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A History of Ancient Greece

Solon's Early Greek Legislation

Author:      Grote, George

Solon's Early Greek Legislation

 

 

 

Part I  Part II   Part III   Solon, A Biography 

 

B.C. 594

 

Introduction

 

     Lycurgus, the reputed Spartan lawgiver, is credited with the

construction, about B.C. 800, of the earliest Grecian commonwealth founded

upon a specific code of laws.  These laws had mainly a military basis, and

through obedience to them the Spartans became a people of great hardiness,

accustomed to self-discipline, famous for their prowess and endurance in war,

and for sternness of individual and social virtues.

 

     In Athens there were no written laws until the time of Draco, B.C. 621,

the government before that period having been long in the hands of an

oligarchy.  In the year above named Draco was archon, and to him was intrusted

the work of framing a legal code, conditions under the oligarchic rule having

become intolerable to the people at large.  The chief features of Draco's

legislation had reference to the punishment of crime, and so extreme were the

severities of the system and so cruel the penalties it prescribed that in

later times it was declared to have been written in blood.

 

     The Draconian laws remained in force until superseded by the great system

of Solon, whose advent as the new lawgiver was brought about mainly through

the conspiracy of Cylon, twelve years after the legislation of Draco. Affairs

in Athens were in a deplorable state of confusion and violence, the revolt of

the poor against the power and privilege of the rich leading to dangerous

dissensions and collisions.  Solon, who enjoyed a universal reputation for

wisdom and uprightness, was called upon by the oligarchy, which again held

rule, to assume what was, in fact, almost absolute power. The character of his

legislation and its influence upon the course of Greek history have been set

forth by many authors, and the following account is perhaps the best that has

appeared in modern literature.

 

Solon's Early Greek Legislation

 

     Solon, son of Execestides, was a Eupatrid of middling fortune, but of the

purest heroic blood, belonging to the gens or family of the Codrids and

Neleids, and tracing his origin to the god Poseidon.  His father is said to

have diminished his substance by prodigality, which compelled Solon in his

earlier years to have recourse to trade, and in this pursuit he visited many

parts of Greece and Asia.  He was thus enabled to enlarge the sphere of his

observation, and to provide material for thought as well as for composition.

His poetical talents displayed themselves at a very early age, first on light,

afterward on serious subjects.  It will be recollected that there was at that

time no Greek prose writing, and that the acquisitions as well as the

effusions of an intellectual man, even in their simplest form, adjusted

themselves not to the limitations of the period and the semicolon, but to

those of the hexameter and pentameter.  Nor, in point of fact, do the verses

of Solon aspire to any higher effect than we are accustomed to associate with

an earnest, touching, and admonitory prose composition.  The advice and

appeals which he frequently addressed to his countrymen were delivered in this

easy metre, doubtless far less difficult than the elaborate prose of

subsequent writers or speakers, such as Thucydides, Isocrates, or Demosthenes.

His poetry and his reputation became known throughout many parts of Greece, so

that he was classed along with Thales of Miletus, Bias of Priene, Pittacus of

Mitylene, Periander of Corinth, Cleobulus of Lindus, Cheilon of Lacedaemon -

altogether forming the constellation afterward renowned as the seven wise men.

 

     The first particular event in respect to which Solon appears as an active

politician, is the possession of the island of Salamis, then disputed between

Megara and Athens.  Megara was at that time able to contest with Athens, and

for some time to contest with success, the occupation of this important island

- a remarkable fact, which perhaps may be explained by supposing that the

inhabitants of Athens and its neighborhood carried on the struggle with only

partial aid from the rest of Attica.  However this may be, it appears that the

Megarians had actually established themselves in Salamis, at the time when

Solon began his political career, and that the Athenians had experienced so

much loss in the struggle as to have formally prohibited any citizen from ever

submitting a proposition for its reconquest.  Stung with this dishonorable

abnegation, Solon counterfeited a state of ecstatic excitement, rushed into

the agora, and there on the stone usually occupied by the official herald,

pronounced to the surrounding crowd a short elegiac poem which he had

previously composed on the subject of Salamis.  Enforcing upon them the

disgrace of abandoning the island, he wrought so powerfully upon their

feelings that they rescinded the prohibitory law.  "Rather (he exclaimed)

would I forfeit my native city and become a citizen of Pholegandrus, than be

still named an Athenian, branded with the shame of surrendered Salamis!" The

Athenians again entered into the war, and conferred upon him the command of it

- partly, as we are told, at the instigation of Pisistratus, though the latter

must have been at this time (B.C. 600-594) a very young man, or rather a boy.

 

     The stories in Plutarch, as to the way in which Salamis was recovered,

are contradictory as well as apocryphal, ascribing to Solon various stratagems

to deceive the Megarian occupiers.  Unfortunately no authority is given for

any of them.  According to that which seems the most plausible, he was

directed by the Delphian god first to propitiate the local heroes of the

island; and he accordingly crossed over to it by night, for the purpose of

sacrificing to the heroes Periphemus and Cychreus on the Salaminian shore.

Five hundred Athenian volunteers were then levied for the attack of the

island, under the stipulation that if they were victorious they should hold it

in property and citizenship.  They were safely landed on an outlying

promontory, while Solon, having been fortunate enough to seize a ship which

the Megarians had sent to watch the proceedings, manned it with Athenians and

sailed straight toward the city of Salamis, to which the Athenians who had

landed also directed their march.  The Megarians marched out from the city to

repel the latter, and during the heat of the engagement Solon, with his

Megarian ship and Athenian crew, sailed directly to the city.  The Megarians,

interpreting this as the return of their own crew, permitted the ship to

approach without resistance, and the city was thus taken by surprise.

Permission having been given to the Megarians to quit the island, Solon took

possession of it for the Athenians, erecting a temple to Enyalius, the god of

war, on Cape Sciradium, near the city of Salamis.

 

     The citizens of Megara, however, made various efforts for the recovery of

so valuable a possession, so that a war ensued long as well as disastrous to

both parties.  At last it was agreed between them to refer the dispute to the

arbitration of Sparta, and five Spartans were appointed to decide it -

Critolaidas, Amompharetus, Hypsechidas, Anaxilas, and Cleomenes.  The verdict

in favor of Athens was founded on evidence which it is somewhat curious to

trace.  Both parties attempted to show that the dead bodies buried in the

island conformed to their own peculiar mode of interment, and both parties are

said to have cited verses from the catalogue of the Iliad - each accusing the

other of error or interpolation.  But the Athenians had the advantage on two

points: first, there were oracles from Delphi, wherein Salamis was mentioned

with the epithet Ionian; next Philaeus and Eurysaces, sons of the Telamonian

Ajax, the great hero of the island, had accepted the citizenship of Athens,

made over Salamis to the Athenians, and transferred their own residences to

Brauron and Melite in Attica, where the deme, or gens, Philaidae still

worshipped Philaeus as its eponymous ancestor.  Such a title was held

sufficient, and Salamis was adjudged by the five Spartans to Attica, with

which it ever afterward remained incorporated until the days of Macedonian

supremacy.  Two centuries and a half later, when the orator Aeschines argued

the Athenian right to Amphipolis against Philip of Macedon, the legendary

elements of the title were indeed put forward, but more in the way of preface

or introduction to the substantial political grounds.  But in the year 600

B.C. the authority of the legend was more deep-seated and operative, and

adequate by itself to determine a favorable verdict.

 

     In addition to the conquest of Salamis, Solon increased his reputation by

espousing the cause of the Delphian temple against the extortionate

proceedings of the inhabitants of Cirrha, and the favor of the oracle was

probably not without its effect in procuring for him that encouraging prophecy

with which his legislative career opened.

 

     It is on the occasion of Solon's legislation that we obtain our first

glimpse - unfortunately but a glimpse - of the actual state of Attica and its

inhabitants.  It is a sad and repulsive picture, presenting to us political

discord and private suffering combined.

