the ship took the city. And this narrative is confirmed by the following solemnity, that was afterwards observed: An Athenian ship used to sail silently at first to the island, then, with noise and a great shout, one leapt out armed, and with a loud cry ran to the promontory Sciradium to meet those that approached upon the land. And just by there stands a temple which Solon dedicated to Mars. For he beat the Megarians, and as many as were not killed in the battle he sent away upon conditions. [snip]

For this, Solon grew famed and powerful.

Discussion Questions

1. If you're not sure about what happened in these two versions of the story, try getting out a map (and maybe some small people or boats) and tracing the events. Does one story seem more logical than the other?

2. How did Solon convince the people to try again, after they were discouraged? How do you think he was able to convince them (after his performance) that he was sane enough to lead the attack?



Have you ever heard of people taking sanctuary in a church or temple? According to tradition, those who take shelter in such places are under the protection of God (or the gods), and cannot be harmed as long as they stay there.

This story begins with a flashback to events involving a noble named Cylon. He and his men attempted to take over the government in 632 BC, but were unsuccessful and had to run for safety to Athena's (Minerva's) temple. They were persuaded to come out and stand trial, but, as a symbol of Athena's protection, they unwound a rope or thread from her statue (in the temple) and held it as they walked to the place of trial.

Unfortunately, the thread snapped, which (the people thought) showed Athena's displeasure with the conspirators. Cylon and the others were stoned and otherwise put to death in the riot that followed.

Was this the way Athenians were supposed to behave? Their guilt and anger over this "pollution" eventually came to the point where they had to do something about it. The first attempt to settle the matter is described in Part One.

Part Two (using the text from Our Young Folks' Plutarch) describes the religious side of trying to clean up the city's spirit.

In Part Three, we hear more about Athenian politics, and the economic mess that things were in at the time. It had become common for people to use themselves as collateral for loans, meaning that if they could not pay back the money they owed, they and their families would be sold into slavery. This is the point in Solon's life when he becomes archon--one of the chief magistrates--as he is asked to help deal with this problem. In fact, it is suggested that he should take over the government completely, but he refuses.

People and Places

Cylon (also spelled Kylon or Kulon) - According to Wikipedia, "Cylon, one of the Athenian nobles and a previous victor of the Olympic Games, attempted a coup in 632 BC with support from Megara, where his father-in-law, Theagenes was tyrant. The oracle at Delphi had advised him to seize Athens during a festival of Zeus, which Cylon understood to mean the Olympics. However, the coup was opposed, and Cylon and his supporters took refuge in Athena's temple on the Acropolis."

Megacles the archon - One of the nine principal magistrates of Athens

Epimenides of Crete - Another of the "sages," and an expert in dealing with a city's guilty conscience


commonwealth -- This refers to the city-state of Athens
faction -- political group
being in reputation -- being highly regarded for his wisdom and leadership
democracy -- rule by "the people," meaning an assembly of citizens
oligarchy -- rule by the nobles
prevailing -- holding power, getting their own way
pressed him to succour the commonwealth and compose the differences -- asked Solon to help Athens and work out the troubles
For where it was well before, he applied no remedy -- He did not try to fix what wasn't broken
despotic -- tyrannical



Now the Cylonian pollution had a long while disturbed the commonwealth, ever since the time when Megacles the archon persuaded the conspirators with Cylon that took sanctuary in Minerva's temple to come down and stand to a fair trial. And they, tying a thread to the image, and holding one end of it, went down to the tribunal; but when they came to the temple of the Furies, the thread broke of its own accord, upon which, as if the goddess had refused them protection, they were seized by Megacles and the other magistrates as many as were without the temples were stoned, these that fled for sanctuary were butchered at the altar, and only those escaped who made supplication to the wives of the magistrates. But they [the murderers] from that time were considered under pollution, and regarded with hatred.

The remainder of the faction of Cylon grew strong again, and had continual quarrels with the family of Megacles; and now the quarrel being at its height, and the people divided, Solon, being in reputation, interposed with the chiefest of the Athenians, and by entreaty and admonition persuaded the polluted to submit to a trial and the decision of three hundred noble citizens. And Myron of Phlya [sic] being their accuser, they were found guilty, and as many as were then alive were banished, and the bodies of the dead were dug up, and scattered beyond the confines of the country. [snip]


The text of this section is taken from Rosalie Kaufman's Our Young Folks' Plutarch, available at The Baldwin Project.

Still Athens was in a state of tumult, which the priests increased by announcing that the sacrifices gave proof of divine displeasure.

Solon knew that reforms were needed; but, not feeling powerful enough to produce them alone, he entreated his countrymen to call in the aid of Epimenides of Crete, another of the sages of Greece, who was supposed to have intercourse with the gods.

So Solon and Epimenides worked together, and the result was the establishment of a more sensible form of religious worship, as well as of funerals and mourning ceremonies. Various barbarous customs were abolished, and the Athenians were taught to purify themselves, their houses, and their roads. They were encouraged to build shrines and temples, and to live together in harmony by dealing honestly with one another.


