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Solon's ‘Price-Equalisation’

  • K. H. Waters (a1)


In his article entitled ‘Solon and the Megarian Question’ (JHS lxxvii) Mr A. French has given a valuable exposition of Solon's economic reforms in their relation to the strategic necessities of Athenian overseas trade. This, however, leads him to an assessment of the statesman's policy which it is rather difficult to accept, conflicting as it does both with tradition and the general probabilities of the situation. Further, it is partly based on an interpretation of a passage in Plutarch which is, I think, mistaken and indeed impossible, although it has been adopted by most authorities. Mr French's argument may be summarised as follows:

(1) In the pre-Solonian era the sea route to South Attica and Phaleron, still more to Mounychia, was dominated by a hostile Megara owing to her control of Salamis; hence only the ports of East Attica were available for overseas trade in bulk cargoes. Early imports of grain and timber would have been from Thessaly, for which these ports were particularly convenient.

(2) However, increasing population and the decline in soil fertility made it desirable to import wheat in large quantities from the Black Sea; this would necessitate delivery at a port nearer the city and therefore control of Salamis to prevent Megarian interference on top of the other considerable hazards of the Black Sea voyage. It would also necessitate a high price which, though in accordance with the internal agricultural conditions, would diminish the advantages of the additional external supplies to the impoverished population of Attica. The Athenian government must either embark on a naval programme, and fight Megara for Salamis, or use less grain, which meant limiting the population.



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1 Some portions of this article have benefited from the comments of my colleague Mr K. M. Dallas, Senior Lecturer in Economics, and from discussions with Professor J. R. Elliott, to whom my thanks are accordingly due. I am ako most grateful to my friend Mr A. French, whose comments on my draft I have at times incorporated; in particular he has let me see an unpublished article on the Pattern of Attic Agriculture which affects the argument at some points.

2 Quoted both by Plutarch, , Solon 18, and in Ath. Pol. 12.

3 For the opposing view, adopted in this article, see Freeman, K., Work and Life of Solon 59; Johnston, J., ‘Solon's Reforms of Weights and Measures’, JHS liv (1934) 180; Heichelheim, F.An Ancient Economic History i 2285, et al.

4 A History of the Athenian Constitution 2 98 f.

5 Everyone agrees that ‘later’ the money equivalent was admitted, but there appears to be no evidence as to the date of this change, if it was a change. Glotz, , Histoire Grecque i 41 (following Francotte) thinks landless persons were admitted to citizenship without admission to the γένη.

6 Ath. Pol. 7.4,—this phrase is not necessarily a part of the original ‘document’ and may be merely a reflection of a later belief that in the dim past of the Solonian era all society was still on an agricultural basis.

7 The demiourgoi are said to have had two seats on the board of archons. Ure, P. N., Origin of Tyranny 16 says these were thetes. This involves rejecting a well-established belief regarding the Solonian constitution. Conversely, Grote, (History of Greece ii 488) maintained ‘it is not conceivable that a proprietor whose land yielded to him a clear annual return of 100, 120, 140 or 180 drachmae could ever have been designated by that name (Thetes)’. On this whole question see Schwan, in RE s.v. ‘Theten’, col. 195/6.

7a On the supporters of Peisistratos see now French, A., Greece and Rome vi (1959) 46.

8 Interesting calculations of this type have been made by Mr French (cf. n. 1) which I hope he will publish in due course.

9 E.g. Cary, , Geographic Background of Greek and Roman History 76.

10 Seltman, , Athens, its History and Coinage 9; Besnier, in Daremberg/Saglio iv 1, 170, s.v. ‘Olea’.

11 As Chrimes, K. M. suggested in CR 1932, 2, Solon's classification would facilitate the assessment of the total (as well as individual) agricultural production of Attica and so afford a basis for a price-structure. See also below (high local wheat price?).

12 B. Baratowsky has discussed the evidence relating to the conquest of Salamis, in an article in Studies presented to David M. Robinson ii 789. He shows that both the chronology and the agent of the Athenian conquest are equally hard to define with certainty.

13 French, op. cit. 241. Why should Epimenides suppose that Mounychia would cause harm to the Athenians if it were used to protect overseas trade? He must have been primed by the landowners to utter such a perversion of the truth—unless he were a very far-sighted prophet and foresaw not only the wealth and power but also the disasters and shame that Athens' maritime empire would eventually produce. Nothing in the story refers to or implies the likelihood of Mounychia passing into the control of enemies. The story could well be the invention of a much later day.

