Solon's Early Greek Legislation, Part Two
Author: Grote, George

Part II.


At Athens the more favorable point of view prevailed throughout all the
historical times. The march of industry and commerce, under the mitigated law
which prevailed subsequently to Solon, had been sufficient to bring it about
at a very early period and to suppress all public antipathy against lenders at
interest. We may remark, too, that this more equitable tone of opinion grew
up spontaneously, without any legal restriction on the rate of interest - no
such restriction having ever been imposed and the rate being expressly
declared free by a law ascribed to Solon himself. The same may probably be
said of the communities of Greece generally - at least there is no information
to make us suppose the contrary. But the feeling against lending money at
interest remained in the bosoms of the philosophical men long after it had
ceased to form a part of the practical morality of the citizens, and long
after it had ceased to be justified by the appearances of the case as at first
it really had been. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plutarch, treat the
practice as a branch of the commercial and money-getting spirit which they are
anxious to discourage; and one consequence of this was that they were less
disposed to contend strenuously for the inviolability of existing
money-contracts. The conservative feeling on this point was stronger among
the mass than among the philosophers. Plato even complains of it as
inconveniently preponderant, and as arresting the legislator in all
comprehensive projects of reform. For the most part, indeed, schemes of
cancelling debts and redividing lands were never thought of except by men of
desperate and selfish ambition, who made them stepping-stones to despotic
power. Such men were denounced alike by the practical sense of the community
and by the speculative thinkers: but when we turn to the case of the Spartan
king, Agis III, who proposed a complete extinction of debts and an equal
redivision of the landed property of the state, not with any selfish or
personal views, but upon pure ideas of patriotism, well or ill understood, and
for the purpose of renovating the lost ascendancy of Sparta - we find Plutarch
expressing the most unqualified admiration of this young king and his
projects, and treating the opposition made to him as originating in no better
feelings than meanness and cupidity. The philosophical thinkers on politics
conceived - and to a great degree justly, as I shall show hereafter - that the
conditions of security, in the ancient world, imposed upon the citizens
generally the absolute necessity of keeping up a military spirit and
willingness to brave at all times personal hardship and discomfort: so that
increase of wealth, on account of the habits of self-indulgence which it
commonly introduces, was regarded by them with more or less of disfavor. If
in their estimation any Grecian community had become corrupt, they were
willing to sanction great interference with preexisting rights for the purpose
of bringing it back nearer to their ideal standard. And the real security for
the maintenance of these rights lay in the conservative feelings of the
citizens generally, much more than in the opinions which superior minds
imbibed from the philosophers.

Such conservative feelings were in the subsequent Athenian democracy
peculiarly deep-rooted. The mass of the Athenian people identified
inseparably the maintenance of property in all its various shapes with that of
their laws and constitution. And it is a remarkable fact, that though the
admiration entertained at Athens for Solon was universal, the principle of his
Seisachtheia and of his money-depreciation was not only never imitated, but
found the strongest tacit reprobation; whereas at Rome, as well as in most of
the kingdoms of modern Europe, we know that one debasement of the coin
succeeded another. The temptation of thus partially eluding the pressure of
financial embarrassments proved, after one successful trial, too strong to be
resisted, and brought down the coin by successive depreciations from the full
pound of twelve ounces to the standard of one half ounce. It is of some
importance to take notice of this fact, when we reflect how much "Grecian
faith" has been degraded by the Roman writers into a byword for duplicity in
pecuniary dealings. The democracy of Athens - and indeed the cities of Greece
generally, both oligarchies and democracies - stands far above the senate of
Rome, and far above the modern kingdoms of France and England until
comparatively recent times, in respect of honest dealing with the coinage.
Moreover, while there occurred at Rome several political changes which brought
about new tables, or at least a partial depreciation of contracts, no
phenomenon of the same kind ever happened at Athens, during the three
centuries between Solon and the end of the free working of the democracy.
Doubtless there were fraudulent debtors at Athens; while the administration of
private law, though not in any way conniving at their proceedings, was far too
imperfect to repress them as effectually as might have been wished. But the
public sentiment on the point was just and decided. It may be asserted with
confidence that a loan of money at Athens was quite as secure as it ever was
at any time or place of the ancient world - in spite of the great and
important superiority of Rome with respect to the accumulation of a body of
authoritative legal precedent, the source of what was ultimately shaped into
the Roman jurisprudence. Among the various causes of sedition or mischief in
the Grecian communities, we hear little of the pressure of private debt.

