B.C. 594 – Solon’s Early Greek Legislation by George Grote | Part II


B.C. 594


Introduction by Charles F. Horne, Ph.D. & John Rudd, LL.D.

Lycurgus, the reputed Spartan lawgiver, is credited with the construction, about B.C. 800, of the earliest Grecian commonwealth founded upon a specific code of laws. These laws had mainly a military basis, and through obedience to them the Spartans became a people of great hardiness, accustomed to self-discipline, famous for their prowess and endurance in war, and for sternness of individual and social virtues.

In Athens there were no written laws until the time of Draco, B.C. 621, the government before that period having been long in the hands of an oligarchy. In the year above named Draco was archon, and to him was intrusted the work of framing a legal code, conditions under the oligarchic rule having become intolerable to the people at large. The chief features of Draco’s legislation had reference to the punishment of crime, and so extreme were the severities of the system and so cruel the penalties it prescribed that in later times it was declared to have been written in blood.

The Draconian laws remained in force until superseded by the great system of Solon, whose advent as the new lawgiver was brought about mainly through the conspiracy of Cylon, twelve years after the legislation of Draco. Affairs in Athens were in a deplorable state of confusion and violence, the revolt of the poor against the power and privilege of the rich leading to dangerous dissensions and collisions. Solon, who enjoyed a universal reputation for wisdom and uprightness, was called upon by the oligarchy, which again held rule, to assume what was, in fact, almost absolute power. The character of his legislation and its influence upon the course of Greek history have been set forth by many authors, and the following account is perhaps the best that has appeared in modern literature.

George Grote

If we examine the facts of the case, we shall see that nothing more than the bare foundation of the democracy of Athens as it stood in the time of Pericles can reasonably be ascribed to Solon. “I gave to the people (Solon says in one of his short remaining fragments) as much strength as sufficed for their needs, without either enlarging or diminishing their dignity: for those too, who possessed power and were noted for wealth, I took care that no unworthy treatment should be reserved. I stood with the strong shield cast over both parties so as not to allow an unjust triumph to either.” Again, Aristotle tells us that Solon bestowed upon the people as much power as was indispensable, but no more: the power to elect their magistrates and hold them to accountability: if the people had had less than this, they could not have been expected to remain tranquil—they would have been in slavery and hostile to the constitution. Not less distinctly does Herodotus speak, when he describes the revolution subsequently operated by Clisthenes—the latter (he tells us) found “the Athenian people excluded from everything.” These passages seem positively to contradict the supposition, in itself sufficiently improbable, that Solon is the author of the peculiar democratical institutions of Athens, such as the constant and numerous dicasts for judicial trials and revision of laws. The genuine and forward democratical movement of Athens begins only with Clisthenes, from the moment when that distinguished Alcmæonid, either spontaneously, or from finding himself worsted in his party strife with Isagoras, purchased by large popular concessions the hearty coöperation of the multitude under very dangerous circumstances. While Solon, in his own statement as well as in that of Aristotle, gave to the people as much power as was strictly needful—but no more—Clisthenes (to use the significant phrase of Herodotus), “being vanquished in the party contest with his rival, took the people into partnership.” It was, thus, to the interests of the weaker section, in a strife of contending nobles, that the Athenian people owed their first admission to political ascendancy—in part, at least, to this cause, though the proceedings of Clisthenes indicate a hearty and spontaneous popular sentiment. But such constitutional admission of the people would not have been so astonishingly fruitful in positive results, if the course of public events for the half century after Clisthenes had not been such as to stimulate most powerfully their energy, their self-reliance, their mutual sympathies, and their ambition. I shall recount in a future chapter these historical causes, which, acting upon the Athenian character, gave such efficiency and expansion to the great democratical impulse communicated by Clisthenes: at present it is enough to remark that that impulse commences properly with Clisthenes, and not with Solon.

But the Solonian constitution, though only the foundation, was yet the indispensable foundation, of the subsequent democracy. And if the discontents of the miserable Athenian population, instead of experiencing his disinterested and healing management, had fallen at once into the hands of selfish power-seekers like Cylon or Pisistratus—the memorable expansion of the Athenian mind during the ensuing century would never have taken place, and the whole subsequent history of Greece would probably have taken a different course. Solon left the essential powers of the state still in the hands of the oligarchy. The party combats between Pisistratus, Lycurgus, and Megacles, thirty years after his legislation, which ended in the despotism of Pisistratus, will appear to be of the same purely oligarchical character as they had been before Solon was appointed archon. But the oligarchy which he established was very different from the unmitigated oligarchy which he found, so teeming with oppression and so destitute of redress, as his own poems testify.

