Solon Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek statesman{$I[g]Greece;Solon} Through his law code, Solon averted a civil war at Athens and established the political and social foundations for the development of Athenian democracy.

Early Life

The ancient sources include many details about the life of Solon (SOH-luhn) before 594 b.c.e., but most of these are probably romantic inventions about what the life of a great man ought to have been like. The fragments of Solon’s poems tell little about his early life. Plutarch, in his biography of Solon (in Bioi paralleloi, c. 105-115; Parallel Lives, 1579), writes that Solon’s mother was the cousin of the mother of Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens who ruled between 561 and 527 b.c.e. This is one of many probably spurious attempts to link Solon’s and Pisistratus’s families. There is a stronger argument that Solon’s father was Execestides, a member of one of Athens’s noblest families. Execestides could trace his ancestry back to Codrus, a semilegendary king of Athens, and even to Poseidon, a wholly legendary god. Plutarch maintains that Execestides exhausted his wealth through lavish gift giving and that Solon traveled widely as a trader to recoup his fortunes, even though there were many Athenians who would have repaid his father’s gifts. Another possibility mentioned by Plutarch is that Solon traveled solely to visit foreign lands.

Solon won a reputation as a poet, and several of his works are quoted at length by Plutarch and in the Athenaiōn politeia (335-323 b.c.e.; The Athenian Constitution, 1812), attributed to Aristotle. Many early Greek statesmen were poets; poetry had an important role in politics, and Plutarch writes that Solon used his verse to catapult himself into political prominence, probably around 610. Plutarch further relates that Solon used a ruse to be put in charge of a war against Megara to win back the island of Salamis. The Athenians were so humiliated by their defeat some years before that they passed a law forbidding anyone even to mention their claim to Salamis. Solon circumvented this restriction by feigning insanity and then publicly reciting poems urging revenge. The Athenians were inspired by this act and soon won the island back. Like many other incidents in Solon’s early life, however, this story may be attributing to Solon events that really happened later in the sixth century.

According to a second story, around 600 Solon had the Alcmaeonid family put on trial for the massacre of the followers of Cylon, who staged an unsuccessful coup in Athens in the 630’s. The murders had ritually polluted Athens, and Solon supposedly brought in the semilegendary seer Epimenides of Crete to help purify the state. It is quite likely that this event was made up to provide a Solonian precedent for the expulsion of the Alcmaeonids during political strife around 500. A third account links Solon to the possibly fictitious First Sacred War in the 590’s, fought for control of the oracle at Delphi.

Life’s Work

Whatever the truth of these stories about political crises, one thing is certain: Around 600, Athens was torn by social unrest. In the words of Aristotle:

For a long time there was strife between the rich and the poor. For the state was oligarchic in all ways, and the poor, along with their wives and children, were enslaved to the rich. And they were called “clients” and “sixth-parters,” for it was at this rate that they worked the fields of the rich. All the land belonged to a few people; and if the poor did not render these dues, they and their children could be sold overseas. And before Solon, all loans were made on the security of the person; but he became the first champion of the people.

Fearing civil war, the Athenian nobles elected Solon chief magistrate (archon) in 594, to draw up new laws to avert the crisis.

Other than Solon’s poems, which are often obscure, the earliest source for his laws is Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709), which simply mentions that “at the request of his countrymen he had made a code of laws for Athens.” Solon’s laws were publicly displayed on wooden boards, and it is believed that these boards survived for later writers such as Aristotle to consult. The laws fall into three main groups: economic reforms, political reforms, and other laws.

In an economic reform known as the “shaking off of burdens” (seisachtheia), Solon cancelled all debts and forbade enslavement for debt. He said he would try to bring back to Athens all those who had been sold as slaves overseas. He also addressed land tenure,...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)