Study Guide for Plutarch's Life of Solon
Text by Thomas North
Study Guide by Anne White
Solon (638-558 B.C.)
Who was Solon?
Solon was an Athenian statesman, poet, and lawgiver. 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."
If you have a world timeline, look at the period around 600 B.C. Solon lived during the same years as Nebuchadnezzar, Assur-bani-pal, King Josiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and even Aesop.
Who were the rulers in Athens?
The council of elders in Athens was the Areopagus (see Lesson Seven). It was made up of men who had held high public office, such as archon, much like the Roman Senate.
The word archon simply means ruler, and it could be applied to anything from the leader of a small group to the governor of a state.
The top ruler of Athens was the eponymous archon (archon eponymos), who was elected for a term of one year. The word is often translated "chief magistrate," but North also translates it as mayor or provost. Solon was an archon in Athens in the year 594 or possibly 592 B.C.
Three Top Terms in Solon
If you recognize these words, you're well on your way to mastering North's vocabulary. (They will not be noted in the lessons.)
1. stay: halt, stop
2. strait: strict or narrow
3. strange, stranger: As in previous studies, strange usually means "foreign," but sometimes it just means "strange." In the story about Solon, Thales, and the stranger, the word seems to mean someone unknown to Solon.
Plutarch, as he often does, begins this biography by telling about Solon's family background. We quickly move on to learning more about Solon himself, both by his vocational choice and through a meeting with someone who was determined to be his friend.
At the time that Plutarch wrote, 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?
beholden to others: in debt, owing something to others
solicitous for superfluities: worrying about frills (unnecessary things)
competent necessaries: the things that are needed
he which first built Massilia: according to legend, that is Protis (also called Euxenes). Massilia is Marseilles, in France.
Thales, Hippocrates, Plato: well-respected Greek thinkers
Anacharsis: a Scythian philosopher
638 B.C.: birth of Solon
632 B.C.: Cylon's rebellion (see Lesson Four)
621 B.C.: traditional date given for the Draconian laws
On the Map
If students are unfamiliar with Athens, take a minute to locate it on a map and perhaps look at some pictures of the city (past and present).
[omission for mature content]
[Solon, as Hermippus writes, when his father had ruined his estate in doing benefits and kindnesses to other men, though [he himself] had friends enough that were willing to contribute to his relief, [he] was ashamed to be beholden to others, since he was descended from a family who were accustomed to do kindnesses rather than receive them. He therefore applied himself to merchandise in his youth; though others assure us that he travelled rather to get learning and experience [than] to make money. It is certain that he was a lover of knowledge, for when he was old he would say that he:
"Each day grew older and learned something new."]
And yet [he was] no admirer of riches, esteeming as equally wealthy the man:
["Who hath both gold and silver in his hand,
Horses and mules, and acres of wheat-land,
And him whose all is decent food to eat,
Clothes to his back and shoes upon his feet,
And a young wife and child, since so 'twill be,
And no more years than will with that agree."]
[short omission for length]
[And it is perfectly possible for a good man and a statesman, without being solicitous for superfluities, to show some concern for competent necessaries. In his time, as Hesiod says, "Work was a shame to none"; nor was distinction made with respect to trade; but merchandise was a noble calling, which brought home the good things which the barbarous nations enjoyed, was the occasion of friendship with their kings, and a great source of experience.] So that there have been merchants which heretofore have been founders of great cities: as he which first built Massilia, after he had obtained the friendship of the Gauls, dwelling by the river Rhone. And they say also, that Thales did traffic merchandise, and that Hippocrates did even so; and likewise that Plato, travelling into Egypt, did bear the whole charges of his journey, with the gains he made of the sale of oil he carried thither.
[Solon's softness and profuseness, his popular rather than philosophical tone about pleasure in his poems, have been ascribed to his trading life; for, having suffered a thousand dangers, it was natural they should be recompensed with some gratifications and enjoyments.]
Yet it appeareth by these verses, that Solon accounted himself rather in the number of the poor, than of the rich.
["Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor,
We will not change our virtue for their store:
Virtue's a thing that none can take away;
But money changes owners all the day."]
[omission for length about Solon's philosophical leanings]
[It is stated that Anacharsis and Solon, and Solon and Thales, were familiarly acquainted, and some have delivered parts of their discourse; for, they say,] Anacharsis, being arrived at Athens, went to knock at Solon's gate, saying that he was a stranger which came of purpose to see him, and to desire his acquaintance and friendship.
Solon answered him, that it was better to seek friendship in his own country. Anacharsis replied again: "Thou then that art at home, and in thine own country, begin to show me friendship."
Then Solon wondering at his bold ready wit, entertained him very courteously: and kept him a certain time in his house, and made him very good cheer, at the selfsame time wherein he was most busy in governing the commonwealth, and making laws for the state thereof.
Which when Anacharsis understood, he laughed at it, to see that Solon imagined, with written laws, to bridle men's covetousness and injustice.
"For such laws," said he, "do rightly resemble the spiders' cobwebs: because they take hold of little fleas and gnats which fall into them, but the rich and mighty will break and run through them at their will."
Solon answered him: that men do justly keep all covenants and bargains which [they] make with [one] another, because it is to the hindrance of either party to break them; and even so, he did so temper his laws that he made his citizens know it was more for their profit to obey law and justice than to break it.
Narration and Discussion
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. Do you agree with his reasoning? (If you have read the Life of Aristides, compare Solon's attitude toward wealth and poverty with that of Aristides.)
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?
For older students: Anacharsis said that written laws could not "bridle men's covetousness and injustice." He 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" (Dryden's translation). What did he mean by this? Was he right?
In this lesson, the philosopher Thales played a rather nasty practical joke on Solon, to prove that close relationships should be avoided, as they bring the risk of great grief. However, Solon (and Plutarch) had opinions to the contrary.
by hap: by chance
physic and potions: medications
Thales: Thales of Miletus, a philosopher and mathematician
Nevertheless afterwards, matters proved rather according to Anacharsis' comparison, than agreeable to the hope that Solon had conceived. Anacharsis being by hap one day in a common assembly of the people at Athens, said that he marvelled much why, in the consultations and meetings of the Greeks, wise men propounded matters, and fools did decide them.
