Solon of Athens

(Solôn). A celebrated Athenian legislator, born about B.C. 638. His father Execestides was a descendant of Codrus, and his mother was a cousin of the mother of Pisistratus. Execestides had seriously crippled his resources by a too prodigal expenditure; and Solon consequently found it either necessary or convenient in his youth to betake himself to the life of a foreign trader. It is likely enough that while necessity compelled him to seek a livelihood in some mode or other, his active and inquiring spirit led him to select that pursuit which would furnish the amplest means for its gratification. Solon early distinguished himself by his poetical abilities. His first effusions were in a somewhat light and amatory strain, which afterwards gave way to the more dignified and earnest purpose of inculcating profound reflections or sage advice. So widely indeed did his reputation spread that he was ranked as one of the famous Seven Sages (q.v.), and his name appears in all the lists of the seven. The occasion which first brought Solon prominently forward as an actor on the political stage was the contest between Athens and Megara respecting the possession of Salamis. The ill success of the attempts of the Athenians to make themselves masters of the island had led to the enactment of a law forbidding the writing or saying anything to urge the Athenians to renew the attempt. Soon after these events (about 595) Solon took a leading part in promoting hostilities on behalf of Delphi against Cirrha, and was the mover of the decree of the Amphictyons by which war was declared. It does not appear, however, what active part he took in the war. According to a common story, which, however, rests only on the authority of a late writer, Solon hastened the surrender of the town by causing the waters of the Plistus to be poisoned. It was about the time of the outbreak of this war that, in consequence of the distracted condition of Attica, which was rent by civil commotions, Solon was called upon by all parties to mediate between them, and alleviate the miseries that prevailed. He was chosen archon in 594, and under that legal title was invested with unlimited power for adopting such measures as the exigencies of the State demanded.

In fulfilment of the task intrusted to him, Solon addressed himself to the relief of the existing distress. This he effected with the greatest discretion and success by his celebrated "disburdening ordinance" (seisachtheia), a measure consisting of various distinct provisions, calculated to relieve the debtors with as little infringement as possible [p. 1477] on the claims of the wealthy creditors. He also changed the standard of the monetary system from the Phidonian to the Euboic, which was the one generally in use in the great centres of commerce, Chalcis and Eretria, so that Athenian trade might be simplified in its exchanges (Aristotle, Ath. Pol.10). A limit was also set to the rate of interest and to the accumulation of land (Aristotle, Ath. Pol.6). The success of the Seisachtheia procured for Solon such confidence and popularity that he was further charged with the task of entirely remodelling the constitution. As a preliminary step, he repealed all the laws of Draco (q.v.), except those relating to bloodshed. The principal features of the Solonian Constitution may be briefly summarized for the benefit of the reader. The State as he left it was a timocracy (timokratia), that is to say, a form of oligarchy (oligarchia) in which the possession of a certain amount of property is requisite for admission to the ruling class. (See Oligarchia.) Solon established a sort of timocratic scale, so that those who did not belong to the nobility received the rights of citizens in a proportion determined partly by their property and their corresponding services to the State. For this purpose he divided the population into four classes, founded on the possession of land.

     (1) Pentacosiomedimni (Pentakosiomedimnoi), who had at least 500 medimni (750 bushels) of corn or metretae of wine or oil as yearly income.

     (2) Hippeis (Hippeis, Hippês), or knights, with at least 300 medimni.

     (3) Zeugitae (Zeugitai) (possessors of a yoke of oxen), with at least 150 medimni.

     (4) Thetes (Thêtes) (workers for wages), with less than 150 medimni of yearly income.

Solon's legislation only granted to the first three of these four classes a vote in the election of responsible officers, and only to the first class the power of election to the highest offices; as, for instance, that of archon. The fourth class was excluded from all official positions, but possessed the right of voting in the general public assemblies which chose officials and passed laws. They had also the right of taking part in the trials by jury which Solon had instituted. The first three classes were bound to serve as hoplites; the cavalry was raised out of the first two, while the fourth class was only employed as light-armed troops or on the fleet, and apparently for pay. The others served without pay. The first three classes alone were subject to direct taxation. The holders of office in the State were also unpaid. Solon established as the chief consultative body the Council of the Four Hundred (see Boulé), in which only the first three classes took part, and as chief administrative body the Areopagus (q.v.), which was to be filled up by those who had been archons. A Council of 401 members is said to have been part of Draco's constitution (about B.C. 621), the members being selected by lot from the whole body of citizens. Solon reduced the Council to 400, one hundred from each of the four tribes; and extended in some particulars the powers already possessed by the Areopagus (Aristotle, Ath. Pol.4 Ath. Pol., 8). Besides this, he promulgated a code of laws embracing the whole of public and private life, the salutary effects of which lasted long after the end of his constitution. He also rectified the calendar, and regulated the system of weights and measures. He forbade the exportation of Attic products, except olive oil. Among his other regulations were those giving to childless persons the power of disposing of their property by will, punishing idleness, inflicting atimia on those citizens who in the time of any sedition remained neutral, and giving great rewards to the victors in the Olympian and Isthmian Games.

The laws of Solon were inscribed on wooden cylinders (axones) and triangular tablets (kurbeis), and set up in the Acropolis, and later in the Prytaneum. Solon himself spoke of them as being not the best laws conceivable, but the best that the Athenians could be induced to accept. His Constitution was, in fact, a compromise between democracy proper and oligarchy, and it gives to Solon a title to rank with the great constructive statesmen of all time.

The great lawgiver's later history must be regarded as more legendary than authentic. After completing his task of legislation he left Athens for ten years, after exacting from the people a promise that they would leave his laws unaltered for that space of time (Aristotle, Ath. Pol.11; Herod.i. 29; Plut. Sol.25). After visiting Egypt, he is said to have gone to Cyprus, where he was received by the king of the little town of Aepea. Solon persuaded the king, Philocyprus, to remove from the old site and build a new town on the plain. The new settlement was called Soli, in honour of the illustrious visitor (Herod.v. 113). He is further said to have visited Lydia; and his interview with Croesus was one of the most celebrated stories in antiquity. "Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?" asked the magnificent king, fishing for a compliment. "I can speak of no one as happy until I have seen how his life has ended," replied the philosopher, thus giving deep offence to the monarch (Herod.i. 32). See Croesus.

During the absence of Solon the old dissensions were renewed, and shortly after his arrival at Athens the supreme power was seized by Pisistratus. The tyrant, after his usurpation, is said to have paid considerable court to Solon, and on various occasions to have solicited his advice, which Solon did not withhold. Solon probably died about 558, two years after the overthrow of the Constitution, at the age of eighty. There was a story current in antiquity that, by his own directions, his ashes were collected and scattered round the island of Salamis. Of the poems of Solon several fragments remain. They do not indicate any great degree of imaginative power, but their style is vigorous and simple; and those that were called forth by special emergencies appear to have been marked by no small degree of energy.

See the histories of Greece by Thirlwall, Grote, Curtius, Cox, and Abbot; and the editions of Aristotle's Constitution of Athens by Kenyon (1891), Kaibel and Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1891), with the translation by Poste (1891). See also Jonas, De Solone Atheniensi (1884). The remains of Solon's poetry are collected by Bergk in his Poetae Lyrici Graeci (4th ed. 1878) and discussed by Mettauer in his Solon als Dichter (1884) and Laeger, De Veterum Epicorum Studio in Solonis Reliquiis (1885). His life was written by Plutarch. (Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898)