BMCR 2007.04.26

Solon of Athens: New Historical and Philological Approaches

, , Solon of Athens : new historical and philological approaches. 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.. Brill: Brill, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 476 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9789047408895. $199.00.

Our understanding of the historical Solon, his laws, and the times in which he lived is particularly vexed because of the nature of the relevant evidence. The poetry ascribed to Solon is mostly fragmentary and allusive; the information contextualizing it in such sources as the Athenaion Politeia, Attic orators, and Plutarch might be said in several cases to be based on little more than inference from the poems; and many of Solon’s laws may be falsely attributed.1 And skepticism continues to grow. Now even that meager basis which scholars have generally accepted heretofore as “Solonian” has been called into question as altered or invented even very early on in the tradition. Certainly, by the time of Herodotos, Solon had already become a quasi-historical figure and it is quite possible that little of substance about him beyond the poetry and (portions of) his law code survived even to the fifth century BCE. Of course, later ancient authors were at the mercy of sources preceding them, whether written or oral, and alterations or inventions can have been layered on liberally as the historical Athenian lawgiver was transformed into legendary Greek sage. Solon and the events that surround him certainly bear closer examination beginning with the sources.

This collection of eighteen articles and one appendix is the product of a conference on Solon held at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in December, 2003.2 The articles are grouped under three “core topics”: Solon’s poems (Chapters 1-6), his laws (Chapters 7-12), and the historical conditions around his time (Chapters 13-18). The focal point of the papers is “the degree to which ancient sources are understood to reflect the activities of the historical Solon or, at least, the conditions existing in sixth century Athens” (11).

A. P. M. H. Lardinois (“Have we Solon’s verses?”) examines the authenticity of the Solonian corpus, assaying whether the poems are in fact the poet’s ipsissima verba. Lardinois suggests that the elegies known as Solon’s in antiquity (and, perhaps, to some extent, the iambics) are to be dated really no earlier than the 4th century BCE and that, in the intervening period, the veritable words of Solon were altered through oral transmission, sometimes deliberately. The author posits political motivation for these alterations, the proofs for which are variations in the texts of the same poems that could perhaps bolster fourth century political arguments. Such renovation and dating would help to explain why Solon appears to be so far ahead of his time in what he says about citizenship and the polis.

In the lengthy “The transgressive elegy of Solon,” E. Irwin reappraises Solon as poet and concludes by suggesting that Solon “the transgressive elegist may be completely within the bounds of a different group of political poets … that of the archaic tyrants” (39). Irwin focuses on three areas of “transgressive” poetry: narrative ( Salamis); language (Fr. 5), and “elegiac boundary disputes” (Frs. 4, 6, and 13). Salamis stands in the tradition of parainesis, but (the story of) its performance suggests that it and its composer were conceived, possibly very early on, as exceeding the traditional context of elegiac performance, i.e., the symposion. Irwin detects further transgression in Fr. 5 in Solon’s apparently unique language of awarding geras and time to the demos, both of which had been reserved theretofore for the aristoi. With this and Theognidean verses as a kind of control, Irwin determines that Solon’s language appropriates that of tyrants, which appropriation in turn produced explicit denials of aspirations to tyranny. Solon’s poetry requires that it be evaluated simultaneously for its political and poetic form and content, since otherwise the subtlety of its language and meaning are not fully comprehended.

E. Stehle (“Solon’s self-reflexive political persona and its audience”) argues that Solon’s political poems amount to a “collection,” repeating a very narrow range of themes expressed in generalities and implying an audience quite different from the Athenians of Solon’s day. “Solon” distances himself from the contemporary astoi by using third person verb-endings and revealing his inner thoughts and emotions combined with blame for the Athenians. This political “Solon” is too abstracted and isolated to represent an actual responder to shifting political realities in his own time. The real Solon must have spoken directly to the Athenians, not in a detached fashion to an implied audience. “Solon,” the uncongenial blamer, is quite out of sync with social memories of the sage/lawgiver in evidence even before the end of the fifth century BCE. Rather, the persona of “Solon” and the “collection that produces it” are, the author strongly suspects, “a new creation in the fourth century (BCE, spawned by debates over democracy” (110).

F. Blaise (“Poetics and politics: tradition re-worked in Solon’s Eunomia [Poem 4]”) persuasively demonstrates that, in the poem, Solon has created a self-conscious tension between poetic tradition and innovation. In fact, the poet endeavors, in a new way, to link divine order and human possibilities, which are contained within, but also enabled by that order. Solon’s dike is a logical inexorable process; eunomia, a corrective activity that restores a situation of balance. Indeed, the latter is not supernatural, but rather a “regulating activity which strives toward the principles that are at the basis of divine foundation” (124). Humans must maintain these regulations to preserve the polis. Blaise concludes by suggesting that Solon’s poems should be studied for themselves rather than for what they might actually tell us about the poet himself.

