Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.42

Adolfo J. Domínguez Monedero, Solón de Atenas.   Barcelona:  Editorial Crítica, 2001.  Pp. 301.  ISBN 84-8432-298-X.  

Reviewed by Emily Katz Anhalt, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut (
Word count: 2318 words

Solón de Atenas is the first full-length study of Solon to appear in nearly a decade. Adolfo J. Domínguez Monedero (hereafter "DM") offers a thorough, learned account of Solon's life and work and the fabrication and use of his image in later antiquity. Although much of the territory is familiar, DM presents a well-researched, balanced assessment of the known facts and their varying interpretations. Exploring the development of the legend of Solon, DM stresses the difficulty of distinguishing the historical figure of Solon from the legendary figure and emphasizes the propagandistic use of the latter to serve the political interests of the moment, particularly during the 4th century B. C. E. Despite structural and stylistic weaknesses, which would reduce its efficacy as a college-level textbook for Spanish readers (or for English readers, if it were translated), Solón de Atenas is a valuable resource for scholars and a useful addition to research libraries.

The book consists of eight chapters organized into two parts. The first contains (1) a brief introduction followed by five chapters treating (2) the biographical details of Solon's life, (3) the social and political situation in Athens at the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E. and Solon's rise to power, (4) Solon's work, (5) Solon's travels and their importance to his legislative work, and (6) the consequences of Solon's work. The second part of the book discusses the sources (7), and provides a general conclusion (8). The book contains extensive notes and bibliography and a list of abbreviations. Lacking are a glossary, general index, and index locorum.

In style and structure, Solón de Atenas disappoints. Although the book contains many compelling and provocative insights, one must work very hard to unearth them, since DM's prose style is vague and generalizing as well as labyrinthine and circular (many sentences offer an experience comparable to the sensation of running up four flights of stairs only to discover that the cafeteria is in the basement). In his Introduction (Chapter 1), DM promises to demonstrate the extent of the questions and problems and offer a series of suggestions and responses (p. 7), but he does not here define or delineate more specifically than this either the problems or the solutions he will propose. He intends to explain how some 6th-century Athenian values, personified by Solon, were available to and adapted by later historical periods (p. 8), but, again, he does not here specify which values or indicate how they were adapted. More troubling, the decision to separate the "historical" sections of the book from discussion of the sources does not withstand scrutiny. DM claims that by first establishing his position on the more purely "historical" aspects of Solon's life and work, he can then proceed to examine the subjective views of Solon expressed in the sources and the use of Solon's image through the centuries (p. 7). And yet, it is not at all clear how he is able to distinguish the purely "historical" aspects of Solon's life and work from the subjective presentations of the sources. The difficulty of drawing such a distinction is, in fact, one of the central themes of DM's account.

The chosen structure condemns DM to excessive repetition. He acknowledges that his approach involves some repetition (p. 7), but the actual amount is distracting. DM reiterates previous statements on virtually every page, and sometimes several times in each paragraph. Throughout the first part of the book, DM cannot avoid dealing with the sources, and although much of his narrative restates traditional interpretations, many of his more interesting and original claims concern the role of the sources. Introducing the second part of the book, DM hopes that the doubts and uncertainties he explored in the first part will acquire a "certain sense" and a "certain explanation" and that the analysis of the "historical" Solon in the first part will serve as a context to appreciate the multi-faceted Solon of the sources (p. 117), but he offers no greater specificity than this and no more compelling justification for attempting to preserve the distinction. His decision to treat each source individually also involves a tremendous amount of repetition, as DM describes separately each source's contribution to each question and reiterates on each occasion the contributions of the other sources. The reference-by-reference synopsis leaves the reader to assemble the documentation in connection with each historical episode or issue. A sources-first approach or, better still, an integrated analysis that assessed the sources in connection with each controversy, might have obviated the need to refer repeatedly to points made previously.

