Solon - Anecdotes


Details about Solon's personal life have been passed down to us by ancient authors such as Plutarch and Herodotus. Herodotus is sometimes referred to both as 'the father of history' and 'the father of lies'. Plutarch, by his own admission, did not write histories so much as biographies; he believed that a jest or a phrase could reveal more about a person's character than could a battle that cost thousands of lives.

According to Plutarch, Solon was related to the tyrant Pisistratus (their mothers were cousins). Solon's father Execestides could trace his ancestry back to Codrus, the last King of Athens. Solon's family belonged to a noble or Eupatrid clan yet it possessed only moderate wealth. and Solon was therefore drawn into an unaristocratic pursuit of commerce. According to Diogenes Laertius, he had a brother named Dropidas and was an ancestor (six generations removed) of Plato.

Solon was given leadership of the Athenian war against Megara on the strength of a poem he wrote about Salamis Island. Supported by Pisistratus, he defeated the Megarians either by means of a cunning trick or more directly through heroic battle. The Megarians however refused to give up their claim to the island. The dispute was referred to the Spartans, who eventually awarded possession of the island to Athens on the strength of the case that Solon put to them.

When he was archon, Solon discussed his intended reforms with some friends. Knowing that he was about to cancel all debts, these friends took out loans and promptly bought some land. Suspected of complicity, Solon complied with his own law and released his own debtors, amounting to 5 talents (or 15 according to some sources). His friends never repaid their debts.

After he had finished his reforms, he travelled abroad for ten years, so that the Athenians could not induce him to repeal any of his laws. His first stop was Egypt. There, according to Herodotus he visited the Pharaoh of Egypt Amasis II. According to Plutarch, he spent some time and discussed philosophy with two Egyptian priests, Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Sais. According to Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, he visited Neith's temple at Sais and received from the priests there an account of the history of Atlantis. Next Solon sailed to Cyprus, where he oversaw the construction of a new capital for a local king, in gratitude for which the king named it Soloi.

Solon's travels finally brought him to Sardis, capital of Lydia. According to Herodotus and Plutarch, he met with Croesus and gave the Lydian king advice, which however Croesus failed to appreciate until it was too late. Croesus had considered himself to be the happiest man alive and Solon had advised him, "Count no man happy until he be dead", because at any minute, fortune might turn on even the happiest man and make his life miserable. It was only after he had lost his kingdom to the Persian king Cyrus, while awaiting execution, that Croesus acknowledged the wisdom of Solon's advice.

After his return to Athens, Solon became a staunch opponent of Pisistratus. In protest and as an example to others, Solon stood outside his own home in full armour, urging all who passed to resist the machinations of the would-be tyrant. But his efforts were in vain. Solon died shortly after Pisistratus usurped by force the autocratic power that Athens had once freely bestowed upon him. According to one account, he died in Cyprus and, in accordance with his will, his ashes were scattered around Salamis, the island where he was born.

The travel writer, Pausanias, listed Solon among the seven sages whose aphorisms adorned Apollo's temple in Delphi. Stobaeus in the Florilegium relates a story about a symposium, where Solon's young nephew was singing a poem of Sappho's; Solon, upon hearing the song, asked the boy to teach him to sing it. When someone asked, "Why should you waste your time on it?" Solon replied ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω, "So that I may learn it then die." Ammianus Marcellinus however told a similar story about Socrates and the poet Stesichorus, quoting the philosopher's rapture in almost identical terms: "ut aliquid sciens amplius e vita discedam".

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