BMCR 2005.05.26

Solons Politische Elegien und Iamben (Fr. 1-13; 32-37 West). Einleitung, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Beiträge sur Altertumskunde 177

, , Solons politische Elegien und Iamben. Fr. 1-13 ; 32-27 West / Einleitung, Text, Übersetzung, Kommentar von Christoph Mülke.. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 177. Munich/Leipzig: K.G. Sauer, 2002. 414 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598777264. €92.00.

[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review.]

Solon studies have experienced a boom in recent years. Mülke’s edition, translation and commentary of Solon’s political poems constitutes a significant contribution to a wider phenomenon of Solonian volumes appearing around the turn of the Millennium: Gerber’s new Loeb (1999); M. Noussia, Solone. Frammenti dell’opera poetica (Milan 2001); J. Almeida, Justice as an Aspect of the Polis Idea in Solon’s Political Poems (Leiden 2003); and a substantial chapter in R. Balot, Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens (Princeton 2001). Publication dates, however, can be deceptive indicators: several of these works are the culmination of PhD theses begun in the mid-nineties (Mülke’s in Tübingen, Noussia in University College London, Balot in Princeton, my own (forthcoming) in Cambridge) and demonstrate that the trend began earlier, no doubt owing to the editions of Gentili/Prato and West. But Solon was not to remain the sole preserve of aspiring doctors of the 90’s: he seems to be a figure to which many across classical disciplines have wished to return, a feeling that prompted the Dutch scholars Josine Blok and André Lardinois to organise their international conference, ‘Solon: New Historical and Philological Perspectives’, in Soeterbeeck, the Netherlands, 11-15 Dec. 2003 (papers to be published by Brill). And as for the future, these many new works — predicated as they are of course upon Solon’s inherent interest and importance for all aspects of archaic poetics and politics — will no doubt guarantee and enable future research on the great political poet.

That a new commentary on Solon’s poetry was timely is attested by the fact that M.’s German edition followed hard upon the Italian edition by Noussia (and indeed appeared so close as to prevent M., understandably, from responding to this work). For the most part M. adopts West’s text (the most dramatic departure perhaps ἀπαρξεϊ of fr. 5), but chooses a layout of the text and testimonia more similar to Gentili/Prato, though saving textual parallels for the commentary. The volume aspires to be comprehensive, attempting to provide all one needs for critical engagement with the fragments — extended testimony, critical apparatus, translation, and critical survey of the scholarship dealing with their very many difficulties in transmission and interpretation, as well as an Introduction and useful Index. And indeed, the first virtue of this work is its attempt to be comprehensive. M.’s impressive command of Solonian scholarship makes this volume an invaluable resource.

The second virtue is the explicitness of his discussions. While a range of audiences will find M.’s edition useful for a variety of reasons, undergraduates for whom German poses no difficulties and research students will find M.’s commentary valuable as an education in conducting traditional philological analysis. Extensive and repeated discussion of issues of morphology, syntax (e.g. the discussion of verbal aspect in fr. 4) and translation, extensive cross-referencing to grammars and canonical works like Kühner/Gerth, Chantraine and Denniston, and an ample supply of textual parallels will initiate more advanced students into the challenges of our discipline while providing support to go outside M.’s account and engage with the issues themselves. His explanations and discussions assume little, and his descriptions, whether of linguistic problems or papyrus readings, are exceedingly detailed (the latter based on M.’s autopsy of the London papyrus of the Ath. Pol.). The value of these features is not limited to those still gaining experience of the diverse conventions and demands placed on them by this discipline: such clarity in the exposition of textual and interpretative problems and the many proposed solutions inevitably encourages readers to formulate alternative responses to age-old textual cruces. M. is likewise good at providing an introduction to historicising interpretations of early Greek poetry and to its vocabulary, both words more obvious in a Solon commentary koros, ate, hybris, but also others such as thumos, aisa, again with all the expected bibliography.

Professional classicists too will profit from M.’s contribution: those who work outside early Greek poetry, whether on the literature of other periods or outside literary studies generally, will find M. invaluable at providing them with immediate access to the central debates in interpretations of Solon’s fragments and career, while those quite familiar with Solon will appreciate the easy access the book gives to parallels and bibliography. It is definitively a work that repays consulting.

