Solon (c. 638 – c. 558 BC) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens. His reforms failed in the short term, yet he is often credited with having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy. He wrote poetry for pleasure, as patriotic propaganda and in defence of his constitutional reforms.
Solon was born in Athens around 638 B.C. His family was distinguished in Attica as they belonged to a noble or Eupatrid clan, although they possessed only moderate wealth. Solon’s father was probably Execestides. If so, Solon’s lineage could be traced back to Codrus, the last King of Athens. According to Diogenes Laërtius, he had a brother named Dropides who was an ancestor (six generations removed) of Plato. According to Plutarch, Solon was related to the tyrant Peisistratos, for their mothers were cousins. Solon was eventually drawn into the unaristocratic pursuit of commerce.
When Athens and Megara were contesting for the possession of the Salamis Island, Solon was given leadership of the Athenian forces. After repeated disasters, Solon was able to increase the morale and spirits of his body of troops on the strength of a poem he wrote about the islands. Supported by Peisistratos, he defeated the Megarians either by means of a cunning trick or more directly through heroic battle around 595 BC. 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.
According to Diogenes Laertius, in 594 BC, Solon was chosen archon, or chief magistrate. As 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 Heliopolisand 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.
After his return to Athens, Solon became a staunch opponent of Peisistratos. 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. His efforts were in vain. Solon died shortly after Peisistratos usurped by force the autocratic power that Athens had once freely bestowed upon him. Solon died in Cyprus at the age of 80 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”, meaning “in order to go away knowing more out of life”.
Man, no matter how happy he is, should not consider himself happy until the last day of his life passes, because human affairs are so vague and variable that it is enough one tiny change to move them from one in another, completely differentcondition.