It is said moreover, that Solon was sometime in the city of Miletum at Thales' house, where he said that he could not but marvel at Thales, that he would never marry to have children. Thales gave him never a word at that present: but within [a] few days after [Thales procured a stranger to pretend that] he came but newly home from Athens, departing from thence but ten days before. Solon asked him immediately, "What news there?"
This stranger, [according to his instructions], answered: "None other there, saving that they carried a young man to burial, whom all the city followed, for that he was one of the greatest men's sons of the city, and the honestest man withal, who at that present was out of the country, and had been a long time (as they said) abroad."
"O poor unfortunate father," then said Solon, "and what was his name?"
"I have heard him named," said the stranger, "but I have forgotten him now: saving that they all said he was a worthy wise man."
So Solon, still trembling more and more for fear at every answer of this stranger; in the end he could hold no longer, being full of trouble, but told his name himself unto the stranger, and asked him again if [it] were not the son of Solon which was buried.
"The very same," said the stranger. Solon, with that, like a madman straight began to beat his head, and to say and do like men impatient in affliction and overcome with sorrow. [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."] Hermippus writeth that Patsecus (he which said he had Aesop's soul) reciteth this story thus.
Nevertheless, it lacketh judgement, and the courage of a man also, to be afraid to get things necessary, fearing the loss of them; for by this reckoning, he should neither esteem not honour goods, nor knowledge when he hath them, for fear to lose them. For we see that virtue itself, which is the greatest and sweetest riches a man can have, decayeth ofttimes through sickness, or else by physic and potions. Furthermore Thales [him]self, although he was not married, was not therefore free from this fear, unless he would confess that he neither loved friends, kinsmen, nor country; howbeit Thales had an adopted son, called Cybistus, which was his sister's son.
For our soul having in it a natural inclination to love, and being born as well to love, as to feel, to reason, or understand, and to remember: having nothing of her own whereupon she might bestow that natural love, borroweth of other[s].
Now we must not arm ourselves with poverty against the grief of loss of goods; neither with lack of affection against the loss of our friends: neither with want of marriage against the death of children: but we must be armed with reason against misfortunes. [Dryden: 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.] Thus have we sufficiently enlarged this matter.
Narration and Discussion
Plutarch passes on this 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' stunt amusing or mean-spirited? What point was he trying to make?
For older students: Plutarch says that the way not to lose your possessions, friends, etc. (except through inevitable things like death) is reason, or as Dryden translates it, "morality and reason." How would "morality" help to keep friendships alive? How might "reason" help you hold onto possessions, or to feel less anxious about their loss?
Plutarch, writing long after the lives of his subjects, often had the problem of trying to fit several accounts of an event into one reasonable story. Sometimes he simply gave up and presented two different versions, as here with the story of how the Athenians captured the island of Salamis. 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.
no man should presume to [propose] any more . . .: The Athenians forbade any further discussion about the matter
wished for somebody to begin: wished that someone would do something to regain Salamis
counterfeited a distraction: created a deception
elegiac: a formal type of verse, usually recited at symposia (banquets where intellectual discussion took place)
ex tempore: without formal preparation; "off the cuff"
with a cap upon his head: a cap may have been part of Solon's "herald" costume, or it may have been meant to show illness
incontinently: without any restraint
feign himself: pretend he was
straight: right away
oracle from Delphi: prophecy
bear greatest authority . . .: receive high positions as their reward
in hurly-burly: in a panic
descry: figure out
Peisistratos: also spelled Peisistratus. He was a tyrant ruler of Athens from 546 to 527/8 B.C.
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.
ca. 595 B.C.: The Athenian seizure of Salamis from the Megarians
On the Map
Megarians: The people of Megara, a port city in Greece, in the northern section of the Isthmus of Corinth, opposite Salamis.
Salamis: A large island that was then occupied by the Megarians.
Colias: A strip of land (promontory) on the western side of Attica (the territory around Athens)
The Athenians having now sustained a long and troublesome war against the Megarians, for the possession of the Isle of Salamis, were in the end weary of it, and made [a law] upon pain of death, that no man should presume to [propose] any more, to the council of the city, the title or question of the possession of the isle of Salamis.
[Solon, vexed at the disgrace, and perceiving [that] 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 ex tempore, ran out into the marketplace with a cap upon his head. The people gathering about him, [he] 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."]
This elegy is entitled "Salamis," and [it] containeth a hundred verses, which are excellently well written. And these being sung openly by Solon at that time, his friends incontinently praised them beyond measure, and [e]specially Peisistratos; and they went about persuading the people that were present to credit that [which] he spoke. Hereupon the matter was so handled amongst them, that, by and by, the proclamation was revoked, and they began to follow the wars with greater fury than before, appointing Solon to be general in the same.
[The popular tale] is that he went by sea, with Peisistratos, unto Colias, where he found all the women at a solemn feast and sacrifice, which they made of custom to the goddess [Ceres]. He, taking occasion thereby, sent from thence a trusty man of his own unto the Megarians, which then had Salamis; whom he instructed to feign himself a revolted traitor, and [say] that he came of purpose to tell them that if they would but go with him, they might take all the chief ladies and gentlewomen of Athens on a sudden.
The Megarians easily believed him; and shipped forthwith certain soldiers to go with him. But when Solon perceived the ship under sail coming from Salamis, he commanded the women to depart, and instead of them he put [some beardless youths] into their apparel, and gave them little short daggers to convey under their clothes, commanding them to play and dance together upon the seaside, until their enemies were landed, and their ship at anchor; and so it came to pass. For the Megarians being deceived by that [which] they saw afar off, as soon as ever they came to the shoreside, did land in heaps, one in another's neck, even for greediness to take these women; but not a man of them escaped, for they were slain, every mother's son.
This stratagem being finely handled, and to good effect, the Athenians took sea straight, and coasted over to the Isle of Salamis: which they took upon the sudden, and won it without much resistance.
Other[s] say that [Salamis] was not taken after this sort: but that [Solon 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.]
