BMCR 2004.02.51

Justice as an Aspect of the Polis Idea in Solon’s Political Poems. A Reading of the Fragments in Light of the Researches of New Classical Archaeology. Mnemosyne Suppl. 243

, Justice as an aspect of the polis idea in Solon's political poems : a reading of the fragments in light of the researches of new classical archaeology. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 1 online resource (xviii, 284 pages).. ISBN 1417545496 EUR 86.00.

The main purpose of this book is to examine the concept of justice ( δίκη) in Solon’s political poems, by looking at the polis from the point of view of the so-called “New classical archaeology” as developed by Snodgrass1 and his followers. Consequently, the goal is not to assess all of Solon’s work, or his political struggles, or his political work as a whole but just to consider whether the concept of δίκη developed by Solon as a poet is consistent with the paradigm developed by part of modern scholarship to explain the Archaic polis. However, having adopted this approach, Almeida (hereinafter A.) does mention some of Solon’s achievements, but the Athenian is seen more as a poet than as politician involved in the political struggles of Athens in the early sixth century BC. There is no doubt that δίκη is a recurrent theme in Solon’s poetry and also in his political activity, but I am afraid that focusing mainly on this issue will reveal only some of Solon’s achievements and interests.

A. organizes his book into five broad chapters, plus an introduction, concluding remarks and six (slightly heterogeneous) appendices. The Introduction sets out the main purposes of the book, introduces some references to the concept of δίκη in Solon’s poems (mainly fragments 4 and 36 West) and an initial assessment of the concept of polis in New classical archaeology. In addition A. summarizes the contents of the following chapters of the book, giving the main arguments he will develop in each of them.

Chapter 1, “Solon: Historical Sources and Scholarship: What We Do and Do Not Know” gives a summary of the main sources referring to Solon, namely Athenaion Politeia and Plutarch’s Life of Solon. A. rightly observes that there are still many unanswered questions concerning the way these sources treat Solon’s work, particularly in matters such as the meaning of citizenship within the polis and the meaning of polis itself. A. proceeds to review the main milestones in scholarship dealing with three aspects of Solon’s work: Chronology, Hectemorage and Citizenship. In the case of chronology, A. observes how opinions change from an early date for Solon’s archonship (594-93 BC) to a later date (570s), with different opinions about the date of his reforms within this framework. As for Hectemorage, A. presents a fairly complete and interesting review of the main theories concerning this institution and the changes Solon made to it, completed by a table that summarizes some of the main opinions. A. does not take part in the controversy but just shows the diversity of opinions on the subject in recent (and not so recent) scholarship as proof of the large measure of uncertainty that still exists about the true meaning of Solon’s works. However, despite the difficulties in interpretation, I feel an explanation of hectemorage is of paramount importance in order to understand all Solonian political activity and it is, in my opinion, one of the main fields where Solon’s attitude to political δίκη can be observed.

The last part of this chapter is devoted to citizenship. There are two main approaches, one more conservative (or pessimistic) and other more progressive, emphasizing either the consolidation of the aristocracy with fewer concessions to the people or the introduction of political participation for the people. As I have said, I do not feel we can divorce Solon’s solution to hectemorage from the new concept of citizenship that arose from it and from the other measures he adopted. In my opinion, A. does not consider all these questions as parts of the same phenomenon. The conclusion given by A. to this chapter emphasizes the existence of the preconceived view both of the author of Athenaion Politeia and Plutarch who, consequently, use fragments of Solon’s poems to support their own views, a method used also, according to A., by modern scholars. Thus, also according to A., the internal meaning of the poems, especially the longest ones, must be considered. For my part, I feel that A. is not entirely fair on these ancient authors because, although it might be true that their views were biased by their own ideas about what Solon “had to have done”, they had all his poems and not just a fraction of them as we do and, consequently, their opinions were not always the result of previous analysis, but conversely, it is possible that the poems themselves may have contributed to shaping the views expressed both by Plutarch and, perhaps, to a larger extent, by the author of Athenaion Politeia.