14 Piraeus is barely thirty sea-miles from Sounion, and with a favourable wind this distance would be covered in at most eight hours. Hence, the last run home could have been made in the hours of darkness, along a coast with which the pilots would have been very familiar, and which provides more than one shelter on the way. How reluctant Greek merchant skippers were to sail at night along a well-known coast I cannot pretend to judge. One cannot reasonably suppose a ‘blockade’ maintained by penteconters nor that Megarian warships operated freely beyond Sounion, as a general practice. It has, however, been pointed out to me by Mr French that there was little reason for merchants to take such risks, if they could find another market, e.g. at Corinth.

15 This statement is used by Heichelheim, op. cit., to show how Solon favoured the large landowners, as if zeugitai and even Hill-men would not be likely to suffer just as heavily in proportion from the depredations of wolves.

16 J. Johnston (op. cit.) renders ‘a sheep and a drachma were reckoned as equivalent to a medimnos' which neatly preserves the ambiguity as to whether a medimnos was worth one or two drachmas. Naturally he assumes the lower value.

17 Heichelheim (RE Suppl. vi, s.v. ‘σῑτος’) accepts the equation, but in the next breath says that Solon was trying to provide the thetes with cheaper grain. Clearly a drachma per medimnos is a high price relative to the other items.

18 The best evidence regarding ἀπαρχαί appears to be IG i2 76, the Athenian decree of 423–422 regarding the ‘tithes’ to be offered at Eleusis. Though the quantities are prescribed (at one-sixth of 1 per cent) there is no suggestion of a cash alternative.

19 It may be suggested that in the earlier passage does not mean the same thing as in the later. The difference in meaning is not obvious nor to be deduced from the relevant entries in LSJ.

20 At the auction of the confiscated goods of those convicted of impiety. Prices at state auctions today tend to be considerably lower than open market prices; during the Peloponnesian War slaves were generally plentiful, and this was before the Spartan occupation of Dekelea and a possible scarcity of slaves in Athens.

21 Michell, H., Economics of Ancient Greece 270. The current price ratio in Tasmania is between 3–1 and 4–1 for sheep and wheat, after allowance for govern ment support of wheat prices. It seems unlikely that sheep are dearer in relation to other products in Australia than they were in ancient Athens.

22 Cavaignac, , L'Économie Grecque 21.Adcock, , in CAH iv 48 states that in the fifth century a metretes of oil was worth up to four times as much as a medimnos of barley. Evidence for the price of oil in later Greek times ranges from the reasonable figure of 10 drachmae in Egypt in 130 B.C., through 12 drachmae at Athens in the fourth century (sacrificial oil), and 15 to 17 drachmae at Delos later, to the astounding figure of 36 drachmae given by Aristotle, , Oecon. ii 27.

23 Cavaignac, op. cit. 68. It would be fantastic to place nine-tenths of the rise in the last century or so of the total period. According to the same authority livestock had gone up 100 per cent; it looks as if the disparity is once again due to the false premiss of the sheep-wheat equation.

24 ‘The most lunatic part of the whole business’ of price-equalisation, to quote a remark of Mr French, is in fact the equation of a measure of oil with the same quantity of wine. It would have to be remarkably good wine, perhaps of that vintage offered with such effect by Odysseus to the Cyclops, which could stand dilution with twenty parts of water to one.

25 See, for example, the bibliography in Heichel heim's notes, op. cit. 523–5.

26 Op. cit. 183.

27 Cf. Grundy, , Thucydides and the History of his Age 69, who also puts forward the view that Solon and Peisistratos were working in the same direction economically speaking. Hammond, N. G. L., JHS lx (1940) 80, points out that it would take a genera tion for the olive plantations to come into full production; hence he regards the prohibition of food exports as a purely temporary measure, to be repealed once the export trade had grown sufficiently to balance the necessary imports of cereals.

28 Grundy, 75 n. 1, speaks of the activities of Miltiades as a ‘corollary to the policy of Solon’.

29 Glotz, op. cit. 119.

30 French rightly emphasises the decline in soil fertility as a major factor in the difficult position of Attic agriculture at the time of Solon. All the more reason, if Solon were aware of this (and why should he not be?) to stimulate the development of the olive which did not require such good land. Cereals required the best land available in Attica; later, perhaps, market-gardening would develop close to the city; the olive plantations would tend to occupy less desirable land on the hillsides.

Solon's ‘Price-Equalisation’

  • K. H. Waters (a1)


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