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Solon’s Act of Mediation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

A. French*
University of Adelaide


Aristotle was evidently employing the vocabulary of fourth-century politics to express his contemporaries’ reconstruction of what had happened in early sixth-century Athens: it was as natural for him to explain in terms of oligarchs versus democrats what had been a situation of civic discord in archaic times, as it is for twentieth-century students to see it in terms of a power clash between organized political parties or of an industrial class struggle. But the liberation by statute of a demos from slavery was a concept strange to Aristotle’s world; and so he defined what he thought the tradition meant in this case:

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1984

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1 Thuc. 1.98.4.

2 Athenaion Politeia, referred to as AP. I leave open the question of whether the author of the Politics is the same as the author of the AP.

3 Ar. Birds 1660; Clouds 1187.

4 Andocides 1.83.

5 For the development of the Solon legend see A. Masaracchia, Solone (Florence 1958); E. Ruschenbusch, Solonos nomoi (Historia Einzelschrift 9, 1966).

6 AP chap. 6. 2–4; 9. 2.

7 According to Plutarch (Sol. 25) Solon’s laws were inscribed on wooden axones, which were in Aristotle’s time termed kurbeis; some fragments of them were still said to be preserved in the Prytaneum in Plutarch’s time. For recent discussion about the survival of the tablets see Andrewes, A., ‘The survival of Solon’s axones’, in Phoros: Essays presented to B.D. Meritt; ed. Bradeen, D.W. & McGregor, M.F. (N.Y. 1974);Google ScholarStroud, R., ‘The Axones and Kurbeis of Drakon and Solon’, U. of Cat Publications in Classical Studies 19, 1979; cf. CAH 2 3. 3. 376.Google Scholar

8 Rhodes, P.J., A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford 1981), 124.Google Scholar

9 For attitudes expressed in Solon’s verses see Adkins, A.W.H., Moral values and political behaviour in ancient Greece (London 1972), 4757.Google Scholar

10 West, M.L., Iambi et Elegi Graeci 2 (Oxford 1972).Google Scholar

11 The text is corrupt and disputed.

12 I have not quoted the other three extracts in detail, as they seem less relevant to the argument; they refer to (a) the necessity for moderation in leadership and behaviour: (b) a reproach to the demos for ingratitude, and to the leaders for their lack of appreciation, and (c) ‘Anyone else would have skimmed the cream(?), but I stood as a barrier between the parties’: for comment on this see below p. 9.

13 Rhodes, Commentary 174.

14 Plut. Solon 15. (Philochoros FGrH 328 F 114).

15 We cannot assume that an extensive redistribution of land took place by the ordinary process of division and sale, as in a modern society. The sale of land, other than that caused by official confiscation, seems to have been extremely rare, if it occurred at all, in Attica before the fifth century.

16 For the argument I am indebted to my colleague Martin Holt of Adelaide University, on whose unpublished note I have freely drawn.

17 See Finley, M.I., Studies in Land and Credit in Ancient Athens (New Brunswick 1951);Google ScholarFine, J.V.A., Horoi: Studies in Mortgage, Real Security, and Land Tenure in Ancient Athens (Hesperia Supp. 9).Google Scholar

18 Plut. Solon 11; Ap 13. For a note on the complex chronology see Gomme, A.W., Historical Commentary on Thucydides 1, (Oxford 1945), on Thuc. 1. 126. 12.Google Scholar

19 Plut. Solon 12.

20 For a summary of the discussion about Solon’s alleged reform of the currency, weights, and measures see Rhodes, Commentary 164-9: the modern consensus is that the first Athenian currency must be dated long after the traditional date of Solon’s reforms. For an amusing comment on the whole controversy about Solon’s economic reforms see F. Jacoby FGrH on Philochoros 328 F 200, to which I am clearly indebted.

21 The argument about the meaning of hectemoros still continues. If anyone has any doubt about the folly of arguing from etymology, he might look up some of the amusing discussion about the etymology of the word ‘tripos’ as a guide to understanding the Cambridge University examination system.