By the measures of relief above described, Solon had accomplished results
surpassing his own best hopes. He had healed the prevailing discontents; and
such was the confidence and gratitude which he had inspired, that he was now
called upon to draw up a constitution and laws for the better working of the
government in future. His constitutional changes were great and valuable:
respecting his laws, what we hear is rather curious than important.

It has been already stated that, down to the time of Solon, the
classification received in Attica was that of the four Ionic tribes,
comprising in one scale the Phratries and Gentes, and in another scale the
three Trittyes and forty-eight Naucraries - while the Eupatridae, seemingly a
few specially respected gentes, and perhaps a few distinguished families in
all the gentes, had in their hands all the powers of government. Solon
introduced a new principle of classification - called in Greek the "timocratic
principle." He distributed all the citizens of the tribes, without any
reference to their gentes or phratries, into four classes, according to the
amount of their property, which he caused to be assessed and entered in a
public schedule. Those whose annual income was equal to five hundred medimni
of corn (about seven hundred imperial bushels) and upward - one medimnus being
considered equivalent to one drachma in money - he placed in the highest
class; those who received between three hundred and five hundred medimni or
drachmas formed the second class; and those between two hundred and three
hundred, the third. The fourth and most numerous class comprised all those
who did not possess land yielding a produce equal to two hundred medimni. The
first class, called Pentacosiomedimni, were alone eligible to the archonship
and to all commands: the second were called the knights or horsemen of the
state, as possessing enough to enable them to keep a horse and perform
military service in that capacity: the third class, called the Zeugitae,
formed the heavy-armed infantry, and were bound to serve, each with his full
panoply. Each of these three classes was entered in the public schedule as
possessed of a taxable capital calculated with a certain reference to his
annual income, but in a proportion diminishing according to the scale of that
income - and a man paid taxes to the state according to the sum for which he
stood rated in the schedule; so that this direct taxation acted really like a
graduated income-tax. The ratable property of the citizen belonging to the
richest class (the Pentacosiomedimnus) was calculated and entered on the state
schedule at a sum of capital equal to twelve times his annual income; that of
the Hippeus, horseman or knight, at a sum equal to ten times his annual
income: that of the Zeugite, at a sum equal to five times his annual income.
Thus a Pentacosiomedimnus, whose income was exactly 500 drachmas (the minimum
qualification of his class), stood rated in the schedule for a taxable
property of 6,000 drachmas or one talent, being twelve times his income - if
his annual income were 1,000 drachmas, he would stand rated for 12,000
drachmas or two talents, being the same proportion of income to ratable
capital. But when we pass to the second class, horsemen or knights, the
proportion of the two is changed. The horseman possessing an income of just
300 drachmas (or 300 medimni) would stand rated for 3,000 drachmas, or ten
times his real income, and so in the same proportion for any income above 300
and below 500. Again, in the third class, or below 300, the proportion is a
second time altered - the Zeugite possessing exactly 200 drachmas of income
was rated upon a still lower calculation, at 1,000 drachmas, or a sum equal to
five times his income; and all incomes of this class (between 200 and 300
drachmas) would in like manner be multiplied by five in order to obtain the
amount of ratable capital. Upon these respective sums of schedule capital all
direct taxation was levied. If the state required 1 per cent. of direct tax,
the poorest Pentacosiomedimnus would pay (upon 6,000 drachmas) 60 drachmas;
the poorest Hippeus would pay (upon 3,000 drachmas) 30; the poorest Zeugite
would pay (upon 1,000 drachmas) 10 drachmas. And thus this mode of assessment
would operate like a graduated income-tax, looking at it in reference to the
three different classes - but as an equal income tax, looking at it in
reference to the different individuals comprised in one and the same class.

All persons in the state whose annual income amounted to less than two
hundred medimni or drachmas were placed in the fourth class, and they must
have constituted the large majority of the community. They were not liable to
any direct taxation, and perhaps were not at first even entered upon the
taxable schedule, more especially as we do not know that any taxes were
actually levied upon this schedule during the Solonian times. It is said that
they were all called Thetes, but this appellation is not well sustained, and
cannot be admitted: the fourth compartment in the descending scale was indeed
termed the Thetic census, because it contained all the Thetes, and because
most of its members were of that humble description; but it is not conceivable
that a proprietor whose land yielded to him a clear annual return of 100, 120,
140, or 180 drachmas, could ever have been designated by that name.