The Athenians, now the Cylonian sedition was over and the polluted gone into banishment fell into their old quarrels about the government, there being as many different parties as there were diversities in the country. The Hill quarter favoured democracy, the Plain, oligarchy, and those that lived by the Seaside stood for a mixed sort of government, and so hindered either of the other parties from prevailing.

And the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor, at that time, also reached its height; so that the city seemed to be in a truly dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances and settling it to be possible but a despotic power. All the people were indebted to the rich; and either they tilled their land for their creditors, paying them a sixth part of the increase, and were, therefore, called Hectemorii and Thetes, or else they engaged their body for the debt, and might be seized, and either sent into slavery at home, or sold to strangers; some (for no law forbade it) were forced to sell their children, or fly their country to avoid the cruelty of their creditors; but the most part and the bravest of them began to combine together and encourage one another to stand to it, to choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government.

Then the wisest of the Athenians, perceiving Solon was of all men the only one not implicated in the troubles, that he had not joined in the exactions of the rich and was not involved in the necessities of the poor, pressed him to succour the commonwealth and compose the differences . . . [snip] Solon himself says that it was reluctantly at first that he engaged in state affairs, being afraid of the pride of one party and the greediness of the other; he was chosen archon, however, after Philombrotus, and empowered to be an arbitrator and lawgiver; the rich consenting because he was wealthy, the poor because he was honest. There was a saying of his current before the election, that when things are even there never can be war, and this pleased both parties, the wealthy and the poor; the one conceiving him to mean, when all have their fair proportion; the others, when all are absolutely equal. Thus, there being great hopes on both sides, the chief men pressed Solon to take the government into his own hands, and, when he was once settled, manage the business freely and according to his pleasure; and many of the commons, perceiving it would be a difficult change to be effected by law and reason, were willing to have one wise and just man set over the affairs; and some say that Solon had this oracle from Apollo--

"Take the mid-seat, and be the vessel's guide;
Many in Athens are upon your side."

[snip] Yet, though he refused the government, he was not too mild in the affair; he didnot show himself mean and submissive to the powerful, nor make his laws to pleasure those that chose him. For where it was well before, he applied no remedy, nor altered anything, for fear lest--

"Overthrowing altogether and disordering the state,"

he should be too weak to new-model and recompose it to a tolerable condition; but what he thought he could effect by persuasion upon the pliable, and by force upon the stubborn, this he did, as he himself says--

"With force and justice working both in one."

And, therefore, when he was afterwards asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he replied, "The best they could receive."

Discussion Questions

1. Solon is a very quotable person. Choose one of these to discuss: "With force and justice working both in one." "The best they could receive." "Overthrowing altogether and disordering the state" (something he didn't want to do).

2. Why did both the rich and the poor support Solon as a magistrate? Why didn't he want to take complete power over the government? Wouldn't he have been flattered to know that he was being chosen on account of his wisdom and integrity?



Solon hasn't yet solved the problems of debt etc. that are troubling Athens.

But his solution is simple: amnesty (forgiveness) for all debts. Everyone will start fresh. And no more using people as collateral.

Does everyone like this? No; many creditors lose the money that they are owed. Some of the poor people are disappointed that Solon isn't planning to redistribute property as well. And Solon himself comes under suspicion when his friends do a bit of "insider trading."

People and Places

Lycurgus - (800 BC?-730 BC?) was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society. (Source: Wikipedia) (Do you know about Spartan culture? If you don't, you might want to look it up.)

Lacedaemon - Another name for Sparta


no man should engage the body of his debtor for security -- there would be no more buying and selling each other to pay off debts
vexatious -- annoying
contrivance -- false setup; fixed game
repudiators -- those who refuse to have anything to do with something; who disown or cast off
look askance -- look with disapproval
polity -- city, state


For the first thing which he settled was, that what debts remained should be forgiven, and no man, for the future, should engage the body of his debtor for security. [snip]

While he was designing this, a most vexatious thing happened; for when he had resolved to take off the debts, and was considering the proper form and fit beginning for it, he told some of his friends, Conon, Clinias, and Hipponicus, in whom he had a great deal of confidence, that he would not meddle with the lands, but only free the people from their debts; upon which they, using their advantage, made haste and borrowed some considerable sums of money, and purchased some large farms; and when the law was enacted, they kept the possessions, and would not return the money; which brought Solon into great suspicion and dislike, as if he himself had not been abused, but was concerned in the contrivance. But he presently stopped this suspicion, by releasing his debtors of five talents (for he had lent so much), according to the law; others, as Polyzelus the Rhodian, say fifteen; his friends, however, were ever afterward called Chreocopidae, repudiators.