 

     Violent dissensions prevailed among the inhabitants of Attica, who were

separated into three factions - the Pedieis, or men of the plain, comprising

Athens, Eleusis, and the neighboring territory, among whom the greatest number

of rich families were included; the mountaineers in the east and north of

Attica, called Diacrii, who were, on the whole, the poorest party; and the

Paralii in the southern portion of Attica from sea to sea, whose means and

social position were intermediate between the two.  Upon what particular

points these intestine disputes turned we are not distinctly informed.  They

were not, however, peculiar to the period immediately preceding the archonship

of Solon.  They had prevailed before, and they reappear afterward prior to the

despotism of Pisistratus; the latter standing forward as the leader of the

Diacrii, and as champion, real or pretended, of the poorer population.

 

     But in the time of Solon these intestine quarrels were aggravated by

something much more difficult to deal with - a general mutiny of the poorer

population against the rich, resulting from misery combined with oppression.

The Thetes, whose condition we have already contemplated in the poems of Homer

and Hesiod, are now presented to us as forming the bulk of the population of

Attica - the cultivating tenants, metayers, and small proprietors of the

country.  They are exhibited as weighed down by debts and dependence, and

driven in large numbers out of a state of freedom into slavery - the whole

mass of them (we are told) being in debt to the rich, who were proprietors of

the greater part of the soil.  They had either borrowed money for their own

necessities, or they tilled the lands of the rich as dependent tenants, paying

a stipulated portion of the produce, and in this capacity they were largely in

arrear.

 

     All the calamitous effects were here seen of the old harsh law of debtor

and creditor - once prevalent in Greece, Italy, Asia, and a large portion of

the world - combined with the recognition of slavery as a legitimate status,

and of the right of one man to sell himself as well as that of another man to

buy him.  Every debtor unable to fulfil his contract was liable to be adjudged

as the slave of his creditor, until he could find means either of paying it or

working it out; and not only he himself, but his minor sons and unmarried

daughters and sisters also, whom the law gave him the power of selling.  The

poor man thus borrowed upon the security of his body (to translate literally

the Greek phrase) and upon that of the persons in his family.  So severely had

these oppressive contracts been enforced, that many debtors had been reduced

from freedom to slavery in Attica itself, many others had been sold for

exportation, and some had only hitherto preserved their own freedom by selling

their children.  Moreover, a great number of the smaller properties in Attica

were under mortgage, signified - according to the formality usual in the Attic

law, and continued down throughout the historical times - by a stone pillar

erected on the land, inscribed with the name of the lender and the amount of

the loan.  The proprietors of these mortgaged lands, in case of an unfavorable

turn of events, had no other prospect except that of irremediable slavery for

themselves and their families, either in their own native country robbed of

all its delights, or in some barbarian region where the Attic accent would

never meet their ears. Some had fled the country to escape legal adjudication

of their persons, and earned a miserable subsistence in foreign parts by

degrading occupations. Upon several, too, this deplorable lot had fallen by

unjust condemnation and corrupt judges; the conduct of the rich, in regard to

money sacred and profane, in regard to matters public as well as private,

being thoroughly unprincipled and rapacious.

 

     The manifold and long-continued suffering of the poor under this system,

plunged into a state of debasement not more tolerable than that of the Gallic

plebs - and the injustices of the rich, in whom all political power was then

vested - are facts well attested by the poems of Solon himself, even in the

short fragments preserved to us.  It appears that immediately preceding the

time of his archonship the evils had ripened to such a point, and the

determination of the mass of sufferers to extort for themselves some mode of

relief had become so pronounced, that the existing laws could no longer be

enforced.  According to the profound remark of Aristotle - that seditions are

generated by great causes but out of small incidents - we may conceive that

some recent events had occurred as immediate stimulants to the outbreak of the

debtors - like those which lent so striking an interest to the early Roman

annals, as the inflaming sparks of violent popular movements for which the

train had long before been laid.  Condemnations by the archons of insolvent

debtors may have been unusually numerous; or the maltreatment of some

particular debtor, once a respected freeman, in his condition of slavery, may

have been brought to act vividly upon the public sympathies; like the case of

the old plebeian centurion at Rome - first impoverished by the plunder of the

enemy, then reduced to borrow, and lastly adjudged to his creditor as an

insolvent - who claimed the protection of the people in the forum, rousing

their feelings to the highest pitch by the marks of the slave-whip visible on

his person.  Some such incidents had probably happened, though we have no

historians to recount them.  Moreover, it is not unreasonable to imagine that

that public mental affliction which the purifier Epimenides had been invoked

to appease, as it sprung in part from pestilence, so it had its cause partly

in years of sterility, which must of course have aggravated the distress of

the small cultivators.  However this may be, such was the condition of things

in B.C. 594 through mutiny of the poor freemen and Thetes, and uneasiness of

the middling citizens, that the governing oligarchy, unable either to enforce

their private debts or to maintain their political power, were obliged to

invoke the well-known wisdom and integrity of Solon.  Though his vigorous

protest - which doubtless rendered him acceptable to the mass of the people -

against the iniquity of the existing system had already been proclaimed in his

poems, they still hoped that he would serve as an auxiliary to help them over

their difficulties.  They therefore chose him, nominally as archon along with

Philombrotus, but with power in substance dictatorial.

 

     It had happened in several Grecian states that the governing oligarchies,

either by quarrels among their own members or by the general bad condition of

the people under their government, were deprived of that hold upon the public

mind which was essential to their power.  Sometimes - as in the case of

Pittacus of Mitylene anterior to the archonship of Solon, and often in the

factions of the Italian republics in the middle ages - the collision of

opposing forces had rendered society intolerable, and driven all parties to

acquiesce in the choice of some reforming dictator.  Usually, however, in the

early Greek oligarchies, this ultimate crisis was anticipated by some

ambitious individual, who availed himself of the public discontent to

overthrow the oligarchy and usurp the powers of a despot.  And so probably it

might have happened in Athens, had not the recent failure of Cylon, with all

its miserable consequences, operated as a deterring motive.  It is curious to

read, in the words of Solon himself, the temper in which his appointment was

construed by a large portion of the community, but more especially by his own

friends: bearing in mind that at this early day, so far as our knowledge goes,

democratical government was a thing unknown in Greece - all Grecian

governments were either oligarchical or despotic - the mass of the freemen

having not yet tasted of constitutional privilege.  His own friends and

supporters were the first to urge him, while redressing the prevalent

discontents, to multiply partisans for himself personally, and seize the

supreme power.  They even "chid him as a madman, for declining to haul up the

net when the fish were already enmeshed." The mass of the people, in despair

with their lot, would gladly have seconded him in such an attempt; while many

even among the oligarchy might have acquiesced in his personal government,

from the mere apprehension of something worse if they resisted it.  That Solon

might easily have made himself despot admits of little doubt.  And though the

position of a Greek despot was always perilous, he would have had greater

facility for maintaining himself in it than Pisistratus possessed after him;

so that nothing but the combination of prudence and virtue, which marks his

lofty character, restricted him within the trust specially confided to him.

To the surprise of every one - to the dissatisfaction of his own friends -

under the complaints alike (as he says) of various extreme and dissentient

parties, who required him to adopt measures fatal to the peace of society - he

set himself honestly to solve the very difficult and critical problem

submitted to him.

 

     Of all grievances, the most urgent was the condition of the poorer class

of debtors.  To their relief Solon's first measure, the memorable

Seisachtheia, or shaking off of burdens, was directed.  The relief which it

afforded was complete and immediate.  It cancelled at once all those contracts

in which the debtor had borrowed on the security either of his person or of

his land: it forbade all future loans or contracts in which the person of the

debtor was pledged as security: it deprived the creditor in future of all

power to imprison, or enslave, or extort work, from his debtor, and confined

him to an effective judgment at law authorizing the seizure of the property of

the latter.  It swept off all the numerous mortgage pillars from the landed

properties in Attica, leaving the land free from all past claims.  It

liberated and restored to their full rights all debtors actually in slavery

under previous legal adjudication; and it even provided the means (we do not

know how) of repurchasing in foreign lands, and bringing back to a renewed

life of liberty in Attica, many insolvents who had been sold for exportation.