And yet some will find aspects of M.’s commentary difficult. Before engaging with M.’s execution of his stated task, one might begin with M.’s formulation of it in his ‘Introduction’: ‘Die Aufgabe eines Kommentars sollte also vornehmlich darin bestehen, durch die Erklärung der zeitlichen, sprachlichen und historischen Distanz das Ausmaß der kognitiven Dissonanz sichtbar zu machen, das die Lektüre archaischer griechischer Dichtung heute prägt, und vor diesem Hintergrund die Fragen, die die Forschung an die Texte gestellt hat, und die Antworten, die sie gefunden zu haben glaubt, kritisch zu bewerten’ (1). That M. is explicit about how he understands his task is again commendable, but how he frames that task may divide readers. While most would agree that the task of clarifying the details of Solon’s poetry belongs to the commentator, they may choose not to formulate these details as ‘Distanz’, nor see the outcome of their efforts as the revelation of ‘Dissonanz’. There must be some rapprochement possible between modern readers and Solon’s world for the exercise of engaging with his poems to be meaningful, and in the end one wonders whether some of M.’s attempts to make the cognitive dissonance visible don’t actually manufacture a greater distance than in fact obtains. I fear that the cognitive dissonance that becomes apparent for me reading such entries as on fr. 37.1 has nothing to do with Solon: ‘ γάλα ist sicherlich Schafs-, allenfalls Ziegenmilch, keinesfalls aber Kuhmilch, s. Richter Die Landwirtschaft im homerischen Zeitalter, Arch. Hom. H (1968) 50f.; Herzog-Hauser, Art. ‘Milch’, RE XV 2 (1932) 1569f.’ Here the degree of Dissonanz M. makes visible seems rather that manufactured by the practices he chooses to bring to the text, rather than the consequence of any significant and immutable Distanz; the cognitive dissonance between modern readers may be just as great those M. posits to exist between them and the ancient texts.

M.’s second task, ‘to evaluate critically the answers scholars believe they have found to the questions they have posed’, is again praiseworthy, but one might wish that critical evaluation was extended to the questions themselves. At any rate, this statement also serves as a warning to readers that there will be little entirely novel in M.’s reading of Solon. Here one may begin to comment on M.’s execution of his stated aims. M.’s critical evaluation of the scholars’ answers is uneven: one gets the sense that it is not always arguments that M. evaluates, but rather their source. He cites six authors in the second paragraph of his Introduction, Wilamowitz, Snell, Fränkel, Adkins, Anhalt and Vox. It emerges in the commentary that these are really two camps, and it is among the former three that M. locates himself: if M. must disagree with the former it is with extreme hesitation and a disproportionate account of their (incorrect) position (e.g. 190); if M. must agree with any of the valuable contributions of the latter it is usually with qualification (unless one of these should disagree with another…) Indeed Vox’s interpretative approach seems so threatening to M. as to receive disproportionate criticism in the Introduction, on ‘theoretical’ grounds, for using the term Allusion, ‘ohne diesem vieldeutigen Begriff ein einheitliches Konzept zugrundezulegen’ (2), a criticism he repeats with little variation elsewhere (e.g. 162-3).

Of course, M. is entitled to his own critical evaluations, but with his choice not to engage with the details of Vox’s argument (77), perhaps it would have been prudent to forgo the use of the term ‘absurd’ a few lines later to describe them. Such sniping is apparent and unwarranted also in the discussion of Adkins (e.g. 108,125-6); except of course when Adkins disagrees with Jaeger (e.g. 130, on the helkos of 4.17), who is perhaps the most extreme case of an author not favoured by M. Jaeger is the repeated target of criticism, though I admit to not fully understanding the reasons: Jaeger’s analysis of Solon 4 in relation to the Odyssey and Hesiod (e.g. 96) is consistently undervalued. Credit is only grudgingly given: for instance, to Jaegar’s demonstration of the hymnic quality of Solon’s verses on Eunomia, M. parenthetically adds ‘ohne Croiset und Norden zu zitieren’ (149; cf. the repeated ‘vgl. Croiset 1903, 587’ p. 97 and 121, in discussions where Jaeger should have also been cited, had M. not dismissed his views on dike on p. 93), a strangely anachronistic criticism for a text written with the conventions of the early twentieth century, particularly when these earlier authors’ comments were very much in passing. Of course, there is a rub: as an academic writing today I cannot deny that such citations are useful, but M.’s style is distracting.

