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THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF SOLON



I.SOLON the son of Execestides, a native of Salamis, was the first person who introduced among the Athenians, an ordinance for the lowering1 of debts; for this was the name given to the release of the bodies and possessions of the debtors. For men used to borrow on the security of their own persons, and many became slaves in consequence of their inability to pay; and as seven talents were owed to him as a part of his paternal inheritance when he succeeded to it, he was the first person who made a composition with his debtors, and who exhorted the other men who had money owing to them to do likewise, and this ordinance was called seisachtheia; and the reason why is plain. After that he enacted his other laws, which it would take a long time to enumerate; and he wrote them on wooden revolving tablets.

II. But what was his most important act of all was, when there had been a great dispute about his native land Salamis, between the Athenians and Megarians, and when the Athenians had met with many disasters in war, and had passed a decree that if any one proposed to the people to go to war for the sake of Salamis he should be punished with death, he then pretended to be mad and putting on a crown rushed into the market place, and there he recited to the Athenians by the agency of a crier, the elegies which he had composed, and which were all directed to the subject of Salamis, and by these means he excited them; and so they made war again upon the Megarians and conquered them by means of Solon. And the elegies which had the greatest influence on the Athenians were these:

Would that I were a man of Pholegandros,2
Or small Sicinna,3 rather than of Athens:
For soon this will a common proverb be,
That's an Athenian who won't fight for Salamis.

And another was:

Let's go and fight for lovely Salamis,
And wipe off this our present infamy.

He also persuaded them to take possession of the Thracian Chersonesus, and in order that it might appear that the Athenians had got possession of Salamis not by force alone, but also with justice, he opened some tombs, and showed that the corpses buried in them were all turned towards the east, according to the Athenian fashion of sepulture; likewise the tombs themselves all looked east, and the titles of the boroughs to which the dead belonged were inscribed on them, which was a custom peculiar to the Athenians. Some also say that it was he who added to the catalogue of Homer, after the lines:

With these appear the Salaminian bands,
Whom Telamon's gigantic son commands—

These other verses:

In twelve black ships to Troy they steer their course,
And with the great Athenians join their force.4

III. And ever after this time the people was willingly obedient to him, and was contented to be governed by him: but he did not choose to be their ruler, and moreover, as Sosicrates relates, he, as far as in him lay, hindered also his relative Pisistratus from being so, when he saw that he was inclined to such a step. Rushing into one of the assemblies armed with a spear and shield, he forewarned the people of the design of Pisistratus, and not only that but told them that he was prepared to assist them; and these were his words: "Ye men of Athens, I am wiser than some of you, and braver than others. Wiser than those of you who do not perceive the treachery of Pisistratus; and braver than those who are aware of it, but out of fear hold their peace." But the council, being in the interest of Pisistratus, said that he was mad, on which he spoke as follows:

A short time will to all my madness prove,
When stern reality presents itself.

And these elegiac verses were written by him about the tyranny of Pisistratus, which he foretold,

Fierce snow and hail are from the clouds borne down,
      And thunder after brilliant lightning roars,
And by its own great men a city falls,
      The ignorant mob becoming slaves to kings.

IV. And when Pisistratus had obtained the supreme power, he, as he would not influence him, laid down his arms before the chief council-house, and said, "O my country, I have stood by you in word and deed." And then he sailed away to Egypt, and Cyprus, and came to Croesus. And while at his court being asked by him, "Who appears to you to be happy?"5 He replied, "Tellus the Athenian, and Cleobis and Biton," and enumerated other commonly spoken of instances. But some people say, that once Croesus adorned himself in every possible manner, and took his seat upon his throne, and then asked Solon whether he had ever seen a more beautiful sight. But he said, "Yes, I have seen cocks and pheasants, and peacocks; for they are adorned with natural colours, and such as are ten thousand times more beautiful." Afterwards leaving Sardis he went to Cilicia, and there he founded a city which he called Soli after his own name; and he placed in it a few Athenians as colonists, who in time departed from the strict use of their native language, and were said to speak Solecisms; and the inhabitants of that city are called Solensians; but those of Soli in Cyprus are called Solians.