By order of this oracle, he one night passed over to Salamis, and did sacrifice to [the heroes] Periphemus and Cychreus. [When this was] done, the Athenians delivered him five hundred men, who willingly offered themselves; and the city made an accord with them, that if they took the Isle of Salamis, they should bear greatest authority in the commonwealth. Solon embarked his soldiers into divers fishing boats and appointed a galley of thirty oars to come after him. [They anchored in a bay of Salamis that looks towards Nisaea].
The Megarians which were within Salamis, having by chance heard some inkling of it, but yet [knowing] nothing of certainty, ran presently in hurly-burly to arm them[selves], and manned out a ship to descry what it was. [This ship Solon took, and, securing the Megarians, manned it with Athenians, and gave them orders to sail to the island] and to keep themselves as close out of sight as could be. And he himself, with all the rest of his soldiers, landed presently, and marched to encounter with the Megarians, which were come out into the field. Now whilst they were fighting together, Solon's men, whom he had sent in the Megarians' ship, entered the [harbor] and won the town.
[omission for length: the feud between the Megarians and the Athenians was at length judged by a panel of Spartan arbitrators, in favour of the Athenians.]
Narration and Discussion
How did Solon convince the Athenians to try to do something difficult, after they were so discouraged that they refused to even listen to discussion about it? How do you think he was able to convince the Athenians (after his performance) that he was sane enough to lead the campaign? (Or did they understand all along that it was just a way to get around the law?)
For older students: Solon chose a form of poetry that was usually reserved for gatherings with a select group of well-educated men. Why did he not follow the custom and deliver the verses at a symposium?
This story begins with a flashback to events which happened when Solon was about six years old, involving a noble named Cylon. He led an attempt to take over the government, but the coup was unsuccessful, and the conspirators had to run for safety to the temple of Athena/Minerva. 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 was thought to show Athena's displeasure with the conspirators. Cylon was killed in the riot that followed; others were banished.
We also hear more about the terrible economic state in Athens. 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. Solon, as chief magistrate, was asked to deal with this problem.
polluted: those who took part in the conspiracy
democracy: rule by "the people," meaning an assembly of citizens
oligarchy: rule by the nobles
prevailing: holding power, getting their own way
faction (1): gap
usury: lending money at unreasonably high interest rates. Usurers are those who lend money under such conditions.
upon gage of their bodies: using themselves as collateral, i.e. enslaving themselves to pay back debts
lustiest and stoutest: most energetic, strongest
made suit to him: asked him for help
sedition: an attempt to overthrow the government
factions (2): groups, parties
Cylon: also spelled Kylon or Kulon. See notes in the introduction to this lesson.
Megacles the archon:One of the principal magistrates of Athens
Epimenides of Crete: Another of the "sages"
594 or possibly 592 B.C.: Solon was archon in Athens
[omission for length: details of Cylon's rebellion, an event which caused bitter division among the Athenians even years later]
[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 [they] hindered either of the other parties from prevailing.]
Furthermore, the faction between the poor and rich, proceeding of their inequality, was at that time very great. By reason whereof the city was in great danger, and it seemed there was no way to pacify or take up these controversies, unless some tyrant happened to rise, that would take upon him to rule the whole.
For all the common people were so sore indebted to the rich, that either they plowed their lands, and yielded them the sixth part of their crop [brief omission]; or else they borrowed money of them at usury, upon gage of their bodies to serve it out. And if they were not able to pay them, then were they, by the law, delivered to their creditors, who kept them as bondmen and slaves in their houses, or else they sent them into strange countries to be sold; and many even for very poverty were forced to sell their own children (for there was no law to forbid the contrary); or else to forsake their city and country, for the extreme cruelty and hard dealing of these abominable usurers, their creditors. [Therefore] many of the lustiest and stoutest of them banded together in companies and encouraged one another not to suffer and bear any longer such extremity, but to [choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government.]
Then the wisest men of the city [perceiving Solon was of all men the only one not implicated in the troubles], neither partner with the rich in their oppression, neither partaker with the poor in their necessity; [they] made suit to him, that it would please him to take the matter in hand, and to appease and pacify all these broils and [this] sedition. Phanias of Lesbos writeth, that [Solon put a trick upon both parties]. He secretly promised the poor to divide the lands again; and the rich also, to confirm their covenants and bargains. [Solon, however, 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.]
They say, moreover, that one word and sentence which he spoke (which at that present was rife in every man's mouth) [was] that equality did breed no strife [Dryden: when things are even there can never be war]. This did as well please the rich and wealthy, as the poor and needy. For the one sort conceived of this word "equality," that he would measure all things according to the quality of the man: and the other [group] took it for their purpose, that he would measure things by the number, and by the poll only.
Thus the captains of both factions persuaded and prayed him [to] boldly take upon him that sovereign authority, since he had the whole city now at his commandment. The [common people] also of every part, when they saw it very hard to pacify these things with law and reason, were [willing to have one wise and just man set over the affairs].
[omission: Solon refused to become sole ruler of Athens, for reasons explained in the following passage]
But his familiar friends above all rebuked him, saying he was to be accounted no better than a beast, if for fear of the name of tyrant, he would refuse to take upon him a kingdom; which is the most just and honourable state, if one [should] take it upon him that is an honest man. [brief omission] He replied to his friends that it was true a tyranny was a very fair spot, but it had no way down from it. And in a copy of verses to Phocus he writes:
"that I spared my land,
And withheld from usurpation and from violence my hand,
And forbore to fix a stain and a disgrace on my good name,
I regret not; I believe that it will be my chiefest fame."]
[omission for length]
Now, notwithstanding he had refused the kingdom, yet he waxed nothing the more remiss nor soft therefore in governing; neither would he bow for fear of the great, nor yet would frame his laws to their liking, that had chosen him their reformer. For where the mischief was tolerable, he did not straight pluck it up by the roots: neither did he so change the state, as he might have done, lest if he should have attempted to turn upside-down the whole government, he might afterwards have been never able to settle and [e]stablish the same again. Therefore he only altered that which he thought [he could effect by persuasion upon the pliable, and by force upon the stubborn; [and] 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."