It was he who first gave both to the citizens of middling property and to the general mass a locus standi against the Eupatrids. He enabled the people partially to protect themselves, and familiarized them with the idea of protecting themselves, by the peaceful exercise of a constitutional franchise. The new force, through which this protection was carried into effect, was the public assembly called Heliæa, regularized and armed with enlarged prerogatives and further strengthened by its indispensable ally—the pro-bouleutic, or pre-considering, senate. Under the Solonian constitution, this force was merely secondary and defensive, but after the renovation of Clisthenes it became paramount and sovereign. It branched out gradually into those numerous popular dicasteries which so powerfully modified both public and private Athenian life, drew to itself the undivided reverence and submission of the people, and by degrees rendered the single magistracies essentially subordinate functions. The popular assembly, as constituted by Solon, appearing in modified efficiency and trained to the office of reviewing and judging the general conduct of a past magistrate—forms the intermediate stage between the passive Homeric agora and those omnipotent assemblies and dicasteries which listened to Pericles or Demosthenes. Compared with these last, it has in it but a faint streak of democracy—and so it naturally appeared to Aristotle, who wrote with a practical experience of Athens in the time of the orators; but compared with the first, or with the ante-Solonian constitution of Attica, it must doubtless have appeared a concession eminently democratical. To impose upon the Eupatrid archon the necessity of being elected, or put upon his trial of after-accountability, by the rabble of freemen (such would be the phrase in Eupatrid society), would be a bitter humiliation to those among whom it was first introduced; for we must recollect that this was the most extensive scheme of constitutional reform yet propounded in Greece, and that despots and oligarchies shared between them at that time the whole Grecian world. As it appears that Solon, while constituting the popular assembly with its pro-bouleutic senate, had no jealousy of the senate of Areopagus, and indeed, even enlarged its powers, we may infer that his grand object was, not to weaken the oligarchy generally, but to improve the administration and to repress the misconduct and irregularities of the individual archons; and that, too, not by diminishing their powers, but by making some degree of popularity the condition both of their entry into office, and of their safety or honor after it.

It is, in my judgment, a mistake to suppose that Solon transferred the judicial power of the archons to a popular dicastery. These magistrates still continued self-acting judges, deciding and condemning without appeal—not mere presidents of an assembled jury, as they afterward came to be during the next century. For the general exercise of such power they were accountable after their year of office. Such accountability was the security against abuse—a very insufficient security, yet not wholly inoperative. It will be seen, however, presently that these archons, though strong to coerce, and perhaps to oppress, small and poor men, had no means of keeping down rebellious nobles of their own rank, such as Pisistratus, Lycurgus, and Megacles, each with his armed followers. When we compare the drawn swords of these ambitious competitors, ending in the despotism of one of them, with the vehement parliamentary strife between Themistocles and Aristides afterward, peaceably decided by the vote of the sovereign people and never disturbing the public tranquillity—we shall see that the democracy of the ensuing century fulfilled the conditions of order, as well as of progress, better than the Solonian constitution.

To distinguish this Solonian constitution from the democracy which followed it, is essential to a due comprehension of the progress of the Greek mind, and especially of Athenian affairs. That democracy was achieved by gradual steps. Demosthenes and Æschines lived under it as a system consummated and in full activity, when the stages of its previous growth were no longer matter of exact memory; and the dicasts then assembled in judgment were pleased to hear their constitution associated with the names either of Solon or of Theseus. Their inquisitive contemporary Aristotle was not thus misled: but even commonplace Athenians of the century preceding would have escaped the same delusion. For during the whole course of the democratical movement, from the Persian invasion down to the Peloponnesian war, and especially during the changes proposed by Pericles and Ephialtes, there was always a strenuous party of resistance, who would not suffer the people to forget that they had already forsaken, and were on the point of forsaking still more, the orbit marked out by Solon. The illustrious Pericles underwent innumerable attacks both from the orators in the assembly and from the comic writers in the theatre. And among these sarcasms on the political tendencies of the day we are probably to number the complaint, breathed by the poet Cratinus, of the desuetude into which both Solon and Draco had fallen—”I swear (said he in a fragment of one of his comedies) by Solon and Draco, whose wooden tablets (of laws) are now employed by people to roast their barley.” The laws of Solon respecting penal offences, respecting inheritance and adoption, respecting the private relations generally, etc., remained for the most part in force: his quadripartite census also continued, at least for financial purposes, until the archonship of Nausinicus in B.C. 377—so that Cicero and others might be warranted in affirming that his laws still prevailed at Athens: but his political and judicial arrangements had undergone a revolution not less complete and memorable than the character and spirit of the Athenian people generally. The choice, by way of lot, of archons and other magistrates—and the distribution by lot of the general body of dicasts or jurors into panels for judicial business—may be decidedly considered as not belonging to Solon, but adopted after the revolution of Clisthenes; probably the choice of senators by lot also. The lot was a symptom of pronounced democratical spirit, such as we must not seek in the Solonian institutions.

It is not easy to make out distinctly what was the political position of the ancient gentes and phratries, as Solon left them. The four tribes consisted altogether of gentes and phratries, insomuch that no one could be included in any one of the tribes who was not also a member of some gens and phratry. Now the new pro-bouleutic, or pre-considering, senate consisted of four hundred members,—one hundred from each of the tribes: persons not included in any gens or phratry could therefore have had no access to it. The conditions of eligibility were similar, according to ancient custom, for the nine archons—of course, also, for the senate of Areopagus. So that there remained only the public assembly, in which an Athenian not a member of these tribes could take part: yet he was a citizen, since he could give his vote for archons and senators, and could take part in the annual decision of their accountability, besides being entitled to claim redress for wrong from the archons in his own person—while the alien could only do so through the intervention of an avouching citizen or Prostates. It seems, therefore, that all persons not included in the four tribes, whatever their grade of fortune might be, were on the same level in respect to political privilege as the fourth and poorest class of the Solonian census. It has already been remarked, that even before the time of Solon the number of Athenians not included in the gentes or phratries was probably considerable: it tended to become greater and greater, since these bodies were close and unexpansive, while the policy of the new lawgiver tended to invite industrious settlers from other parts of Greece and Athens. Such great and increasing inequality of political privilege helps to explain the weakness of the government in repelling the aggressions of Pisistratus, and exhibits the importance of the revolution afterward wrought by Clisthenes, when he abolished (for all political purposes) the four old tribes, and created ten new comprehensive tribes in place of them.