The anachronistic criticism of Jaeger persists: one might disagree with the model of strict allusion (characteristic of the times) underlying Jaeger’s treatment, but in terms of intertextuality what he pointed to is manifest, and can usefully be discussed as such. M.’s entry on ἀποτεισομένη in 4.16 is illustrative: the comments on this word entail only its restoration as a future participle, a ‘cf. 13.76’, and a cross-citation to the grammar of Kühner/Gerth. The idea of tisis is given no elaboration, and no other textual parallels for the verb appear, both omissions uncharacteristic of M.’s otherwise thorough style. The verb is, in fact, frequent in the Odyssey, appearing, as in Solon, with ἔρχομαι, generating parallels that might have strengthened the connections ( contra M.) that Jaeger saw with the Odyssey. Nestle’s comparison of Solon 4 with Od. 18.130-40 is likewise not discussed, and is a striking omission given M.’s stated aims but consistent with his overall approach to the poem. M.’s selectivity and presentation of secondary literature are at best misleading.

M.’s biases in approaching the secondary literature are met by certain idiosyncracies of his elucidation of the fragments. Better use could have been made of the Introduction to address in detail critical discussions to which M. repeatedly alludes in his commentary: for instance, by page 384, the citation ‘Renner 1868, 162-70; West 1974, 77f.’ has appeared numerous times as the authorities for removing Atticisms from Solon’s text (a editorial decision eschewed by Gentili-Prato), but their arguments should have been rehearsed in the appropriate section of the Introduction; then a question might have been raised about the possible politics of dialect choices (whether these choices belonged to Solon or to a later stage of transmission).1 Moreover, the weighting of M.’s commentary is uneven: in 10.2 ἀληθείης ἐς μέσον ἐρχομένης, textual parallels and a meditation on ‘truth’ replace any discussion of what connotations the phrase ἐς μέσον may have in Solon’s wider social and political context. In other cases the comments don’t go far enough: ‘episches Kolorit’ (e.g. 373) is applied too frequently and without elaboration, without much attempt to explain why and how Solon chooses to be epic and when (cf. 180, 147). Moreover, M.’s use of parallels can mislead: for instance, his comment (78) on himertos being characteristic in epic for describing places is actually a misrepresentation of this trope’s appearance.

Other discussions I found problematic. Whether or not Solon 4.1 is the first line of that poem, I thoroughly disagree with M.’s treatment of the view that δέ cannot start a poem.2 The parallels adduced by Campbell and Denniston are sufficient:3 the function in a sympotic context is easily imaginable and indeed argued by Reitzenstein among others. M., however, maintains this ‘diskurs-deiktisch’ function is only possible, ‘wenn man sich die Elegie als spontan extemporierte Äußerung denkt…Angesichts der komplizierten gedanklichen und formalen Struktur der erhaltenen Verse scheint aber eine reine Improvisation unwahrscheinlich. Denkt man sich das Gedicht hingegen unter Zuhilfenahme der Schrift im voraus konzipiert, liegt ein Beginn mit diskursdeiktischem δέ weniger nahe’ (100). But why shouldn’t spontaneity be yet another of the roles one adopts in singing a sympotic song?4 As for Campbell’s argument that the δέ may function to create an implicit contrast to be supplied by the audience, M. places this in a footnote, finding it ‘ingeniös, aber nicht durch Parallelen belegbar’: a highly dangerous argument from silence, given that there can’t be more than 5% of sympotic poems of which the beginning is explicitly known. I also feel uneasy about the implicit assumption in M.’s analysis that Solon’s use of δέ here can be reduced to a single function, an assumption underlying several of M.’s discussions (see below).

Some basic methodological questions exist in Solon studies that M. does not address. One is about how to discuss parallels with other authors. M. counters many more nuanced interpretations of the fragments with a Lieblingsargument in the studies of early Greek poetry: the objection based on what must be missing (see 105, ‘es ist aber auch in Betracht zu ziehen, daß in uns verlorener epischer und lyrischer Dichtung aus vorsolonischer Zeit ähnliche Gedanken geäußert worden sein können’). Of course, while M. is right that such caution must never be forgotten, it does require care in its application, otherwise we risk reducing all of the language and themes of extant early Greek poetry into instantiations of topoi that we have hypothesized. Moreover, where such caution may undermine an argument for allusion, it need not undermine the observations upon which the argument for allusion has been based: in those cases where allusion cannot be securely established (that is, most cases in early Greek poetry), M. does not entertain how a model of intertextuality might enable further interpretation of passages of manifest similarity in the many cases where allusion cannot not be proven.

