Plutarch's Lives: Solon

Solon was famous in the ancient world, and ours, as the law giver for Athens. He is the third of Plutarch's "law givers," after Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius. But where the previous two set up systems that would seem inimical to modern sensibilities, Solon's provided for the political and legal foundation of a liberal democracy whose principles are still vital today. Further, the issues and interests that Solon had to balance in his career - dealing as he did with equality, justice, and economic competition - were the sort that we still wrestle with even now. 

Solon, like the others in Plutarch's early lives, was a man who lived at the dawn of written history, so his biography is sketchy, with the usual unconfirmable legends mixed in. The legends, however, are of the "George Washington and the cherry tree" variety, rather than the fantasies associated with Theseus. Solon was born in Athens to a family of modest wealth and influence. He was cousin to Pisastratus, a man who would be Solon's foil throughout his life. The men were political rivals, but Plutarch states that the two had a life-long affection for one another such that their disagreements never boiled over into the sort of bloodletting that was common among the ancients. Plutarch also hints very broadly that the two loved one another in the "Greek way," if you catch my drift. It is difficult to pinpoint Solon's era. Modern historians seem to place him around the seventh century BC. However, Plutarch places him in the time after the Trojan War, suggesting that Solon was a contemporary to the sons of Ajax, and that Homer even included an oblique reference to Solon in the Catalogue of Ships. 

Solon's career was as a traveling merchant, a position in disrepute both then and now. Plutarch feels compelled to point out that plenty of worthy ancients were merchants, including Plato who funded his travels by selling oil in Egypt. Solon's work provided him with two things: experience with the broader world and a reputation for honesty. Solon became known first as a poet (Plutarch quotes extensively from his works, in fact most of Solon's poetry survives only because of Plutarch's quotes). Solon started with witty bromides, and practical wisdom, but then began adding more serious political fare. Solon - with his mercantile background, good humor, literary skills, and political genius - was a sort of Athenian Ben Franklin. 

Solon's first foray into political matters came about when he got involved in Athens' low-intensity war with the Megorans over possession of the island of Salamis. The Athenian king had become frustrated with the war and banned any discussion about it. Solon, sensing that the mood on the Athenian Street militated in favor of war, wrote a poem called "Salamis," memorized it, and then ran out into the street yelling it at the top of his lungs, pretending to be crazy to escape punishment for discussing Salamis. George Bush probably should have tried this tactic. Somehow, this proved to be decisive in persuading the Athenians to settle things once and for all. Once the island was taken, Solon was a hero and became well regarded for his wisdom and sage advice. 

Solon quickly became embroiled in the leading controversies of his day. Athens had recently emerged from the tyrannical  rule of Draco. Athens was riven by both economic rivalries, and disputes over how best to rule the city-state. Athens was divided into three parts: (1) the Hills, mostly poor folks who favored a democracy; (2) the Plains: a wealthy area that favored an oligarchy; and (3) the Seaside, an economically mixed area that also favored a mixed form of government. The rivalries threatened to boil over into civil war.

Economically, Athens was troubled by a very modern problem: the poor people in the Hills had become indebted to the wealthy people of the Plains, such that they lived lives - figuratively and sometimes literally as debt slaves. There was also dissension over the distribution of arable land, with a few landholders owing most of Athens farmland. The Hills wanted debt forgiveness and land reform, while the Plains saw both as little more than the theft of their rightfully owned property. The Athenians gave Solon absolute power to resolve these disputes, and reform the laws of Draco to create a more just society. The Athenians reposed such power in Solon because he had already proven himself trustworthy and modest. 

In resolving the economic controversies, Solon essentially decided in favor of debt forgiveness and against the land reform. Plutarch states that some sources said Solon ordered all debts forgiven, while others say he simply reduced the interest rate. Solon also changed the law so that so man could sell himself into slavery to pay his debts. In deciding thus, Solon angered both the Hills and the Plains, who each lost something even as they also gained. The Seaside, who seem to include Solon's own merchant class, seemed to gain the most because the stability in Athens political scene improved their trade. 

Solon then set out reforming the system for choosing leaders, so that Athens could avoid another tyrant like Draco. He established a four-tiered system, where one's economic standing would determine the offices you could hold. However, all citizens were allowed to sit in the assembly and on juries. 

Solon eased some of Draco's harsher criminal laws. Draco had made a wide range of crimes -  from stealing cabbages to murder and sedition - punishable by death. Solon reserved the death penalty for homicide, sedition, and blasphemy, and ameliorated the others. 

To liberalize and expand Athens' economy, Solon enacted measures intended to encourage work and thrift. He passed a law relieving children of the obligation to care for their aging parents if the parents had failed to teach them a trade. Solon changed the law of wills, so that people without heirs could leave their estates to friends or others of their choosing. He limited the dowries women, so that families did not go into debt. He also limited Athens' exports to olives and olive oil only. 

Solon wrote his laws on a set of stone tablets, and ordered that they be binding for at least 100 years. Plutarch claims that the remnants of the tablets were still in Athens in his lifetime. Solon then resigned his commission and travelled the Mediterranean. Along his way, he visited the court of Croesus, where Solon engaged in a famous conversation where he told Croesus, despite his great wealth, he was not the happiest man he had ever met because his happiness was only a temporary function of his wealth, and might be gone tomorrow. The tale was witnessed and recorded by Aesop himself, but Plutarch states that he believes that this is a legend, yet it was so widely believed, he felt compelled to include in his tale. 

Solon returned to Athens and once again became embroiled in Athenian politics. The same rivalries of the Hills, the Plains, and the Seaside were roiling the city. The Hills were led by Solon's cousin, Pisastratus, and he carried himself as a populist "man of  the people" type. Solon was inevitably asked to mediate the dispute. After meeting with the leaders of the three groups, Solon quickly realized that his cousin was little more than an opportunist seeking power, yet he did not betray him, but instead counseled him to govern honestly, if he were to govern at all. Pisastratus finally created enough destabilizing conditions that he did become tyrant of Athens, but in his reign he did try to seek the approval of Solon.

Solon finally retired to a life of leisure. He had intended all of his life to write an epic poem about the history of Atlantis (called the "Atlantic Island"), but abandoned it because he knew he would not live long enough to finish. Plato took up Solon's work, but also didn't finish, so that whatever real history of Atlantis that might have been known to the ancients is gone forever. After his death, Solon's ashes were scatted on Salamis, the scene of his first triumph. 

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