Narration and Discussion
Solon did not want to be the king of Athens, but he was willing to be its law-giver, especially because there was so much turmoil in the city. How did he avoid coming into the situation like a bulldozer? Is this generally a good strategy for change?
What did he mean when he said he gave the Athenians "the best [laws] they could receive?"
For older students: In the poem, Solon said that he would be doing his city a favour by not having to be its harsh master, or at least to be the one responsible for having to make hard or unpopular decisions. If that is the reality of being in power, why do so many people seek it out? (Consider James 3:1; Proverbs 31:3-5.) Choose a ruler from history or literature who faced difficult decisions; and write a response to Solon from that person.
Solon had an immediate solution for the economic troubles in Athens: amnesty (forgiveness) for all debts. Everyone would start fresh. And there would be no more using people as collateral.
Did everyone like this? No; many creditors lost the money that they were owed. Some of the poor people were disappointed that Solon wasn't planning to redistribute property as well. And Solon himself came under suspicion when his friends did a bit of "insider trading."
usury: see previous lesson
thwarted: stopped him from doing something
certain of his familiars: some of his friends
laid it out: spent it
their bonds: what they had owing to them
a popular state: a state under democratic rule (rather than the rule of a tyrant who could bring in new policies whenever he liked)
his ordinance: the ruling he had made
indifferently: without discriminating or leaving anything out
Lycurgus: (ca.800 B.C.-ca.730 B.C.) The legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-style reformation of Spartan society.
[omission for length]
The first change and reformation [Solon] made in government was this: he ordained that all manner of debts past should be clear[ed], and nobody should ask his debtor anything for the time past.
[He also ruled] that no man should thenceforth lend money out to usury, upon covenants for the body to be bound if it were not repaid. [Though some, [such] as Androtion, affirm that the debts were not cancelled, but the interest only lessened, which sufficiently pleased the people; so that they named this benefit the Seisacthea, together with the enlarging [of] their measures, and raising the value of their money. For he made a pound, which before passed for seventy-three drachmas, go for a hundred; so that, though the number of pieces in the payment was equal, the value was less; which proved a considerable benefit to those that were to discharge great debts, and no loss to the creditors. But most agree that it was the taking off the debts that was called Seisacthea.]
But while he was a-doing this, men say a thing thwarted him that troubled him marvellously. For having framed an edict for clearing all debts, and lacking only a little to grace it with words and to give it some pretty preface, that otherwise was ready to be proclaimed: he opened himself somewhat to certain of his familiars whom he trusted (as Conon, Clinias, and Hipponicus); and told them how he would not meddle with lands and possessions, but would only clear and cut off all manner of debts. These men, before the proclamation came out, went presently to the money men, and borrowed great sums of money of them, and laid it out [immediately] upon land. So when the proclamation came out, they kept the lands they had purchased; but restored not the money they had borrowed.
This foul [act] of theirs made Solon very ill-spoken of, and wrongfully blamed: as if he had not only [allowed] it but had been partaker of this wrong and injustice. Notwithstanding, he cleared himself of this slanderous report, losing five talents by his own law. For it was well known that so much was due unto him, and he was the first that, following his own proclamation, did clearly release his debtors of the same.
This law neither liked the one nor the other sort. For it greatly offended the rich, for cancelling their bonds; and it much more misliked the poor, because [the land was not divided, and, as Lycurgus ordered in his commonwealth, all men reduced to equality. Lycurgus, it is true, being the eleventh from Hercules, and having reigned many years in Lacedaemon, had got a good 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 attain to this, for he was born in a popular state, and a man but of mean wealth. [Yet he acted fully up to the height of his power, having nothing but the good will and good opinion of his citizens to act 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."]
But shortly after, having a feeling of the benefit of his ordinance, and everyone forgetting his private quarrel: they all together made a common sacrifice, which they called the "sacrifice of Seisachthia"; and chose Solon general reformer of the law, and of the whole state of the commonwealth, without limiting his power, but referred all matters indifferently to his will. [These were such] as the offices of state, the common assemblies, voices in election, judgements in justice, and the body of the Senate; [and [the power] to dissolve or continue any of the present constitutions, according to his pleasure].
Narration and Discussion
Solon solved the problem of debtors and slavery by 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 overall?
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?
Creative narration: Solon believed that he had offended or at least displeased many people by his proclamation forgiving debts (and forbidding extreme promises when borrowing). However, Plutarch quickly moves on to say that the Athenians "laid by their grudges" (Dryden) and began to trust Solon, asking him to make laws on other matters. Write or act out a scene showing what might have happened to shift their attitudes.
Have you ever heard of Draco? He lived in the seventh century B.C. 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, 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, many of the laws were based on good reasoning.
saving: except for
manslaughter: killing someone unintentionally
happily: aptly, truly
men of revenue: people with a good income
knights: the class of citizens who could afford horses, and who therefore would make up the cavalry troops in time of war. Those above them in wealth and status would be the generals, and those just below, who could afford armour and proper weapons but not horses, would be foot soldiers. Those on the very bottom rung might be rowers on a ship, or just fight with whatever they had.
it was to great purpose: Dryden says that the lowest class later found it "an enormous privilege" to be able to act as jurors
cases which he assigned . . .: difficult cases which had a special hearing before a judge
the letter: exactly what was written in the book
Draco: see introduction to this lesson
Aristides: see the study notes for the Life of Aristides
To begin withal, he first took away all Draco's bloody laws (saving [those for] murder, and manslaughter), which were too severe and cruel. For almost (Draco) did ordain but one kind of punishment, for all kind[s] of faults and offences, which was death. So that they which were condemned for idleness were judged to die; [and those that stole a cabbage or an apple were] as severely punished as those who had committed sacrilege or murder. [So that Demades, in after time, was thought to have said very happily], that Draco's laws were not written with ink, but with blood. And Draco himself being asked one day why his punishments were so unequal, as death for all kinds of faults: he answered, because he thought the least offence worthy [of] so much punishment: and for the greatest, he found none more grievous.
