Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

Statesman and Poet

Solon is the first figure that stands out distinctly in Greek story. When I say this, I do not mean to deny the historical reality of all the legendary heroes. There may well have been, for instance, an actual Theseus, a strong man who cleared Attica of brigandage, and brought all its towns and independent tribes into one political entity. But the life of Theseus, as Plutarch tells it, is clearly a romance, while the life of Solon, by the same writer, is as clearly an actual biography. Very possibly some things in it are not facts, but it has throughout the note of reality.

Solon was of the noblest Athenian birth, claiming descent, indeed, from the patriot King Codrus. His father had greatly impaired the family fortunes by his munificence, and the young Solon was constrained to repair them by trade. Trade in those days implied adventure. The trader did not stay at home to buy and sell in an inglorious security, but was ever on the search for new markets, and did the work of an explorer, though always with a view to his own advantage. Solon, indeed, was no idealist. Though reckoned among the Seven Wise Men of Greece, his wisdom was of a practical, even vulgar type. To describe him by names which belong, of course, to a much later time he was an Epicurean rather than a Stoic. He does not affect to despise pleasure; on the contrary, he declares his appreciation of it in terms that are undignified and even coarse. He avows with perfect frankness his wish for wealth. He will not, indeed, consent to acquire it by unjust rules; to do that provokes the divine wrath; but he holds it to be among the most desirable of human goods.

Solon's first appearance in public life was eminently successful, and probably did much to give him the influence which he afterwards acquired over his countrymen. Athens and Megara had long contended for the possession of Salamis, a small island which lies close to the harbour of the former city, and would, in the hands of an enemy, be a perpetual menace to its trade. The fortune of war went so decidedly against the Athenians that they abandoned the struggle, and even passed a law which imposed the penalty of death on anyone who should suggest its renewal. Solon resolved to run the risk. He caused a report to be spread that he was mad—madness is invested with a certain sanctity and even respect in the eyes of a half-civilized people. When this had gained sufficient credence, he rushed into the Assembly, and taking his stand on the stone which the public crier was accustomed to occupy when he announced news of importance to the city, he told the people what he thought about Salamis. This he put in the form of verse. The poem was a hundred lines in length, and was, says Plutarch, who had it before him when he wrote, admirably composed. The eight lines that have been preserved go far to justify this praise. His friends and kinsmen, led by Pisistratus, of whom we shall soon hear again, loudly applauded. The people were taken by storm. The law was hastily repealed, and an expedition which Solon was to command was determined upon.

His first step was to assure himself of divine favour. He consulted the oracle of Delphi, and was told that he must propitiate the heroes of the island. This he did by landing at night, and performing the customary sacrifices in secrecy. The attack which followed was, as may be seen, skilfully contrived, though it may be doubtful whether the story of Solon's stratagem is authentic. According to this, he dressed up a number of Athenians as women, providing them at the same time with arms, which they concealed under their feminine apparel. This done, he sent a messenger, in the guise of a deserter, to the Megarian garrison in Salamis, with information that they might find a number of Athenian women celebrating a festival on the shore at a time and place specified. The garrison fell into the trap, and suffered so disastrous a loss that the island was left without defence. According to another account he had recourse to a more ordinary kind of strategy. The result was that Athens acquired possession of the island, though, as Megara was not disposed to accept its defeat, not till after an arbitration which Sparta decided in favour of the Athenians.

Solon's next exploit was to procure the punishment of the inhabitants of Cirrha, the seaport by which the oracle of Delphi was approached. The Cirrhaeans wore accustomed, it seems, to exact heavy imports from visitors to the oracle; they were even accused of robbery and violence. Solon induced the council of the Amphictyons to interfere; after a long struggle Cirrha was subdued. In the story told by one writer, many centuries after the event, it is true, we find Solon getting rid of his enemies by poisoning the waters of the river which they drank.