V. And when he learnt that Pisistratus continued to rule in Athens as a tyrant, he wrote these verses on the Athenians:

If through your vices you afflicted are,
      Lay not the blame of your distress on God;
You made your rulers mighty, gave them guards,
      So now you groan 'neath slavery's heavy rod—
Each one of you now treads in foxes' steps,
      Bearing a weak, inconstant, faithless mind,
Trusting the tongue and slippery speech of man;
      Though in his acts alone you truth can find.

This, then, he said to them.

VI. But Pisistratus, when he was leaving Athens, wrote him a letter in the following terms:


PISISTRATUS TO SOLON.

I am not the only one of the Greeks who has seized the sovereignty of his country, nor am I one who had no right whatever to do so, since I am of the race of Codrus; for I have only recovered what the Athenians swore that they would give to Codrus and all his family, and what they afterwards deprived them of. And in all other respects I sin neither against men nor against gods, but I allow the Athenians to live under the laws which you established amongst them, and they are now living in a better manner than they would if they were under a democracy; for I allow no one to behave with violence: and I, though I am the tyrant, derive no other advantage beyond my superiority in rank and honour, being content with the fixed honours which belonged to the former kings. And every one of the Athenians brings the tithe of his possessions, not to me, but to the proper place in order that it may be devoted to the public sacrifices of the city; and for any other public purposes, or for any emergencies of war which may arise.

But I do not blame you for laying open my plans, for I know that you did so out of regard for the city rather than out of dislike to me; and also because you did not know what sort of government I was about to establish; since, if you had been acquainted with it, you would have been content to live under it and would not have fled. Now, therefore, return home again; believing me even without my swearing to you that Solon shall never receive any harm at the hands of Pisistratus; know also that none of my enemies have suffered any evil from me; and if you will consent to be one of my friends, you shall be among the first; for I know that there is no treachery or faithlessness in you. Or if you wish to live at Athens in any other manner, you shall be allowed to do so; only do not deprive yourself of your country because of my actions.

Thus wrote Pisistratus.

VII. Solon also said, that the limit of human life was seventy years, and he appears to have been a most excellent lawgiver, for he enjoined, "that if any one did not support his parents he should be accounted infamous; and that the man who squandered his patrimony should be equally so, and the inactive man was liable to prosecution by any one who choose to impeach him. But Lysias, in his speech against Nicias, says that Draco first proposed this law, but that it was Solon who enacted it. He also prohibited all who lived in debauchery from ascending the tribunal; and he diminished the honours paid to Athletes who were victorious in the games, fixing the prize for a victor at Olympia at five hundred drachmae,6 and for one who conquered at the Isthmian games at one hundred; and in the same proportion did he fix the prizes for the other games, for he said, that it was absurd to give such great honours to those men as ought to be reserved for those only who died in the wars; and their sons he ordered to be educated and bred up at the public expense. And owing to this encouragement, the Athenians behave themselves nobly and valiantly in war; as for instance, Polyzelus, and Cynaegirus, and Callimachus, and all the soldiers who fought at Marathon, and Harmodius, and Aristogiton, and Miltiades, and numberless other heroes.

But as for the Athletes, their training is very expensive, and their victories injurious, and they are crowned rather as conquerors of their country than of their antagonists, and when they become old, as Euripides says:

They're like old cloaks worn to the very woof.

IX. So Solon, appreciating these facts, treated them with moderation. This also was an admirable regulation of his, that a guardian of orphans should not live with their mother, and that no one should be appointed a guardian, to whom the orphans' property would come if they died. Another excellent law was, that a seal engraver might not keep an impression of any ring which had been sold by him, and that if a person struck out the eye of a man who had but one, he should lose both his own, and that no one should claim what he had not deposited, otherwise death should be his punishment. If an archon was detected being drunk, that too was a capital crime. And he compiled the poems of Homer, so that they might be recited by different bards taking the cue from one another, so that where one had left off the next one might take him up, so that it was Solon rather than Pisistratus who brought Homer to light, as Dieuchidas says, in the fifth book of his History of Megara, and the most celebrated of his verses were:

Full fifty more from Athens stem the main.