In Chapters 2 and 3, however, DM provides a thorough review of the biographical evidence and describes the social and political background to Solon's efforts. DM accepts the chronological conclusions of I. M. Linforth (p. 12)1 and stresses the essentially aristocratic nature of Solon's approach. He explains that Solon's ideal was not that the demos should govern but that everyone should have what he ought to have. The problem was that Solon himself intended to determine what that was. Consequently, the demos remained unsatisfied, and Pisistratus was able to learn from Solon's mistakes (pp. 17-18). DM insists on the pre-monetary character of the pre-Solonian economy (p. 19) and attributes much of the confusion about the status of debtors and about the details of Solon's economic reforms to the distorted vision of 4th-century writers, who were looking through the lens of their own time (p.21). DM sees the source of Athens' problems not simply in the monetary and economic transformations in the late 7th and early 6th centuries but in the inability of the social structure to deal with the new economic situation. He points out that, in other poleis, economic developments had produced important constitutional changes. In contrast, the Athenian aristocracy responded with the legislation of Draco, which only confirmed and hardened the power of the aristocracy (p. 26). DM emphasizes Athens' embryonic political consciousness (p. 28) and describes the importance of the Salamis episode for Solon's career and for his later image, particularly after Salamis played such a crucial role in 480 and acquired tremendous symbolic significance for Athens (pp. 30-36).

Assessing Solon's economic and legislative reforms (Chapter 4), DM offers a detailed, traditional account but also stresses the propagandistic use of Solon's image by 5th-century and later sources. He attributes much of the conflicting evidence to periods of factional strife in the late 5th and 4th centuries (e.g. pp. 29, 40, 42). DM rejects as self-serving the pleasing 4th-century portrait of a self-less Solon motivated only by an altruistic desire to ameliorate a difficult situation. In contrast, DM argues that Solon actively aspired to power and did not merely accept power thrust upon him by others, as ancient authors claim (e.g. Arist., Ath. Pol. 5.2; Plut., Sol., 14.1) (p. 42). DM also discounts the 4th-century claim that the seisachtheia was merely a reduction of interest rates and related to Solon's reduction of coinage weights (so Androtion, as transmitted by Plut., Sol., 15.3-5). DM rejects this view as anachronistic (since it presupposes a monetary economy) and attributes it to a 4th-century effort to convert Solon into a paradigm for a new moderate democracy. He insists that the seisachtheia was indeed a totally revolutionary measure, even though Solon aimed to give it the appearance of a restitution rather than a revolution, but that the abolition of debt was too radical for the 4th-century image of Solon (pp. 52-54). DM ascribes the imprecision and ambiguity in Solon's pre-archonship poems not to the tactful diplomacy of an impartial mediator but to an ambitious and calculated effort to garner political support from both sides, and he criticizes Solon for his failure to clarify, before his archonship, that he did not aspire to tyranny (pp. 93-95). (Elsewhere, DM has examined modern analyses of the advantages and disadvantages of ancient tyrannies and their important role in the development of the polis,2 but here he stresses that, for contemporary observers like Solon, the tyrannies' distinguishing features were their illegitimacy and the tremendous violence associated with them (p. 96).) For Solon's laws, DM follows Ruschenbusch's study distinguishing authentic laws from later attributions and additions (p. 88).3 While DM rejects as propagandistic the claim that Solon was the father of democracy (e.g. Isoc. 7.16; Arist., Pol. 1274a 1-3), he maintains that Solon must be credited with introducing into Athens the concept of citizenship and translating economic and social tensions into a political struggle between members of the same polis (p. 99).

In Chapter 5, DM examines Solon's travels before and after his archonship, assesses the rather sparse evidence, and offers little that is new. DM concludes only that, prior to his archonship, Solon probably traveled in Eastern Greece and Asia Minor and that these experiences undoubtedly helped to form his analysis of the causes of the conflicts and transformations occurring in the late 7th century (p. 101). DM accepts the standard view that, after his year as archon, Solon visited at least Egypt and Cyprus, while other destinations are less certain. Whether true or not, the tales of his post-archonship travels served the double function of transforming Solon into a legendary sage and marking the end of the period of his public and political activity (p. 106).