Chapter 2, “Literary Criticism of Solon’s Political Poems after Jaeger” is not devoted to the scholarship concerning the historical reality (addressed in Chapter 1) but to its perception of Solon as a poet. Although both aspects should be studied together, A. is correct when he observes that this field of study has its own interests and that there has not been fluid exchange between these two quite different branches. A. analyzes the interpretation given by a select group of scholars (Jaeger, L’Homme-Wery, Blaise and Manuwald)2 to the Solonian concept of δίκη on the basis of two of his main poems, the so-called “Elegy on the Polis” (fragment 4 West) and the “Elegy to the Muses” (fragment 13 West). The main characteristic that these authors have in common is, according to A., their internal and non-historical perspective, and A. suggests that their interpretation might be more of a reflection of the authors’ own vision than that of Solon. The concluding remarks of the chapter insist that because the literary analysis of Solon’s poems has not been related to contemporary politics and because a historical analysis does not seem very useful for interpreting the poems themselves, research must explore new directions. For A. this new direction is provided by the vision of the early polis proposed by the New classical archaeology.

Chapter 3, “The Polis Idea in the Work of the New Classical Archeologists”, provides, consequently, an analysis of the proposals put forward for the study of the Greek past by a group of scholars led (or rather influenced) by Snodgrass through a series of seminal studies. The chapter summarizes the main proposals on the origins and early development of the Archaic polis suggested by scholars such as Snodgrass himself, De Polignac and Morris,3 whose analyses have been very influential on recent studies dealing with the origins of Greek polis. To a certain extent, some of the proposals made by the New classical archaeology have become a kind of orthodoxy that few scholars would dare to challenge in all its terms. The relevance of those studies for assessing Solon’s achievements is that they stress that Athens represented a quite different development from that observed in other contemporary poleis because the city had, during the seventh century, abandoned the idea of the polis that had developed during the eighth century. As a result, Solon could be seen as restoring that idea in the Athenian city. I find this proposal absolutely acceptable and have made similar suggestions myself on a number of occasions.4

Chapter 4, “The Lexicography and Internal Poetics of Dike”, proposes an exhaustive reading of the concept of δίκη which embraces both a series of uses of a juridical nature together with more abstract uses dealing mainly with human institutions and customs. Starting from the meanings of δίκη in previous Greek literature (mainly Hesiod), A. studies the use of δίκη (and its derivatives) in Solon’s most political poems. A. concludes that δίκη does not have a juridical meaning in Solon’s poems, although he establishes that it almost always alludes to the relationship between the elite and the demos and consequently has a political meaning. This meaning is expressed in the formula σεμνὰ Δίκης θέμεθλα (frag. 4.14 West) (something along the lines of the “august foundations of Justice”). A. feels that the only way to put this meaning in its true context is to return to the “polis idea”.

Chapter 5, “Solon’s Understanding of Dike in Light of the Polis Idea”, sets Solon’s political ideas against the background of the (modern theories) about the polis idea, as developed mainly by the New classical archaeologists. A. begins by advancing his main conclusion: “in the end it will become clear that dike for Solon implies an objective political norm informed by the polis idea itself” (p. 209); to reach this conclusion A. once again reads fragments 4 and 36, considering their political implications within the conflict between the aristocracy and the demos (or between agathoi and kakoi). Viewed against this background, Solon would have “imposed measures to compel the Athenians to behave in conformity with the polis idea” (p. 228).