In regard to the regulations of the senate and the assembly of the people, as constituted by Solon, we are altogether without information: nor is it safe to transfer to the Solonian constitution the information, comparatively ample, which we possess respecting these bodies under the later democracy.

The laws of Solon were inscribed on wooden rollers and triangular tablets, in the species of writing called Boustrophedon (lines alternating first from left to right, and next from right to left, like the course of the ploughman)—and preserved first in the Acropolis, subsequently in the Prytaneum. On the tablets, called Cyrbis, were chiefly commemorated the laws respecting sacred rites and sacrifices; on the pillars or rollers, of which there were at least sixteen, were placed the regulations respecting matters profane. So small are the fragments which have come down to us, and so much has been ascribed to Solon by the orators which belongs really to the subsequent times, that it is hardly possible to form any critical judgment respecting the legislation as a whole, or to discover by what general principles or purposes he was guided.

He left unchanged all the previous laws and practices respecting the crime of homicide, connected as they were intimately with the religious feelings of the people. The laws of Draco on this subject, therefore, remained, but on other subjects, according to Plutarch, they were altogether abrogated: there is, however, room for supposing that the repeal cannot have been so sweeping as this biographer represents.

The Solonian laws seem to have borne more or less upon all the great departments of human interest and duty. We find regulations political and religious, public and private, civil and criminal, commercial, agricultural, sumptuary, and disciplinarian. Solon provides punishment for crimes, restricts the profession and status of the citizen, prescribes detailed rules for marriage as well as for burial, for the common use of springs and wells, and for the mutual interest of conterminous farmers in planting or hedging their properties. As far as we can judge from the imperfect manner in which his laws come before us, there does not seem to have been any attempt at a systematic order or classification. Some of them are mere general and vague directions, while others again run into the extreme of specialty.

By far the most important of all was the amendment of the law of debtor and creditor which has already been adverted to, and the abolition of the power of fathers and brothers to sell their daughters and sisters into slavery. The prohibition of all contracts on the security of the body was itself sufficient to produce a vast improvement in the character and condition of the poorer population,—a result which seems to have been so sensibly obtained from the legislation of Solon, that Boeckh and some other eminent authors suppose him to have abolished villeinage and conferred upon the poor tenants a property in their lands, annulling the seigniorial rights of the landlord. But this opinion rests upon no positive evidence, nor are we warranted in ascribing to him any stronger measure in reference to the land than the annulment of the previous mortgages.

The first pillar of his laws contained a regulation respecting exportable produce. He forbade the exportation of all produce of the Attic soil, except olive oil alone. And the sanction employed to enforce observance of this law deserves notice, as an illustration of the ideas of the time: the archon was bound, on pain of forfeiting one hundred drachmas, to pronounce solemn curses against every offender. We are probably to take this prohibition in conjunction with other objects said to have been contemplated by Solon, especially the encouragement of artisans and manufacturers at Athens. Observing (we are told) that many new immigrants were just then flocking into Attica to seek an establishment, in consequence of its greater security, he was anxious to turn them rather to manufacturing industry than to the cultivation of a soil naturally poor. He forbade the granting of citizenship to any immigrants, except to such as had quitted irrevocably their former abodes and come to Athens for the purpose of carrying on some industrial profession; and in order to prevent idleness, he directed the senate of Areopagus to keep watch over the lives of the citizens generally, and punish every one who had no course of regular labor to support him. If a father had not taught his son some art or profession, Solon relieved the son from all obligation to maintain him in his old age. And it was to encourage the multiplication of these artisans that he insured, or sought to insure, to the residents in Attica, the exclusive right of buying and consuming all its landed produce except olive oil, which was raised in abundance, more than sufficient for their wants. It was his wish that the trade with foreigners should be carried on by exporting the produce of artisan labor, instead of the produce of land.

This commercial prohibition is founded on principles substantially similar to those which were acted upon in the early history of England, with reference both to corn and to wool, and in other European countries also. In so far as it was at all operative it tended to lessen the total quantity of produce raised upon the soil of Attica, and thus to keep the price of it from rising. But the law of Solon must have been altogether inoperative, in reference to the great articles of human subsistence; for Attica imported, both largely and constantly, grain and salt provisions, probably also wool and flax for the spinning and weaving of the women, and certainly timber for building. Whether the law was ever enforced with reference to figs and honey may well be doubted; at least these productions of Attica were in after times trafficked in, and generally consumed throughout Greece. Probably also in the time of Solon the silver mines of Laurium had hardly begun to be worked: these afterward became highly productive, and furnished to Athens a commodity for foreign payments no less convenient than lucrative.