But more important work remained for Solon to do. He had to set the domestic affairs of the Athenian people on a sound basis. The condition of the lower classes of Attica, as it is described in the fragments of Solon's verses which have come down to us; curiously resembles that which Livy gives us of the Roman populace in the early days of the republic. Both were overwhelmed with debt. What Solon did to relieve this state of things, it is impossible precisely to say. The common account of the matter is that he introduced a measure which was called the "Removal of Burdens." All mortgages on land were summarily abolished, all debtors who had been deprived of their liberty were set free, all who had been sold into foreign slavery were ransomed. This account does not seem altogether credible. Such securities as mortgages, for instance, belong to a more advanced condition of things than seems possible in Solon's time. But the subject is too long and difficult to discuss in this place. That Solon brought about a great change in the tenure of the land may be taken as certain. This change may have resembled the great reform worked out by Stein in Prussia in the early years of this century. Possibly a parallel may be found to it in the Irish Land legislation of our own time. Whatever may have been the details of his measure, Solon certainly gained and probably deserved the credit of having finally settled a very difficult question. We never hear again in Athenian history of agrarian troubles.

This social legislation was accompanied by political reforms. The citizens of Athens were divided into classes which remind us with curious exactness of the constitution attributed to the Roman King Servius Tullius. The division was based on property, the standard employed being such as we might expect to find in so early a state of society. The first class, which had the monopoly of all the high offices of state, consisted of such as possessed an annual income equal to the value of five hundred medimni  (seven hundred bushels) of wheat. Next to these came those who had from three to five hundred medimni. These were supposed to be wealthy enough to keep a horse and so to serve as mounted soldiers, and were called Knights. Citizens who owned from two to three hundred, and, as being able to keep a team of oxen, were termed "Teamsmen," constituted the third class. This supplied the heavy-armed infantry of the army. All whose income was less than two hundred medimni  made a fourth class. As being unable to furnish themselves with heavy armour, they were called upon to serve as light troops only, or if, as sometimes happened, the roll of the heavy-armed had to be supplemented from them, their accoutrements were furnished by the state. This fourth class was exempt from direct taxation, and was ineligible to public office. Members of the second and third could hold posts of minor importance, and paid a progressive tax on capital, the third being rated at five times, the second at ten times, and the first at twelve times the amount of their income.

Other details of Solon's political legislation must be left unnoticed. What has been said is enough to show the principle by which it was guided. This was not the modern doctrine of inherent political rights which every citizen possesses. On the contrary, it was little more than the representation of property. In aftertimes the constitution was largely modified in a democratic sense. That for the present it did not satisfy the people is evident from what followed.

Afraid that his countrymen—so the story runs—might change the political order which he had devised, Solon exacted from them a promise, by which they bound themselves not to alter for ten years any of the laws which had been thus passed, except with his own consent; and then, to make the giving of this consent impossible, he left his country for a prolonged period of travel.

Round this travel various romantic stories have gathered. Solon's first visit, it is said, was to Egypt, where he spent some time in discussion with the most learned priests of the country. It was from them, according to Plato, that he heard the story of the continent of Atlantis, lost, as the legend had it, under the waves of the Western Ocean. From Egypt he retraced his steps to Cyprus, where he was the guest of one Philocyprus. This prince he persuaded to exchange his abode among the hills, for a more convenient and fertile settlement on the plains, and he did his best to make the new town a safe and well-ordered community. The gratitude of prince and people was shown, it was said, by giving the place the name of its benefactor.

But the most interesting of Solon's experiences of travel was that which befell him at the Court of Crœsus, King of Lydia. As long ago as the time, of Plutarch this story excited the suspicion of the critics, who found in it, indeed, great chronological difficulties. Great they may be, but they are scarcely insuperable. Solon, it is true, must have been an old man at the time, for his legislation is assigned with considerable probability to the year 595 B.C., whereas Crœsus did not begin to reign till the year 568. Yet, as we shall see, Solon was certainly alive eight years after this latter date, for he saw his own constitution overthrown by the usurpation of Pisistratus. It is only necessary to postpone the travel, and, instead of attributing it to a period closely following the legislation, to suppose that it was only when Solon saw the growing tendency to change, that he took the opportunity of securing his country against it for as long a time as he could. Anyhow the story is so picturesque, and so full of Greek thought in its most characteristic aspects, that we should lose it with the greatest regret.

