Episode 5, The Life of Solon has been uploaded to our podcast web page here. As we begin to move away from the founding’s of Rome and some of the older biographies where fact/fiction is a grey area, we are starting to move out of the grey area and into more truths than nots regarding the coming biographies.
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Episode 13: The Life of Coriolanus – Plutarch's Greeks and Romans Podcast
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For the life of Solon we return to Athens, where we started the podcast and learned about Theseus, the hero who the Athenians celebrate as their founder because he ended the tribute to King Minos of Crete, brought the people of Attica together, and established some of Athens traditions and festivals.
Chris: Not to mention slaying a minotaur, and attempting to kidnap a wife on more than one occasion
Ryan: Right – Theseus led a very eventful life to say the least
And Chris, I am excited to be moving forward and taking on the life of Solon today because it means we are now moving into more solid Greek history. Unlike Theseus who can be placed into the category of myth, and Lycurgus who sits maybe halfway between man and myth, we can be pretty certain that Solon really existed and when he existed. The year that Solon was appointed to arbitrate the differences of the Athenian people is most likely 594-593 BC. I know you have been eager to get to some actual dates Chris
Chris: Ha ha, yes it feels good to hear an actual date
Ryan: Agreed. Now Solon is considered one of the Seven Sages, or Seven Wise Men, according to the Classical Greek tradition. The earliest surviving list of Seven Wise Men comes from Plato’s Protagoras. Solon expressed his wisdom through poetry – writing in prose was uncommon. It is said that Solon travelled widely in his younger days – some say that Solon travelled purely to gain wisdom and knowledge, others that he was a merchant, having come from a noble family whose wealth had ebbed and so it fell to Solon to restore their fortune. For his part, Plutarch sees no shame in Solon possibly engaging in trade to restore his families wealth – pointing out that trade brings home the good things from other countries, increases friendship with their kings, and is a source of valuable experience.
Chris: Very good points
Ryan: Yeah, and it does seem that like Lycurgus before him, Solon did learn much from his travels – which may have provided him with the objectivity and clarity to see what needed to be done in his own polis of Athens when it was later gripped by a crisis.
Solon established a reputation for wisdom amongst the Athenians by offering sage advice in moments of crisis. At one point the Athenians were determined to give up on a long war with the neighbouring polis of Megara over control of the island of Salamis, which was situated in the Saronic Gulf directly between the two cities. Solon wrote a poem urging the Athenians to renew the war, and succeeded in changing public opinion. The Athenians decided to continue the fight under Solon’s leadership and defeated the Megarians in battle. Solon also advised the Athenians to defend the neutrality of the Oracle at Delphi against the Cirrhaeans. On another occasion, when factionalism gripped Athens, Solon convinced members of one faction (the Cylonians) to submit to a trial by a jury of 300 citizens, and the Cylonians were banished – putting a halt to the strife. These actions combined to gain Solon widespread recognition as the wisest of the Athenians.
Now at this time political power in Athens was dominated by an aristocracy of Eupatrids – sons of ‘good’ fathers
Chris: The listeners can’t see that you are making air quotes with your fingers Ryan
Ryan: Haha right, good fathers in quotation marks. The Eupatrids exercised power through controlling the annual office of Archon, and through the council of the Areopagus which was a group composed of ex-Archons. However, serious tensions had arisen between these powerful aristocrats and both the masses of poor citizens, as well as the class of new-rich who did not come from noble stock. Making the situation particularly untenable was the amount of debt which many individual Athenians had accrued. Many were being forced into slavery because they were unable to pay their debts. So it seems that, as it had in Sparta before Lycurgus’ reforms were instituted, inequality in Athens had reached extreme levels.
Chris: Something had to give
Ryan: Yes, and as I mentioned it was not just the poor that were dissatisfied, there were also those wealthy individuals who did not belong to the Eupatrid class – and so lacked power and prestige to go along with their wealth.
Plutarch relates that the inequality and debt had many Athenians on the brink of open rebellion, writing that,
“Some [for no law forbade it] were forced to sell their children, or fly their country to avoid the cruelty of their creditors; but the most part and bravest of them began to combine together and encourage one another to stand to it, to choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government.
Then the wisest of the Athenians, perceiving Solon was of all men the only not implicated in their troubles, that he had not joined in the exactions of the rich, and was not involved in the necessities of the poor, pressed him to succour the commonwealth and compose their differences”
And thus Solon was chosen as Archon and given a mandate to arbitrate the differences between the classes and make new laws. Plutarch says that the rich consented to the choice of Solon because he was wealthy, and the poor consented because he was honest.
Solon approached the task ahead of him with a great deal of pragmatism. He seems to have had an eye towards making changes that stood a good chance of withstanding the test of time and so perhaps didn’t go as far as he could have in correcting the imbalances in Athenian society.
Plutarch writes that Solon was asked afterwards if had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given he replied, “the best they could receive”
Chris: Ah. Well said. So what were these laws that Solon instituted?
Ryan: Well, perhaps most important to the immediate situation was that he declared that all remaining debts should be forgiven – and the practice of enslaving a person who could not pay their debts was outlawed. This measure was called the Seisechtheia (the Shaking off of Burdens). This would allow those who had fled their debts to return home and reignite the moribund Athenian economy.
Not surprisingly to anyone who follows modern politics, despite the obvious good sense of this measure, neither the rich nor the poor were happy with it. Plutarch writes that, “the rich were angry for their money, and the poor that the land was not divided, and, as Lycurgus ordered in his commonwealth, all men reduced to equality.”
So to the rich Solon had gone too far with this move, but to the poor he hadn’t gone far enough.
Chris: Isn’t that the sign of a good compromise though? That neither party is fully satisfied?
Ryan: Absolutely. And soon enough the Athenians realized the good that the Seisechtheia had accomplished and urged Solon to continue with his reforms. And so next Solon completely repealed the existing set of Athenian laws that had earlier been laid down by Draco with the exception of law regarding homicide. These laws were seen as being far too severe, and this is where we derive the modern English word “Draconian” which refers to rules that are excessively harsh. Plutarch says that Solon quote, “ repealed all draco’s laws except those concerning homicide because they were too severe and the punishments too great; for death was appointed for almost all offenses insomuch that those that were convicted of idleness were to die and those that stole a cabbage or an Apple to suffer even as villains that committed sacrilege or murder so that Demades in after time was thought to have said very happily that Draco’s laws were written not with ink but blood and he himself being once asked why he made death the punishment of most offenses replied small ones deserve that and I have no higher for the greater crimes
Hope you enjoyed the episode!
Chris & Ryan
Plutarch’s Greeks and Romans Podcast