Such were the divisions in the political scale established by Solon,
called by Aristotle a timocracy, in which the rights, honors, functions, and
liabilities of the citizens were measured out according to the assessed
property of each. The highest honors of the state - that is, the places of
the nine archons annually chosen, as well as those in the senate of Areopagus,
into which the past archons always entered (perhaps also the posts of Prytanes
of the Naukrari) were reserved for the first class: the poor Eupatrids became
ineligible, while rich men, not Eupatrids, were admitted. Other posts of
inferior distinction were filled by the second and third classes, who were,
moreover, bound to military service - the one on horseback, the other as
heavy-armed soldiers on foot. Moreover, the liturgies of the state, as they
were called - unpaid functions such as the trierarchy, choregy, gymnasiarchy,
etc., which entailed expense and trouble on the holder of them - were
distributed in some way or other between the members of the three classes,
though we do not know how the distribution was made in these early times. On
the other hand, the members of the fourth or lowest class were disqualified
from holding any individual office of dignity. They performed no liturgies,
served in case of war only as light-armed or with a panoply provided by the
state, and paid nothing to the direct property-tax or Eisphora. It would be
incorrect to say that they paid no taxes, for indirect taxes, such as duties
on imports, fell upon them in common with the rest; and we must recollect that
these latter were, throughout a long period of Athenian history, in steady
operation, while the direct taxes were only levied on rare occasions.

But though this fourth class, constituting the great numerical majority
of the free people, were shut out from individual office, their collective
importance was in another way greatly increased. They were invested with the
right of choosing the annual archons, out of the class of Pentacosiomedimni;
and what was of more importance still, the archons and the magistrates
generally, after their year of office, instead of being accountable to the
senate of Areopagus, were made formally accountable to the public assembly
sitting in judgment upon their past conduct. They might be impeached and
called upon to defend themselves, punished in case of misbehavior, and
debarred from the usual honor of a seat in the senate of Areopagus.

Had the public assembly been called upon to act alone without aid or
guidance, this accountability would have proved only nominal. But Solon
converted it into a reality by another new institution, which will hereafter
be found of great moment in the working out of the Athenian democracy. He
created the pro-bouleutic, or pre-considering senate, with intimate and
especial reference to the public assembly - to prepare matters for its
discussion, to convoke and superintend its meetings, and to insure the
execution of its decrees. The senate, as first constituted by Solon,
comprised four hundred members, taken in equal proportions from the four
tribes; not chosen by lot, as they will be found to be in the more advanced
stage of the democracy, but elected by the people, in the same way as the
archons then were - persons of the fourth, or poorest class of the census,
though contributing to elect, not being themselves eligible.

But while Solon thus created the new pre-considering senate, identified
with and subsidiary to the popular assembly, he manifested no jealousy of the
preexisting Areopagitic senate. On the contrary, he enlarged its powers, gave
to it an ample supervision over the execution of the laws generally, and
imposed upon it the censorial duty of inspecting the lives and occupation of
the citizens, as well as of punishing men of idle and dissolute habits. He
was himself, as past archon, a member of this ancient senate, and he is said
to have contemplated that by means of the two senates the state would be held
fast, as it were with a double anchor, against all shocks and storms.