It is interesting to notice the anxiety, both of Solon and of Draco, to enforce among their fellow-citizens industrious and self-maintaining habits; and we shall find the same sentiment proclaimed by Pericles, at the time when Athenian power was at its maximum. Nor ought we to pass over this early manifestation in Attica of an opinion equitable and tolerant toward sedentary industry, which in most other parts of Greece was regarded as comparatively dishonorable. The general tone of Grecian sentiment recognized no occupations as perfectly worthy of a free citizen except arms, agriculture, and athletic and musical exercises; and the proceedings of the Spartans, who kept aloof even from agriculture and left it to their helots, were admired, though they could not be copied, throughout most of the Hellenic world. Even minds like Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon concurred to a considerable extent in this feeling, which they justified on the ground that the sedentary life and unceasing house-work of the artisan were inconsistent with military aptitude. The town-occupations are usually described by a word which carries with it contemptuous ideas, and though recognized as indispensable to the existence of the city, are held suitable only for an inferior and semi-privileged order of citizens. This, the received sentiment among Greeks, as well as foreigners, found a strong and growing opposition at Athens, as I have already said—corroborated also by a similar feeling at Corinth. The trade of Corinth, as well as of Chalcis in Euboea, was extensive, at a time when that of Athens had scarce any existence. But while the despotism of Periander can hardly have failed to operate as a discouragement to industry at Corinth, the contemporaneous legislation of Solon provided for traders and artisans a new home at Athens, giving the first encouragement to that numerous town-population both in the city and in the Piræus, which we find actually residing there in the succeeding century. The multiplication of such town residents, both citizens and metics (i.e., resident persons, not citizens, but enjoying an assured position and civil rights), was a capital fact in the onward march of Athens, since it determined not merely the extension of her trade, but also the preëminence of her naval forces—and thus, as a further consequence, lent extraordinary vigor to her democratical government. It seems, moreover, to have been a departure from the primitive temper of Atticism, which tended both to cantonal residence and rural occupation. We have, therefore, the greater interest in noting the first mention of it as a consequence of the Solonian legislation.

To Solon is first owing the admission of a power of testamentary bequest at Athens in all cases in which a man had no legitimate children. According to the preëxisting custom, we may rather presume that if a deceased person left neither children nor blood relations, his property descended (as at Rome) to his gens and phratry. Throughout most rude states of society the power of willing is unknown, as among the ancient Germans—among the Romans prior to the twelve tables—in the old laws of the Hindus, etc. Society limits a man’s interest or power of enjoyment to his life, and considers his relatives as having joint reversionary claims to his property, which take effect, in certain determinate proportions, after his death. Such a law was the more likely to prevail at Athens, since the perpetuity of the family sacred rites, in which the children and near relatives partook of right, was considered by the Athenians as a matter of public as well as of private concern. Solon gave permission to every man dying without children to bequeath his property by will as he should think fit; and the testament was maintained unless it could be shown to have been procured by some compulsion or improper seduction. Speaking generally, this continued to be the law throughout the historical times of Athens. Sons, wherever there were sons, succeeded to the property of their father in equal shares, with the obligation of giving out their sisters in marriage along with a certain dowry. If there were no sons, then the daughters succeeded, though the father might by will, within certain limits, determine the person to whom they should be married, with their rights of succession attached to them; or might, with the consent of his daughters, make by will certain other arrangements about his property. A person who had no children or direct lineal descendants might bequeath his property at pleasure: if he died without a will, first his father, then his brother or brother’s children, next his sister or sister’s children succeeded: if none such existed, then the cousins by the father’s side, next the cousins by the mother’s side,—the male line of descent having preference over the female.

Such was the principle of the Solonian laws of succession, though the particulars are in several ways obscure and doubtful. Solon, it appears, was the first who gave power of superseding by testament the rights of agnates and gentiles to succession,—a proceeding in consonance with his plan of encouraging both industrious occupation and the consequent multiplication of individual acquisitions.

It has been already mentioned that Solon forbade the sale of daughters or sisters into slavery by fathers or brothers; a prohibition which shows how much females had before been looked upon as articles of property. And it would seem that before his time the violation of a free woman must have been punished at the discretion of the magistrates; for we are told that he was the first who enacted a penalty of one hundred drachmas against the offender, and twenty drachmas against the seducer of a free woman. Moreover, it is said that he forbade a bride when given in marriage to carry with her any personal ornaments and appurtenances, except to the extent of three robes and certain matters of furniture not very valuable. Solon further imposed upon women several restraints in regard to proceeding at the obsequies of deceased relatives. He forbade profuse demonstrations of sorrow, singing of composed dirges, and costly sacrifices and contributions. He limited strictly the quantity of meat and drink admissible for the funeral banquet, and prohibited nocturnal exit, except in a car and with a light. It appears that both in Greece and Rome, the feelings of duty and affection on the part of surviving relatives prompted them to ruinous expense in a funeral, as well as to unmeasured effusions both of grief and conviviality; and the general necessity experienced for legal restriction is attested by the remark of Plutarch, that similar prohibitions to those enacted by Solon were likewise in force at his native town of Chæronea.

Other penal enactments of Solon are yet to be mentioned. He forbade absolutely evil speaking with respect to the dead. He forbade it likewise with respect to the living, either in a temple or before judges or archons, or at any public festival—on pain of a forfeit of three drachmas to the person aggrieved, and two more to the public treasury. How mild the general character of his punishments was, may be judged by this law against foul language, not less than by the law before mentioned against rape. Both the one and the other of these offences were much more severely dealt with under the subsequent law of democratical Athens. The peremptory edict against speaking ill of a deceased person, though doubtless springing in a great degree from disinterested repugnance, is traceable also in part to that fear of the wrath of the departed which strongly possessed the early Greek mind.