And while Solon forbade every Athenian to pledge or sell his own person into

slavery, he took a step farther in the same direction by forbidding him to

pledge or sell his son, his daughter, or an unmarried sister under his

tutelage - excepting only the case in which either of the latter might be

detected in unchastity.  Whether this last ordinance was contemporaneous with

the Seisachtheia, or followed as one of his subsequent reforms, seems

doubtful.

 

     By this extensive measure the poor debtors - the Thetes, small tenants,

and proprietors - together with their families, were rescued from suffering

and peril.  But these were not the only debtors in the state: the creditors

and landlords of the exonerated Thetes were doubtless in their turn debtors to

others, and were less able to discharge their obligations in consequence of

the loss inflicted upon them by the Seisachtheia.  It was to assist these

wealthier debtors, whose bodies were in no danger - yet without exonerating

them entirely - that Solon resorted to the additional expedient of debasing

the money standard.  He lowered the standard of the drachma in a proportion of

something more than 25 per cent, so that 100 drachmas of the new standard

contained no more silver than 73 of the old, or 100 of the old were equivalent

to 138 of the new.  By this change the creditors of these more substantial

debtors were obliged to submit to a loss, while the debtors acquired an

exemption to the extent of about 27 per cent.

 

     Lastly, Solon decreed that all those who had been condemned by the

archons to atimy (civil disfranchisement) should be restored to their full

privileges of citizens - excepting, however, from this indulgence those who

had been condemned by the Ephetae, or by the Areopagus, or by the

Phylo-Basileis (the four kings of the tribes), after trial in the Prytaneum,

on charges either of murder or treason.  So wholesale a measure of amnesty

affords strong grounds for believing that the previous judgments of the

archons had been intolerably harsh; and it is to be recollected that the

Draconian ordinances were then in force.

 

     Such were the measures of relief with which Solon met the dangerous

discontent then prevalent.  That the wealthy men and leaders of the people -

whose insolence and iniquity he has himself severely denounced in his poems,

and whose views in nominating him he had greatly disappointed - should have

detested propositions which robbed them without compensation of many legal

rights, it is easy to imagine.  But the statement of Plutarch that the poor

emancipated debtors were also dissatisfied, from having expected that Solon

would not only remit their debts, but also redivide the soil of Attica, seems

utterly incredible; nor is it confirmed by any passage now remaining of the

Solonian poems.  Plutarch conceives the poor debtors as having in their minds

the comparison with Lycurgus and the equality of property at Sparta, which, in

my opinion, is clearly a matter of fiction; and even had it been true as a

matter of history long past and antiquated, would not have been likely to work

upon the minds of the multitude of Attica in the forcible way that the

biographer supposes.  The Seisachtheia must have exasperated the feelings and

diminished the fortunes of many persons; but it gave to the large body of

Thetes and small proprietors all that they could possibly have hoped.  We are

told that after a short interval it became eminently acceptable in the general

public mind, and procured for Solon a great increase of popularity - all ranks

concurring in a common sacrifice of thanksgiving and harmony.  One incident

there was which occasioned an outcry of indignation.  Three rich friends of

Solon, all men of great family in the state, and bearing names which appear in

history as borne by their descendants - namely: Conon, Cleinias, and

Hipponicus - having obtained from Solon some previous hint of his designs,

profited by it, first to borrow money, and next to make purchases of lands;

and this selfish breach of confidence would have disgraced Solon himself, had

it not been found that he was personally a great loser, having lent money to

the extent of five talents.

 

     In regard to the whole measure of the Seisachtheia, indeed, though the

poems of Solon were open to every one, ancient authors gave different

statements both of its purport and of its extent.  Most of them construed it

as having cancelled indiscriminately all money contracts; while Androtion and

others thought that it did nothing more than lower the rate of interest and

depreciate the currency to the extent of 27 per cent., leaving the letter of

the contracts unchanged.  How Androtion came to maintain such an opinion we

cannot easily understand.  For the fragments now remaining from Solon seem

distinctly to refute it, though, on the other hand, they do not go so far as

to substantiate the full extent of the opposite view entertained by many

writers - that all money contracts indiscriminately were rescinded - against

which there is also a further reason, that if the fact had been so, Solon

could have had no motive to debase the money standard.  Such debasement

supposes that there must have been some debtors at least whose contracts

remained valid, and whom nevertheless he desired partially to assist.  His

poems distinctly mention three things: 1. The removal of the mortgage-pillars.

2. The enfranchisement of the land.  3. The protection, liberation, and

restoration of the persons of endangered or enslaved debtors. All these

expressions point distinctly to the Thetes and small proprietors, whose

sufferings and peril were the most urgent, and whose case required a remedy

immediate as well as complete.  We find that his repudiation of debts was

carried far enough to exonerate them, but no farther.

 

     It seems to have been the respect entertained for the character of Solon

which partly occasioned these various misconceptions of his ordinances for the

relief of debtors.  Androtion in ancient, and some eminent critics in modern

times are anxious to make out that he gave relief without loss or injustice to

any one.  But this opinion seems inadmissible.  The loss to creditors by the

wholesale abrogation of numerous preexisting contracts, and by the partial

depreciation of the coin, is a fact not to be disguised.  The Seisachtheia of

Solon, unjust so far as it rescinded previous agreements, but highly salutary

in its consequences, is to be vindicated by showing that in no other way could

the bonds of government have been held together, or the misery of the

multitude alleviated.  We are to consider, first, the great personal cruelty

of these preexisting contracts, which condemned the body of the free debtor

and his family to slavery; next, the profound detestation created by such a

system in the large mass of the poor, against both the judges and the

creditors by whom it had been enforced, which rendered their feelings

unmanageable so soon as they came together under the sentiment of a common

danger and with the determination to insure to each other mutual protection.

Moreover, the law which vests a creditor with power over the person of his

debtor so as to convert him into a slave, is likely to give rise to a class of

loans which inspire nothing but abhorrence - money lent with the foreknowledge

that the borrower will be unable to repay it, but also in the conviction that

the value of his person as a slave will make good the loss; thus reducing him

to a condition of extreme misery, for the purpose sometimes of aggrandizing,

sometimes of enriching, the lender.  Now the foundation on which the respect

for contracts rests, under a good law of debtor and creditor, is the very

reverse of this.  It rests on the firm conviction that such contracts are

advantageous to both parties as a class, and that to break up the confidence

essential to their existence would produce extensive mischief throughout all

society.  The man whose reverence for the obligation of a contract is now the

most profound, would have entertained a very different sentiment if he had

witnessed the dealings of lender and borrower at Athens under the old

ante-Solonian law.  The oligarchy had tried their best to enforce this law of

debtor and creditor with its disastrous series of contracts, and the only

reason why they consented to invoke the aid of Solon was because they had lost

the power of enforcing it any longer, in consequence of the newly awakened

courage and combination of the people.  That which they could not do for

themselves, Solon could not have done for them, even had he been willing.  Nor

had he in his position the means either of exempting or compensating those

creditors who, separately taken, were open to no reproach; indeed, in

following his proceedings, we see plainly that he thought compensation due,

not to the creditors, but to the past sufferings of the enslaved debtor, since

he redeemed several of them from foreign captivity, and brought them back to

their homes.  It is certain that no measure simply and exclusively prospective

would have sufficed for the emergency.  There was an absolute necessity for

overruling all that class of preexisting rights which had produced so violent

a social fever.  While, therefore, to this extent, the Seisachtheia cannot be

acquitted of injustice, we may confidently affirm that the injustice inflicted

was an indispensable price paid for the maintenance of the peace of society,

and for the final abrogation of a disastrous system as regarded insolvents.