In this he pleased neither party, for the rich were angry for their money, and the poor that the land was not divided, and, as Lycurgus ordered in his commonwealth [Sparta], all men reduced to equality. He [Lycurgus], it is true, being the eleventh from Hercules, and having reigned many years in Lacedaemon, had got a great reputation and friends and power, which he could use in modelling his state; and applying force more than
persuasion, insomuch that he lost his eye in the scuffle, was able to employ the most effectual means for the safety and harmony of a state, by not permitting any to be poor or rich in his commonwealth. Solon could not rise to that in his polity, being but a citizen of the middle classes; yet he acted fully up to the height of his power, having nothing but the good-will and good opinion of his citizens to rely on; and that he offended the most part, who looked for another result, he declares in the words--

"Formerly they boasted of me vainly; with averted eyes
Now they look askance upon me; friends no more, but enemies."

And yet had any other man, he says, received the same power--

"He would not have forborne, nor let alone,
But made the fattest of the milk his own."

Soon, however, becoming sensible of the good that was done, they laid by their grudges, made a public sacrifice, calling it Seisacthea [Relief], and chose Solon to new-model and make laws for the commonwealth, giving him the entire power over everything, their magistracies, their assemblies, courts, and councils; that he should appoint the number, times of meeting, and what estate they must have that could be capable of these, and dissolve or continue any of the present constitutions, according to his pleasure.

Discussion Questions

1. Solon solved the problem of debtors and slavery by simply declaring that all previous debts were cancelled. How would you feel about that if you had lent out a lot of money? How would you feel about it if you owed a great deal? Do you think it was a wise decision? Was there any other way he could have solved the problem?

2. How did Solon's friends take advantage of what they knew was about to happen? Why was that an embarrassment for Solon? How did he try to save face with the people?

3. This passage ends with the people asking Solon--again--to "to new-model and make laws for the commonwealth, giving him the entire power over everything, their magistracies, their assemblies, courts, and councils." Is this the same as being a king? Do you think Solon will agree this time?

LESSON 6: Solon's Laws and Reforms


Have you ever heard of Draco? He lived in the 7th century BC, and is believed to be the first lawgiver of Athens. His system of punishments was so harsh that it gave us our word "draconian."

When Solon became a lawmaker a few years later, he tried to reform some of Draco's laws to make them more reasonable and humane, and to correct some of the abuses that had come into practice. Some of his laws may sound rather picky or odd--for instance, it became illegal to export figs, and large dowries (bride prices) were outlawed. However, most of them were based on good reasoning.

This version of the text has been edited a bit to focus on some of the more interesting and relevant laws. Older students may be interested in looking at the original version to see some of Solon's other ideas.


repealed -- cancelled
homicide -- murder
happily -- aptly, truly
magistracies in the hands of the rich men -- to allow the nobles to continue to run things and to hold civil office
and yet receive the people . . . -- Solon wanted to find a way to let the lower classes have a say in government, but not hold the top positions; so they had to find a way to distinguish between the groups.
When he had constituted the Areopagus of those who had been yearly archons -- The Areopagus was a new, special committee to oversee difficult problems. It was made up of former archons (archons were elected for a year at a time).
which he assigned to the archon's cognisance -- the big cases which went directly to the top magistrate(s)


First, then, he repealed all Draco's laws, except those concerning homicide, because they [the rest of them] were too severe, and the punishment too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die, and those that stole a cabbage or an apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder. So that Demades, in after time [380 - 318 BC], was thought to have said very happily, that Draco's laws were written not with ink but blood; and he himself [Draco?], being once asked why he made death the punishment of most offences, replied, "Small ones deserve that, and I have no higher for the greater crimes."

Next, Solon, being willing to continue the magistracies in the hands of the rich men, and yet receive the people into the other part of the government, took an account of the citizens' estates, and those that were worth five hundred measures of fruit, dry and liquid, he placed in the first rank, calling them Pentacosiomedimni; those that could keep an horse, or were worth three hundred measures, were named Hippada Teluntes, and made the second class; the Zeugitae, that had two hundred measures, were in the third; and all the others were called Thetes, who were not admitted to any office, but could come to the assembly, and act as jurors; which at first seemed nothing, but afterwards was found an enormous privilege, as almost every matter of dispute came before them in this latter capacity. Even in the cases which he assigned to the archon's cognisance, he allowed an appeal to the courts. Besides, it is said that he was obscure and ambiguous in the wording of his laws, on purpose to increase the honour of his courts; for since their differences could not be adjusted by the letter, they would have to bring all their causes to the judges, who thus were in a manner masters of the laws. Of this equalisation he himself makes mention in this manner:--

"Such power I gave the people as might do,
Abridged not what they had, now lavished new,
Those that were great in wealth and high in place
My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace.
Before them both I held my shield of might,
And let not either touch the other's right."

And for the greater security of the weak commons, he gave general liberty of indicting for an act of injury; if any one was beaten, maimed, or suffered any violence, any man that would and was able might prosecute the wrong-doer; intending by this to accustom the citizens, like members of the same body, to resent and be sensible of one another's injuries. And there is a saying of his agreeable to his law, for, being asked what city was best modelled, "That," said he, "where those that are not injured try and punish the unjust as much as those that are."

When he had constituted the Areopagus of those who had been yearly archons, of which he himself was a member therefore, observing that the people, now free from their debts, were unsettled and imperious, he formed another council of four hundred, a hundred out of each of the four tribes, which was to inspect all matters before they were propounded to the people, and to take care that nothing but what had been first examined should be brought before the general assembly.