And the rest of that passage—"And Solon was the first person who called the thirtieth day of the month evê kai nea."7

He was the first person also who assembled the nine archons together to deliver their opinions, as Apollodorus tells us in the second book of his Treatise on Lawgivers. And once, when there was a sedition in the city, he took part neither with the citizens, nor with the inhabitants of the plain, nor with the men of the sea-coast.

X. He used to say, too, that speech was the image of actions, and that the king was the mightiest man as to his power; but that laws were like cobwebs—for that if any trifling or powerless thing fell into them, they held it fast; but if a thing of any size fell into them, it broke the meshes and escaped. He used also to say that discourse ought to be sealed by silence, and silence by opportunity. It was also a saying of his, that those who had influence with tyrants, were like the pebbles which are used in making calculations; for that every one of those pebbles were sometimes worth more, and sometimes less, and so that the tyrants sometimes made each of these men of consequence, and sometimes neglected them. Being asked why he had made no law concerning parricides, he made answer, that he did not expect that any such person would exist. When he was asked how men could be most effectually deterred from committing injustice, he said, "If those who are not injured feel as much indignation as those who are." Another apophthegm of his was, that satiety was generated by wealth, and insolence by satiety.

XI. He it was who taught the Athenians to regulate their days by the course of the moon; and he also forbade Thespis to perform and represent his tragedies, on the ground of falsehood being unprofitable; and when Pisistratus wounded himself, he said it all came of Thespis's tragedies.

XII. He gave the following advice, as is recorded by Apollodorus in his Treatise on the Sects of Philosophers: "Consider your honour, as a gentleman, of more weight than an oath.—Never speak falsely.—Pay attention to matters of importance.—Be not hasty in making friends; and do not cast off those whom you have made.—Rule, after you have first learnt to submit to rule.—Advise not what is most agreeable, but what is best.—Make reason your guide.—Do not associate with the wicked.—Honour the gods; respect your parents."

XIII. They say also that when Mimnermus had written:

Happy's the man who 'scapes disease and care,
And dies contented in his sixtieth year

Solon rebuked him, and said:

Be guided now by me, erase this verse,
      Nor envy me if I'm more wise than you.
If you write thus, your wish would not be worse,
      May I be eighty ere death lays me low.

The following are some lines out of his poems:

Watch well each separate citizen,
Lest having in his heart of hearts
A secret spear, one still may come
Saluting you with cheerful face,
And utter with a double tongue
The feigned good wishes of his wary mind.

As for his having made laws, that is notorious; he also composed speeches to the people, and a book of suggestions to himself, and some elegiac poems, and five thousand verses about Salamis and the constitution of the Athenians; and some iambics and epodes.

XV. And on his statue is the following inscription—

Salamis that checked the Persian insolence,
Brought forth this holy lawgiver, wise Solon.

He flourished about the forty-sixth Olympiad, in the third year of which he was archon at Athens, as Sosicrates records; and it was in this year that he enacted his laws; and he died in Cyprus, after he had lived eighty years, having given charge to his relations to carry his bones to Salamis, and there to burn them to ashes, and to scatter the ashes on the ground. In reference to which Cratinus in his Chiron represents him as speaking thus:

And as men say, I still this isle inhabit,
Sown o'er the whole of Ajax' famous city.

There is also an epigram in the before mentioned collection of poems, in various metres, in which I have made a collection of notices of all the illustrious men that have ever died, in every kind of metre and rhythm, in epigrams and odes. And it runs thus:

The Cyprian flame devour'd great Solon's corpse,
Far in a foreign land; but Salamis
Retains his bones, whose dust is turned to corn.
The tablets of his laws do bear aloft
His mind to heaven. Such a burden light
Are these immortal rules to th' happy wood.

XVI. He also, as some say, was the author of the apophthegm—"Seek excess in nothing." And Dioscorides, in his Commentaries, says, that, when he was lamenting his son, who was dead (with whose name I am not acquainted), and when some one said to him, "You do no good by weeping," he replied, "But that is the very reason why I weep, because I do no good."