Such are the only new political institutions (apart from the laws to be
noticed presently) which there are grounds for ascribing to Solon, when we
take proper care to discriminate what really belongs to Solon and his age from
the Athenian constitution as afterward remodelled. It has been a practice
common with many able expositors of Grecian affairs, and followed partly even
by Dr. Thirlwall, to connect the name of Solon with the whole political and
judicial state of Athens as it stood between the age of Pericles and that of
Demosthenes - the regulations of the senate of five hundred, the numerous
public dicasts or jurors taken by lot from the people - as well as the body
annually selected for law-revision, and called nomothets - and the open
prosecution (called the graphe paranomon) to be instituted against the
proposer of any measure illegal, unconstitutional, or dangerous. There is
indeed some countenance for this confusion between Solonian and post-Solonian
Athens, in the usage of the orators themselves. For Demosthenes and Aeschines
employ the name of Solon in a very loose manner, and treat him as the author
of institutions belonging evidently to a later age - for example: the striking
and characteristic oath of the Heliastic jurors, which Demosthenes ascribes to
Solon, proclaims itself in many ways as belonging to the age after Clisthenes,
especially by the mention of the senate of five hundred, and not of four
hundred. Among the citizens who served as jurors or dicasts, Solon was
venerated generally as the author of the Athenian laws. An orator, therefore,
might well employ his name for the purpose of emphasis, without provoking any
critical inquiry whether the particular institution, which he happened to be
then impressing upon his audience, belonged really to Solon himself or to the
subsequent periods. Many of those institutions, which Dr. Thirlwall mentions
in conjunction with the name of Solon, are among the last refinements and
elaborations of the democratical mind of Athens - gradually prepared,
doubtless, during the interval between Clisthenes and Pericles, but not
brought into full operation until the period of the latter (B.C. 460-429).
For it is hardly possible to conceive these numerous dicasteries and
assemblies in regular, frequent, and long-standing operation, without an
assured payment to the dicasts who composed them. Now such payment first
began to be made about the time of Pericles, if not by his actual proposition;
and Demosthenes had good reason for contending that if it were suspended, the
judicial as well as the administrative system of Athens would at once fall to
pieces. It would be a marvel, such as nothing short of strong direct evidence
would justify us in believing, that in an age when even partial democracy was
yet untried, Solon should conceive the idea of such institutions; it would be
a marvel still greater, that the half-emancipated Thetes and small
proprietors, for whom he legislated - yet trembling under the rod of the
Eupatrid archons, and utterly inexperienced in collective business - should
have been found suddenly competent to fulfil these ascendant functions, such
as the citizens of conquering Athens in the days of Pericles, full of the
sentiment of force and actively identifying themselves with the dignity of
their community, became gradually competent, and not more than competent, to
exercise with effect. To suppose that Solon contemplated and provided for the
periodical revision of his laws by establishing a nomothetic jury or
dicastery, such as that which we find in operation during the time of
Demosthenes, would be at variance (in my judgment) with any reasonable
estimate either of the man or of the age. Herodotus says that Solon, having
exacted from the Athenians solemn oaths that they would not rescind any of his
laws for ten years, quitted Athens for that period, in order that he might not
be compelled to rescind them himself. Plutarch informs us that he gave to his
laws force for a century. Solon himself, and Draco before him, had been
lawgivers evoked and empowered by the special emergency of the times: the idea
of a frequent revision of laws, by a body of lot-selected dicasts, belongs to
a far more advanced age, and could not well have been present to the minds of
either. The wooden rollers of Solon, like the tables of the Roman decemvirs,
were doubtless intended as a permanent "fons omnis publici privatique juris."

If we examine the facts of the case, we shall see that nothing more than
the bare foundation of the democracy of Athens as it stood in the time of
Pericles can reasonably be ascribed to Solon. "I gave to the people (Solon
says in one of his short remaining fragments) as much strength as sufficed for
their needs, without either enlarging or diminishing their dignity: for those
too, who possessed power and were noted for wealth, I took care that no
unworthy treatment should be reserved. I stood with the strong shield cast
over both parties so as not to allow an unjust triumph to either." Again,
Aristotle tells us that Solon bestowed upon the people as much power as was
indispensable, but no more: the power to elect their magistrates and hold them
to accountability: if the people had had less than this, they could not have
been expected to remain tranquil - they would have been in slavery and hostile
to the constitution. Not less distinctly does Herodotus speak, when he
describes the revolution subsequently operated by Clisthenes - the latter (he
tells us) found "the Athenian people excluded from everything." These passages
seem positively to contradict the supposition, in itself sufficiently
improbable, that Solon is the author of the peculiar democratical institutions
of Athens, such as the constant and numerous dicasts for judicial trials and
revision of laws. The genuine and forward democratical movement of Athens
begins only with Clisthenes, from the moment when that distinguished
Alcmaeonid, either spontaneously, or from finding himself worsted in his party
strife with Isagoras, purchased by large popular concessions the hearty
cooperation of the multitude under very dangerous circumstances. While Solon,
in his own statement as well as in that of Aristotle, gave to the people as
much power as was strictly needful - but no more - Clisthenes (to use the
significant phrase of Herodotus), "being vanquished in the party contest with
his rival, took the people into partnership." It was, thus, to the interests
of the weaker section, in a strife of contending nobles, that the Athenian
people owed their first admission to political ascendancy - in part, at least,
to this cause, though the proceedings of Clisthenes indicate a hearty and
spontaneous popular sentiment. But such constitutional admission of the
people would not have been so astonishingly fruitful in positive results, if
the course of public events for the half century after Clisthenes had not been
such as to stimulate most powerfully their energy, their self-reliance, their
mutual sympathies, and their ambition. I shall recount in a future chapter
these historical causes, which, acting upon the Athenian character, gave such
efficiency and expansion to the great democratical impulse communicated by
Clisthenes: at present it is enough to remark that that impulse commences
properly with Clisthenes, and not with Solon.