It seems generally that Solon determined by law the outlay for the public sacrifices, though we do not know what were his particular directions. We are told that he reckoned a sheep and a medimnus (of wheat or barley?) as equivalent, either of them, to a drachma, and that he also prescribed the prices to be paid for first-rate oxen intended for solemn occasions. But it astonishes us to see the large recompense which he awarded out of the public treasury to a victor at the Olympic or Isthmian games: to the former, five hundred drachmas, equal to one year’s income of the highest of the four classes on the census; to the latter one hundred drachmas. The magnitude of these rewards strikes us the more when we compare them with the fines on rape and evil speaking. We cannot be surprised that the philosopher Xenophanes noticed, with some degree of severity, the extravagant estimate of this species of excellence, current among the Grecian cities. At the same time, we must remember both that these Pan-Hellenic games presented the chief visible evidence of peace and sympathy among the numerous communities of Greece, and that in the time of Solon, factitious reward was still needful to encourage them. In respect to land and agriculture Solon proclaimed a public reward of five drachmas for every wolf brought in, and one drachma for every wolf’s cub; the extent of wild land has at all times been considerable in Attica. He also provided rules respecting the use of wells between neighbors, and respecting the planting in conterminous olive grounds. Whether any of these regulations continued in operation during the better-known period of Athenian history cannot be safely affirmed.

In respect to theft, we find it stated that Solon repealed the punishment of death which Draco had annexed to that crime, and enacted, as a penalty, compensation to an amount double the value of the property stolen. The simplicity of this law perhaps affords ground for presuming that it really does belong to Solon. But the law which prevailed during the time of the orators respecting theft must have been introduced at some later period, since it enters into distinctions and mentions both places and forms of procedure, which we cannot reasonably refer to the forty-sixth Olympiad. The public dinners at the Prytaneum, of which the archons and a select few partook in common, were also either first established, or perhaps only more strictly regulated, by Solon. He ordered barley cakes for their ordinary meals, and wheaten loaves for festival days, prescribing how often each person should dine at the table. The honor of dining at the table of the Prytaneum was maintained throughout as a valuable reward at the disposal of the government.

Among the various laws of Solon, there are few which have attracted more notice than that which pronounces the man who in a sedition stood aloof, and took part with neither side, to be dishonored and disfranchised. Strictly speaking, this seems more in the nature of an emphatic moral denunciation, or a religious curse, than a legal sanction capable of being formally applied in an individual case and after judicial trial,—though the sentence of atimy, under the more elaborated Attic procedure, was both definite in its penal consequences and also judicially delivered. We may, however, follow the course of ideas under which Solon was induced to write this sentence on his tables, and we may trace the influence of similar ideas in later Attic institutions. It is obvious that his denunciation is confined to that special case in which a sedition has already broken out: we must suppose that Cylon has seized the Acropolis, or that Pisistratus, Megacles, and Lycurgus are in arms at the head of their partisans. Assuming these leaders to be wealthy and powerful men, which would in all probability be the fact, the constituted authority—such as Solon saw before him in Attica, even after his own organic amendments—was not strong enough to maintain the peace; it became, in fact, itself one of the contending parties. Under such given circumstances, the sooner every citizen publicly declared his adherence to some of them, the earlier this suspension of legal authority was likely to terminate. Nothing was so mischievous as the indifference of the mass, or their disposition to let the combatants fight out the matter among themselves, and then to submit to the victor. Nothing was more likely to encourage aggression on the part of an ambitious malcontent, than the conviction that if he could once overpower the small amount of physical force which surrounded the archons, and exhibit himself in armed possession of the Prytaneum or the Acropolis, he might immediately count upon passive submission on the part of all the freemen without. Under the state of feeling which Solon inculcates, the insurgent leader would have to calculate that every man who was not actively in his favor would be actively against him, and this would render his enterprise much more dangerous. Indeed, he could then never hope to succeed, except on the double supposition of extraordinary popularity in his own person and widespread detestation of the existing government. He would thus be placed under the influence of powerful deterring motives; so that ambition would be less likely to seduce him into a course which threatened nothing but ruin, unless under such encouragements from the preëxisting public opinion as to make his success a result desirable for the community. Among the small political societies of Greece—especially in the age of Solon, when the number of despots in other parts of Greece seems to have been at its maximum—every government, whatever might be its form, was sufficiently weak to make its overthrow a matter of comparative facility. Unless upon the supposition of a band of foreign mercenaries—which would render the government a system of naked force, and which the Athenian lawgiver would of course never contemplate—there was no other stay for it except a positive and pronounced feeling of attachment on the part of the mass of citizens. Indifference on their part would render them a prey to every daring man of wealth who chose to become a conspirator. That they should be ready to come forward, not only with voice but with arms—and that they should be known beforehand to be so—was essential to the maintenance of every good Grecian government. It was salutary in preventing mere personal attempts at revolution; and pacific in its tendency, even where the revolution had actually broken out, because in the greater number of cases the proportion of partisans would probably be very unequal, and the inferior party would be compelled to renounce their hopes.