The upper council, or Areopagus, he made inspectors and keepers of the laws, conceiving that the commonwealth, held by these two councils, like anchors, would be less liable to be tossed by tumults, and the people be more quiet. [snip]


1. To distinguish the four groups of people as Solon organized them, we may explain the classes in terms of their military position. In Solon's time, men were ranked according to how lavishly they could afford to outfit themselves for war. The top-ranked citizens would become the generals; those who could afford horses would be the cavalry; those who could pay for weapons such as spears and shields would be the infantry (foot soldiers); and the bottom level would be expected to fight with anything they could get their hands on, or to be rowers on a warship. (Source of this explanation: Wikipedia.) What did this division mean in terms of how men could participate in the city government?

2. Plutarch says, "he was obscure and ambiguous in the wording of his laws, on purpose to increase the honour of his courts; for since their differences could not be adjusted by the letter, they would have to bring all their causes to the judges, who thus were in a manner masters of the laws." Why did Solon feel it was prudent to allow the laws to be slightly unclear? Who benefited from that? Would you prefer to live or work in a system with very clear rules, or one where you often have to check with those in authority? (Think of a similar situation that you might find yourself in, regarding family rules, sports rules, or school rules.)

3. Explain the two new levels of government that Solon set up.

4. "And for the greater security of the weak commons, he gave general liberty of indicting for an act of injury; if any one was beaten, maimed, or suffered any violence, any man that would and was able might prosecute the wrong-doer; intending by this to accustom the citizens, like members of the same body, to resent and be sensible of one another's injuries." This meant that if I hurt a friend, someone else (rather than the injured friend) could take me to court over it. Can you think of reasons why this might or might not be a good idea? Would it work as a rule, say, in a classroom? (The Bible calls us to forgive one another, but also to fight for justice for those who are weak.)

5. The quotable Solon: "Being asked what city was best modelled, 'That,' said he, 'where those that are not injured try and punish the unjust as much as those that are.'" Discuss this.

LESSON 7: A few new laws


You thought we had forgotten about the dowries? They come up in this lesson.

Something to think about as you listen: were Solon's laws random, or did they reflect an overall philosophy? Here's one quote that may suggest an overall theme: "And laws must look to possibilities, if the maker designs to punish few in order to their amendment, and not many to no purpose."


politic -- sensible, prudent
to the public -- into the public treasury (as a fine)
amendment -- improvement


[Solon] forbade dowries to be given; the wife was to have three suits of clothes, a little inconsiderable household stuff, and that was all; for he would not have marriages contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children. When the mother of Dionysius [probably Dionysius I of Syracuse, known for his cruelty] desired him to marry her to one of his citizens, "Indeed," said he, "by my tyranny I have broken my country's laws, but cannot put a violence upon those of nature by an unseasonable marriage." Such disorder is never to be suffered in a commonwealth . . . [snip]

Another commendable law of Solon's is that which forbids men to speak evil of the dead; for it is pious to think the deceased sacred, and just, not to meddle with those that are gone, and politic, to prevent the perpetuity of discord. He likewise forbade them to speak evil of the living in the temples, the courts of justice, the public offices, or at the games, or else to pay three drachmas to the person, and two to the public. For never to be able to control passion shows a weak nature and ill-breeding; and always to moderate it is very hard, and to some impossible. And laws must look to possibilities, if the maker designs to punish few in order to their amendment, and not many to no purpose.

He is likewise much commended for his law concerning wills; before him none could be made, but all the wealth and estate of the deceased belonged to his family; but he by permitting them, if they had no children to bestow it on whom they pleased, showed that he esteemed friendship a stronger tie than kindred, affection than necessity; and made every man's estate truly his own . . . [snip]

He regulated the walks, feasts, and mourning of the women and took away everything that was either unbecoming or immodest; when they walked abroad, no more than three articles of dress were allowed them; an obol's worth of meat and drink; and no basket above a cubit high; and at night they were not to go about unless in a chariot with a torch before them.

Mourners tearing themselves to raise pity, and set wailings, and at one man's funeral to lament for another, he forbade. To offer an ox at the grave was not permitted, nor to bury above three pieces of dress with the body, or visit the tombs of any besides their own family, unless at the very funeral; most of which are likewise forbidden by our [Roman] laws. [snip]

Discussion Questions

How would you describe the laws given in this lesson? Are they reasonable? Practical? Would they give people an increase or a decrease in their moral or personal freedom? What about their financial or business freedom?

What would be the reason for not sacrificing an ox at a funeral?

Why might women not be allowed out at night unless in a chariot with a torch?

Why did Solon say that it was just as bad to speak evil of the living as of the dead (at least in a public place)? Does this remind you of any of the teachings of Jesus?



Athens was getting crowded, and there were too many people with too little to do. Solon's laws tried to deal with the problems such as these. ("How come Lycurgus never had to deal with all this?" Plutarch wonders.)