XVII. The following letters also are attributed to him :


SOLON TO PERIANDER.

You send me word that many people are plotting against you; but if you were to think of putting everyone of them out of the way, you would do no good; but some one whom you do not suspect would still plot against you, partly because he would fear for himself, and partly out of dislike to you for fearing all sorts of things; and he would think, too, that he would make the city grateful to him, even if you were not suspected. It is better, therefore, to abstain from the tyranny, in order to escape from blame. But if you absolutely must be a tyrant, then you had better provide for having a foreign force in the city superior to that of the citizens; and then no one need be formidable to you, nor need you put any one out of the way.

SOLON TO EPIMENIDES.

XVIII. My laws were not destined to be long of service to the Athenians, nor have you done any great good by purifying the city. For neither can the Deity nor lawgivers do much good to cities by themselves; but these people rather have this power, who, from time to time, can lead the people to any opinions they choose; so also the Deity and the laws, when the citizens are well governed, are useful; but when they are ill governed, they are no good. Nor are my laws nor all the enactments that I made, any better; but those who were in power transgressed them, and did great injury to the commonwealth, inasmuch as they did not hinder Pisistratus from ursurping the tyranny. Nor did they believe me when I gave them warning beforehand. But he obtained more credit than I did, who flattered the Athenians while I told him the truth: but I, placing my arms before the principal councilhouse, being wiser than they, told those who had no suspicion of it, that Pisistratus was desirous to make himself a tyrant; and I showed myself more valiant than those who hesitated to defend the state against him. But they condemned the madness of Solon. But at last I spoke loudly—"O, my country, I, Solon, here am ready to defend you by word and deed; but to these men I seem to be mad. So I will depart from you, being the only antagonist of Pisistratus; and let these men be his guards if they please." For you know the man, my friend, and how cleverly he seized upon the tyranny. He first began by being a demagogue; then, having inflicted wounds on himself, he came to the Heliaea, crying out, and saying, "That he had been treated in this way by his enemies." And he entreated the people to assign him as guards four hundred young men; and they, disregarding my advice, gave them to him. And they were all armed with bludgeons. And after that he put down the democracy. They in vain hoped to deliver the poor from their state of slavery, and so now they are all of them slaves to Pisistratus."

SOLON TO PISISTRATUS.

I am well assured that I should suffer no evil at your hands. For before your assumption of the tyranny I was a friend of yours, and now my case is not different from that of any other Athenian who is not pleased with tyranny. And whether it is better for them to be governed by one individual, or to live under a democracy, that each person may decide according to his own sentiments. And I admit that of all tyrants you are the best. But I do not judge it to be good for me to return to Athens, lest any one should blame me, for, after having established equality of civil rights among the Athenians, and after having refused to be a tyrant myself when it was in my power, returning now and acquiescing in what you are doing.

SOLON TO CROESUS.

XX. I thank you for your goodwill towards me. And, by Minerva, if I did not think it precious above everything to live in a democracy, I would willingly prefer living in your palace with you to living at Athens, since Pisistratus has made himself tyrant by force. But life is more pleasant to me where justice and equality prevail universally. However, I will come and see you, being anxious to enjoy your hospitality for a season.




1. Vide Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, ii. p. 34.

2. One of the Sporades.

3. An island near Crete.

4. Hom. II 2. 671. Dryden's Version.

5. Vide Herod. lib. 1. c. 30-33.

6. A drachma was something less than ten pence.

7. "Enê kai nea the last day of the month: elsewhere trianias. So called for this reason. The old Greek year was lunar; now the moon's monthly orbit is twenty-nine and a half days. So that if the first month began with the sun and moon together at sunrise at the month's end it would be sunset; and the second month would begin at sunset. To prevent this irregularity, Solon made the latter half day belong to the first month; so that this thirtieth day consisted of two halves, one belonging to the old, the other to the new moon. And when the lunar month fell into disuse, the last day of the calendar month was still called Enê kai neaa." L. & S. Greek Lexicon, in v. enos.










Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Some, but not all, of Yonge's spellings of ancient names have been updated.

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