It will be observed that, in this enactment of Solon, the existing government is ranked merely as one of the contending parties. The virtuous citizen is enjoined, not to come forward in its support, but to come forward at all events, either for it or against it. Positive and early action is all which is prescribed to him as matter of duty. In the age of Solon there was no political idea or system yet current which could be assumed as an unquestionable datum—no conspicuous standard to which the citizens could be pledged under all circumstances to attach themselves. The option lay only between a mitigated oligarchy in possession, and a despot in possibility; a contest wherein the affections of the people could rarely be counted upon in favor of the established government. But this neutrality in respect to the constitution was at an end after the revolution of Clisthenes, when the idea of the sovereign people and the democratical institutions became both familiar and precious to every individual citizen. We shall hereafter find the Athenians binding themselves by the most sincere and solemn oaths to uphold their democracy against all attempts to subvert it; we shall discover in them a sentiment not less positive and uncompromising in its direction, than energetic in its inspirations. But while we notice this very important change in their character, we shall at the same time perceive that the wise precautionary recommendation of Solon, to obviate sedition by an early declaration of the impartial public between two contending leaders, was not lost upon them. Such, in point of fact, was the purpose of that salutary and protective institution which is called the Ostracism. When two party leaders, in the early stages of the Athenian democracy, each powerful in adherents and influence, had become passionately embarked in bitter and prolonged opposition to each other, such opposition was likely to conduct one or other to violent measures. Over and above the hopes of party triumph, each might well fear that, if he himself continued within the bounds of legality, he might fall a victim to aggressive proceedings on the part of his antagonists. To ward off this formidable danger, a public vote was called for, to determine which of the two should go into temporary banishment, retaining his property and unvisited by any disgrace. A number of citizens, not less than six thousand, voting secretly, and therefore independently, were required to take part, pronouncing upon one or other of these eminent rivals a sentence of exile for ten years. The one who remained became, of course, more powerful, yet less in a situation to be driven into anti-constitutional courses than he was before. Tragedy and comedy were now beginning to be grafted on the lyric and choric song. First, one actor was provided to relieve the chorus; next, two actors were introduced to sustain fictitious characters and carry on a dialogue in such manner that the songs of the chorus and the interlocution of the actors formed a continuous piece. Solon, after having heard Thespis acting (as all the early composers did, both tragic and comic) in his own comedy, asked him afterward if he was not ashamed to pronounce such falsehoods before so large an audience. And when Thespis answered that there was no harm in saying and doing such things merely for amusement, Solon indignantly exclaimed, striking the ground with his stick, “If once we come to praise and esteem such amusement as this, we shall quickly find the effects of it in our daily transactions.” For the authenticity of this anecdote it would be rash to vouch, but we may at least treat it as the protest of some early philosopher against the deceptions of the drama: and it is interesting as marking the incipient struggles of that literature in which Athens afterward attained such unrivaled excellence.

It would appear that all the laws of Solon were proclaimed, inscribed, and accepted without either discussion or resistance. He is said to have described them, not as the best laws which he could himself have imagined, but as the best which he could have induced the people to accept. He gave them validity for the space of ten years, during which period both the senate collectively and the archons individually swore to observe them with fidelity; under penalty, in case of non-observance, of a golden statue as large as life to be erected at Delphi. But though the acceptance of the laws was accomplished without difficulty, it was not found so easy either for the people to understand and obey, or for the framer to explain them. Every day persons came to Solon either with praise, or criticism, or suggestions of various improvements, or questions as to the construction of particular enactments; until at last he became tired of this endless process of reply and vindication, which was seldom successful either in removing obscurity or in satisfying complainants. Foreseeing that if he remained he would be compelled to make changes, he obtained leave of absence from his countrymen for ten years, trusting that before the expiration of that period they would have become accustomed to his laws. He quitted his native city in the full certainty that his laws would remain unrepealed until his return; for (says Herodotus) “the Athenians could not repeal them, since they were bound by solemn oaths to observe them for ten years.” The unqualified manner in which the historian here speaks of an oath, as if it created a sort of physical necessity and shut out all possibility of a contrary result, deserves notice as illustrating Grecian sentiment.

On departing from Athens, Solon first visited Egypt, where he communicated largely with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Sais, Egyptian priests who had much to tell respecting their ancient history, and from whom he learned matters, real or pretended, far transcending in alleged antiquity the oldest Grecian genealogies—especially the history of the vast submerged island of Atlantis, and the war which the ancestors of the Athenians had successfully carried on against it, nine thousand years before. Solon is said to have commenced an epic poem upon this subject, but he did not live to finish it, and nothing of it now remains. From Egypt he went to Cyprus, where he visited the small town of Æpia, said to have been originally founded by Demophon, son of Theseus, and ruled at this period by the prince Philocyprus—each town in Cyprus having its own petty prince. It was situated near the river Clarius in a position precipitous and secure, but inconvenient and ill-supplied, Solon persuaded Philocyprus to quit the old site and establish a new town down in the fertile plain beneath. He himself stayed and became æcist of the new establishment, making all the regulations requisite for its safe and prosperous march, which was indeed so decisively manifested that many new settlers flocked into the new plantation, called by Philocyprus Soli, in honor of Solon. To our deep regret, we are not permitted to know what these regulations were; but the general fact is attested by the poems of Solon himself, and the lines in which he bade farewell to Philocyprus on quitting the island are yet before us. On the dispositions of this prince his poem bestowed unqualified commendation.

Besides his visit to Egypt and Cyprus, a story was also current of his having conversed with the Lydian king Croesus at Sardis. The communication said to have taken place between them has been woven by Herodotus into a sort of moral tale which forms one of the most beautiful episodes in his whole history. Though this tale has been told and retold as if it were genuine history, yet as it now stands it is irreconcilable with chronology—although very possibly Solon may at some time or other have visited Sardis, and seen Croesus as hereditary prince.