It runs thus: "Crœsus lodged his Athenian guest in the royal palace, and having bidden his servants conduct him over his treasuries, he put this question to him: 'Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travel, how thou goest over many lands, seeking wisdom, and I have conceived the desire of asking thee whom of all the men that thou hast seen up to this day thou didst deem the most happy?' This question put Crœsus, thinking himself to be the happiest of men. But Solon, in nowise flattering the King, but answering him according to the very truth, said, 'Tellus the Athenian, O King.' Marvelling much at this saying, the King cried, not without anger, 'Why judgest thou Tellus to have been the happiest of men?' Solon made answer, 'Firstly, O King, because his country was prosperous, and he had sons that were both comely and good, and to each of these sons children were born that did not die before their time; and secondly, because, after a happy life, he came to a glorious end, for there being a battle between the Athenians and their neighbours at Eleusis, he did good service for his country, and routed the enemy, and so died right nobly, so that the Athenians buried him where he fell at the public cost, and paid him the greatest honours.' Then Crœsus asked him again, 'But whom hast thou seen that was next in happiness to this Tellus?' for he said to himself, 'Surely he will put me next.' Then said Solon, 'I judge Cleobis and Biton to have been next in happiness to Tellus. These were two youths of Argos. They had a sufficiency of worldly goods, and they were stronger than all other men, so that, besides winning many prizes at the games, they did this thing that I now relate. The men at Argos held a great feast to Heré the goddess, who hath a great and famous temple in their city. Now it is a custom that the priestess of Heré, who was the mother of these men, should be drawn in a wagon from the city to the temple, but the oxen that should have drawn the wagon were not yet come in from the fields. Therefore, as the time was short and the matter pressed, the young men harnessed themselves to the wagon, their mother sitting upon it. So they came to the Temple, the distance being forty and five furlongs. And when all the people of Argos came round them, the men praising the sons for their great strength and the women praising the mother for that she had borne children so noble, the priestess, in the joy of her heart, stood before the image and prayed that the goddess would give to her sons that which the Gods judge it best for a man to have. So she prayed; and the young men, having offered sacrifice and made merry with their companions, lay down to sleep in the temple, and woke no more. Thereupon the Argives commanded that statues of the young men should be made, that they might offer them to the god at Delphi.' When Solon gave the second place to these young men, Crœsus was very wroth, and said, 'Man of Athens, thou countest my happiness to be nothing worth, putting me behind common men.' To him Solon made answer, saying, 'O King, the life of man is very full of chance. I see that thou hast great wealth and rulest over many men. But as for that thou askest of me, I count thee not happy, till I shall know how thou hast ended thy days. For he that is rich above measure is in nowise happier than he that hath sufficient only for the day, unless his good fortune abide with him and give him all that is to be desired all the days of his life. For many men that have very great wealth are yet very unhappy, and many that have neither poverty nor riches have yet great happiness. Verily, if such a man, being whole in body, and in good health, have also good children, and, over and above these things, also end his life well, then I judge him to be the happy man whom thou seekest. But till he die, I say not so, but call him, not happy, indeed, but fortunate. Also it may not be that one man in his life should comprehend all good things. Even as no country sufficeth for itself by producing all things, but having certain things of its own, receiveth others from other countries, so no man sufficeth for himself; some things he hath, but some he receiveth from others. Whosoever, O King, keeping the greatest store of things, shall end his life in seemly fashion, this man is rightly to be called happy. For, indeed, we must look to the end, to see how it shall turn out; the gods give to many some causes of happiness, yet in the end overthrow them utterly.'

So did Solon speak, but he did not please King Crœsus. Rather the King took no account of him, but judged him to be a foolish and ignorant person, that thought lightly of present goods, and bade men look to their end."

Solon, we may say, did not fulfil his own condition of happiness. Before the end of life came, he saw all the work on which he had spent it undone. His kinsman Pisistratus made himself despot of Athens. Solon did all that he could to rouse the people to resistance. Finding that all his efforts were in vain, he took his armour and weapons and laid them in the street before his door. "I have done that I could for my country," he said, "now my work is over." For himself he had no fears. His friends asked him to what protection from the despot's anger he looked? "To my old age," was his reply. And Pisistratus, who, indeed, had no taste for severities, did not think of harming him. He treated him on the contrary with the greatest respect. Solon died in peace somewhere about the year 558 B.C.