A second question is how far we are entitled to use the thought or vocabulary of one poem to clarify another?5 This is of course a question that applies to other authors (for instance Pindar). In the case of Solon it is somewhat more pressing: Solon’s poetry and ancient testimony (worryingly likely to be based on Solon’s own testimony) suggest that Solon courted a wide audience and that his political positioning in each communicative act constituted by a poem may have shifted from poem to poem, particularly over the duration of a career in which evaluations of him seem to have fluctuated. M. appears to find crossing from one poem to another unproblematic: for example, he uses frr. 9 and 11 to argue that the slavery of fr. 4.18 is that of tyranny but does not recognise that if such an identification (for some audiences) was likely, it is also one destabilised when just a few lines later the poem refers to another, more literal kind, of slavery. M.’s interpretation of δουλοσύνη as exclusively ‘tyranny’ enables him to conclude that the aorist ἤλυθε must be gnomic, but the conclusion merely begs the question of whether δουλοσύνη is, or is only to be understood as, that of tyranny. The play of tenses in this passage is complex, and the kind of aorist will be dependent upon how his audience understands δουλοσύνη : those (elite) audiences who heard a gnomic aorist, expressing a generalisable process whereby tyranny, the agathoi‘s deepest fear, is realised may be forced by the ensuing lines to realise what others, those among the demos, already know, that for some slavery has already come (the perfect aorist). This is a point already recognised more elegantly by Adkins,6 whose cogent interpretation, even if he is not a favourite of M., should have been adequately presented. This latter point itself is an unfortunate feature of the commentary: views that M. disagrees with tend to be dismissed in generic terms in the introduction to each poem, rather than appear within the notes to individual lines where a reader might properly evaluate their worth (see above on Jaeger and dike).

At any rate, the question of method is crucial. If continuity of word usage across poems is to be assumed, as it is by M., then why wouldn’t this apply to Solon’s horoi : if they are what enslaved the earth in fr. 36.7, does Solon’s description of himself as one in fr. 37.10 make him a bit of an enslaver — perhaps even a tyrant? And if bie is associated with tyranny in 34.8 what suspicions might it raise about Solon’s claim in 36.16 to have used bie in his measures? Here M. might have thought more about how clear the distinctions between archaic lawgiving and tyranny actually were to contemporaries, and how much such labels may have been a function of differing perspectives. The case of Pittacus is instructive — if the poetry of an Athenian ‘Alcaeus’ had survived would Solon be remembered differently?

Such passages are opportunities where political and philological analysis might have gone hand in hand, but M.’s commentary never quite fulfils the expectation engendered by his choice to focus on the political poems. M. provides little sense of what having Solon’s poetry can contribute, that Plutarch and Aristotle alone cannot, to our understanding of the archaic political culture in which Solon operated. Instead, the poems seem to be used only negatively as a check on (or the basis for) the supposed anachronistic elaborations of these authors. M.’s political questions largely pertain to which of Solon’s measures we can see in his fragments, to which the answer is fairly consistently negative due to the vagueness of Solon’s language (e.g. 193; again an instance where this repeated conclusion might have been dealt with in the ‘Introduction’); a point with which I would agree. But vagueness itself can be a political strategy, and it must matter exactly how and when Solon chooses to be vague (something Adkins was right to emphasize, even if particular instances of his application of this principle raise objections). M. assumes frequently that Solon did not provide the details of his measures in his poems because they were known to everyone (e.g. 379), but an equally plausible interpretation (which does not necessarily exclude the other) is that less is more: minimalism is a politically effective rhetorical strategy to control contemporary and future reception of his acts, especially in those cases where their specifics could appear (to some) to counter his more general claims.

Solon’s rhetorical strategies are highly sophisticated but for the most part underexplored by M. While he pays lip service to literary theory, quoting Derrida before his reading of fr. 36, some of the reading strategies of deconstruction would not have gone amiss in his commentary: contrafactuals, conditionals, negations and questions all introduce politically effective ambiguities into Solon’s poetry. When Solon says in fr. 5 that he allowed no side to win ἀδικῶς, the negation may (intentionally) undermine his claim to have been even-handed by introducing the possibility that one side may indeed have had a victory, but one that was just. Solon’s contrafactual of fr. 36 is likewise slippery — κέντρον δ’ ἄλλος ὡς ἐγὼ λαβών,οὐκ ἂν κατέσχε δῆμον. Behind the assertion that he kept others from the tyranny — no one else took up the goad ( κέντρον) — there resides a lingering ambiguity as to whether Solon (wants some within his audience to think he) was left holding this instrument with tyrannical associations.7 M.’s attempt to remove the ambiguity, explaining it ‘als elliptischem Ausdruck ( scil. οὕτως): ‘hier eher “ein anderer so wie ich” als “ein anderer als ich”‘ (391), may elide an important feature of Solon’s language, attested by tradition (see Plut. Sol. 14.2-3), namely its ambiguity.8 The inevitability that Solon’s poetry said different things to different groups, especially when performed in different contexts (and may have been intentionally composed for this purpose) is acknowledged nominally in places by M., but rarely applies to his philological analysis.