Considering the results of Solon's work (Chapter 6), DM emphasizes Solon's crucial role in defining and structuring Athenian citizenship. His reforms and institutions regulated political participation and established the basis of Athenian citizenship for the rest of the city's history (pp. 107-109). DM insists that, with Solon, Athens passed from a pre- or proto-political state to an authentically political state, if we accept Aristotle's definition that the object of the polis is to arrive at the common good (p. 111). After the Peloponnesian War, the late 5th century viewed Solon as embodying the ideal paradigm: he empowered the demos but avoided the excesses of 5th-century radical democracy. The 4th century, in turn, saw Solon as the originator of democracy (e.g. Arist., Ath. Pol. 9.1; 22.1). DM does not comment on Aristotle's contention (in both the Politics and the Ath. Pol.) that Solon cannot have envisioned the later evolution of his reforms, although this would seem to undercut this generalization of the 4th century position. DM insists that both the 5th and 4th century portraits are anachronistic, since Solon never considered himself democratic and his methods were oligarchic and paternalistic. Solon attempted to achieve equilibrium by assigning rights and responsibilities to distinct social groups. He did not question the right to power of the powerful, but sought to limit their power and to adjust the criteria for admission to power. While his work guaranteed the members of the demos a subordinate role, he improved their conditions and gave them a role in the defense of the city. Solon sought to create a static balance but, according to DM, in his failure was his success, since the changes he instituted were transcendent and achieved a sense of political community and political participation in the Athenian polis that would evolve, eventually, into the Athenian democracy of the 5th century (pp. 111-112).

DM's discussion of the sources (Chapter 7) contains more description than analysis and repeats most of the earlier arguments, but assembles the major and minor source material exhaustively. Discussing the poems, DM suggests that Solon was a clever gamester, who avoided public expression of his hidden intentions but knew full well what his followers expected him to do if he came to power (p. 145). In DM's view, Solon cautioned the aristocrats against greed (pp. 126-127) but also manipulated the demos with ambiguous public statements and misleading private promises (pp. 145-147). Emphasizing Solon's early development into a legendary figure, DM notes Herodotus' lack of interest in Solon's political and constitutional activity (p. 156), Aristotle's effort to defend Solon against the reactionary view of his own day that would attribute to Solon responsibility for the ills of the radical democracy of the present (pp. 167-170) and Diodorus' limited knowledge of Solon's chronological position (p. 176). DM cites and explores the inconsistencies in Plutarch's presentation and concludes that Plutarch's characterization of Solon is artificial and drawn from the moderate democratic tradition (p. 189). For DM, the work of Diogenes Laertius reveals that by the 3rd century the historical figure of Solon has been completely lost. Solon has become a mythic figure, no longer the precursor of democracy but its originator in Athens. DM repeats his contention that the diversity of interpretations derives from the fact that Solon's poetry and political activity were inevitably interpreted through the screen of the political struggle in Classical Athens and later periods. DM laments that Diogenes' lack of discrimination and that of some of his predecessors makes it impossible at this late date to distinguish clearly the historical Solon from the legendary Solon (pp. 203-207).

In his conclusion (Chapter 8), DM reiterates this difficulty and explains again that the political upheavals of the late 5th and 4th centuries led to a view of Solon as the source of a glorious past and increased the separation between the historical Solon and the invented one (pp. 214-215). Nevertheless, DM insists that we can still situate Solon in his historical context, using the poems and other sources judiciously, measuring them by what we know of Athens in Solon's time and of the sources' own context (p. 216).

The contention and, indeed, the book as a whole, calls into question the validity of DM's attempt to examine separately the "historical" and the "legendary" Solon. Unfortunately, the circularity and repetitiveness in style and structure detract from the merits of DM's comprehensive compilation of the known facts of Solon's life and legend and the attendant ancient and modern controversies. DM has assembled an impressive collection of primary and secondary source material and offers readers numerous intriguing and astute observations. Solón de Atenas presents a thoughtful, thorough, and provocative account of the poet and statesman and his enduring influence.


1.   I. M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (Berkeley: 1919), pp. 25-26.
2.   A. J. Domínguez Monedero, La Polis y la expansion colonial griega: Siglos vii-vi(Madrid: 1991), pp. 169-181.
3.   E. Ruschenbusch, Solonos nomoi. Die Fragmente des solonische Gesetzeswerkes mit einer Text- und Überlieferungsgeschichte (Wiesbaden: 1966, 2nd ed., 1983).

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:07, Friday, 03 April 2009