In “Strategies of persuasion in Solon’s elegies,” M. Noussia offers a thorough examination of the rhetorical dimensions of Solon’s poetry. The first of two sections is concerned with the image of Solon as rhetor in secondary sources. Noussia demonstrates how, in them, Solon employs myth as persuasive authority to argue for Athens’ ownership of Salamis and how the narrative in ancient sources of Solon’s performance of the poem Salamis depicts it as a sort of “fully pre-rhetorical staging” (137). The second section zeroes in on Solon’s argumentative elegies and their pre-rhetorical structure and emphases. (Labeling Solon’s discourse “rhetorical” is premised for Noussia upon “strategies of persuasion” and “recognisable rhetorical devices” in the poetry rather than formal argument or technique based in Aristoteleian-type rhetoric, hence the terms “pre-” and “proto-rhetorical.”) Noussia concludes quite plausibly that Solon was in essence a forerunning practitioner of persuasive argument and other oratorical devices that were formalized and systematized in later works on oratory, such as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

In “Solon in no man’s land,” R. Martin argues that Solon’s poems are more than “‘prime sources'” for politics: they are politics. In fact, Solon the poet and Solon the politician are the same in essence and action. Martin’s argument depends upon comparison with the Panamanian Kuna, whose “chief,” the best speaker in the community, persuades, advises and guides by means of poetic chant. Ethnographic evidence, such as “social cataloguing,” which is also found in Solon’s poetry, makes such identity plausible; just as the Kuna chief, Solon manipulates metaphor (e.g., wolf, horos) to create his political persona. (Solon’s positioning of himself as a horos in the metaichmion [Fr. 37], “the land between spears,” is meant to urge the Athenians not to transgress the line he establishes.) On the analogy with the Kuna chief, rather than “an amateur versifier,” Solon is a “creative chieftain-poet, whose words effectively make things happen” (168).

A. Scafuro (“Identifying Solonian laws”) seeks to expand the corpus of Solon’s laws, by including those “that are demonstrably Solonian in content by analogy to laws that are better attested for the ancient lawgiver” (179). Specifically Scarfuro argues that [Dem.] 43.75, “the archon’s law on caring,” and [Dem.] 43.54, “the archon’s law on poor epikleroi,” each contain a “Solonian kernel” and should be admitted to the “Solonian club.” Four laws that specify obligations to each epikleros, to sons of epikleroi, to women and orphans, and to parents are regarded as Solonian and these imply the existence of such as the “archon’s law on caring” to authorize a magistrate to see that such obligations are met. The “archon’s law on poor epikleroi defines the obligation of kinsmen to heiresses: it fits in with the same Solonian laws. While the latter law may possess a Solonian “kernel,” the dowry sums and magistrate’s penalties are too high and the ascription is not entirely secure. J. Blok (“Solon’s funerary laws: questions of authenticity and function”) contends that Solon’s laws on the dead were directed neither against the aristocracy nor women, as some have believed. Examination of the evidence reveals that the Solonian measures were conspicuously ineffective as a curb on attendance or ostentation and that there was no decline in the control of women or family members of burial rites. Rather the laws regulated such things as behaviors during the funeral rites, the value of goods put into graves, and the sacrifices made at the tomb. Since the dead were commemorated with tomb-cult and never entirely disjoined from the living, but could also be sources of pollution — and, in no small measure, of fear — relations were delicate and had to be handled very carefully. The object of Solon’s funerary laws was to separate the world of the living from that of the dead, ensuring that proper burial rites would take place to placate the dead, but also diminishing the potential for pollution affecting the city by limiting the interaction of the two worlds.

In “The reforms and laws of Solon: an optimistic view,” P. J. Rhodes explains his belief in the historical validity of Solon’s laws in such sources as the Athenaion Politeia ( Ath. Pol.) and Plutarch’s Life and then surveys laws attributed to Solon. If these can be shown to have relied upon Solon’s laws, then they can obviously be held to make valid assertions about the lawgiving even though unsupported by fragments of Solon’s poetry. To link them with Solon’s veritable laws, Rhodes posits an intermediary source, the “source for our sources,” whose author copied Solon’s actual laws from the still extant axones in the later fifth century BCE and whose transcription was available to and reflected in these later sources, beginning with the author of the Athenaion Politeia. Many laws attributed to Solon in these sources, e.g., that which banned enslavement for debt, among others, are quite reasonable Solonian.