And the feeling as well as the legislation universal in the modern European

world, by interdicting beforehand all contracts for selling a man's person or

that of his children into slavery, goes far to sanction practically the

Solonian repudiation.

 

     One thing is never to be forgotten in regard to this measure, combined

with the concurrent amendments introduced by Solon in the law - it settled

finally the question to which it referred.  Never again do we hear of the law

of debtor and creditor as disturbing Athenian tranquillity.  The general

sentiment which grew up at Athens, under the Solonian money-law and under the

democratical government, was one of high respect for the sanctity of

contracts.  Not only was there never any demand in the Athenian democracy for

new tables or a depreciation of the money standard, but a formal abnegation of

any such projects was inserted in the solemn oath taken annually by the

numerous Dicasts, who formed the popular judicial body called Heliaea or the

Heliastic jurors: the same oath which pledged them to uphold the democratical

constitution, also bound them to repudiate all proposals either for an

abrogation of debts or for a redivision of the lands.  There can be little

doubt that under the Solonian law, which enabled the creditor to seize the

property of his debtor, but gave him no power over the person, the system of

money-lending assumed a more beneficial character.  The old noxious contracts,

mere snares for the liberty of a poor freeman and his children, disappeared,

and loans of money took their place, founded on the property and prospective

earnings of the debtor, which were in the main useful to both parties, and

therefore maintained their place in the moral sentiment of the public.  And

though Solon had found himself compelled to rescind all the mortgages on land

subsisting in his time, we see money freely lent upon this same security

throughout the historical times of Athens, and the evidentiary

mortgage-pillars remaining ever after undisturbed.

 

     In the sentiment of an early society, as in the old Roman law, a

distinction is commonly made between the principal and the interest of a loan,

though the creditors have sought to blend them indissolubly together. If the

borrower cannot fulfil his promise to repay the principal, the public will

regard him as having committed a wrong which he must make good by his person.

But there is not the same unanimity as to his promise to pay interest: on the

contrary, the very exaction of interest will be regarded by many in the same

light in which the English law considers usurious interest, as tainting the

whole transaction.  But in the modern mind, principal, and interest within a

limited rate, have so grown together, that we hardly understand how it can

ever have been pronounced unworthy of an honorable citizen to lend money on

interest.  Yet such is the declared opinion of Aristotle and other superior

men of antiquity; while at Rome, Cato the censor went so far as to denounce

the practice as a heinous crime.  It was comprehended by them among the worst

of the tricks of trade - and they held that all trade, or profit derived from

interchange, was unnatural, as being made by one man at the expense of

another: such pursuits therefore could not be commended, though they might be

tolerated to a certain extent as a matter of necessity, but they belonged

essentially to an inferior order of citizens. What is remarkable in Greece is,

that the antipathy of a very early state of society against traders and

money-lenders lasted longer among the philosophers than among the mass of the

people - it harmonized more with the social ideal of the former, than with the

practical instincts of the latter.

 

     In a rude condition such as that of the ancient Germans described by

Tacitus, loans on interest are unknown.  Habitually careless of the future,

the Germans were gratified both in giving and receiving presents, but without

any idea that they thereby either imposed or contracted an obligation.  To a

people in this state of feeling, a loan on interest presents the repulsive

idea of making profit out of the distress of the borrower.  Moreover, it is

worthy of remark that the first borrowers must have been for the most part men

driven to this necessity by the pressure of want, and contracting debt as a

desperate resource, without any fair prospect of ability to repay: debt and

famine run together in the mind of the poet Hesiod.  The borrower is, in this

unhappy state, rather a distressed man soliciting aid than a solvent man

capable of making and fulfilling a contract.  If he cannot find a friend to

make him a free gift in the former character, he will not, under the latter

character, obtain a loan from a stranger, except by the promise of exorbitant

interest, and by the fullest eventual power over his person which he is in a

condition to grant.  In process of time a new class of borrowers arise who

demand money for temporary convenience or profit, but with full prospect of

repayment - a relation of lender and borrower quite different from that of the

earlier period, when it presented itself in the repulsive form of misery on

the one side, set against the prospect of very large profit on the other. If

the Germans of the time of Tacitus looked to the condition of the poor debtors

in Gaul, reduced to servitude under a rich creditor, and swelling by hundreds

the crowd of his attendants, they would not be disposed to regret their own

ignorance of the practice of money-lending.  How much the interest of money

was then regarded as an undue profit extorted from distress is powerfully

illustrated by the old Jewish law; the Jew being permitted to take interest

from foreigners - whom the lawgiver did not think himself obliged to protect -

but not from his own countrymen.  The Koran follows out this point of view

consistently, and prohibits the taking of interest altogether.  In most other

nations laws have been made to limit the rate of interest, and at Rome

especially the legal rate was successively lowered - though it seems, as might

have been expected, that the restrictive ordinances were constantly eluded.

All such restrictions have been intended for the protection of debtors; an

effect which large experience proves them never to produce, unless it be

called protection to render the obtaining of money on loan impracticable for

the most distressed borrowers.  But there was another effect which they did

tend to produce - they softened down the primitive antipathy against the

practice generally, and confined the odious name of usury to loans lent above

the fixed legal rate.

 

     In this way alone could they operate beneficially, and their tendency to

counterwork the previous feeling was at that time not unimportant, coinciding

as it did with other tendencies arising out of the industrial progress of

society, which gradually exhibited the relation of lender and borrower in a

light more reciprocal, beneficial, and less repugnant to the sympathies of the

bystander.

Part III.

 

 The laws of Solon were inscribed on wooden rollers and triangular

tablets, in the species of writing called Boustrophedon (lines alternating

first from left to right, and next from right to left, like the course of the

ploughman - and preserved first in the Acropolis, subsequently in the

Prytaneum.  On the tablets, called Cyrbis, were chiefly commemorated the laws

respecting sacred rites and sacrifices; on the pillars or rollers, of which

there were at least sixteen, were placed the regulations respecting matters

profane.  So small are the fragments which have come down to us, and so much

has been ascribed to Solon by the orators which belongs really to the

subsequent times, that it is hardly possible to form any critical judgment

respecting the legislation as a whole, or to discover by what general

principles or purposes he was guided.

 

     He left unchanged all the previous laws and practices respecting the

crime of homicide, connected as they were intimately with the religious

feelings of the people.  The laws of Draco on this subject, therefore,

remainded, but on other subjects, according to Plutarch, they were altogether

abrogated; there is, however, room for supposing that the repeal cannot have

been so sweeping as this biographer represents.

 

     The Solonian laws seem to have borne more or less upon all the great

departments of human interest and duty.  We find regulations political and

religious, public and private, civil and criminal, commercial, agricultural,

sumptuary, and disciplinarian.  Solon provides punishment for crimes,

restricts the profession and status of the citizen, prescribes detailed rules

for marriage as well as for burial, for the common use of springs and wells,

and for the mutual interest of conterminous farmers in planting or hedging

their properties.  As far as we can judge from the imperfect manner in which

his laws come before us, there does not seem to have been any attempt at a

systematic order or classification.  Some of them are mere general and vague

directions, while others again run into the extreme of specialty.

 

     By far the most important of all was the amendment of the law of debtor

and creditor which has already been adverted to, and the abolition of the

power of fathers and brothers to sell their daughters and sisters into

slavery.  The prohibition of all contracts on the security of the body was

itself sufficient to produce a vast improvement in the character and condition

of the poorer population, - a result which seems to have been so sensibly

obtained from the legislation of Solon, that Boeckh and some other eminent

authors suppose him to have abolished villeinage and conferred upon the poor

tenants a property in their lands, annulling the seigniorial rights of the

landlord.  But this opinion rests upon no positive evidence, nor are we

warranted in ascribing to him any stronger measure in reference to the land

than the annulment of the previous mortgages.

