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Solon › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 10 March 2016
Solon (Kpjas)
Solon (c. 640 – c. 560 BCE) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, who is credited with restructuring the social and political organisation of Athens and thereby laying the foundations for Athenian democracy. Such were his accomplishments that, in later centuries, he became a sort of semi-mythical founding father figure who had set Athens on the path to the glory and prosperity the city enjoyed in the Classical period.


According to Plutarch in his Solon, the lawgiver was the son of Execestides and so born into a distinguished family, even if their wealth was modest. Plutarch also quotes fragments of Solon's poetry, painting a more romantic picture than posterity would remember the matter-of-fact lawmaker. For example, he writes,
In Solon's poems, too, we can find evidence of the fact that he could not resist good looks and did not challenge love - 'To meet him like a boxer in the ring.' ( Solon, 43)
Solon, we are told by the same author, was a trader as a young man. Solon first came to wider prominence in c. 600 BCE when he commanded during the war between Athens and Megara following a dispute over control of Salamis. Solon was then appointed archon, the highest administrative position of Athenian government, traditionally in c. 594 BCE (or perhaps even c. 580-570 BCE). He was now in a position to make fundamental and lasting changes to his city. As the oracle at Delphiproclaimed,
Seat yourself now amidships, for you are the pilot of Athens.
Grasp the helm fast in your hands; you have many allies in your city.
( Solon, 55)


Athens was facing a period of economic crisis and the particular problem that ownership of agricultural land had become over-concentrated into the hands of a small aristocracy. This meant that a significant number of citizens were forced to work as dependents ( hektemoroi ) to the landed class to whom they paid a share (one sixth) of their crops or even become slaves if they could not pay their debts. Solon was charged with finding a remedy for this increasing problem and given the title of diallaktes or mediator. Ancient writers suggest that, in a radical move, Solon proposed to cancel all debts. This plan was referred to as seisachtheia or 'shaking off of burdens'. In practice, it seems more likely that the hektemoroi still had to pay off some debts but were given the right to own the land they worked. To prevent poor workers slipping into slavery, Solon also forbade the use of one's person or family members as security on loans. Those hektemoroi who had become slaves through debt were freed from their bondage.


Besides changing debt practices Solon also re-structured the Athenian class system, creating four distinct groups classified by agricultural production, and therefore, wealth. These were: the pentakosoimedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitai, and thetes. At the top, the pentakosoimedimnoi were those whose land produced at least 500 bushels ( medimnoi ) of corn or its equivalent in other goods. Next were the hippeis, or knights, who produced between 300 and 500 bushels annually. The zeugitai produced between 200 and 300 bushels or were craftsmen. The lowest class was the thetes who produced less than 200 bushels or were only labourers on other people's land.


This four-class classification also gave certain political rights. Thetes could participate in the Athenian assembly and jury system but they could not hold high political office. That privilege was reserved for the pentakosoimedimnoi and hippeis only.The zeugitai could hold minor positions in Athens' institutions. Solon also created a council of 400 which prepared business for deliberation by the larger plebeian assembly. This was another provision which ensured that political control was not entirely taken from the hands of the Athenian elite.
For the poor these political changes perhaps did not alter their lives very much but it certainly did for the richer, landed class who could now be on level terms with the traditional Athenian aristocracy. Previously, the latter had dominated politics but now positions were based on property ownership only and not family ties. The judicial changes did affect everybody, though, as now third party prosecutions were permitted (previously only the injured party could prosecute) and an appeal system was introduced. Now, at least in theory, everybody was equal before the law.


Solon produced, then, a new law code. Athens had previously worked according to Draco's Law Code, produced c. 621 BCE.Draco's laws regarding murder were preserved but, otherwise, these sometimes harsh decrees were abandoned or modified by Solon. Set down on wooden beams ( axones ), then later carved in stone, these new laws (and many subsequent ones) became associated with Solon for the next 200 years, such was the lawmaker's lasting reputation. The body of laws drawn up by Solon were credited by later Athenians as being very wide-ranging, covering such diverse matters as inheritances, funerals, adultery, theft, damages, and the working of political institutions. Solon's laws regarding trade helped an economic recovery.Trade in food goods, especially cereals, was strictly controlled to guarantee supply and only olives were allowed for export, thus stimulating that industry.
Bronze Pinakia

Bronze Pinakia

All of these laws established Solon with a lasting reputation as one of the founding fathers of Athens, a man who immeasurably helped the city fulfil its destiny as a major Mediterranean power in the Classical period. Although much admired, Aristotle was one later critic of Solon's laws in his Athenian Politics (9.2) where he notes that they were often too vague and open to very different interpretation and consequently many legal disputes. Unsurprisingly, the rich aristocrats of Athens did not take too kindly to Solon's reforms either. Disputes over high appointments blighted politics, and the tyrant Peisistratus seized power three times in the 550s and 540s BCE. Nevertheless, Solon did reduce the dominance of the Athenian aristocracy and improve the participation of ordinary citizens in the political arena. In this, he deserves credit for laying the foundations for the Athenian democracy which would arrive in the mid-5th century BCE.