M. Gagarin (“Legal procedure in Solon’s laws”) takes up Solon’s procedural law and why the author of the Athenaion Politeia (F 40) termed three of Solon’s procedural laws his “most democratic reforms.” In the first part of the article, Gagarin surveys the evidence for procedural innovations. Legal procedural reforms, such as ho boulomenos (really “the right [of an Athenian] to prosecute on behalf of a wronged person”), ephesis (“appeal?”), eisangelia (“denunciation”), the dike exoules (“suit for ejection”), and law on theft, seem to have been purposed to give individuals a larger role in the judicial system and so “set the course for the democratic future of Athenian law” (274). Although the original corpus of Solonian procedural law was probably extensive, little remains extant because detailed legal procedure would not have elicited much interest from later writers. The exception is the author of the Athenaion Politeia who, because he recognized the constitutional implications of procedural law, noted some of Solon’s innovations.

In the lucid and succinct “The figure of Solon in the Athenaion Politeia,” H.-J. Gehrke carefully considers the portrayal of Solon in the Ath. Pol. in comparison with that in Aristotle’s Politics. He concludes that, except for the degree of detail and slight differences in focus, the Solon-passages in each are “very close to each other in nearly every respect” (287). While there is no way to prove conclusively that Aristotle actually wrote the Ath. Pol., the correspondence of content and methods, and Aristotle’s own orientation toward rational examination of evidence suggest that both works contain better evidence about the lawgiver than one might imagine at first.

E. Harris (“Solon and the spirit of the laws in archaic and classical Greece”) seeks first to set the relationship of early Greek lawgivers like Solon and the laws they created in contrast to that of ancient Near Eastern lawgivers and their laws. Secondly, he assays how the differences in lawgivers and the place of law in Greek society affected the shape and form of laws in archaic and classical Greek poleis. Near Eastern lawgivers, such as Hammurabi, were also judges; some like Deioces used their position to gain monarchy. Solon did not combine the roles of lawgiver and judge and emphatically rejected tyranny. Rather he envisioned law as a way of creating the right relationship between the people and its leaders, a balance ensuring justice, order, and freedom from slavery, i.e., eunomia, for the polis. Distribution of official duties and powers, along with term limits, penalties for malfeasant magistrates, boards of officials and entrenchment clauses (penalties for those seeking to overturn laws), acted to check concentration of power in the hands of one and so to impede monarchy — a general fear among early Greek communities. Such legal curbs are to be found in many other archaic and classical Greek contexts. While Solon’s poems contain possibly the oldest and most articulate expression of the “spirit of the laws” in early Greece, the rule of law was not an ideal, but a practical concern and aim for Greek poleis generally.

In “Solon’s reforms: an archaeological perspective,” J. Bintliff reassesses the Solonian land crisis in view of recent studies and analyses of the material evidence. Rejecting his own earlier model, Bintliff now finds it likely that, throughout the Dark Ages, “a class of dependent peasants was tied to the upper classes and provided essential agricultural labor for their sustenance, as well as minor surpluses for traded goods and elite feasting” (328). Solon’s oppressed kakoi comprise this traditionally tied labor force, making up half or more of the population, working their own holdings, to which the agathoi laid claim, and those of their betters, which the agathoi possessed. When Solon removed the horoi, he did so only for the holdings that belonged to the lower class: the kakoi were perhaps still duty bound to work the fields of the agathoi.

In “Land, labor, and economy in Solonian Athens: breaking the impasse between archeology and history,” S. Forsdyke seeks to reconcile the historical view that increased productivity of land contributed substantially to the Solonian crisis with an archaeological record that shows no evidence that new lands were brought under intensive agriculture. Current historical interpretations, Forsdyke argues, place too much emphasis on permanent farm residence as a marker for increased use, when the real key is available labor. Labor was plentiful and intensification occurred on land already under cultivation before the crisis, that is, on plots nearer settlements, in which laborers dwelt. While it was only in the later sixth century BCE that land further out from settlements began to be exploited more intensively, even as the archaeological record shows, these same tracts were cultivated before Solon’s advent less intensively by laborers, thus lacking the archaeological markers of more concentrated use. The drive for intensification was created by the elites who sought to bring more Attic land under cultivation for their own profit and who engendered the Solonian crisis by overly exploiting the labor of the masses.