People and Places

Attica - the area around Athens

Lycurgus - the founder of Sparta (see lesson Five)


husbandman -- farmer
relieve -- support
effluvia -- nasty output
sycophant -- snitch, talebearer


Observing the city to be filled with persons that flocked from all parts into Attica for security of living, and that most of the country was barren and unfruitful, and that traders at sea import nothing to those that could give them nothing in exchange, he turned his citizens to trade, and made a law that no son be obliged to relieve a father who had not bred him up to any calling. It is true, Lycurgus, having a city free from all strangers, and land, according to Euripides--

"Large for large hosts, for twice their number much,"

and, above all, an abundance of labourers about Sparta, who should not be left idle, but be kept down with continual toil and work, did well to take off his citizens from laborious and mechanical occupations, and keep them to their arms, and teach them only the art of war. But Solon, fitting his laws to the state of things, and not making things to suit his laws, and finding the ground scarce rich enough to maintain the husbandmen, and altogether incapable of feeding an unoccupied and leisured multitude, brought trades into credit, and ordered the Areopagites to examine how every man got his living, and chastise the idle.

[SNIP here--laws about women]

Since the country has but few rivers, lakes, or large springs, and many used wells which they had dug, there was a law made, that, where there was a public well within a hippicon, that is, four furlongs, all should draw at that; but when it was farther off, they should try and procure a well of their own; and if they had dug ten fathoms deep and could find no water, they had liberty to fetch a pitcherful of four gallons and a half in a day from their neighbours'; for he thought it prudent to make provision against want, but not to supply laziness. He showed skill in his orders about planting, for any one that would plant another tree was not to set it within five feet of his neighbour's field; but if a fig or an olive not within nine; for their roots spread farther, nor can they be planted near all sorts of trees without damage, for they draw away the nourishment, and in some cases are noxious by their effluvia. He that would dig a pit or a ditch was to dig it at the distance of its own depth from his neighbour's ground; and he that would raise stocks of bees was not to place them within three hundred feet of those which another had already raised.

He permitted only oil to be exported, and those that exported any other fruit, the archon was solemnly to curse, or else pay an hundred drachmas himself; and this law was written in his first table, and, therefore, let none think it incredible, as some affirm, that the exportation of figs was once unlawful, and the informer against the delinquents called a sycophant. He made a law, also, concerning hurts and injuries from beasts, in which he commands the master of any dog that bit a man to deliver him up with a log about his neck, four and a half feet long; a happy device for men's security.

Discussion Questions

1. Under Solon's law, how was a father expected to train a son? What was the encouragement (or discouragement) for fathers to do this? Would this kind of law be a good idea in our own time?

2. Why didn't Solon just copy what Lycurgus did in Sparta? How did he fit his laws to the state of things in Athens, rather than making things to fit his laws?

3. What are trades? What trades might have been common in Solon's time? What are some trades that young people can train for today? Are there any trades you would like to find out more about?

4. Why was it a good idea not to just dig wells all over the place?

5. Explain why Solon's laws about planting trees made sense. (Have you ever seen a tree with roots that extend way beyond its trunk?)

6. (For older students) Some say that Solon's law that only olives could be exported might have caused people to plant more olives and less grain, so that law could have actually caused food shortages. Do you think that could be a possible risk? Are there any similar problems with agriculture today?



What would you do if you had written all the laws you could think of but still couldn't get a free minute to yourself?

How about taking a ship to Egypt to study the legend of Atlantis?

Or doing some urban planning in Cyprus?

Solon at least manages to keep himself busy.

People and Places

Philocyprus - Also called Cypranor, King of Aipeia. (Source: Cyprus by Luigi Palma di Cesnola)


dispraise -- criticize
straits -- tight places


All his laws he established for an hundred years*, and wrote them on wooden tables or rollers, named axones, which might be turned round in oblong cases**; some of their relics were in my time still to be seen in the Prytaneum, or common hall at Athens. [snip]

Now when these laws were enacted, and some came to Solon every day, to commend or dispraise them, and to advise, if possible, to leave out or put in something, and many criticized and desired him to explain, and tell the meaning of such and such a passage, he, knowing that to do it was useless, and not to do it would get him ill-will, and desirous to bring himself out of all straits, and to escape all displeasure and exceptions, it being a hard thing, as he himself says--

"In great affairs to satisfy all sides,"

as an excuse for travelling, bought a trading vessel, and, having leave for ten years' absence, departed, hoping that by that time his laws would have become familiar.

His first voyage was for Egypt, and he lived, as he himself says--

"Near Nilus' mouth, by fair Canopus' shore,"

and spent some time in study with Psenophis of Heliopolis, and Sonchis the Saite [or "of Sais"], the most learned of all the priests; from whom, as Plato says, getting knowledge of the Atlantic story [Atlantis], he put it into a poem, and proposed to bring it to the knowledge of the Greeks.

