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Aristotle vs Plutarch: A Comparison of Solonian Reforms

Regine Labog

The Solonian Reforms as described in Aristotle's The Constitution of the Athenians and Plutarch's Life of Solon have formed the foundations for Archaic Athens's path to becoming a successful polis. Our main sources, Aristotle and Plutarch, do less to contradict each other and more to simply omit information that did not align with the purposes of their literature. Aristotle's goal was to lay out the chronology and change in the Athenian constitution, and he begins with Solon because he had instituted the majority of laws that were present even to Aristotle's time. Plutarch's goal was to describe the life of Solon and, because it served a more literary purpose, Plutarch outlined Solon's main legislation along with laws that affected Athenian lifestyle. Solons poetry was at first, a minor matter and a pleasant way of spending his spare time but it evolved into philosophical maximsin order to justify his actions and sometimes to advise, rebuke, and scold the people of Athens. 1 Here we will observe the differences between Plutarch and Aristotle, check the credibility of Solons reforms by comparing the two writers to other works, and discover whether Solon's poetry can be used as a resource to describe aspects of Athens that occurred during Solon's lifetime. When Solon is asked by the upper and lower classes to take control of Athens and to settle their disputes, Plutarch and Aristotle provide two different accounts. Plutarch2 recounts how Solon's "desire to save the city led him to deal in an underhand fashion with both parties, without his involvement being solicited. " Aristotle claims that both sides agreed to give him power and includes the beginning of a Solonian poem and summarizes it by saying that Solon "champions both sides against the other, and argues their position,

P. 48 in Plutarchs Greek Lives Plutarch places this in his life of Solon but he takes it from a work by Phanias of Lesbos
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and then recommends an end to the prevailing rivalry. "3 Upon taking on the role as Archon, Solon faced two issues: the dependence of the lower classes as a result of the greed of the ruling elites and the increasing debt of Athens. The first issue is addressed below. Aristotle highlighted the three most popular features of Solon's constitution4: nobody can borrow money on the security of anyone's freedom, anyone can seek redress on behalf of those wronged, and the right of appeal to the dikasterion. 5 These elements are also present in Plutarchs account. The reforms highlighted above sought to address the economic conflicts and level the playing field between the upper class and the lower class. The following poem by Solon describes the motive for his legislation: For I granted the people an adequate amount of power And sufficient prestigenot 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 anyones freedom, though intended to prevent Athenian farmers from subscribing themselves or their families p. 150 in Aristotles Constitution of the Athenians p. 153 in Aristotles Constitution of the Athenians 5 p. 337 Hansen: The dikasteria were a separate and independent body of government. They were neither "the demos in its judicial capacity" nor "judicial committees of the ekklesia" nor were their powers "based on any kind of delegation from the ekklesia. 6 p. 62 in Plutarchs Greek Lives
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to slavery, also ended up removing the only security that small farmers with already fully 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 Attican economy. The provision where anyone can seek redress on behalf of those wronged was to protect the common people so that anyone with the resources and the desire could file a lawsuit against the offender. On a deeper level, Plutarch says that Solon was conditioning the people of Athens to regard themselves as so many parts of a single body, and so to share one anothers feelings and suffering. 8 This attests to Solons 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 against maladministration9 by the magistrates, which Solon had closed off to only the three upper classes: pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, and zeugitai. However, it also served as a safeguard for the rest of Solons laws because the dikasterion was comprised of a majority of Athenians whose vested interest it was to uphold the Solonian constitution or risk returning to the socio-economic disparity that existed before Solons Constitution. Surprisingly, Aristotle does not consider seisachtheia to be a popular feature of his reforms since it brought a dispute that tarnished Solons reputation as an honorable legislator. This dispute, highlighted by both Plutarch and Aristotle, was before Solon had instituted seisachtheia, and he told some of the leading citizens about his plan to cancel p. 101 in Factional Conflict and Solons Reforms by J. R. Ellis and G. R. Stanton p. 62 in Plutarchs Greek Lives 9 p. 106 in in Factional Conflict and Solons Reforms by J. R. Ellis and G. R. Stanton
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all debts and they borrowed large sums of money and bought huge tracts of land. 10 Plutarch described how Solon redeemed himself in the story of the Five Talents where he lent five talents to an Athenian and cancelled his debts. Aristotle wrote how Solon had either been outmaneuvered by his friends or, in more critical versions, he had been accused 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 its illogical for him to have told the leading citizens on purpose. The cancellation of debts was the antidote to the increasingly large disparity between the rich and the poor and roadblock to a mob mentality that sought to overtake Athens and enact a redistribution of land. Ellis et al. argues that seisachtheia was simply an easing of the unreasonable burdens for at least some of the 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 Solons embargo on all exports besides olive oil, Plutarch mentions this law in passing. 13 However, Thiel interpreted the law as Solon foreseeing the growing population of Attica should be fed with grain imported from foreign countries and this imported grain should be paid for with Attic oil and pottery above all other things. 14 In order to protect the Athenian olive growers, Solon also made sure the property classes depended on how much their products fetched at the end of the year rather than the worth of their products