But even if no chronological objections existed, the moral purpose of the tale is so prominent, and pervades it so systematically from beginning to end, that these internal grounds are of themselves sufficiently strong to impeach its credibility as a matter of fact, unless such doubts happen to be out-weighed—which in this case they are not—by good contemporary testimony. The narrative of Solon and Croesus can be taken for nothing else but an illustrative fiction, borrowed by Herodotus from some philosopher, and clothed in his own peculiar beauty of expression, which on this occasion is more decidedly poetical than is habitual with him. I cannot transcribe, and I hardly dare to abridge it. The vainglorious Croesus, at the summit of his conquests and his riches, endeavors to win from his visitor Solon an opinion that he is the happiest of mankind. The latter, after having twice preferred to him modest and meritorious Grecian citizens, at length reminds him that his vast wealth and power are of a tenure too precarious to serve as an evidence of happiness; that the gods are jealous and meddlesome, and often make the show of happiness a mere prelude to extreme disaster; and that no man’s life can be called happy until the whole of it has been played out, so that it may be seen to be out of the reach of reverses. Croesus treats this opinion as absurd, but “a great judgment from God fell upon him, after Solon was departed—probably (observes Herodotus) because he fancied himself the happiest of all men.” First he lost his favorite son Atys, a brave and intelligent youth (his only other son being dumb). For the Mysians of Olympus being ruined by a destructive and formidable wild boar, which they were unable to subdue, applied for aid to Croesus, who sent to the spot a chosen hunting force, and permitted—though with great reluctance, in consequence of an alarming dream—that his favorite son should accompany them. The young prince was unintentionally slain by the Phrygian exile Adrastus, whom Croesus had sheltered and protected, Hardly had the latter recovered from the anguish of this misfortune, when the rapid growth of Cyrus and the Persian power induced him to go to war with them, against the advice of his wisest counsellors. After a struggle of about three years he was completely defeated, his capital Sardis taken by storm, and himself made prisoner. Cyrus ordered a large pile to be prepared, and placed upon it Croesus in fetters, together with fourteen young Lydians, in the intention of burning them alive either as a religious offering, or in fulfilment of a vow, “or perhaps (says Herodotus) to see whether some of the gods would not interfere to rescue a man so preëmiently pious as the king of Lydia.” In this sad extremity, Croesus bethought him of the warning which he had before despised, and thrice pronounced, with a deep groan, the name of Solon. Cyrus desired the interpreters to inquire whom he was invoking, and learnt in reply the anecdote of the Athenian lawgiver, together with the solemn memento which he had offered to Croesus during more prosperous days, attesting the frail tenure of all human greatness. The remark sunk deep into the Persian monarch as a token of what might happen to himself: he repented of his purpose, and directed that the pile, which had already been kindled, should be immediately extinguished. But the orders came too late. In spite of the most zealous efforts of the bystanders, the flame was found unquenchable, and Croesus would still have been burned, had he not implored with prayers and tears the succor of Apollo, to whose Delphian and Theban temples he had given such munificent presents. His prayers were heard, the fair sky was immediately overcast and a profuse rain descended, sufficient to extinguish the flames. The life of Croesus was thus saved, and he became afterward the confidential friend and adviser of his conqueror.

Such is the brief outline of a narrative which Herodotus has given with full development and with impressive effect. It would have served as a show-lecture to the youth of Athens not less admirably than the well-known fable of the Choice of Heracles, which the philosopher Prodicus, a junior contemporary of Herodotus, delivered with so much popularity. It illustrates forcibly the religious and ethical ideas of antiquity; the deep sense of the jealousy of the gods, who would not endure pride in any one except themselves; the impossibility, for any man, of realizing to himself more than a very moderate share of happiness; the danger from a reactionary Nemesis, if at anytime he had overpassed such limit; and the necessity of calculations taking in the whole of life, as a basis for rational comparison of different individuals. And it embodies, as a practical consequence from these feelings, the often-repeated protest of moralists against vehement impulses and unrestrained aspirations. The more valuable this narrative appears, in its illustrative character, the less can we presume to treat it as a history.

It is much to be regretted that we have no information respecting events in Attica immediately after the Solonian laws and constitution, which were promulgated in B.C. 594, so as to understand better the practical effect of these changes. What we next hear respecting Solon in Attica refers to a period immediately preceding the first usurpation of Pisistratus in B.C. 560, and after the return of Solon from his long absence. We are here again introduced to the same oligarchical dissensions as are reported to have prevailed before the Solonian legislation: the Pediis, or opulent proprietors of the plain round Athens, under Lycurgus; the Parali of the south of Attica, under Megacles; and the Diacrii or mountaineers of the eastern cantons, the poorest of the three classes, under Pisistratus, are in a state of violent intestine dispute. The account of Plutarch represents Solon as returning to Athens during the height of this sedition. He was treated with respect by all parties, but his recommendations were no longer obeyed, and he was disqualified by age from acting with effect in public. He employed his best efforts to mitigate party animosities, and applied himself particularly to restrain the ambition of Pisistratus, whose ulterior projects he quickly detected.

