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

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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