From thence he sailed to Cyprus, where he was made much of by Philocyprus, one of the kings there, who had a small city built by Demophon, Theseus's son, near the river Clarius, in a strong situation, but incommodious and uneasy of access. Solon persuaded him, since there lay a fair plain below, to remove, and build there a pleasanter and more spacious city. And he stayed himself, and assisted in gathering inhabitants, and in fitting it both for defence and convenience of living; insomuch that many flocked to Philocyprus, and the other kings imitated the design; and, therefore, to honour Solon, he called the city Soli, which was formerly named Aepea [or Aipeia].*** And Solon himself, in his Elegies, addressing Philocyprus, mentions this foundation in these words:--

"Long may you live, and fill the Solian throne,
Succeeded still by children of your own;
And from your happy island while I sail,
Let Cyprus send for me a favouring gale;
May she advance, and bless your new command,
Prosper your town, and send me safe to land."

*Note: The historian Herodotus says that it was ten years, not a hundred, which would fit with Solon's ten-year absence. (Source: Wikipedia)

**Here is a link to an illustration of what they may have looked like: The illustration is taken from The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece.

***The book Cyprus says that this is a fiction, because the name "Soli" was connected with the place long before Solon visited there.

Discussion Questions

1. This week's reading is quite short, and has one main question for discussion: how did Solon get into the position of having to be consulted on every detail of law, and how did he get out of it?

This brings to mind the problems that Moses had in Exodus 18, when the people kept him busy from morning until night with their problems. In that case, his father-in-law advised him to delegate some of the less important issues to leaders of smaller groups. It would seem that Solon shouldn't really have had to answer all the questions himself either, although, if you recall, he did write the laws in an ambiguous way so that people would be forced to refer questions to judges. Still, it seems fairly common that people want to hear an answer from the person at the top.

Can you think of any solutions Solon might have come up with, besides disappearing for ten years? Or was that the best choice he could have made? How was it that the Athenians agreed to let him go at all, since they were so dependent on his advice?

2. If you have never read about Atlantis, you may want to look it up.



There used to be an expression, "rich as Croesus." Croesus (kri-sus) was the last king of Lydia (from 560 to 547 BC), and was famed for his wealth; in fact, he was supposed to be the wealthiest man on earth at the time.

This reading is fairly long, but it's a good story.

People and Places

Aesop - Yes, that Aesop. 620-564. BC

Sardis - The capital city of the kingdom of Lydia.

Cyrus - Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire


That Solon should discourse with Croesus . . . -- Some say that Solon could not have visited Croesus because the years don't line up in their chronologies; but Plutarch says that this story is too well known to pass over. Besides, he says, it seems to fit with Solon's personality.
some chronological canons -- I think Plutarch is being unusually sarcastic here--"just because it doesn't line up with somebody's timeline . . ."
ostentation -- showing off
private and mean -- without public office or recognition, or great wealth
insolent -- rude, arrogant


That Solon should discourse with Croesus, some think not agreeable with chronology; but I cannot reject so famous and well-attested a narrative, and, what is more, so agreeable to Solon's temper, and so worthy his wisdom and greatness of mind, because, forsooth, it does not agree with some chronological canons, which thousands have endeavoured to regulate, and yet, to this day, could never bring their differing opinions to any agreement.

They say, therefore, that Solon, coming to Croesus at his request, was in the same condition as an inland man when first he goes to see the sea; for as he fancies every river he meets with to be the ocean, so Solon, as he passed through the court, and saw a great many nobles richly dressed, and proudly attended with a multitude of guards and footboys, thought every one had been the king, till he was brought to Croesus, who was decked with every possible rarity and curiosity, in ornaments of jewels, purple, and gold, that could make a grand and gorgeous spectacle of him. Now when Solon came before him, and seemed not at all surprised, nor gave Croesus those compliments he expected, but showed himself to all discerning eyes to be a man that despised the gaudiness and petty ostentation of it, he commanded them to open all his treasure houses, and carry him to see his sumptuous furniture and luxuries, though he did not wish it; Solon could judge of him well enough by the first sight of him; and, when he returned from viewing all, Croesus asked him if ever he had known a happier man than he.

And when Solon answered that he had known one Tellus, a fellow-citizen of his own, and told him that this Tellus had been an honest man, had had good children, a competent estate, and died bravely in battle for his country, Croesus took him for an ill-bred fellow and a fool, for not measuring happiness by the abundance of gold and silver, and preferring the life and death of a private and mean man before so much power and empire. He asked him, however, again, if, besides Tellus, he knew any other man more happy. And Solon replying, Yes, Cleobis and Biton, who were loving brothers, and extremely dutiful sons to their mother, and, when the oxen delayed her, harnessed themselves to the wagon, and drew her to Juno's temple, her neighbours all calling her happy, and she herself rejoicing; then, after sacrificing and feasting, they went to rest, and never rose again, but died in the midst of their honour a painless and tranquil death.