p. 60 in Plutarchs Greek Lives see Footnote 2 12 see Footnote 6 13 p. 68 in Plutarchs Greek Lives 14 p. 8 in J. H. Thiels On Solons System of Property-Classes
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before being sold. Also, to address the unemployment issue of Attica, Solon encourages fellow citizens to take up manufacturing and created a law stating, a son who had not been taught one of the manufacturing arts by his father was under no obligation to support him. 15 One of Solons most lasting contributions to the constitutional framework of Athens was the creation of the four property classes. Plutarch and Aristotle differ in the translation, but essentially they are the pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitai, and thetes. Manville comments that by separating government positions by property classes, Solon created the first legal citizenship and created precise boundaries of status and guaranteed privileges for each group. 16 Coupled with the punishment 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 take ownership of his laws because those who did not support the Solonian revolution would not be allowed to reap the benefits of the city-state. Aristotle says Solon required pentakosiomedimnoi to possess 500 measures of dry or liquid yearly returns, hippeis to possess 300 measures, and zeugitai to possess 200 measures. Rosivach questions Aristotles and Plutarchs property requirements in order to belong to a certain class. The one hundred medimnoi difference between the hippeis and the zeugitai suggests that either the zeugitai belonged to the cultural elite composed of pentakosiomedimnoi and hippeis rather than belonging with the poor masses of thetes or that Aristotle, and therefore Plutarch, got their numbers wrong. p. 66 in Plutarchs Greek Lives p. 217 in Solons Law of Stasis and Atimia in Archaic Athens by Brooke Manville 17 p. 153 in Aristotles Constitution of the Athenians
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Solons property class qualifications were used even into the late 420s BCE19

attesting to the longevity of Solons reign beyond the one hundred year requirement he had instituted before he left Athens for his ten-year journey abroad. 20 Aristotle and Plutarch agreed on the existence of the Council of the Areopagus prior to Solon however earlier writers reported the existence of the Areopagus was instituted by Solon21. Aristotle writes that Solon gave the Areopagus the duty of watching over the laws, analogous to its earlier position of guardian of the Constitution. 22 Plutarch explains this is partly because Draco does not refer to the Areopagus, but the ephetai, during cases of homicide. However, in the thirteenth table containing Solons 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. 23

p. 36 in The Requirements for the Solonic Classes in Aristotle, AP 7. 4 by Rosivach 19 p. 42 in The Requirements for the Solonic Classes in Aristotle, AP 7. 4 by Rosivach 20 p. 70 in Plutarchs Greek Lives 21 p. 63 in Plutarchs Greek Lives 22 p. 153 in Aristotles Constitution of the Athenians 23 p. 63 in Plutarchs Greek Lives

