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Aristotle vs plutarch a comparison of solonian reform



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  • 1. Aristotle vs Plutarch:A Comparison of Solonian Reforms Regine Labog
  • 2. The Solonian Reforms as described in Aristotles The Constitution of theAthenians and Plutarchs Life of Solon have formed the foundations for Archaic Athensspath to becoming a successful polis. Our main sources, Aristotle and Plutarch, do less tocontradict each other and more to simply omit information that did not align with thepurposes of their literature. Aristotles goal was to lay out the chronology and change inthe Athenian constitution, and he begins with Solon because he had instituted themajority of laws that were present even to Aristotles time. Plutarchs goal was todescribe the life of Solon and, because it served a more literary purpose, Plutarch outlinedSolons main legislation along with laws that affected Athenian lifestyle. Solon’s poetrywas at first, “a minor matter and a pleasant way of spending his spare time” but it evolvedinto “philosophical maxims…in order to justify his actions and sometimes to advise,rebuke, and scold the people of Athens. ”1 Here we will observe the differences betweenPlutarch and Aristotle, check the credibility of Solon’s reforms by comparing the twowriters to other works, and discover whether Solons poetry can be used as a resource todescribe aspects of Athens that occurred during Solons lifetime. When Solon is asked by the upper and lower classes to take control of Athens andto settle their disputes, Plutarch and Aristotle provide two different accounts. Plutarch2recounts how Solons "desire to save the city led him to deal in an underhand fashion withboth parties, without his involvement being solicited. " Aristotle claims that both sidesagreed to give him power and includes the beginning of a Solonian poem and summarizesit by saying that Solon "champions both sides against the other, and argues their position,1P. 48 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives2Plutarch places this in his life of Solon but he takes it from a work by Phanias ofLesbos
  • 3. and then recommends an end to the prevailing rivalry. "3 Upon taking on the role as Archon, Solon faced two issues: the dependence of thelower classes as a result of the greed of the ruling elites and the increasing debt ofAthens. The first issue is addressed below. Aristotle highlighted the three most popular features of Solons constitution4:nobody can borrow money on the security of anyones freedom, anyone can seek redresson behalf of those wronged, and the right of appeal to the dikasterion. 5 These elementsare also present in Plutarch’s account. The reforms highlighted above sought to address the economic conflicts andlevel the playing field between the upper class and the lower class. The followingpoem by Solon describes the motive for his legislation: For I granted the people an adequate amount of power And sufficient prestige—not more nor less. But I found a way also to maintain the status Of the old wielders of power with their fantastic riches. I stood protecting rich and poor with my stout shield, And saw that neither side prevailed unjustly. 6 The law forbidding loans on the security of anyone’s freedom, thoughintended to prevent Athenian farmers from subscribing themselves or their families3 p. 150 in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians4 p. 153 in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians5 p. 337 
 Hansen: The dikasteria were a separate and independent body ofgovernment. They were neither "the demos in its judicial capacity" nor "judicialcommittees of the ekklesia" nor were their powers "based on any kind of delegationfrom the ekklesia. ”6 p. 62 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives
  • 4. to slavery, also ended up removing the only security that small farmers with alreadyfully mortgaged plots could offer. 7 Though seemingly beneficial to the poor farmers,Solon intended to drive out inefficient farmers off the land to benefit the Atticaneconomy. The provision where anyone can seek redress on behalf of those wrongedwas to protect the common people so that anyone with the resources and the desirecould file a lawsuit against the offender. On a deeper level, Plutarch says that Solonwas “conditioning the people of Athens to regard themselves as so many parts of asingle body, and so to share one another’s feelings and suffering. ”8 This attests toSolon’s long-term goals of involving all citizens of Athens in the affairs of the state. The right of appeal to the dikasterion was a “protection againstmaladministration”9 by the magistrates, which Solon had closed off to only the threeupper classes: pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, and zeugitai. However, it also served asa safeguard for the rest of Solon’s laws because the dikasterion was comprised of amajority of Athenians whose vested interest it was to uphold the Solonianconstitution or risk returning to the socio-economic disparity that existed beforeSolon’s Constitution. Surprisingly, Aristotle does not consider seisachtheia to be a popular feature ofhis reforms since it brought a dispute that tarnished Solon’s reputation as an honorablelegislator. This dispute, highlighted by both Plutarch and Aristotle, was before Solon hadinstituted seisachtheia, and he told some of the leading citizens about his plan to cancel7 p. 101 in “Factional Conflict and Solon’s Reforms” by J. R. Ellis and G. R. Stanton8 p. 62 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives9 p. 106 in in “Factional Conflict and Solon’s Reforms” by J. R. Ellis and G. R.Stanton