H. van Wees (“Mass and elite in Solon’s Athens: the property classes revisited”) tackles the nature of Solon’s property qualifications, arguing that Solon’s system merely reinforced the practical constraints of an agricultural community. Contrary to what is usually assumed, the “yoke-men” ( zeugitai) are to be “ranked with the greedy elite, rather than with the exploited masses” (352). Rather than a military designation, the “yoke-men” possessed property enough to afford a team of oxen: in fact, they held land that could produce 200 measures of grain, making them, as Aristotle says, “notable and rich men.” Placing the zeugitai into this category also accords with Solon’s own polarization of Athenians as either the well off, landed notables (10-20% of the population) or the impoverished and dependent (80-90%). If this is the case, Solon did not expand the right to hold office to a middle class. Van Wees asserts that Solon’s most radical reform was the establishment of the Council of the Four Hundred because it opened up membership in governance to a wider number of the elites.

K. Raaflaub (“Athenian and Spartan eunomia, or: what to do with Solon’s timocracy?”) takes up “good order” in both cities, making a case that Solon’s model for reforming Athens was Sparta and that his reforms were really not as radical as portrayed by later authors. First of all, Raaflaub argues, the Great Rhetra of Sparta is not justifiably to be separated from Tyrtaios’ so-called Eunomia elegy. The basic political distribution imagined by Solon, a near-contemporary of Tyrtaios, “is the same as that provided by the Spartan Rhetra” (401-402). The implication, of course, is that Solon, whose concern was for eunomia at Athens, would have learned from the Spartan model, which was recent and topical in his time. Additionally, Raaflaub offers the suggestion that the classes which existed in Solon’s time were essentially two, grouped in the “informal categories” of hippeis (cavalry leaders) and zeugitai (hoplite followers). The four “Solonian” classes, which did not exist before the second quarter of the fifth century BCE, were falsely attributed to Solon by later authors. Seeking to stabilize Athens in severe crisis, Solon adjusted the relationship of classes, balancing aristocratic leadership, which he preserved, with a more formalized and powerful role for the assembly and greater involvement of the demos.

L. de Blois (“Plutarch’s Solon : A tissue of commonplaces or a historical account?”) aims to clarify the evidence in the ancient Greek biographer’s life of Solon by setting out the nature of commonplaces in the work. De Blois determines that Plutarch applied three types of loci communes in the Life of Solon : the good statesman, the interaction between demos and its leaders, and the right mental preparation of the masses. But Plutarch also used factual information that he found in his sources in a “quite scrupulous way, as he always did” (437). In fact, the biographer integrated the “complexes of stereotypes and commonplaces” with historical data. “His Solon is not fictional” (439).

Finally, the concern of J. Ober (“Solon and the horoi : on the ground in archaic Athens”) is how the act of “disestablishing” the horoi is related to Solon’s other “explicitly normative” lawgiving. Tangible, man-made or natural, the horoi may be thought of as spatial markers that attempted to “naturalize” the social, geographic, or other distinctions and prohibitions sought by the elites (i.e., the Eupatrids). Solon’s aim in removing the horoi, “the facts on the ground,” was to eliminate these restrictions and replace them with his own new facts on the ground. This act fits in with Solon’s other legal measures which sought to (re)establish “how the Athenians, as a community, ought to relate to one another under conditions of fairness” (445).

Many of the articles in this compendium offer stimulating interpretations of the evidence and of these I highlight just a few. Van Wees and Raaflaub provide hypotheses about the Solonian classes that, though opposed, are equally intriguing; Ober redefines the nature of the horoi in terms quite distinct from those previously understood. Forsdyke offers a well-reasoned and plausible “way out” of the dilemma posed by opposition of the archaeological and written evidence of land use in the time of the “Solonian” crisis. Most solid in the collection are the contributions involving Solonian law and noteworthy among this group that is generally notable is that of Blok who places Solon where he places himself: mediating dangerous oppositions in the city, in this case, between the living and the dead.

Solon will remain controversial, perhaps most especially because the nature of the present evidence about him will continue to encourage disagreement and ingenuity. Even in this collection we find diametrically opposed views on the validity of the ascription of the poems themselves to Solon. Yet, while the reader will discover much in these articles that is hypothetical, some that is mighty tenuous, and really nothing (understandably) that is conclusive about the lawgiver or his times, she or he will nevertheless find a good deal that enhances the picture surrounding this very significant figure of early Athenian politics and history.


1. The present “material evidence of agriculture, settlement, and distribution of wealth,” that is, the archaeological data, is no less problematic.

2. Seventeen papers were apparently presented at the conference: Irwin’s lengthy “The Transgressive Elegy of Solon” seems to have been added to the collection.