"What," said Croesus, angrily, "and dost not thou reckon us amongst the happy men at all?" Solon, unwilling either to flatter or exasperate him more, replied, "The gods, O king, have given the Greeks all other gifts in moderate degree; and so our wisdom, too, is a cheerful and a homely, not a noble and kingly wisdom; and this, observing the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions, forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire any man's happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with every possible variety of fortune; and him only to whom the divinity has continued happiness unto the end we call happy; to salute as happy one that is still in the midst of life and hazard, we think as little safe and conclusive as to crown and proclaim as victorious the wrestler that is yet in the ring."

After this, he was dismissed, having given Croesus some pain, but no instruction.

Aesop, who wrote the fables, being then at Sardis upon Croesus's invitation, and very much esteemed, was concerned that Solon was so ill received, and gave him this advice: "Solon, let your converse with kings be either short or seasonable." "Nay, rather," replied Solon, "either short or reasonable."

So at this time Croesus despised Solon; but when he was overcome by Cyrus, had lost his city, was taken alive, condemned to be burnt, and laid bound upon the pile before all the Persians and Cyrus himself, he cried out as loud as possibly he could three times, "O Solon!" and Cyrus being surprised, and sending some to inquire what man or god this Solon was, who alone he invoked in this extremity, Croesus told him the whole story, saying, "He was one of the wise men of Greece, whom I sent for, not to be instructed, or to learn anything that I wanted, but that he should see and be a witness of my happiness; the loss of which was, it seems, to be a greater evil than the enjoyment was a good; for when I had them they were goods only in opinion, but now the loss of them has brought upon me intolerable and real evils. And he, conjecturing from what then was, this that now is, bade look to the end of my life, and not rely and grow proud upon uncertainties." When this was told Cyrus, who was a wiser man than Croesus, and saw in the present example Solon's maxim confirmed, he not only freed Croesus from punishment, but honoured him as long as he lived; and Solon had the glory, by the same saying, to save one king and instruct another.

Narration and Discussion

This is a story that would work well with some form of creative narration; drama, puppets, etc.

1. Do you agree with Solon's definition of happiness? Note that both of his examples involve the moment of death; in his definition, you really can't count on being "happy" until you get to the end. Is it less valuable to be "happy" for only part of your life? Might "happy" here also be translated "fortunate?" Or . . . is Solon only saying that we shouldn't boast about our "happiness" or "fortunateness," since fortunate circumstances can disappear?

"Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need."--Philippians 4:11-12

2. How did Solon show courage by speaking honestly to King Croesus? Wouldn't it have been simpler to agree that the king was indeed happy?

At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge.

Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. --2 Timothy 4:16-17

LESSON 11: Back in Athens


How well did the Athenians do at keeping Solon's laws and staying peaceful while he was away?

Well . . . how well do you think?

People and Places

Lycurgus - This is not Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta; this is an Athenian named Lycurgus.

Megacles the son of Alcmaeon - The same Megacles who was involved in killing Cylon (see lesson Four)

Pisistratus - Pisistratus was introduced in Lesson Three.

Thespis of Icaria - He was the first person ever to appear on stage as an actor playing a character in a play (instead of speaking as him or herself). (Source: Wikipedia) (A vocabulary word to look up: what is a thespian?)


The Plain, The Seaside, The Hill-Party -- The various political parties described earlier
severally -- independently
put them above the contrary faction -- put them into power above the others
tractable -- easily managed
clubmen -- armed bodyguards
stouter -- braver


When Solon was gone, the citizens began to quarrel; Lycurgus headed the Plain; Megacles, the son of Alcmaeon, those to the Seaside; and Pisistratus the Hill-party, in which were the poorest people, the Thetes, and greatest enemies to the rich; insomuch that, though the city still used the new laws, yet all looked for and desired a change of government, hoping severally that the change would be better for them, and put them above the contrary faction.

Affairs standing thus, Solon returned, and was reverenced by all, and honoured; but his old age would not permit him to be as active, and to speak in public, as formerly; yet, by privately conferring with the heads of the factions, he endeavoured to compose the differences, Pisistratus appearing the most tractable; for he was extremely smooth and engaging in his language, a great friend to the poor, and moderate in his resentments; and what nature had not given him, he had the skill to imitate; so that he was trusted more than the others, being accounted a prudent and orderly man, one that loved equality, and would be an enemy to any that moved against the present settlement. Thus he deceived the majority of people; but Solon quickly discovered his character, and found out his design before any one else; yet did not hate him upon this, but endeavoured to humble him, and bring him off from his ambition, and often told him and others, that if any one could banish the passion for pre-eminence from his mind, and cure him of his desire of absolute power, none would make a more virtuous man or a more excellent citizen.

Thespis, at this time, beginning to act tragedies, and the thing, because it was new, taking very much with the multitude, though it was not yet made a matter of competition, Solon, being by nature fond of hearing and learning something new, and now, in his old age, living idly, and enjoying himself, indeed, with music and with wine, went to see Thespis himself, as the ancient custom was, act: and after the play was done, he addressed him, and asked him if he was not ashamed to tell so many lies before such a number of people; and Thespis replying that it was no harm to say or do so in play, Solon vehemently struck his staff against the ground: "Ah," said he, "if we honour and commend such play as this, we shall find it some day in our business."