Then Solon being desirous to have the chief offices of the city to remain in rich men's hands, as already they did; and yet to mingle the authority of government in such sort as the meaner people might bear a little sway, which they never could before; he made an estimate of the goods of every private citizen. And those which he found yearly worth [five hundred measures of fruit, dry and liquid, he placed in the first rank, calling them Pentacosiomedimni], as to say, men of revenue. And those that had three hundred bushels a year, and were able to keep a horse of service, he put in the second degree, and called them [Hippada Teluntes] or knights. [Those that had] but two hundred bushels a year were put in the third place and called Zeugitae. All other[s] under those, were called Thetes, [who were not admitted to any office, but could come to the assembly and act as jurors].
This at the first seemed nothing, but afterwards they felt it was to great purpose: for hereby the most part of private quarrels and strifes that grew among them were in the end laid open before the people. For he suffered those to appeal unto the people which thought they had wrong judgement in their causes. [Even in the cases which he assigned to the archon's cognizance, 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.]
[omission: Solon explained his judicial policy in verse]
Yet considering it was meet to provide for the poverty of the common sort of people: he suffered any man that would to take upon him the defense of any poor man's case that had the wrong. For if a man were hurt, beaten, forced, or otherwise wronged, any other man that would might lawfully sue the offender, and prosecute law against him. And this was a wise law ordained of him, to accustom his citizens to be sorry one for another's hurt, and so to feel it, as if any part of his own body had been injured.
And they say he [once] made an answer agreeable to this law. For, being asked what city he thought best governed, he answered, "That city where such as receive no wrong do as earnestly defend wrong offered to [an]other, as [if] the very wrong and injury had been done unto themselves."
Narration and Discussion
Was it fair to grant people civil rights according to their wealth? How might such a system have caused problems for someone like Aristides, who said that he preferred to be poor?
Why did Solon feel it was wise to allow the laws of Athens to be slightly unclear? Who benefited from that? Would you prefer to live or work in a system with many absolute rules; or one with fewer or more flexible rules, where you are expected to make more decisions for yourself?
For older students: Solon's system of prosecution for crimes said that if I hurt someone, someone else (rather than the injured person) 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?
If you could create one new law, what would it be?
Solon was given free rein to write new laws for the city of Athens, and (despite his earlier reluctance to rule), he did so quite extensively.
Areopagus, council of the Areopagites: As explained in the text, a high council made up of former archons.
imperious: this can mean acting in a haughty and arrogant manner; but it can also mean taking on powers that you should not have
settled and stayed: as Plutarch says, anchored; steadied, fixed in place
table(s) of Solon: the written form of the law. The tables (or charts) were fixed in wooden frames and publicly posted (see Lesson Nine).
politic: sensible, prudent
the perpetuity of discord: the continuance of quarrels
to the public:into the public treasury (as a fine)
prefer: propose, allow
[When Solon 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 by the people; and to take care that nothing but what had been first examined should be brought before the general assembly.] Moreover, he ordained the higher court should have the chief authority and power over all things, and chiefly to see the law executed and maintained, supposing that the commonwealth being settled and stayed with these two courts (as with two strong anchor-holds), it should be the less turmoiled and troubled, and the people also better pacified and quieted.
The most part of writers hold this opinion, that it was Solon which erected the council of the Areopagites, as we have said, and it is very likely to be true, for that Draco in all his laws and ordinances made no manner of mention of the Areopagites, but always speaketh to the Ephetes (which were judges of life and death) when he spoke of murder, or of any man's death. Notwithstanding, the eighth law of the thirteenth table of Solon sayeth thus, in these very words:
["Whoever before Solon's archonship were disfranchised, let them be restored; except those that, being condemned by the Areopagus, Ephetae, or in the Prytaneum by the kings, for homicide, murder, or designs against the government, were in banishment when this law was made."]
These words, to the contrary, seem to prove and testify that the council of the Areopagites was [in place], before Solon was chosen reformer of the laws. For how could offenders and wicked men be condemned "by order of the council of the Areopagites before Solon," if Solon was the first that gave it authority to judge? [Unless, which is probable, there is some ellipsis, or want of precision in the language, and it should run this: "Those that are convicted of such offences as belong to the cognizance of the Areopagites, Ephetae, or the Pryanes, when this law was made" shall remain still in disgrace, whilst others are restored; of this the reader must judge.]
[omissions for length and mature content: laws about those who did not help defend their city during rebellions, and laws designed to protect wealthy women from "gold-digging" men. Solon also made laws limiting the size of dowries (money paid by the bride's family), saying that people should marry for "pure love, kind affection, and birth of children."]
[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.]
So was he marvellously well thought of for the law that he made touching wills and testaments. For before, men might not lawfully make their heirs whom they would, but [all the wealth and estate of the deceased belonged to his family]. But he, [by] leaving it at liberty [for men] to dispose their goods where they thought good, [if] they had no children of their own, did therein prefer friendship before kindred, and goodwill and favour before necessity and constraint, and so made everyone lord and master of his own goods.
[omission: laws forbidding exaggerated and costly mourning rituals at funerals, including the sacrifice of an ox at a graveside]
Narration and Discussion
How would you describe the laws given in this lesson? Are they reasonable? Practical?
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)? How was this law realistic?
For older students: Discuss this saying: "And laws must look to possibilities, if the maker designs to punish few in order to their amendment, and not many to no purpose." To what might the "possibilities" refer?
Creative narration: Write or act out a scene involving one of Solon's new laws.
Athens was getting crowded, and there were too many people with too little to do; so Solon tried to find ways to keep everyone busy that would also build up the community.
repairing thither: going there
trafficking the seas: buying and selling goods by ship
relieve a father: support him financially
bred him up to any calling: taught him any trade
country of Attica: the region around Athens
bring trades into credit: make such jobs popular and attractive
brought a he-wolf: this was due to the large numbers of animals (such as sheep and goats) that were being raised in the area
Perceiving that the city of Athens began to replenish daily more and more, by men's repairing thither from all parts, and by reason of the great assured safety and liberty that they found there; and [that most of the country was barren and unfruitful], and that men trafficking the seas are not wont to bring any merchandise to those which can give them nothing again in exchange: [Solon turned his citizens to trade, and made a law that no son [should] be obliged to relieve a father who had not bred him up to any calling.