This passage proves the existence of the Areopagus prior to Solon because there would have been no other way for someone to have been convicted by the Areopagus before Solons time. Despite the existence of the dikasterion and its right of appeal, Solons creation of the Boule of 400, composed of 100 Athenians from each of the four tribes, was in reaction to the common people who were more assertive due to the cancellation of debts and were still full of themselves. 24 The Boule would debate issues before reaching the ekklesia and the dikasterion so the magistracies could have 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 to the 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 Though Aristotle only goes so far as to mention Solons role in the transformation of the Boule into a screening body for the ekklesia, we find out later in Aristotle that much of the judicial functions of the Boule transferred to the dikasterion after the restoration of the democracy in 403 BCE. 26 In comparing the works of Plutarch and Aristotle with respect to Aristotle, a commentary on their writing style should be provided. Hammond comments that Aristotle arranged his narrative mainly by content, giving prior place to specific constitutional points but indicating the chronology of two main bodies of reform in a way that allows readers to rearrange the information he provides chronologically if p. 62 in Plutarchs Greek Lives p. 236 in N. L. Ingles The Original Function of the Boule at Athens 26 p. 183 in Aristotles Constitution of the Athenians
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we wished. 27 Aristotles choice of order offers some degree of confusion with when he instituted which reform, but Hammond believes that Solon was appointed Eponymous Archon to solve economic problems and later appointed to an unnamed office carrying full powers over the constitution in order to reform them. 28 As for Plutarchs Solon, he and Aristotle share the common resource, Androtions Atthis, when writing about Solon except Aristotle rearranges the work to emphasize Solons constitutional points and pass verdicts on the constitutionalist Solon. Plutarch, however, preserves Androtions order and possesses what Hammond considers the clearer form of the fourth-century tradition crystallized by Androtion. 29 After instituting his reforms, Solon commits his feelings into poetry in response to the mixed feelings of the Athenians. In this case, Solons poems should not be taken for anything more than purely literary for he vents the frustration that he feels at the ignorance and stubbornness of the Athenians as can be seen when he writes now they are angry and look askance at me like an enemy. 30 However, in his poem, Salamis where he urges the Athenians to take up arms and recapture Salamis, it matches the historical account of Athenss victory over Megara and the capture of Salamis. 31 The bulk of Solons poetry served to either express his feelings towards the Athenians, justify a form of legislation, or to rebuke the citizens for turning their backs on their city-state. p. 76 in N. G. L. Hammonds The Seisachtheia and the Nomothesia of Solon see Footnote 27 29 p. 77 in N. G. L. Hammonds The Seisachtheia and the Nomothesia of Solon 30 p. 155 in Aristotles Constitution of the Athenians 31 p. 52 in Plutarchs Greek Lives
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After analyzing Plutarch and Aristotles accounts of Solon, we find their main sources in writing their literary work were Solons poems, interpretations of later historians (mainly Hellanikos and Androtion), and a historical imagination biased by the current challenges of their own times.32 However, if I were to compare and choose the more reliable source, Plutarchs work deviated less from the chronological order of Androtion, provided more content than Aristotles work, and, despite being written later in time, possessed a more diverse array of Solons laws.


p. 244 in A. Frenchs Land Tenure and the Solon Problem

Works Cited
1. 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 Solon's Reforms." Phoenix 22.2 (1968): 95-110. 3. French, A. Land Tenure and the Solon Problem. Historia:Seitschrift fur Alte Geschichte 12.2 (1962): 242-247. 4. Hammond, N. G. "The Seisachtheia and the Nomothesia of Solon." The Journal of Hellenic 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. "Solon's Law of Stasis and Atimia in Archaic Athens." Transactions of the American Philological Association 110 (1980): 213-21. 7. Plutarch. "Solon." Greek Lives: A Selection of Nine Greek Lives. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008. 42-77. 8. Rosivach, Vincent J. "The Requirements for the Solonic Classes in Aristotle." Hermes 130.1 (2002): 36-47. 9. Thiel, J. H. "On Solon's System of Property-Classes." Mnemosyne 4th ser. 3.1 (1950): 1-11.