 

     The first pillar of his laws contained a regulation respecting exportable

produce.  He forbade the exportation of all produce of the Attic soil, except

olive oil alone.  And the sanction employed to enforce observance of this law

deserves notice, as an illustration of the ideas of the time: the archon was

bound, on pain of forfeiting one hundred drachmas, to pronounce solemn curses

against every offender.  We are probably to take this prohibition in

conjunction with other objects said to have been contemplated by Solon,

especially the encouragement of artisans manufacturers at Athens.  Observing

(we are told) that many new immigrants were just then flocking into Attica to

seek an establishment, in consequence of its greater security, he was anxious

to turn them rather to manufacturing industry than to the cultivation of a

soil naturally poor.  He forbade the granting of citizenship to any

immigrants, except to such as had quitted irrevocably their former abodes and

come to Athens for the purpose of carrying on some industrial profession; and

in order to prevent idleness, he directed the senate of Areopagus to keep

watch over the lives of the citizens generally, and punish every one who had

no course of regular labor to support him.  If a father had not taught his son

some art or profession, Solon relieved the son from all obligation to maintain

him in his old age.  And it was to encourage the multiplication of these

artisans that he insured, or sought to insure, to the residents in Attica, the

exclusive right of buying and consuming all its landed produce except olive

oil, which was raised in abundance, more than sufficient for their wants.  It

was his wish that the trade with foreigners should be carried on by exporting

the produce of artisan labor, instead of the produce of land.

 

     This commercial prohibition is founded on principles substantially

similar to those which were acted upon in the early history of England, with

reference both to corn and to wool, and in other European countries also.  In

so far as it was at all operative it tended to lessen the total quantity of

produce raised upon the soil of Attica, and thus to keep the price of it from

rising.  But the law of Solon must have been altogether inoperative, in

reference to the great articles of human subsistence; for Attica imported,

both largely and constantly, grain and salt provisions, probably also wool and

flax for the spinning and weaving of the women, and certainly timber for

building.  Whether the law was ever enforced with reference to figs and honey

may well be doubted; at least these productions of Attica were in after times

trafficked in, and generally consumed throughout Greece.  Probably also in the

time of Solon the silver mines of Laurium had hardly begun to be worked: these

afterward became highly productive, and furnished to Athens a commodity for

foreign payments no less convenient than lucrative.

 

     It is interesting to notice the anxiety, both of Solon and of Draco, to

enforce among their fellow-citizens industrious and self-maintaining habits;

and we shall find the same sentiment proclaimed by Pericles, at the time when

Athenian power was at its maximum.  Nor ought we to pass over this early

manifestation in Attica of an opinion equitable and tolerant toward sedentary

industry, which in most other parts of Greece was regarded as comparatively

dishonorable.  The general tone of Grecian sentiment recognized no occupations

as perfectly worthy of a free citizen except arms, agriculture, and athletic

and musical exercises; and the proceedings of the Spartans, who kept aloof

even from agriculture and left it to their helots, were admired, though they

could not be copied, throughout most of the Hellenic world.  Even minds like

Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon concurred to a considerable extent in this

feeling, which they justified on the ground that the sedentary life and

unceasing house-work of the artisan were inconsistent with military aptitude.

The town-occupations are usually described by a word which carries with it

contemptuous ideas, and though recognized as indispensable to the existence of

the city, are held suitable only for an inferior and semi-privileged order of

citizens.  This, the received sentiment among Greeks, as well as foreigners,

found a strong and growing opposition at Athens, as I have already said -

corroborated also by a similar feeling at Corinth.  The trade of Corinth, as

well as of Chalcis in Euboea, was extensive, at a time when that of Athens had

scarce any existence.  But while the despotism of Periander can hardly have

failed to operate as a discouragement to industry at Corinth, the

contemporaneous legislation of Solon provided for traders and artisans a new

home at Athens, giving the first encouragement to that numerous

town-population both in the city and in the Piraeus, which we find actually

residing there in the succeeding century. The multiplication of such town

residents, both citizens and metics (i.e., resident persons, not citizens, but

enjoying an assured position and civil rights), was a capital fact in the

onward march of Athens, since it determined not merely the extension of her

trade, but also the preeminence of her naval forces-and thus, as a further

consequence, lent extraordinary vigor to her democratical government.  It

seems, moreover, to have been a departure from the primitive temper of

Atticism, which tended both to cantonal residence and rural occupation.  We

have, therefore, the greater interest in noting the first mention of it as a

consequence of the Solonian legislation.

 

     To Solon is first owing the admission of a power of testamentary bequest

at Athens in all cases in which a man had no legitimate children.  According

to the preexisting custom, we may rather presume that if a deceased person

left neither children nor blood relations, his property descended (as at Rome)

to his gens and phratry.  Throughout most rude states of society the power of

willing is unknown, as among the ancient Germans - among the Romans prior to

the twelve tables - in the old laws of the Hindus, etc.  Society limits a

man's interest or power of enjoyment to his life, and considers his relatives

as having joint reversionary claims to his property, which take effect, in

certain determinate proportions, after his death.  Such a law was the more

likely to prevail at Athens, since the perpetuity of the family sacred rites,

in which the children and near relatives partook of right, was considered by

the Athenians as a matter of public as well as of private concern.  Solon gave

permission to every man dying without children to bequeath his property by

will as he should think fit; and the testament was maintained unless it could

be shown to have been procured by some compulsion or improper seduction.

Speaking generally, this continued to be the law throughout the historical

times of Athens.  Sons, wherever there were sons, succeeded to the property of

their father in equal shares, with the obligation of giving out their sisters

in marriage along with a certain dowry.  If there were no sons, then the

daughters succeeded, though the father might by will, within certain limits,

determine the person to whom they should be married, with their rights of

succession attached to them; or might, with the consent of his daughters, make

by will certain other arrangements about his property.  A person who had no

children or direct lineal descendants might bequeath his property at pleasure:

if he died without a will, first his father, then his brother or brother's

children, next his sister or sister's children succeeded: if none such

existed, then the cousins by the father's side, next the cousins by the

mother's side, - the male line of descent having preference over the female.

 

     Such was the principle of the Solonian laws of succession, though the

particulars are in several ways obscure and doubtful.  Solon, it appears, was

the first who gave power of superseding by testament the rights of agnates and

gentiles to succession, - a proceeding in consonance with his plan of

encouraging both industrious occupation and the consequent multiplication of

individual acquisitions.

 

     It has been already mentioned that Solon forbade the sale of daughters or

sisters into slavery by fathers or brothers; a prohibition which shows how

much females had before been looked upon as articles of property.  And it

would seem that before his time the violation of a free woman must have been

punished at the discretion of the magistrates; for we are told that he was the

first who enacted a penalty of one hundred drachmas against the offender, and

twenty drachmas against the seducer of a free woman.  Moreover, it is said

that he forbade a bride when given in marriage to carry with her any personal

ornaments and appurtenances, except to the extent of three robes and certain

matters of furniture not very valuable.  Solon further imposed upon women

several restraints in regard to proceeding at the obsequies of deceased

relatives.  He forbade profuse demonstrations of sorrow, singing of compose

dirges, and costly sacrifices and contributions.  He limited strictly the

quantity of meat and drink admissible for the funeral banquet, and prohibited

nocturnal exit, except in a car and with a light.  It appears that both in

Greece and Rome, the feelings of duty and affection on the part of surviving

relaties prompted them to ruinous expense in a funeral, as well as to

unmeasured effusions both of grief and conviviality; and the general necessity

experienced for legal restriction is attested by the remark of Plutarch, that

similar prohibitions to those enacted by Solon were likewise in force at his

native town of Chaeronea.