But the Solonian constitution, though only the foundation, was yet the
indispensable foundation, of the subsequent democracy. And if the discontents
of the miserable Athenian population, instead of experiencing his
disinterested and healing management, had fallen at once into the hands of
selfish power-seekers like Cylon or Pisistratus - the memorable expansion of
the Athenian mind during the ensuing century would never have taken place, and
the whole subsequent history of Greece would probably have taken a different
course. Solon left the essential powers of the state still in the hands of
the oligarchy. The party combats between Pisistratus, Lycurgus, and Megacles,
thirty years after his legislation, which ended in the despotism of
Pisistratus, will appear to be of the same purely oligarchical character as
they had been before Solon was appointed archon. But the oligarchy which he
established was very different from the unmitigated oligarchy which he found,
so teeming with oppression and so destitute of redress, as his own poems

It was he who first gave both to the citizens of middling property and to
the general mass a locus standi against the Eupatrids. He enabled the people
partially to protect themselves, and familiarized them with the idea of
protecting themselves, by the peaceful exercise of a constitutional franchise.
The new force, through which this protection was carried into effect, was the
public assembly called Helioea, regularized and armed with enlarged
prerogatives and further strengthened by its indispensable ally - the
pro-bouleutic, or pre-considering, senate. Under the Solonian constitution,
this force was merely secondary and defensive, but after the renovation of
Clisthenes it became paramount and sovereign. It branched out gradually into
those numerous popular dicasteries which so powerfully modified both public
and private Athenian life, drew to itself the undivided reverence and
submission of the people, and by degrees rendered the single magistracies
essentially subordinate functions. The popular assembly, as constituted by
Solon, appearing in modified efficiency and trained to the office of reviewing
and judging the general conduct of a past magistrate - forms the intermediate
stage between the passive Homeric agora and those omnipotent assemblies and
dicasteries which listened to Pericles or Demosthenes. Compared with these
last, it has in it but a faint streak of democracy - and so it naturally
appeared to Aristotle, who wrote with a practical experience of Athens in the
time of the orators; but compared with the first, or with the ante-Solonian
constitution of Attica, it must doubtless have appeared a concession eminently
democratical. To impose upon the Eupatrid archon the necessity of being
elected, or put upon his trial of after-accountability, by the rabble of
freemen (such would be the phrase in Eupatrid society), would be a bitter
humiliation to those among whom it was first introduced; for we must recollect
that this was the most extensive scheme of constitutional reform yet
propounded in Greece, and that despots and oligarchies shared between them at
that time the whole Grecian world. As it appears that Solon, while
constituting the popular assembly with its pro-bouleutic senate, had no
jealousy of the senate of Areopagus, and indeed, even enlarged its powers, we
may infer that his grand object was, not to weaken the oligarchy generally,
but to improve the administration and to repress the misconduct and
irregularities of the individual archons; and that, too, not by diminishing
their powers, but by making some degree of popularity the condition both of
their entry into office, and of their safety or honor after it.

It is, in my judgment, a mistake to suppose that Solon transferred the
judicial power of the archons to a popular dicastery. These magistrates still
continued self-acting judges, deciding and condemning without appeal - not
mere presidents of an assembled jury, as they afterward came to be during the
next century. For the general exercise of such power they were accountable
after their year of office. Such accountability was the security against
abuse - a very insufficient security, yet not wholly inoperative. It will be
seen, however, presently that these archons, though strong to coerce, and
perhaps to oppress, small and poor men, had no means of keeping down
rebellious nobles of their own rank, such as Pisistratus, Lycurgus, and
Megacles, each with his armed followers. When we compare the drawn swords of
these ambitious competitors, ending in the despotism of one of them, with the
vehement parliamentary strife between Themistocles and Aristides afterward,
peaceably decided by the vote of the sovereign people and never disturbing the
public tranquillity - we shall see that the democracy of the ensuing century
fulfilled the conditions of order, as well as of progress, better than the
Solonian constitution.