A final criticism has to do with M.’s primitivising approach to the conceptual frameworks informing Solon and his archaic culture. Implicit in his discussions are attitudes informed by Geistesgeschichten, an a priori assumption about Distanz that can do nothing but generate cognitive ‘Dissonanz’. For example, M.’s argument against the view that ἄστυ τρύχεται may imply a conceptualisation of the city as a social organism: ‘doch scheint es fraglich, ob man Solon ein solch abstraktes Konzept von gesellschaftlicher Organisation bereit zuschreiben darf (136)’; instead for M. the meaning is better explained in light of the effect of tyranny on the city that he assumes δουλοσύνη (see above). But Solon 4 is a poem in which the city has already been made to receive a wound: just why wouldn’t this suggest that ‘such an abstract concept’ could be used by Solon, unless it is because such a conclusion would challenge an assumption about the degree of conceptualisation possible in the archaic period — I pass over Theognis’ pregnant city (39-52), and his fears about what might please it.

Despite these criticisms, there are some good interpretations: the Salamis is covered well, particularly the discussion of Solon’s use of Athenaios and Attikos. More generally, the contributions of M.’s volume are several: the extensive bibliography, the textual parallels (though one should not assume them to comprehensive), and the clear, detailed survey of scholarly approaches to textual problems that will stimulate readers to attempt to engage with the problems of interpretation. And this encouragement to consider the text more closely for oneself is in my opinion the ‘Aufgabe’ of a commentary, and something that the best of them continue to do: as, for example, Campbell’s which, with its consummate brevity, is still among the best.

As for the production quality of the volume: the format and style of this series, as well as its range of titles, are all pleasing; on closer inspection, however, the copyediting of both the German and the Greek is rather disappointing, particularly given its cost — I select only those that most offend: three within the space of one page (118-19); two instances in which a block of 2-3 lines of Greek has been presented in the wrong font (351, 381 — all the more visible as they are the first lines of each of these pages); and a heading for M.’s translation of fr. 36 W in which the wrong Gentili-Prato number (Diehl’s ’24’) actually faces the correct one on the opposite page (30).


1. Compare Noussia (2001) 348-50.

2. Compare Noussia (2001) 237.

3. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry: a Selection (1967) 140-1, 240, Denniston, Greek Particles (Oxford 1950) 172-3.

4. Compare Solon 20 (incidentally a poem that may well have began with ἀλλά, another particle whose use in a first line is contested) where the ‘I’ of the song assumes a stance of spontaneity that no doubt corresponds both to its ‘spontaneous’ performance in response to another symposiast’s singing of Mimnermus 6 and to the fictive vividness of the conversation the poem constructs with Mimnermus. See Bowie JHS 106 (1986) 13-35 on the roles assumed in elegy.

5. See Griffith, ‘Contest and contestibility’, in The Cabinet of the Muses, eds. M. Griffith and D. Mastronarde (Atlanta 1990) 185-207.

6. Adkins, The Poetic Craft in the Early Greek Elegists (Chicago 1985) 118. Adkins remains one of the few scholars to appreciate just how much Solon may have been exploiting the ambiguity of language. Particularly salutary is his comment (110): ‘Whether or not Solon had a political philosophy, he was a practicing politician; and even practicing politicians who possess political philosophies do not use language publicly solely to give dispassionate expositions of theories’.

7. M.’s view on δουλοσύνη as only tyranny has consequences for his limited interpretation of τρύχεται in 4.22 (136) and smacks of circularity. See, for example, Thgn. 847-50, with Noussia (2001) 361-2, Catenacci, QUCC 39 (1991) 30-31; Anhalt, Solon the Singer (Ann Arbor 1993) 122-23.

8. That deceptive use of language is a feature of archaic politics is attested by Solon (11.7); whether he should be excluded from the practice he identifies based on his own testimony is another question.