  • 5. all debts and they borrowed large sums of money and bought huge tracts of land. 10Plutarch described how Solon redeemed himself in the story of the Five Talents where helent five talents to an Athenian and cancelled his debts. Aristotle wrote how Solon hadeither been outmaneuvered by his friends or, in more critical versions, he had beenaccused of fraud. Aristotle and Plutarch defend Solon by arguing that, for someone who“attaches the over-all blame for the strife to the rich,”11 it’s illogical for him to have toldthe leading citizens on purpose. The cancellation of debts was the antidote to the increasingly large disparitybetween the rich and the poor and roadblock to a mob mentality that sought toovertake Athens and enact a redistribution of land. Ellis et al. argues thatseisachtheia was simply an easing of the “unreasonable burdens for at least some ofthe poor of Attika, at the expense of some of the richer. ”12 The second issue Solon addresses was the economic crises facing Athens.Though Aristotle does not include Solon’s embargo on all exports besides olive oil,Plutarch mentions this law in passing. 13 However, Thiel interpreted the law asSolon foreseeing the “growing population of Attica should be fed with grainimported from foreign countries and this imported grain should be paid for withAttic oil and pottery above all other things. ”14 In order to protect the Athenian olivegrowers, Solon also made sure the property classes depended on how much theirproducts fetched at the end of the year rather than the worth of their products10 p. 60 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives11 see Footnote 212 see Footnote 613 p. 68 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives14 p. 8 in J. H. Thiel’s “On Solon’s System of Property-Classes”
  • 6. before being sold. Also, to address the unemployment issue of Attica, Solonencourages fellow citizens to take up manufacturing and created a law stating, “ason who had not been taught one of the manufacturing arts by his father was underno obligation to support him. ”15 One of Solon’s most lasting contributions to the constitutional framework ofAthens was the creation of the four property classes. Plutarch and Aristotle differ inthe translation, but essentially they are the pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitai,and thetes. Manville comments that by separating government positions byproperty classes, Solon created the first “legal citizenship” and created preciseboundaries of status and guaranteed privileges for each group. 16 Coupled with thepunishment that “anyone who did not choose one side or the other in such a[factional] dispute should lose his citizen rights,”17 Solon forced Athenians to takeownership of his laws because those who did not support the Solonian revolutionwould not be allowed to reap the benefits of the city-state. Aristotle says Solonrequired pentakosiomedimnoi to possess 500 measures of dry or liquid yearlyreturns, hippeis to possess 300 measures, and zeugitai to possess 200 measures.Rosivach questions Aristotle’s and Plutarch’s property requirements in order tobelong to a certain class. The one hundred medimnoi difference between the hippeisand the zeugitai suggests that either the zeugitai belonged to the cultural elitecomposed of pentakosiomedimnoi and hippeis rather than belonging with the poormasses of thetes or that Aristotle, and therefore Plutarch, got their numbers wrong.15 p. 66 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives16 p. 217 in “Solon’s Law of Stasis and Atimia in Archaic Athens” by Brooke Manville17 p. 153 in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians
  • 7. 18 Solon’s property class qualifications were used even into the late 420s BCE19attesting to the longevity of Solon’s reign beyond the one hundred year requirementhe had instituted before he left Athens for his ten-year journey abroad. 20 Aristotle and Plutarch agreed on the existence of the Council of theAreopagus prior to Solon however earlier writers reported the existence of theAreopagus was instituted by Solon21. Aristotle writes that Solon “gave theAreopagus the duty of watching over the laws, analogous to its earlier position ofguardian of the Constitution. ”22 Plutarch explains this is partly because Draco doesnot refer to the Areopagus, but the ephetai, during cases of homicide. However, inthe thirteenth table containing Solon’s eight laws, it states: Of the disenfranchised all those who were disenfranchised prior to the archonship of Solon are to regain their rights except those who were disenfranchised prior to the archonship of Solon are to regain their rights except those who were convicted by the Areopagus, the Ephetae, or the city hall (that is, the king-archons) of homicide, murder or tyrannical ambition and were already in exile when this law was published. 2318 p. 36 in “The Requirements for the Solonic Classes in Aristotle, AP 7. 4” byRosivach19 p. 42 in “The Requirements for the Solonic Classes in Aristotle, AP 7. 4” byRosivach20 p. 70 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives21 p. 63 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives22 p. 153 in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians23 p. 63 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives
  • 8. This passage proves the existence of the Areopagus prior to Solon because therewould have been no other way for someone to have been convicted by theAreopagus before Solon’s time. Despite the existence of the dikasterion and its right of appeal, Solon’screation of the Boule of 400, composed of 100 Athenians from each of the fourtribes, was in reaction to the common people who were more assertive due to thecancellation of debts and were still full of themselves. 24 The Boule would debateissues before reaching the ekklesia and the dikasterion so the magistracies couldhave some control in what topics would be discussed among the common people.However, Ingle argues that due to the growing quantity of work being submitted tothe Ekklesia, it made sense that the smaller and more expeditious body of the Boule,which already existed, would act as a committee to screen these cases. 25 ThoughAristotle only goes so far as to mention Solon’s role in the transformation of theBoule into a screening body for the ekklesia, we find out later in Aristotle that muchof the judicial functions of the Boule transferred to the dikasterion after therestoration of the democracy in 403 BCE. 26 In comparing the works of Plutarch and Aristotle with respect to Aristotle, acommentary on their writing style should be provided. Hammond comments thatAristotle arranged his narrative mainly by content, giving prior place to specificconstitutional points but indicating the chronology of two main bodies of reform in away that allows readers to rearrange the information he provides chronologically if24 p. 62 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives25 p. 236 in N. L. Ingle’s “The Original Function of the Boule at Athens”26 p. 183 in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians
  • 9. we wished. 27 Aristotle’s choice of order offers some degree of confusion with whenhe instituted which reform, but Hammond believes that Solon was appointedEponymous Archon to solve economic problems and later appointed to an unnamedoffice carrying full powers over the constitution in order to reform them. 28 As for Plutarch’s Solon, he and Aristotle share the common resource,Androtion’s Atthis, when writing about Solon except Aristotle rearranges the workto emphasize Solon’s constitutional points and pass verdicts on the constitutionalistSolon. Plutarch, however, preserves Androtion’s order and possesses whatHammond considers “the clearer form of the fourth-century tradition crystallized byAndrotion. ”29 After instituting his reforms, Solon commits his feelings into poetry inresponse to the mixed feelings of the Athenians. In this case, Solon’s poems shouldnot be taken for anything more than purely literary for he vents the frustration thathe feels at the ignorance and stubbornness of the Athenians as can be seen when hewrites “now they are angry and look askance at me like an enemy. ”30 However, inhis poem, “Salamis” where he urges the Athenians to take up arms and recaptureSalamis, it matches the historical account of Athens’s victory over Megara and thecapture of Salamis. 31 The bulk of Solon’s poetry served to either express his feelingstowards the Athenians, justify a form of legislation, or to rebuke the citizens forturning their backs on their city-state.27 p. 76 in N. G. L. Hammond’s “The Seisachtheia and the Nomothesia of Solon”28 see Footnote 2729 p. 77 in N. G. L. Hammond’s “The Seisachtheia and the Nomothesia of Solon”30 p. 155 in Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians31 p. 52 in Plutarch’s Greek Lives
  • 10. After analyzing Plutarch and Aristotle’s accounts of Solon, we find their mainsources in writing their literary work were Solon’s poems, interpretations of laterhistorians (mainly Hellanikos and Androtion), and a historical imagination biased bythe current challenges of their own times.32 However, if I were to compare andchoose the more reliable source, Plutarch’s work deviated less from thechronological order of Androtion, provided more content than Aristotle’s work, and,despite being written later in time, possessed a more diverse array of Solon’s laws.32 p. 244 in A. French’s “Land Tenure and the Solon Problem”
  • 11. Works Cited1. Aristotle. "Solon." Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy. Berkeley:University of California, 1986. 150-57.2. Ellis, J. R., and G. R. Stanton. "Factional Conflict and Solons Reforms." Phoenix 22.2(1968): 95-110.3. French, A. “Land Tenure and the Solon Problem.” Historia:Seitschrift fur AlteGeschichte 12.2 (1962): 242-247.4. Hammond, N. G. "The Seisachtheia and the Nomothesia of Solon." The Journal ofHellenic Studies 60 (1950): 71-83.5. Hansen, Mogens Herman. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes:Structure, Principles, and Ideology. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1999.6. Manville, Brooke. "Solons Law of Stasis and Atimia in Archaic Athens." Transactionsof the American Philological Association 110 (1980): 213-21.7. Plutarch. "Solon." Greek Lives: A Selection of Nine Greek Lives. Oxford, OxfordUniversity Press, 2008. 42-77.8. Rosivach, Vincent J. "The Requirements for the Solonic Classes in Aristotle." Hermes130.1 (2002): 36-47.9. Thiel, J. H. "On Solons System of Property-Classes." Mnemosyne 4th ser. 3.1 (1950):1-11.