To distinguish this Solonian constitution from the democracy which
followed it, is essential to a due comprehension of the progress of the Greek
mind, and especially of Athenian affairs. That democracy was achieved by
gradual steps. Demosthenes and Aeschines lived under it as a system
consummated and in full activity, when the stages of its previous growth were
no longer matter of exact memory; and the dicasts then assembled in judgment
were pleased to hear their constitution associated with the names either of
Solon or of Theseus. Their inquisitive contemporary Aristotle was not thus
misled: but even commonplace Athenians of the century preceding would have
escaped the same delusion. For during the whole course of the democratical
movement, from the Persian invasion down to the Peloponnesian war, and
especially during the changes proposed by Pericles and Ephialtes, there was
always a strenuous party of resistance, who would not suffer the people to
forget that they had already forsaken, and were on the point of forsaking
still more, the orbit marked out by Solon. The illustrious Pericles underwent
innumerable attacks both from the orators in the assembly and from the comic
writers in the theatre. And among these sarcasms on the political tendencies
of the day we are probably to number the complaint, breathed by the poet
Cratinus, of the desuetude into which both Solon and Draco had fallen - "I
swear (said he in a fragment of one of his comedies) by Solon and Draco, whose
wooden tablets (of laws) are now employed by people to roast their barley."
The laws of Solon respecting penal offenses, respecting inheritance and
adoption, respecting the private relations generally, etc., remained for the
most part in force: his quadripartite census also continued, at least for
financial purposes, until the archonship of Nausinicus in B.C. 377 - so that
Cicero and others might be warranted in affirming that his laws still
prevailed at Athens: but his political and judicial arrangements had undergone
a revolution not less complete and memorable than the character and spirit of
the Athenian people generally. The choice, by way of lot, of archons and
other magistrates - and the distribution by lot of the general body of dicasts
or jurors into panels for judicial business - may be decidedly considered as
not belonging to Solon, but adopted after the revolution of Clisthenes;
probably the choice of senators by lot also. The lot was a symptom of
pronounced democratical spirit, such as we must not seek in the Solonian

It is not easy to make out distinctly what was the political position of
the ancient gentes and phratries, as Solon left them. The four tribes
consisted altogether of gentes and phratries, insomuch that no one could be
included in any one of the tribes who was not also a member of some gens and
phratry. Now the new pro-bouleutic, or pre-considering, senate consisted of
four hundred members, - one hundred from each of the tribes: persons not
included in any gens or phratry could therefore have had no access to it. The
conditions of eligibility were similar, according to ancient custom, for the
nine archons - of course, also, for the senate of Areopagus. So that there
remained only the public assembly, in which an Athenian not a member of these
tribes could take part: yet he was a citizen, since he could give his vote for
archons and senators, and could take part in the annual decision of their
accountability, besides being entitled to claim redress for wrong from the
archons in his own person - while the alien could only do so through the
intervention of an avouching citizen or Prostates. It seems, therefore, that
all persons not included in the four tribes, whatever their grade of fortune
might be, were on the same level in respect to political privilege as the
fourth and poorest class of the Solonian census. It has already been
remarked, that even before the time of Solon the number of Athenians not
included in the gentes or phratries was probably considerable: it tended to
become greater and greater, since these bodies were close and unexpansive,
while the policy of the new lawgiver tended to invite industrious settlers
from other parts of Greece and Athens. Such great and increasing inequality
of political privilege helps to explain the weakness of the government in
repelling the aggressions of Pisistratus, and exhibits the importance of the
revolution afterward wrought by Clisthenes, when he abolished (for all
political purposes) the four old tribes, and created ten new comprehensive
tribes in place of them.

In regard to the regulations of the senate and the assembly of the
people, as constituted by Solon, we are altogether without information: nor is
it safe to transfer to the Solonian constitution the information,
comparatively ample, which we possess respecting these bodies under the later

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

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.

Part I   Part II   Part III   Solon, A Biography   Draco and Solon Laws   Main Greece Page

Home Page

International History Project