[omission: comparison to the rule of Lycurgus in Sparta, which emphasized military skill rather than crafts]
But Solon, framing his laws unto things, and not things unto laws: when he saw the country of Attica so lean and barren, that it could hardly bring forth [enough] to sustain those that tilled the ground only, and therefore [it was] much more impossible to keep so great a multitude of idle people as were in Athens: [he] thought it very requisite to set up occupations, and to [bring trades into credit]. Therefore he ordained that the council of the Areopagites should have full power and authority to enquire how every man lived in the city, and also to punish such as they found idle people [who] did not labour.
[omission for mature content: laws about women which even Plutarch thought contained "many absurdities." Plutarch also notes here that the fines for breaking many of Solon's laws seemed unreasonably heavy, but that this may have been due to a desperate need to add to the city's revenue.]
More, he ordained that they which won any of the games at Athens, should pay to the common treasury a hundred drachmas. And those that won any of the Games Olympical, five hundred drachmas.
Also he appointed that he which brought a he-wolf should have five drachmas; and one drachma for reward of a she-wolf.
[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 neighbour's; for he thought it prudent to make provision against want, but not to supply laziness.
He showed skill in his orders about planting]: any that would plant any kind of trees in his ground, he should set them five foot asunder one from another: but for the fig tree and olive tree specially, that they should in any case be nine foot asunder, because these two trees do spread out their branches far off, and they cannot stand near other trees, but they must needs hurt them very much. For besides that they draw away the same that doth nourish the other trees, they cast also a certain moisture and steam upon them, that is very hurtful and incommodious.
More he ordained that whosoever would dig a pit or hole in his ground, he should dig it as far off from his neighbour's pit as the pit he digged was in depth to the bottom.
And he that would set up a hive of bees in his ground, he should set them at the least three hundred feet from other hives set about him before.
And of the fruits of the earth, he was contented they should transport and sell only oil out of the realm to strangers, but no other fruit or grain. He ordained that the governor of the city should yearly proclaim open curses against those that should do to the contrary, or else he himself, making default therein, should be fined at a hundred drachmas.
[omission about owners' responsibilities for dogs that bite]
Narration and Discussion
"He thought it prudent to make provision against want, but not to supply laziness." Which of Solon's laws put that idea into practice?
What trades might have been common in Solon's time? What are some trades that young people can train for today?
Why was it not a good idea to dig wells just anywhere?
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 caused food shortages. Do you think that could be a possible risk? Are there any similar problems with agriculture today?
For older students: Plutarch says that Solon "framed his laws unto things, and not things unto laws." What does that mean?
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 wanted to get out of Athens for awhile, but he kept busy along the way.
a hundred years: the historian Herodotus says the laws were made for ten years rather than a hundred, which might fit better with Solon's ten-year absence from Athens
wind himself out of these briars: A briar patch is made up of thorny plants; once you are caught in the briars, it is difficult to get out.
the Atlantic story: the story of Atlantis. Plato wrote in one of his dialogues that Solon had heard the story in Egypt and wanted to put it into verse; but it is possible that this was only in Plato's imagination.
On the Map
Find Egypt and Cyprus on the map. How might Solon have gotten there from Athens?
[omission for length: Solon's laws about immigration to Athens]
[All Solon's laws he established for a hundred years; and wrote them on wooden tables or rollers, named axons, 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.]
[omission for length]
Now after his laws were come abroad and proclaimed, there came some daily unto him, which either praised them, or misliked them: and prayed him either to take away, or to add some thing unto them. Many again came and asked him, how he understood some sentence of his laws: and requested him to declare his meaning, and how it should be taken. Wherefore considering how it were to no purpose to refuse to do it, [but] again how it would get him much envy and ill-will to yield thereunto: he determined (happen what would) to wind himself out of these briars, and to flee the groanings, complaints, and quarrels of his citizens. For he sayeth himself:
"Full hard it is, all minds content to have,
and specially in matters hard and grave."
So, to convey himself a while out of the way, [he bought a trading vessel, and, having leave for ten years' absence, departed, hoping that by that time his laws would have become familiar].
So went he to the seas, and the first place of his arrival was in Egypt, where he remained awhile. [short omission] [He spent some time in study with Psenophis of Heliopolis, and Sonchis the Saite, the most learned of all the priests; from who, as Plato says, getting knowledge of the Atlantic story, he put it into a poem, and proposed to bring it to the knowledge of the Greeks.]
At his departure out of Egypt he went into Cyprus, where he had great courtesy and friendship of one of the princes of that country, called Philocyprus, who was lord of a pretty little city which Demophon (Theseus' son) caused to be built upon the river of Clarius; it was of a goodly strong situation, but in a very lean and barren country. [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 defense 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. 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.
Narration and Discussion
How was Solon put into the position of having to be consulted on every detail of law; and how did he get out of it? How was it that the Athenians agreed to let him go at all, since they were so dependent on his advice? Can you think of any alternative solutions?
Solon claimed to be desperate to get away from all the issues in Athens; so why did he become involved with a city-building project in Cyprus?
There used to be an expression, "rich as Croesus." Croesus (kri-sus) was the last king of Lydia (from 560 to 547 B.C.), and was famed for his wealth.
by distance of time: Some say that Solon could not have visited Croesus because the chronology doesn't line up; but Plutarch says that this story is too well-known to pass over.
gaudiness and petty ostentation: extravagance and lack of taste
happy: the definition of "happy" is a key to this story
mean and private: without public office or recognition, or great wealth
abashed: disconcerted; Dryden translates it "surprised"
Aesop: Writer of fables (620-564 B.C.)