 

     Other penal enactments of Solon are yet to be mentioned.  He forbade

absolutely evil speaking with respect to the dead.  He forbade it likewise

with respect to the living, either in a temple or before judges or archons, or

at any public festival - on pain of a forfeit of three drachmas to the person

aggrieved, and two more to the public treasury.  How mild the general

character of his punishments was, may be judged by this law against foul

language, not less than by the law before mentioned against rape.  Both the

one and the other of these offences were much more severely dealt with under

the subsequent law of democratical Athens.  The peremptory edict against

speaking ill of a deceased person, though doubtless springing in a great

degree from disinterested repugnance, is traceable also in part to that fear

of the wrath of the departed which strongly possessed the early Greek mind.

 

     It seems generally that Solon determined by law the outlay for the public

sacrifies, though we do not know what were his particular directions. We are

told that he reckoned a sheep and a medimnus (of wheat or barley?) as

equivalent, either of them, to a drachma, and that he also prescribed the

prices to be paid for first-rate oxen intended for solemn occasions.  But it

astonishes us to see the large recompense which he awarded out of the public

treasury to a victor at the Olympic or Isthmian games: to the former, five

hundred drachmas, equal to one year's income of the highest of the four

classes on the census; to the latter one hundred drachmas.  The magnitude of

these rewards strikes us the more when we compare them with the fines on rape

and evil speaking.  We cannot be surprised that the philosopher Xenophanes

noticed, with some degree of severity, the extravagant estimate of this

species of excellence, current among the Grecian cities.  At the same time we

must remember both that these Pan-Hellenic games presented the chief visible

evidence of peace and sympathy among the numerous communities of Greece, and

that in the time of Solon, factitious reward was still needful to encourage

them.  In respect to land and agriculture Solon proclaimed a public reward of

five drachmas for every wolf brought in, and one drachma for every wolf's cub;

the extent of wild land has at all times been considerable in Attica. He also

provided rules respecting the use of wells between neighbors, and respecting

the planting in conterminous olive grounds.  Whether any of these regulations

continued in operation during the better-known period of Athenian history

cannot be safely affirmed.

 

     In respect to theft, we find it stated that Solon repealed the punishment

of death which Draco had annexed to that crime, and enacted, as a penalty,

compensation to an amount double the value of the property stolen. The

simplicity of this law perhaps affords ground for presuming that it really

does belong to Solon.  But the law which prevailed during the time of the

orators respecting theft must have been introduced at some later period, since

it enters into distinctions and mentions both places and forms of procedure,

which we cannot reasonably refer to the forty-sixth Olympiad.  The public

dinners at the Prytaneum, of which the archons and a select few partook in

common, were also either first established, or perhaps only more strictly

regulated, by Solon.  He ordered barley cakes for their ordinary meals, and

wheaten loaves for festival days, prescribing how often each person should

dine at the table.  The honor of dining at the table of the Prytaneum was

maintained throughout as a valuable reward at the disposal of the government.

 

     Among the various laws of Solon, there are few which have attracted more

notice than that which pronounces the man who in a sedition stood aloof, and

took part with neither side, to be dishonored and disfranchised.  Strictly

speaking, this seems more in the nature of an emphatic moral denunciation, or

a religious curse, than a legal sanction capable of being formally applied in

an individual case and after judicial trial, - though the sentence of atimy,

under the more elaborated Attic procedure, was both definite in its penal

consequences and also judicially delivered.  We may, however, follow the

course of ideas under which Solon was induced to write this sentence on his

tables, and we may trace the influence of similar ideas in later Attic

institutions.  It is obvious that his denunciation is confined to that special

case in which a sedition has already broken out: we must suppose that Cylon

has seized the Acropolis, or that Pisistratus, Megacles, and Lycurgus are in

arms at the head of their partisans.  Assuming these leaders to be wealthy and

powerful men, which would in all probability be the fact, the constituted

authority - such as Solon saw before him in Attica, even after his own organic

amendments - was not strong enough to maintain the peace; it became, in fact,

itself one of the contending parties.  Under such given circumstances, the

sooner every citizen publicly declared his adherence to some of them, the

earlier this suspension of legal authority was likely to terminate.  Nothing

was so mischievous as the indifference of the mass, or their disposition to

let the combatants fight out the matter among themselves, and then to submit

to the victor.  Nothing was more likely to encourage aggression on the part of

an ambitious malcontent, than the conviction that if he could once overpower

the small amount of physical force which surrounded the archons, and exhibit

himself in armed possession of the Prytaneum or the Acropolis, he might

immediately count upon passive submission on the part of all the freemen

without.  Under the state of feeling which Solon inculcates, the insurgent

leader would have to calculate that every man who was not actively in his

favor would be actively against him, and this would render his enterprise much

more dangerous.  Indeed, he could then never hope to succeed, except on the

double supposition of extraordinary popularity in his own person and

widespread detestation of the existing government.  He would thus be placed

under the influence of powerful deterring motives; so that ambition would be

less likely to seduce him into a course which threatened nothing but ruin,

unless under such encouragements from the preexisting public opinion as to

make his success a result desirable for the community.  Among the small

political societies of Greece - especially in the age of Solon, when the

number of despots in other parts of Greece seems to have been at its maximum -

every government, whatever might be its form, was sufficiently weak to make

its overthrow a matter of comparative facility.  Unless upon the supposition

of a band of foreign mercenaries - which would render the government a system

of naked force, and which the Athenian lawgiver would of course never

contemplate - there was no other stay for it except a positive and pronounced

feeling of attachment on the part of the mass of citizens.  Indifference on

their part would render them a prey to every daring man of wealth who chose to

become a conspirator.  That they should be ready to come forward, not only

with voice but with arms - and that they should be known beforehand to be so -

was essential to the maintenance of every good Grecian government.  It was

salutary in preventing mere personal attempts at revolution; and pacific in

its tendency, even where the revolution had actually broken out, because in

the greater number of cases the proportion of partisans would probably be very

unequal, and the inferior party would be compelled to renounce their hopes.

 

     It will be observed that, in this enactment of Solon, the existing

government is ranked merely as one of the contending parties.  The virtuous

citizen is enjoined, not to come forward in its support, but to come forward

at all events, either for it or against it.  Positive and early action is all

which is prescribed to him as matter of duty.  In the age of Solon there was

no political idea or system yet current which could be assumed as an

unquestionable datum - no conspicuous standard to which the citizens could be

pledged under all circumstances to attach themselves.  The option lay only

between a mitigated oligarchy in possession, and a despot in possibility; a

contest wherein the affections of the people could rarely be counted upon in

favor of the established government.  But this neutrality in respect to the

constitution was at an end after the revolution of Clisthenes, when the idea

of the sovereign people and the democratical institutions became both familiar

and precious to every individual citizen.  We shall hereafter find the

Athenians binding themselves by the most sincere and solemn oaths to uphold

their democracy against all attempts to subvert it; we shall discover in them

a sentiment not less positive and uncompromising in its direction, than

energetic in its inspirations.  But while we notice this very important change

in their character, we shall at the same time perceive that the wise

precautionary recommendation of Solon, to obviate sedition by an early

declaration of the impartial public between two contending leaders, was not

lost upon them.  Such, in point of fact, was the purpose of that salutary and

protective institution which is called the Ostracism.  When two party leaders,

in the early stages of the Athenian democracy, each powerful in adherents and

influence, had become passionately embarked in bitter and prolonged opposition

to each other, such opposition was likely to conduct one or other to violent

measures.  Over and above the hopes of party triumph, each might well fear

that, if he himself continued within the bounds of legality, he might fall a

victim to aggressive proceedings on the part of his antagonists.  To ward off

this formidable danger, a public vote was called for, to determine which of

the two should go into temporary banishment, retaining his property and

unvisited by any disgrace.  A number of citizens, not less than six thousand,

voting secretly, and therefore independently, were required to take part,

pronouncing upon one or other of these eminent rivals a sentence of exile for

ten years.  The one who remained became, of course, more powerful, yet less in

a situation to be driven into anti-constitutional courses than he was before.