Solon also found time for travel and poetry when not re-shaping the laws of his city. He was said by Herodotus (but dismissed as fiction by modern scholars) to have met with Croesus in Lydia, and by Plato to have visited Egypt, there discovering the tale of Atlantis. He was also said to have been a member of the Seven Sages who met in conference at Delphi. Only fragments of his poetry and writings survive but they amount to some 285 verses. The historian Plutarch quotes several of them in a rather strained attempt to illustrate what Solon's laws may have addressed. His work does, at least, present a man with a strong sense of justice:
Often the wicked prosper, while the righteous starve;
Yet I would never exchange my state for theirs,
My virtue for their gold. For mine endures,
While riches change their owner every day.
(Fragment 15)
Justice, though slow, is sure.
(Fragment 13)
In great affairs you cannot please all parties.
(Fragment 7)
To the mass of the people I gave the power they needed,
Neither degrading them, nor giving them too much rein:
For those who already possessed great power and wealth
I saw to it that their interests were not harmed.
I stood guard with a broad shield before both parties
And prevented either from triumphing unjustly.
(Fragment 5)

Epicurus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 07 September 2016
Epicurus ()
Epicurus (341 BCE – 270 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher, the founder of the Epicurean school in Athens, who taught that "Pleasure is the principle and end to a happy life." He was a prolific writer, amassing 37 volumes, but unfortunately, only fragments and four letters remain. His teachings would influence many who followed such as Lucretius of Rome and his On the Nature of Things, and the Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and JS Mill.


Most of what historians know of Epicurus has been gathered from the writings of others. In 341 BCE Epicurus was born, according to most sources, on the small island of Samos located off the coast of Asia Minor in the Aegean Sea. His father Neocles was a schoolteacher. Neocles and his wife Chaerestrate were members of the Athenian poor – the Klirouchi – who emigrated to Samos from Athens after they had been offered land there. Initially, Epicurus was taught at home by his father but later was schooled by Amphilus (also known as Pamphilus), a Platonist, and Nausephanes, a follower of Democritus, the Atomist. While Epicurus was serving his mandatory two years in the Athenian army, his family was relocated by force to the small Ionian city of Colophon when Perdiccas the old Macedonian commander under Alexander had ordered the removal of all Athenians from Samos.
It was then that Epicurus began to develop his own, unique philosophy. According to sources, at the tender age of 14, he had become disillusioned with his teachers. Like Aristotle, he was an empiricist and believed that all knowledge comes from one's senses. His new philosophy centered primarily on the idea of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Although his name and philosophy have been misconstrued and linked to hedonism, his initial teachings were anything but. Obviously, because of his early education, Epicurus's thinking was heavily influenced by the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and most of all Democritus. Slowly, his teachings drew a number of dedicated followers, even appealing to both women and slaves. The fact that his schools welcomed everyone brought considerable opposition from others in and around Athens. At the age of 32, he moved to the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, and later, not by choice, he relocated to Lampsacus on the eastern side of the Hellespont, establishing schools at both locations.



In 307/306 CE he bought a home in Athens and founded a new school, calling it 'The Garden,' where he remained for the rest of his life. On the gate of his school was the inscription: "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest goal is pleasure." Unfortunately, his concept of pleasure has been horribly misinterpreted; to him, pleasure meant one must lead a life of restful contemplation, eating and drinking moderately. One must live without anxiety, forgoing the wants and worries of life and enjoying the "bliss of the gods." He would later write, "Do not spoil what you have desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." Happiness could be realized through attaining ataraxia, freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain. "Live unknown" was a personal adage of the Epicureans, a belief that rivaled the old Greek idea of seeking fame, glory, and honor.
The Epicureans believed that all desires were derived from three main sources: those natural desires that are essential for life such as food and shelter; those natural desires that one can live without, primarily ones that cause jealousy and boredom; and lastly, narcissistic desires such as wealth and fame. He wrote, "He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing."However, one of the most important things to Epicurus was friendship; although he never married, he actually believed in marriage and the family. Friends provide both an important defense against insecurity as well as a source of strength.Personally, Epicurus was considered by many to be humble, quiet and retiring. Some critics were not so kind, for instance, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus called him a "preacher of effeminacy."


Aside from his acceptance of women and slaves into his schools, many attacked his stance on religion and death. One of Epicurus' most important aims was to liberate people from fearing the eventual end of one's life thereby enabling them to seek both happiness and fulfillment in their personal lives. To Epicurus, one ceases to exist when one chooses to fear death. The Epicureans believed in the maxim "Death is nothing to us." There were four fundamental truths in Epicureanism:
  1. There are no divine beings that can threaten us.
  2. There is no afterlife.
  3. What we actually need is easy to obtain.
  4. What makes us suffer is easy to endure.


Unlike other religions that spoke of an afterlife, this meant that the eventuality of death should not be feared. To Epicurus, there was nothing to hope for and nothing to fear from the gods. While he rejected Plato's divine creation of the world, believing that the cosmos was the result of an accident, he tried to avoid saying that the gods did not exist, for it would have been dangerous to deny their existence; he did not consider himself to be an atheist. It was good for people to pay respect to the gods but one shouldn't expect anything from them. The gods existed, they were both happy and immortal, but were far away and took no interest in people's lives. Later, this denial of immortality and the existence of a benevolent god would bring the Epicureans into direct conflict with the rise of Christianity. Epicurus and his followers lived peacefully in their small communities and did not get involved in the politics of an ever-changing Athens, avoiding all social activism. And, concerning the Athenian emphasis on the importance of virtue, Epicurus held that those who were wise would avoid injustice. He once wrote, "To practice living well and to practice dying well are one and the same.” He died in 270 BCE in pain from kidney stones. His schools and philosophy would survive long after his death.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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