The future greatness of Pisistratus is said to have been first portended by a miracle which happened, even before his birth, to his father Hippocrates at the Olympic games. It was realized, partly by his bravery and conduct, which had been displayed in the capture of Nisæa from the Megarians—partly by his popularity of speech and manners, his championship of the poor, and his ostentatious disavowal of all selfish pretensions—partly by an artful mixture of stratagem and force. Solon, after having addressed fruitless remonstrances to Pisistratus himself, publicly denounced his designs in verses addressed to the people. The deception, whereby Pisistratus finally accomplished his design, is memorable in Grecian tradition. He appeared one day in the agora of Athens in his chariot with a pair of mules: he had intentionally wounded both his person and the mules, and in this condition he threw himself upon the compassion and defence of the people, pretending that his political enemies had violently attacked him. He implored the people to grant him a guard, and at the moment when their sympathies were freshly aroused both in his favor and against his supposed assassins, Aristo proposed formally to the ecclesia (the pro-bouleutic senate, being composed of friends of Pisistratus, had previously authorized the proposition) that a company of fifty club-men should be assigned as a permanent body-guard for the defence of Pisistratus. To this motion Solon opposed a strenuous resistance, but found himself overborne, and even treated as if he had lost his senses. The poor were earnest in favor of it, while the rich were afraid to express their dissent; and he could only comfort himself after the fatal vote had been passed, by exclaiming that he was wiser than the former and more determined than the latter. Such was one of the first known instances in which this memorable stratagem was played off against the liberty of a Grecian community.

The unbounded popular favor which had procured the passing of this grant was still further manifested by the absence of all precautions to prevent the limits of the grant from being exceeded. The number of the body-guard was not long confined to fifty, and probably their clubs were soon exchanged for sharper weapons. Pisistratus thus found himself strong enough to throw off the mask and seize the Acropolis. His leading opponents, Megacles and the Alcinæonids, immediately fled the city, and it was left to the venerable age and undaunted patriotism of Solon to stand forward almost alone in a vain attempt to resist the usurpation. He publicly presented himself in the market-place, employing encouragement, remonstrance and reproach, in order to rouse the spirit of the people. To prevent this despotism from coming (he told them) would have been easy; to shake it off now was more difficult, yet at the same time more glorious. But he spoke in vain, for all who were not actually favorable to Pisistratus listened only to their fears, and remained passive; nor did any one join Solon, when, as a last appeal, he put on his armor and planted himself in military posture before the door of his house. “I have done my duty (he exclaimed at length); I have sustained to the best of my power my country and the laws”; and he then renounced all further hope of opposition—though resisting the instances of his friends that he should flee, and returning for answer, when they asked him on what he relied for protection, “On my old age.” Nor did he even think it necessary to repress the inspirations of his Muse. Some verses yet remain, composed seemingly at a moment when the strong hand of the new despot had begun to make itself sorely felt, in which he tells his countrymen—”If ye have endured sorrow from your own baseness of soul, impute not the fault of this to the gods. Ye have yourselves put force and dominion into the hands of these men, and have thus drawn upon yourselves wretched slavery.”

It is gratifying to learn that Pisistratus, whose conduct throughout his despotism was comparatively mild, left Solon untouched. How long this distinguished man survived the practical subversion of his own constitution, we cannot certainly determine; but according to the most probable statement he died during the very next year, at the advanced age of eighty.

We have only to regret that we are deprived of the means of following more in detail his noble and exemplary character. He represents the best tendencies of his age, combined with much that is personally excellent: the improved ethical sensibility; the thirst for enlarged knowledge and observation, not less potent in old age than in youth; the conception of regularized popular institutions, departing sensibly from the type and spirit of the governments around him, and calculated to found a new character in the Athenian people; a genuine and reflecting sympathy with the mass of the poor, anxious not merely to rescue them from the oppressions of the rich, but also to create in them habits of self-relying industry; lastly, during his temporary possession of a power altogether arbitrary, not merely an absence of all selfish ambition, but a rare discretion in seizing the mean between conflicting exigencies. In reading his poems we must always recollect that what now appears commonplace was once new, so that to his comparatively unlettered age the social pictures which he draws were still fresh, and his exhortations calculated to live in the memory. The poems composed on moral subjects generally inculcate a spirit of gentleness toward others and moderation in personal objects. They represent the gods as irresistible, retributive, favoring the good and punishing the bad, though sometimes very tardily. But his compositions on special and present occasions are usually conceived in a more vigorous spirit; denouncing the oppressions of the rich at one time, and the timid submission to Pisistratus at another—and expressing in emphatic language his own proud consciousness of having stood forward as champion of the mass of the people. Of his early poems hardly anything is preserved. The few lines remaining seem to manifest a jovial temperament which we may well conceive to have been overlaid by such political difficulties as he had to encounter—difficulties arising successively out of the Megarian war, the Cylonian sacrilege, the public despondency healed by Epimenides, and the task of arbiter between a rapacious oligarchy and a suffering people. In one of his elegies addressed to Mimnermus, he marked out the sixtieth year as the longest desirable period of life, in preference to the eightieth year, which that poet had expressed a wish to attain. But his own life, as far as we can judge, seems to have reached the longer of the two periods; and not the least honorable part of it (the resistance to Pisistratus) occurs immediately before his death.

There prevailed a story that his ashes were collected and scattered around the island of Salamis, which Plutarch treats as absurd—though he tells us at the same time that it was believed both by Aristotle and by many other considerable men. It is at least as ancient as the poet Cratinus, who alluded to it in one of his comedies, and I do not feel inclined to reject it. The inscription on the statue of Solon at Athens described him as a Salaminian; he had been the great means of acquiring the island for his country, and it seems highly probable that among the new Athenian citizens, who went to settle there, he may have received a lot of land and become enrolled among the Salaminian demots. The dispersion of his ashes connecting him with the island as its oecist, may be construed, if not as the expression of a public vote, at least as a piece of affectionate vanity on the part of his surviving friends.