Croesus: see the introduction to this lesson
Cyrus: Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire
546 B.C.: Croesus captured at Sardis by the Persians
On the Map
Sardis: The capital city of the kingdom of Lydia
And as for the meeting and talk betwixt [Solon] and King Croesus, I know there are [those] that by distance of time will prove it but a fable, and deviced of pleasure: but for my part I will not reject, nor condemn so famous a history received and approved by so many grave testimonies. Moreover, it is very agreeable to Solon's manners and nature, and also not unlike to his wisdom and magnanimity; [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 a man when first he goes to see the sea; for as he fancies every river he meets with to be the ocean]; so Solon, passing alongst Croesus' palace, and meeting by the way many of the lords of his court richly appareled, and carrying great trains of serving- men, and soldiers about them, thought ever that one of them [must] had been the king; until he was brought unto Croesus [him]self. [He] was passing richly arrayed, what for precious stones and jewels, and for rich coloured silks, laid on with curious goldsmith's work, and all to show himself to Solon in most stately, sumptuous, and magnificent manner.
[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]; then Croesus commanded all his treasuries to be opened where his gold and silver lay; next that they should show him his rich and sumptuous wardrobes, although that needed not: for to see Croesus [him]self, it was enough to discern his nature and condition.
After he had seen all over and over; being brought again unto the presence of the King, Croesus asked him if ever he had seen any man more happy than himself was. Solon answered:
"I have: and that was one Tellus, a citizen of Athens, who was a marvellous honest man; [who] had left his children behind him in good estimation, and well to live; and lastly, was most happy at his death, by dying honourably in the field, in defense of his country."
Croesus, hearing this answer, began to judge him a man of little wit, or of gross understanding, because he [Solon] did not think that to have store of gold and silver was the only joy and felicity of the world, and that he would prefer the life and death of a mean and private man as more happy than all the riches and power of so mighty a king.
Notwithstanding all this, Croesus yet asked him again: "What other man beside Tellus he had seen happier than himself?"
Solon answered him that he had seen:
"Cleobis and Biton, which were both brethren, and loved one another singularly well, and their mother in such sort that upon a solemn festival day when she should go to the temple of Juno in her coach drawn with oxen; because they tarried too long ere they could be brought; they both willingly yoked themselves by the necks, and drew their mother's coach instead of the oxen; which marvellously rejoiced her, and she was thought most happy of all other, to have borne two such sons. Afterwards when [the sons] had done sacrifice to the goddess, and [had]made good cheer at the feast of this sacrifice, they went to bed; but they rose not again the next morning, for they were found dead, without suffering hurt or sorrow, after they had received so much glory and honour."
["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]; which, considering how man's life is subject to infinite changes, doth forbid us to trust or glory in these worldly riches. For time bringeth daily misfortunes unto man, which he never thought of, nor looked for. But when the gods have continued a man's good fortune to his end, then we think that man happy and blessed, and never before. Otherwise, if we should judge a man happy that liveth, considering he is ever in danger of change during life: we should be much like to him, who judgeth him the victory beforehand, that is still a-fighting, and may be overcome, having no surety yet to carry it away."
After Solon had spoken these words, he departed from the king's presence, and returned back again, leaving King Croesus offended, but nothing the wiser, nor amended. Now Aesop that wrote the fables, being at that time in the city of Sardis, and sent for thither by the king, who entertained him very honourably: was very sorry to see that the king had given Solon no better entertainment; so by way of advice he said unto him, "O Solon, either we must not come to princes at all, or else we must seek to please and content them." But Solon, turning it to the contrary, answered him: "Either we must not come to princes, or we must needs tell them truly, and counsel them for the best."
So Croesus made light account of Solon at that time. But after he had lost the battle against Cyrus, and that his city was taken, himself became prisoner, and was bound fast to a gibbet, over a great stack of wood, to be burnt in the sight of all the Persians, and of Cyrus his enemy: he then cried out as loud as he could, thrice together: "O Solon." Cyrus, being abashed, sent to ask him whether this Solon [to whom] he only cried upon in his extreme misery was a god or man.
[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.] But now (alas) too late I know it, that the riches I possessed then were but words and opinion, all which are but turned now to my bitter sorrow, and to present and remediless calamity. Which the wise Greek considering then, and foreseeing afar off, by my doings at that time, the instant misery I suffer now: [he] gave me warning I should mark the end of my life, and that I should not too far presume of myself, as puffed up then with vainglory of opinion of happiness, the ground thereof being so slippery, and of so little surety."
These words [were] reported unto Cyrus, who was wiser than Croesus; and seeing Solon's saying confirmed by so notable an example; he did not only deliver Croesus from present peril of death, but ever after honoured him so long as he lived. Thus had Solon glory for saving the honour of one of these kings, and the life of the other, by his grave and wise counsel.
Narration and Discussion
How did Solon show courage by speaking honestly to King Croesus? Wouldn't it have been simpler, and safer, to agree that the king was indeed happy? (A Scripture to consider: 2 Timothy 4:16-17)
Do you agree with Solon's definition of happiness? Might "happy" here also be translated "fortunate," or is it closer to "blessed?"
For older students: If you have a group, consider debating the definition of "happiness." This could also be the subject of an essay.
Creative narration: Retell the story of Croesus in any interesting way you choose.
How well did the Athenians do at keeping Solon's laws and living peacefully while he was away?
The Plain, The Seaside, The Hill-Party: the various political parties described earlier
practise any innovation: rebel against the current order
a matter of competition: Greek drama was often staged, in later years, as a competition with prizes
Lycurgus: Not the ruler of Sparta, but an Athenian named Lycurgus
Megacles the son of Alcmaeon:The same Megacles who was involved in killing Cylon (Lesson Four)
Peisistratos: see Lesson Three
Thespis of Icaria: a famous actor
565 B.C.: Peisistratos, Athenian general, organized the Diakrioi or the "Hill Party," the "party of poor people"
561 B.C.: Peisistratos took power in Athens
[When Solon was gone, the citizens began to quarrel. Lycurgus headed "The Plain"; Megacles, the son of Alcmaeon, those of "the Seaside"; and Peisistratos the "Hill Party," in which were the poorest people, the Thetes, and [the] 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 that every of them should be better than their adversaries.
[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.]
Whereunto Peisistratos seemed to be more willing than any of the rest, for he was courteous, and marvellous fair spoken, and showed himself, besides, very good and pitiful to the poor, and temperate also to his enemies; further, if any good quality were lacking in him, he did so finely counterfeit it, that men imagined it was more in him than in those that naturally had it in them indeed. As to be a quiet man, no meddler, contented with his own, aspiring no higher, and hating those which would attempt to change the present state of the commonwealth and would practise any innovation. By this art and fine manner of his, he deceived the poor common people.