Tragedy and comedy were now beginning to be grafted on the lyric and choric

song.  First, one actor was provided to relieve the chorus; next, two actors

were introduced to sustain fictitious characters and carry on a dialogue in

such manner that the songs of the chorus and the interlocution of the actors

formed a continuous piece. Solon, after having heard Thespis acting (as all

the early composers did, both tragic and comic) in his own comedy, asked him

afterward if he was not ashamed to pronounce such falsehoods before so large

an audience.  And when Thespis answered that there was no harm in saying and

doing such things merely for amusement, Solon indignantly exclaimed, striking

the ground with his stick, "If once we come to praise and esteem such

amusement as this, we shall quickly find the effects of it in our daily

transactions." For the authenticity of this anecdote it would be rash to

vouch, but we may at least treat it as the protest of some early philosopher

against the deceptions of the drama: and it is interesting as marking the

incipient struggles of that literature in which Athens afterward attained such

unrivaled excellence.

 

     It would appear that all the laws of Solon were proclaimed, inscribed,

and accepted without either discussion or resistance.  He is said to have

described them, not as the best laws which he could himself have imagined, but

as the best which he could have induced the people to accept.  He gave them

validity for the space of ten years, during which period both the senate

collectively and the archons individually swore to observe them with fidelity;

under penalty, in case of non-observance, of a golden statue as large as life

to be erected at Delphi.  But though the acceptance of the laws was

accomplished without difficulty, it was not found so easy either for the

people to understand and obey, or for the framer to explain them.  Every day

persons came to Solon either with praise, or criticism, or suggestions of

various improvements, or questions as to the construction of particular

enactments; until at last he became tired of this endless process of reply and

vindication, which was seldom successful either in removing obscurity or in

satisfying complainants.  Foreseeing that if he remained he would be compelled

to make changes, he obtained leave of absence from his countrymen for ten

years, trusting that before the expiration of that period they would have

become accustomed to his laws.  He quitted his native city in the full

certainty that his laws would remain unrepealed until his return; for (says

Herodotus) "the Athenians could not repeal them, since they were bound by

solemn oaths to observe them for ten years." The unqualified manner in which

the historian here speaks of an oath, as if it created a sort of physical

necessity and shut out all possibility of a contrary result, deserves notice

as illustrating Grecian sentiment.

 

     On departing from Athens, Solon first visited Egypt, where he

communicated largely with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Sais,

Egyptian priests who had much to tell respecting their ancient history, and

from whom he learned matters, real or pretended, far transcending in alleged

antiquity the oldest Grecian gencalogies - especially the history of the vast

submerged island of Atlantis, and the war which the ancestors of the Athenians

had successfully carried on against it, nine thousand years before. Solon is

said to have commenced an epic poem upon this subject, but he did not live to

finish it, and nothing of it now remains.  From Egypt he went to Cyprus, where

he visited the small town of Aepia, said to have been originally founded by

Demophon; son of Theseus, and ruled at this period by the prince Philocyprus -

each town in Cyprus having its own petty prince.  It was situated near the

river Clarius in a position precipitous and secure, but inconvenient and

ill-supplied.  Solon persuaded Philocyprus to quit the old site and establish

a new town down in the fertile plain beneath.  He himself stayed and became

oecist of the new establishment, making all the regulations requisite for its

safe and prosperous march, which was indeed so decisively manifested that many

new settlers flocked into the new plantation, called by Philocyprus Soli, in

honor of Solon.  To our deep regret, we are not permitted to know what these

regulations were; but the general fact is attested by the poems of Solon

himself, and the lines in which he bade farewell to Philocyprus on quitting

the island are yet before us.  On the dispositions of this prince his poem

bestowed unqualified commendation.

 

     Besides his visit to Egypt and Cyprus, a story was also current of his

having conversed with the Lydian king Croesus at Sardis.  The communication

said to have taken place between them has been woven by Herodotus into a sort

of moral tale which forms one of the most beautiful episodes in his whole

history.  Though this tale has been told and retold as if it were genuine

history, yet as it now stands it is irreconcilable with chronology - although

very possibly Solon may at some time or other have visited Sardis, and seen

Croesus as hereditary prince.

 

     But even if no chronological objections existed, the moral purpose of the

tale is so prominent, and pervades it so systematically from beginning to end,

that these internal grounds are of themselves sufficiently strong to impeach

its credibility as a matter of fact, unless such doubts happen to be

outweighed - which in this case they are not - by good contemporary testimony.

The narrative of Solon and Croesus can be taken for nothing else but an

illustrative fiction, borrowed by Herodotus from some philosopher, and clothed

in his own peculiar beauty of expression, which on this occasion is more

decidedly poetical than is habitual with him.  I cannot transcribe, and I

hardly dare to abridge it.  The vainglorious Croesus, at the summit of his

conquests and his riches, endeavors to win from his visitor Solon an opinion

that he is the happiest of mankind.  The latter, after having twice preferred

to him modest and meritorious Grecian citizens, at length reminds him that his

vast wealth and power are of a tenure too precarious to serve as an evidence

of happiness; that the gods are jealous and meddlesome, and often make the

show of happiness a mere prelude to extreme disaster; and that no man's life

can be called happy until the whole of it has been played out, so that it may

be seen to be out of the reach of reverses.  Croesus treats this opinion as

absurd, but "a great judgment from God fell upon him, after Solon was departed

- probably (observes Herodotus) because he fancied himself the happiest of all

men." First he lost his favorite son Atys, a brave and intelligent youth (his

only other son being dumb).  For the Mysians of Olympus being ruined by a

destructive and formidable wild boar, which they were unable to subdue,

applied for aid to Croesus, who sent to the spot a chosen hunting force, and

permitted - though with great reluctance, in consequence of an alarming dream

- that his favorite son should accompany them.  The young prince was

unintentionally slain by the Phrygian exile Adrastus, whom Croesus had

sheltered and protected.  Hardly had the latter recovered from the anguish of

this misfortune, when the rapid growth of Cyrus and the Persian power induced

him to go to war with them, against the advice of his wisest counsellors.

After a struggle of about three years he was completely defeated, his capital

Sardis taken by storm, and himself made prisoner.  Cyrus ordered a large pile

to be prepared, and placed upon it Croesus in fetters, together with fourteen

young Lydians, in the intention of burning them alive either as a religious

offering, or in fulfilment of a vow, "or perhaps (says Herodotus) to see

whether some of the gods would not interfere to rescue a man so preemiently

pious as the king of Lydia." In this sad extremity, Croesus bethought him of

the warning which he had before despised, and thrice pronounced, with a deep

groan, the name of Solon.  Cyrus desired the interpreters to inquire whom he

was invoking, and learnt in reply the anecdote of the Athenian lawgiver,

together with the solemn memento which he had offered to Croesus during more

prosperous days, attesting the frail tenure of all human greatness.  The

remark sunk deep into the Persian monarch as a token of what might happen to

himself: he repented of his purpose; and directed that the pile, which had

already been kindled, should be immediately extinguished.  But the orders came

too late.  In spite of the most zealous efforts of the bystanders, the flame

was found unquenchable, and Croesus would still have been burned, had he not

implored with prayers and tears the succor of Apollo, to whose Delphian and

Theban temples he had given such munificent presents.  His prayers were heard,

the fair sky was immediately overcast and a profuse rain descended, sufficient

to extinguish the flames. The life of Croesus was thus saved, and he became

afterward the confidential friend and adviser of his conqueror.