Now when Pisistratus, having wounded himself, was brought into the market-place in a chariot, and stirred up the people, as if he had been thus treated by his opponents because of his political conduct, and a great many were enraged and cried out, Solon, coming close to him, said, "This, O son of Hippocrates, is a bad copy of Homer's Ulysses; you do, to trick your countrymen, what he did to deceive his enemies." After this, the people were eager to protect Pisistratus, and met in an assembly, where one Ariston making a motion that they should allow Pisistratus fifty clubmen for a guard to his person, Solon opposed it, and said much to the same purport as what he has left us in his poems--

"You dote upon his words and taking phrase;"

and again--

"True, you are singly each a crafty soul, But all together make one empty fool."

But observing the poor men bent to gratify Pisistratus, and tumultuous, and the rich fearful and getting out of harm's way, he departed, saying he was wiser than some and stouter than others; wiser than those that did not understand the design, stouter than those that, though they understood it, were afraid to oppose the tyranny.

Discussion Questions

1. Pisistratus was "a great friend to the poor, and moderate in his resentments; and what nature had not given him, he had the skill to imitate." Can acting like you are kind or even-tempered actually make you kinder or more even-tempered? In the case of Pisistratus, it may have been more just trying make the Athenians think he was really nicer than he was; but Plutarch says that they did trust him and that he was thought to have a number of good qualities.

2. "You can fool too many of the people too much of the time."-- James Thurber

But you can't fool Solon:

"Solon quickly discovered his character, and found out his design before any one else . . ."

What did Solon advise Pisistratus?

3. In Solon's opinion, Pisistratus went too far by pretending to be wounded by his political opponents. How did the different classes of people react? What was Solon's reaction to all this? Explain what he meant by "saying he was wiser than some and stouter than others; wiser than those that did not understand the design, stouter than those that, though they understood it, were afraid to oppose the tyranny."



Have you ever heard the fable about the camel who begs to come into your tent a little at a time--just his nose at first, but then he moves a little more in, and so on, until you are pushed right out of the tent yourself?

Pisistratus had been granted a "few" bodyguards . . . but the "few" quickly became a whole army.


nice -- picky
seized the Acropolis -- took over the government buildings
inadvertency -- carelessness


Now, the people, having passed the law, were not nice with Pisistratus about the number of his clubmen, but took no notice of it, though he enlisted and kept as many as he would, until he seized the Acropolis. When that was done, and the city in an uproar, Megacles, with all his family, at once fled; but Solon, though he was now very old, and had none to back him, yet came into the marketplace and made a speech to the citizens, partly blaming their inadvertency and meanness of spirit, and in part urging and exhorting them not thus tamely to lose their liberty; and likewise then spoke that memorable saying, that, before, it was an easier task to stop the rising tyranny, but now the great and more glorious action to destroy it, when it was begun already, and had gathered strength.

But all being afraid to side with him, he returned home, and, taking his arms, he brought them out and laid them in the porch before his door, with these words: "I have done my part to maintain my country and my laws," and then he busied himself no more. His friends advising him to fly, he refused, but wrote poems, and thus reproached the Athenians in them:--

"If now you suffer, do not blame the Powers,
For they are good, and all the fault was ours,
All the strongholds you put into his hands,
And now his slaves must do what he commands."

And many telling him that the tyrant would take his life for this, and asking what he trusted to, that he ventured to speak so boldly, he replied, "To my old age."

But Pisistratus, having got the command, so extremely courted Solon, so honoured him, obliged him, and sent to see him, that Solon gave him his advice, and approved many of his actions; for he retained most of Solon's laws, observed them himself, and compelled his friends to obey. [snip]

Now Solon, having begun the great work in verse, the history or fable of the Atlantic Island [Atlantis], which he had learned from the wise men in Sais, and thought convenient for the Athenians to know, abandoned it; not, as Plato says, by reason of want of time, but because of his age, and being discouraged at the greatness of the task; for that he had leisure enough, such verses testify, as--

"Each day grow older, and learn something new;"

and again--

"But now the Powers, of Beauty, Song, and Wine,
Which are most men's delights, are also mine."

[snip] Solon lived after Pisistratus seized the government, as Heraclides Ponticus asserts, a long time; but Phanias the Eresian says not two full years; for Pisistratus began his tyranny when Comias was archon, and Phanias says Solon died under Hegestratus, who succeeded Comias. The story that his ashes were scattered about the island Salamis is too strange to be easily believed, or be thought anything but a mere fable; and yet it is given, amongst other good authors, by Aristotle, the philosopher.

Discussion Questions

1. After chiding the Athenians for their willingness to give up so easily, Solon gave up on them. When is the right time to stop trying? Was Solon justified at this point?

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.--Matthew 10:14

2. Why was the reaction of Pisistratus so unexpected? Did it surprise you?

3. What was Solon's retirement project? What kept him from completing it?

4. Many of Plutarch's stories end with a funeral scene, or a death in battle. This biography is much less specific about how or when Solon actually died. Does that make his achivements seem any less?