The short “Concluding Reflections” reassert the main points put forward in previous chapters, especially from the methodological point of view of stressing the possibilities of related fields of research (such as classical archaeology) for throwing light on the age of Solon. However, it is possible to perceive a slightly circular argument here because, on the one hand, A. asserts that “the particular results of Morris’ archeology of burials, namely the rejection of the polis idea in Athens, establishes a direct connection to the work of Solon” (p. 237) but, on the other hand, Morris’ interpretation on the situation in Athens is strongly dependent on his interpretation of Solon’s work.5 In other words, Morris’ arguments do not derive only from archaeological evidence but from his interpretation of that evidence, using Solon to test his theory. As a result, a good part of the polis idea in New classical archaeology also seems to derive from previous interpretations of archaeological evidence that use textual evidence in order to give a more comprehensive explanation of the development of Archaic polis, mainly in Athens. Thus, if we use the polis idea to interpret Solon’s work, the results would be biased by the nature of the evidence itself, because Solon had previously been used to elaborate that same polis idea.

In any case, A.’s analysis is useful for bringing back together the most relevant discussions of modern scholarship about a group of select topics and it is a valuable attempt to relate quite different fields of research (classical archaeology, lexicography, ancient law, and ancient history).

The book includes several appendices dealing with marginal issues (the Atthidographers and the preservation of the axones, regionalist theories of conflict in Archaic Greece, Hansen on Solon, Solon’s chronology, Πρᾶσις ἐπὶ λύσει, and the hoplite and the polis.

Lastly, something must be said about the editing and proofreading of the book. The inaccuracies, typographical and other errors, especially in some parts of the book, do not reflect the usual standards of publishers like Brill. I shall list some of them: p. 7, Cordus instead Codrus; p. 20 (note 95), Dogonius Laertius instead Diogenes Laertius; p. 26 (and elsewhere) hectamorage instead hectemorage, correctly spelt on the same page; p. 28, debtbondage (without hyphen), although correctly spelt (with hyphen) in p. 29 and again without a hyphen further down the same page; p. 29, surfs instead serfs (and again on p. 35); p. 29 (note 116), Foxhill instead Foxhall (and again on p. 50, note 188); p. 30 (note 117) Finely instead Finley; hectemor appears in p. 35, while on p. 36 it is written hectemoros; p. 58 (note 217), barely instead barley; p. 58-59 (note 218), petakosiomedimnoi instead pentakosiomedimnoi; p. 62, Thersitis instead of Thersites; p. 77, alter instead altar; p. 96, togther instead of together; p. 119 (note 5), Sakallariou instead Sakellariou; p. 258, Comeas and Komeos, both spellings alluding to the archon in 561/60 appearing one just after the other.

The apsidal building at Lefkandi is dated by A. to “around 800” (p. 131, note 56), when everyone else (including its excavators) dates it to the mid-tenth century B.C. or slightly before.6

There are also some inconsistencies in the references; for example, in note 117 (p. 30), Finley 1975(b) is mentioned but in the bibliography there are two titles with that date, but neither is marked as (b).


1. A.M. Snodgrass, An Archaeology of Greece. The present state and future scope of a discipline, Berkeley 1987.

2. W. Jaeger, Solon’s Eunomia, in Five Essays, Montreal 1966. (Originally published in German as ‘Solons Eunomie’, in 1926; L.M. L’Homme-Wery, La notion d’harmonie dans la pense politique de Solon, Kernos 9, 1996, p. 145-154; F. Blaise, Solon. Fragment 36 W. Pratique et fondation des normes politiques, REG 108, 1995, p. 24-37; B. Manuwald, Zu Solons Gedankenwelt (frr. 3 u. 1 G.-P = 4 u. 13 ὠ, RhM 132, 1989, p. 1-25.

3. F. de Polignac, Cults, Territory, and the Origins of the Greek City-State, Chicago 1995; I. Morris, Burial and ancient society. The rise of the Greek city-state, Cambridge 1987.

4. A.J. Domínguez, La polis y la expansión colonial griega, Madrid 1991, p. 187-200; Id., Solón de Atenas, Barcelona 2001 (reviewed by E.K. Anhalt in BMCR 2002.08.42)

5. I. Morris, Burial and ancient society, p. 208.

6. M.R. Popham, E. Touloupa, L.H. Sackett, The hero of Lefkandi, Antiquity 56, 1982, p. 169-174.