 

     Such is the brief outline of a narrative which Herodotus has given with

full development and with impressive effect.  It would have served as a

show-lecture to the youth of Athens not less admirably than the well-known

fable of the Choice of Heracles, which the philosopher Prodicus, a junior

contemporary of Herodotus, delivered with so much popularity.  It illustrates

forcibly the religious and ethical ideas of antiquity; the deep sense of the

jealousy of the gods, who would not endure pride in any one except themselves;

the impossibility, for any man, of realizing to himself more than a very

moderate share of happiness; the danger from a reactionary Nemesis, if at any

time he had overpassed such limit; and the necessity of calculations taking in

the whole of life, as a basis for rational comparison of different

individuals.  And it embodies, as a practical consequence from these feelings,

the often-repeated protest of moralists against vehement impulses and

unrestrained aspirations.  The more valuable this narrative appears, in its

illustrative character, the less can we presume to treat it as a history.

 

     It is much to be regretted that we have no information respecting events

in Attica immediately after the Solonian laws and constitution, which were

promulgated in B.C. 594, so as to understand better the practical effect of

these changes.  What we next hear respecting Solon in Attica refers to a

period immediately preceding the first usurpation of Pisistratus in B.C. 560,

and after the return of Solon from his long absence.  We are here again

introduced to the same oligarchical dissensions as are reported to have

prevailed before the Solonian legislation: the Pediis, or opulent proprietors

of the plain round Athens, under Lycurgus; the Parali of the south of Attica,

under Megacles; and the Diacrii or mountaineers of the eastern cantons, the

poorest of the three classes, under Pisistratus, are in a state of violent

intestine dispute.  The account of Plutarch represents Solon as returning to

Athens during the height of this sedition.  He was treated with respect by all

parties, but his recommendations were no longer obeyed, and he was

disqualified by age from acting with effect in public.  He employed his best

efforts to mitigate party animosities, and applied himself particularly to

restrain the ambition of Pisistratus, whose ulterior projects he quickly

detected.

 

     The future greatness of Pisistratus is said to have been first portended

by a miracle which happened, even before his birth, to his father Hippocrates

at the Olympic games.  It was realized, partly by his bravery and conduct,

which had been displayed in the capture of Nisaea from the Megarians - partly

by his popularity of speech and manners, his championship of the poor, and his

ostentatious disavowal of all selfish pretensions - partly by an artful

mixture of stratagem and force.  Solon, after having addressed fruitless

remonstrances to Pisistratus himself, publicly denounced his designs in verses

addressed to the people.  The deception, whereby Pisistratus finally

accomplished his design, is memorable in Grecian tradition.  He appeared one

day in the agora of Athens in his chariot with a pair of mules: he had

intentionally wounded both his person and the mules, and in this condition he

threw himself upon the compassion and defence of the people, pretending that

his political enemies had violently attacked him.  He implored the people to

grant him a guard, and at the moment when their sympathies were freshly

aroused both in his favor and against his supposed assassins, Aristo proposed

formally to the ecclesia (the pro-bouleutic senate, being composed of friends

of Pisistratus, had previously authorized the proposition) that a company of

fifty club-men should be assigned as a permanent body-guard for the defence of

Pisistratus. To this motion Solon opposed a strenuous resistance, but found

himself overborne, and even treated as if he had lost his senses.  The poor

were earnest in favor of it, while the rich were afraid to express their

dissent; and he could only comfort himself after the fatal vote had been

passed, by exclaiming that he was wiser than the former and more determined

than the latter.  Such was one of the first known instances in which this

memorable stratagem was played off against the liberty of a Grecian community.

 

     The unbounded popular favor which had procured the passing of this grant

was still further manifested by the absence of all precautions to prevent the

limits of the grant from being exceeded.  The number of the body-guard was not

long confined to fifty, and probably their clubs were soon exchanged for

sharper weapons.  Pisistratus thus found himself strong enough to throw off

the mask and seize the Acropolis.  His leading opponents, Megacles and the

Alcinaeonids, immediately fled the city, and it was left to the venerable age

and undaunted patriotism of Solon to stand forward almost alone in a vain

attempt to resist the usurpation.  He publicly presented himself in the

market-place, employing encouragement, remonstrance and reproach, in order to

rouse the spirit of the people.  To prevent this despotism from coming (he

told them) would have been easy; to shake it off now was more difficult, yet

at the same time more glorious.  But he spoke in vain, for all who were not

actually favorable to Pisistratus listened only to their fears, and remained

passive; nor did any one join Solon, when, as a last appeal, he put on his

armor and planted himself in military posture before the door of his house. "I

have done my duty (he exclaimed at length); I have sustained to the best of my

power my country and the laws"; and he then renounced all further hope of

opposition - though resisting the instances of his friends that he should

flee, and returning for answer, when they asked him on what he relied for

protection, "On my old age." Nor did he even think it necessary to repress the

inspirations of his Muse.  Some verses yet remain, composed seemingly at a

moment when the strong hand of the new despot had begun to make itself sorely

felt, in which he tells his countrymen - "If ye have endured sorrow from your

own baseness of soul, impute not the fault of this to the gods.  Ye have

yourselves put force and dominion into the hands of these men, and have thus

drawn upon yourselves wretched slavery."

 

     It is gratifying to learn that Pisistratus, whose conduct throughout his

despotism was comparatively mild, left Solon untouched.  How long this

distinguished man survived the practical subversion of his own constitution,

we cannot certainly determine; but according to the most probable statement he

died during the very next year, at the advanced age of eighty.

 

     We have only to regret that we are deprived of the means of following

more in detail his noble and exemplary character.  He represents the best

tendencies of his age, combined with much that is personally excellent: the

improved ethical sensibility; the thirst for enlarged knowledge and

observation, not less potent in old age than in youth; the conception of

regularized popular institutions, departing sensibly from the type and spirit

of the governments around him, and calculated to found a new character in the

Athenian people; a genuine and reflecting sympathy with the mass of the poor,

anxious not merely to rescue them from the oppressions of the rich, but also

to create in them habits of self-relying industry; lastly, during his

temporary possession of a power altogether arbitrary, not merely an absence of

all selfish ambition, but a rare discretion in seizing the mean between

conflicting exigencies.  In reading his poems we must always recollect that

what now appears commonplace was once new, so that to his comparatively

unlettered age the social pictures which he draws were still fresh, and his

exhortations calculated to live in the memory.  The poems composed on moral

subjects generally inculcate a spirit of gentleness toward others and

moderation in personal objects.  They represent the gods as irresistible,

retributive, favoring the good and punishing the bad, though sometimes very

tardily.  But his compositions on special and present occasions are usually

conceived in a more vigorous spirit; denouncing the oppressions of the rich at

one time, and the timid submission to Pisistratus at another - and expressing

in emphatic language his own proud consciousness of having stood forward as

champion of the mass of the people.  Of his early poems hardly anything is

preserved.  The few lines remaining seem to manifest a jovial temperament

which we may well conceive to have been overlaid by such political

difficulties as he had to encounter - difficulties arising successively out of

the Megarian war, the Cylonian sacrilege, the public despondency healed by

Epimenides, and the task of arbiter between a rapacious oligarchy and a

suffering people.  In one of his elegies addressed to Mimnermus, he marked out

the sixtieth year as the longest desirable period of life, in preference to

the eightieth year, which that poet had expressed a wish to attain.  But his

own life, as far as we can judge, seems to have reached the longer of the two

periods; and not the least honorable part of it (the resistance to

Pisistratus) occurs immediately before his death.

 

     There prevailed a story that his ashes were collected and scattered

around the island of Salamis, which Plutarch treats as absurd - though he

tells us at the same time that it was believed both by Aristotle and by many

other considerable men.  It is at least as ancient as the poet Cratinus, who

alluded to it in one of his comedies, and I do not feel inclined to reject it.

The inscription on the statue of Solon at Athens described him as a

Salaminian; he had been the great means of acquiring the island for his

country, and it seems highly probable that among the new Athenian citizens,

who went to settle there, he may have received a lot of land and become

enrolled among the Salaminian demots.  The dispersion of his ashes connecting

him with the island as its oecist, may be construed, if not as the expression

of a public vote, at least as a piece of affectionate vanity on the part of

his surviving friends.


 

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