Howbeit Solon found him straight, and saw the mark he shot at; but yet hated him not at that time, and sought still to win him, and bring him to reason; saying oftentimes, both to himself and to others, that whoso could pluck out of his head the worm of ambition by which he aspired to be the chiefest, and could heal him of his greedy desire to rule; there could not be a man of more virtue, or a better citizen than [that person] would prove.
[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 [brief omission] 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.] "But if we commend lying in sport," (quoth he), "we shall find it afterwards in good earnest, in all our bargains and dealings."
Shortly after, Peisistratos having wounded himself, and bloodied all his body over, caused his men to carry him in his coach into the marketplace, where he put the people in an uproar, and told them that they were his enemies that thus traitorously had handled him, for that he stood with them about the governing of the commonweal[th]; insomuch as many of them were marvellously [enraged], and mutinied by and by, crying out it was shamefully done.
Then Solon, drawing near said unto him, "O thou son of Hippocrates, thou dost ill-favouredly counterfeit the person of Homer's Ulysses: for thou hast whipped thyself to deceive thy citizens, as he did tear and scratch himself to deceive his enemies."
Notwithstanding this, the common people were still in uproar, being ready to take arms for Peisistratos: and there was a general council assembled, in the which one Ariston spoke that they should grant fifty men to carry [weapons] before Peisistratos for guard of his person. But Solon going up into the pulpit for orations, stoutly inveighed against it [brief omission]. But in the end, seeing the poor people did tumult still, taking Peisistratos' part, and that the rich fled here and there, he went his way also, saying [that] he had showed himself wiser than some, and hardier than other[s]. [Wiser than those that did not understand the design; stouter than those that, though they understood it, were afraid to oppose the tyranny.]
Narration and Discussion
We are told that "By this art and fine manner of his, [Peisistratos] deceived the poor common people"; but that Solon immediately caught on to what he was up to. Have you known or read of anyone else who seemed well-meaning and generous, but who was motivated by ambition for power?
Why did Solon disapprove of acting out plays? What does that say about his own character?
What was Peisistratos' purpose in saying that he had been wounded by his political enemies? Were you surprised or disappointed by the fact that people believed the story?
Lesson Twelve and Examination Questions
Peisistratos had been granted a "few" bodyguards . . . but the "few" quickly became a whole army.
Acropolis: the place of government in Athens
betook himself unto his ease: retired from his duties
kept his house: stayed at home
Atlantis: see note in Lesson Nine
558 B.C.: death of Solon
[Now, the people, having passed the law, were not nice with Peisistratos 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]; and rebuked their beastliness, and faint cowardly hearts, and encouraged them not to lose their liberty; [and likewise then spoke this memorable saying]: "Before," said he, "you might more easily have stayed this present tyranny: but now that it is already fashioned, you shall win more glory utterly to suppress it."
But for all his goodly reasons, he found no man that would harken to him, they were all so amazed. Wherefore he hied him home again, and took his weapons out of his house, and laid them before his gate in the midst of the street, saying: "For my part, I have done what I can possible, to help and defend the laws and liberties of my country."
So from that time he betook himself unto his ease, and never after dealt any more in matters of state or commonwealth. His friends did counsel him to flee: but all they could not persuade him to it. For he kept his house, and gave himself to make verses, in which he sore reproved the Athenians' faults, saying:
["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."]
His friends hereupon did warn him to beware of such speeches, and to take heed what he said; lest if it came unto the tyrant's ears, he might put him to death [for it. And further, they asked him wherein he trusted, that he spoke so boldly. He answered them: "In my age."
Howbeit Peisistratos, after he had obtained his purpose, sending for him upon his word and faith, did honour and entertain him so well, that Solon in the end became one of his council, and approved many things which he did.
For Peisistratos himself did straitly keep, and caused his friends to keep, Solon's laws. Insomuch as when he was called by process into the court of the Areopagites for a murder, even at that time when he was a tyrant; he presented himself very modestly to answer his accusation, and to purge himself thereof. But his accuser let fall the matter and followed it no further.
But Solon having begun to write the story of [Atlantis] in verse (which he had learned of the wise men of the city of Sais in Egypt, and was very necessary for the Athenians) grew weary, and gave it over in midway: not for any matters or business that troubled him, as Plato said, but only for his age, and because he feared the tediousness of the work. For otherwise he had leisure enough, as appeareth by his verses where he sayeth:
"I grow old, and yet I learn still."
And in another place where he sayeth,
["But now the Powers of Beauty, Song, and Wine,
Which are most men's delights, are also mine."]
[omission: Plutarch describes Plato's own unfinished attempt to write about Atlantis]
Solon lived [a] long time after Peisistratos had [seized the government], as Heraclides Ponticus writeth. Howbeit Phanias Ephesian writeth, that he lived not above two years after. For Peisistratos usurped tyrannical power in the year that Comias was chief governor in Athens. And Phanias writeth that Solon died in the year that Hegestratus was governor, which was the next year after that. And where some say [that] the ashes of his body were after his death strewn abroad through the Isle of Salamis: that seemeth to be but a fable, and altogether untrue. Nevertheless, it hath been written by many notable authors, and amongst others, by Aristotle the philosopher.
Narration and Discussion
After chiding the Athenians for their willingness to give up so easily, Solon gave up on them. Was Solon justified at this point?
Why was the reaction of Peisistratos unusual? Did it surprise you?
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 died. Does that make his achievements seem any less?
1. Give a conversation between Solon and one of the following: Anacharsis; Thales; King Croesus.
1. (a), "They chose Solon general reformer of the law." Write a short account of Solon as a lawgiver. OR (b) "Thus had Solon glory, for saving the honour of one of these kings, and the life of the other." Give the whole story.
2. For high school students: Give some account of (a), Solon as "reformer of the law, and of the whole state of the commonwealth," or, (b), how Solon determined to "wind himself out of these briars" of controversy and the events that followed.
AmblesideOnline Plutarch Readings:
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus