Was Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, a failure?


In the learning platform http://www.coursera.com they have a lecture from the Wesleyan University, Middletown/Connecticut (somewhere North of NY)  introducing a general view on history of Antique Greeks right down from the beginnings in Minoan and Micean times.


It nearly was inevitable, that the lecturing professor to some extent dealt with the socalled “reforms of Solon” in Athens – which are SUCH STRANGE for the CONTEMPORARY OBSERVER, that I will give a summary of keywords on this topic later, so to indicate, that the GENUIN GREEK part of Greek history was something so much different from our times, so that any COMPARISON would become – in my estimation – a “shaky” thing – including our common and popular MEANINGS about the ROOTS OF MODERN DEMOCRACY.


I hardly could believe it, but THIS online-course of Wesleyan University seems to have near to 18.000 participants – which engage in lots of DISCUSSION GROUPS, that however are not in a scholarly type monitored. In one of these free discussion groups, I stumbled upon a statement BLANTLY putting the question:



Well, with the mental equipment gained in lifelong studies in history, especially if coming from more conservative ways of European learning, we perhaps would tend to say, that “failure” or “success” is not exactly the subject of scientific history-writing. We perhaps in very short would say: History writing AT FIRST is – or perhaps should be – concerned,  to find out WHAT IS respectively WHAT WAS. This is a very DIFFICULT TASK, because in GREAT aereas of OLD – and even NEW –  history we have VERY, VERY little HARD FACTS and a LOT OF GAPS in “knowledge” from that. This given in, we would become VERY CAUTIOUS, if someone asks to ADD to POOR FACTUAL EVIDENCE some sort of JUDGEMENT, like for instance “failure” or “success”. I said, to proceed from FACTS to INTERPRETATIONS is a PROBLEM, but this does not mean, that we as HUMAN OBSERVERS can AVOID to develop “more personal feelings and estimations” – and even sometimes HISTORICAL RESENTIMENTS, some of which ITSELF became DRIVING MOTIVES, that HEAVILY INFLUENCED the course of history, say for instance the HISTORICAL PREJUDICES elsewhere. What we know however is: Historical prejudice MORE THAN ONCE has heated up CONFLICT – and LOTS of little historians joining in with the MEN OF POWER, who were not interested in history and knowledge, but interested to FOSTER THEIR OWN AND PERSONAL POLITICAL AGENDA WHATEVER. Well, sometimes the ABSENCE of CONSCIOUSNESS, THAT THERE IS OR MIGHT BE A PHILOSOPHICAL OR ETHICAL  PROBLEM, to FABRICATE PREJUDICE of whatever sort, BECOMES ITSELF A PROBLEM. Paulus has it somewhere in the New Testament: THEY ARE BLIND LEADERS OF BLIND PEOPLE! Which in this context may be the WARNING SIGNAL for MY trials in history writing, especially that I myself  should not FORGET, that there is SOMEWHERE the “guiding principle of TRUTH”, which “somehow” is opposed to the “principle of LYING”. We normally UNDERRATE “lying”, but from my life-experience I today would tend to say: THERE IS SOME BASIC HUMAN BEHAVIOR out there, which is LYING BY PRINCIPLE or LYING BECOMING A BEHAVIOR STANDARD or HABITUS. In other words: WE REALLY HAVE REASONS, TO BECOME VERY, VERY CAUTIOUS, IF SOMEONE ASKS THE HISTORIAN BY PROFESSION, TO VOICE JUDGEMENTS AND INTERPRETATIONS! And this is the REASON for this little WORK and elaboration.


With such background I nearly was ALARMED, that the original entry in said discussion-group really went as far, as not only to PUT a QUESTION – but to HINT to a SPECIFIC “solution” of same, which was given WITHOUT ANY REASONING. The original proposal of the writer in that discussion-group was: Solon WAS “more a failure”, BECAUSE he was ACTING TOO WEAK, so to say “shying away” from DRASTIC change. The writer went as far as to “suppose”, that Solon SHOULD HAVE HAD ACTING  MORE LIKE PEISISTRATOS, who “some little bit later” became TYRANT of Athens – and giving SPECIFIC NEW IMPULSES to the community – at least OTHER impulses than Solon. To put it bold here: THE MODERN FEELING AND REASONING CANNOT EASILY EVEN UNDERSTAND, WHAT WERE THE SOLON REFORMS, and it would be a WEAK argumentation, to produce JUDGEMENTS BASED ON IGNORANCE.


THIS IS NOT OVERDOING IN ARGUMENTS – as we will see now, when I very shortly recall the KEYWORDS given in the lecture, that normally are used to TRY, to CIRCUMSCRIBE, what the SOLON-REFORMS were “exactly”.


The 4 characteristics of the Solon Reforms:

– Hectemor – basic meaning from language is the RATIO of 1/6 or one sixth – question is: 1/6 OF WHAT – mainstream position at moment tends to the following: “one sixth” MAY rely to some sort of INTEREST RATE or TAX, but in NATURAL GOODS to be delivered at end of year by LAND OWNERS – Buike-addition: may be compared with the “tenth” in Hebrew bible – or with today added value tax of one fifth – or not …

– Horos – setting “boundary stones” – Buike-addition:  that is: to set up a means, to gain CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE OF SEIZE OF LAND PROPERTY: It would be not exactly the same, if we would correlate this “setting of stones” with some sort of TODAY “LAND REFORMS” elsewhere and especially in any REVOLUTIONARY context of the European history of more recent centuries. And by the way: I once learned from German TV, that in certain regions of Germany UnTIL today there are “half-secret” societies, who not only “set boundary stones” to MARK land property, but who use certain signs, known only to the members of such societies, and implementing certain “objects” into the hole for such stones. In short: I may hint here to the possibility, that “setting boundary stones” may have NOT BEEN RESTRICTED to evaluate PHYSICAL SEIZE in SQUAREMETERS, but to use GEOMANTICAL methods and here especially drowsing – how much strange this may sound to the modern ear!

– Seisachtheia – the literal meaning of this is something near to “shaking off burdens”, here burdens from debts (Buike-addition: may be or may be not compared with the debt-regulation of SABBATICAL YEAR in Hebrew Old Testament …)

– Prohibition of any Athenian holding another Athenian as a slave – Buike-comment: At LEAST here we see something, that can be compared with our “modern revolutionary attitude”??? Well, perhaps not exactly, because Solon did not prohibit SLAVERY OF HUMANS IN GENERAL, but – so to say – changed the “direction of social agression” to OUTSIDE a defined community instead of INWARD SQUARRELS!

To these characteristics we have to add the following more “political” and “sociological” set up of Athenian society during the reign of Solon, which are in very short:

A Set up of 4 “property” classes:

A1 “Pentacosiomedimnoi = 500 “measure (“holding”, “knowing”) men  – Buike-comment: THIS IS A REAL “mystery”, because it is hinting to the PROBLEM OF THE RIGHT MEASURE, which may be seen in connection with the PROBLEM OF THE RIGHT MEASURE FOR GEODESY AND CARTOGRAPHY (see author  Manias, Thephano) and the RIGHT MEASURE FOR THE TEMPLE (see author John Michell). If we think of the Statue of SUMERIAN king GUDEA with a MODEL of a Temple and the MEASURES of same, we may assume, that the RIGHT MEASURE was related to some sort of GAINING KNOWLEDGE BY DIVINATION.  And the NEED of a “council for right measurement” becomes immedeately clear, if we say good-bye to all STATIC concepts regarding our planet and the surrounding planetarian system and – more correctly – introduce the concept, that EVERYTHING IN ASTROPHYSICS IS CONSTANT MOTION WITH NO IDENTICAL REPETITIONS AT ALL, but a LOT of SLIGHTLY “shiftings” and sometimes SINGLE CATASTROPHIC EVENTS, shaking up EVERYTHING in our astronomical neighbourhood with a RESULTING NEED for “men in the  know of the right measurements” to AFTERWARDS RE-ADJUST the measures here on planet Earth!

A2 Hippeis = men in sufficient wealth to equipe  (Buike-addition: this English word perhaps coming from “equus” = “horse”?) themselves as WARRIORS ON HORSE, themselves plus a few others, which “the the revenues from land property could bear”

A3 Zeugitae – litterally “those, bound together” or – Buike-idea:  “those going under “zeugma” – which is the ox ploughing!

A4 Thetes – the rest of “citizens” falling short of property whatever to GAIN SOCIAL UPGRADE INTO HIGHER CLASS (“social upgrade” was mentioned in the video lecture)

B Solon introduced 2 types of assembly:

B1 “council of 400”

B2 Ecclesia – a general assembly of “all citizens” -Buike-addition: with the exception however of the SLAVES, which might have been outnumbering the “citizens with voting right”.

C Solon introduced furtheron 2 LEGAL PRINCIPLES:

C1 Right of “legal intervention” – whatever that means

C2 Right to transfer a legal case, before a delivery of verdict, from magistrate to a JURY-court.

TO SUM IT UP HER BOLDLY: ALL THIS, WHAT SOLON IS ON REPORT, to have DONE and INTRODUCED,  has NOTHING to do with our MODERN UNDERSTANDING of the GOALS OF SOCIETY – even less with our modern concepts of “reform” or “revolution”.

To observe the propper CAUTION, I perhaps should add, that some substantial  COMMENTARY was ADDED BY ME and WAS NOT in the lecture of Wesleyan University! But even without MY commentary, we suddenly may become alerted, if we have WORDS – “hectemor” –  WITH UNCERTAIN MEANING , NOBODY IN 2000 years of research COULD EXPLAIN BEYOND DOUBT, and if we find RATHER STRANGE occupations – “the 500 measure men” -, and may be ANOTHER ORIENTATION of  society, at least QUITE other than would be expected today??!!!



Main Section: My trial for ANSWER, whether Solon might have been a “failure” or “success” – or “something other”

1. For me it would be the first question, what might be the meaning of the DYADE or “opposition-pair” of “success-failure”. To introduce such “pair” – the Greek language has some very old rests of a special declination for few PAIRED “things” – would introduce  a CERTAIN STRUCTURE mainly- at first –  in THINKING respectively in LANGUAGE, of which may be questionable,whether it can be appropriate in general and in special in the field of history.


2. An EXTREME POSSIBLE, nearly “Machivellian” point of view would be, to say, that NEITHER does matter, either “success” nor “failure” – provided the more conventional interpretation of Machiavelli as some sort of ZYNISM was correct.




4. Before we end in AMBIGUITY, that NOTHING can be said with FINAL CERTAINTY, which would be a sort of banality, we normally TRY at least to exclude from more sophisticated approaches to cultural activities – I perhaps may hint to a little thing, mentioned, but not commented in depth in the lecture, which is, that Solon was a POET.


5. Now we have the question: WHAT IS MEANT, IF WE FIND IN GREEK ANTIQUE CONTEXT the use of the word “POET”. Well, I may recall the following from memory:
5.1 The GREEK usage of “POET” implies the WORLD OF THE GODS and especially of the MUSES (7 or 9 muses?).
5.2 The GREEK usage of “Poet” somehow “therefor” implies something, that would come near some sort of OBSESSION or “overshadowing”, in which MORTAL HUMANS become TOOLS for EXPRESSION of something SUPER-HUMAN.


6. IF SO, if topic 5 has SOME truth in it, I now would like to TRANSFORM the question of “success-failure” to the question: WAS SOLON AUTHENTIC – IF HE EXISTED AT ALL !!!-, was he “TRUE” to the MESSAGE “from above” or failed he in CORRECT LISTENING to the message of the “muses”?


7. From such considerations we now may continue to a SPECIFIC GREEK INVENTION, which is the introduction of THEATRE and ESPECIALLY “DRAMA”, which AGAIN has a “semi-religious” connotation. And sorry, if I now may sound too much from elementary course from history of literature, from where we may remember: THE CONTACT BETWEEN THE WORLD OF THE GODS AND THE WORLD OF MORTAL HUMANS IS FOR THE HUMANS “OVERWHELMING” in some way or other and OFTEN results in DESASTROUS events, so that they were taken for the new evolving genre of DRAMA, the intention of which may not only have been to “evaluate” the FORMAL steps of “exposition”, “krisis”, “karthasis” and “apotheose”, but to introduce as some sort of “PATTERN FOR SOLUTION” the CONCEPT of UNCHANGEABLE FATE,  in which horizon humans are PUT not even asked, and DESTINY, which we may interprete as some sort of TASK or DEVELOPMENT, MORTAL HUMANS NEVERTHELESS ARE EXPECTED TO PERFORM AND EXECUTE.


8. If such argumentation given in, we may now say: FAILURE is the NORMAL FATE of HUMANS, which are SO MUCH INFERIOR to the world of the Gods: Nothing to be worth mentioning at all and especially not in writing history.  However, IF a MORTAL HUMAN strives to learn from the EXAMPLE OF THE HEROS, such TRANSFORMING himself to the SEMI-GODLIKE world of heroes, he MIGHT MEET THE DEMANDS OF HIS DESTINY. Now, if we have a hero in battle, with the DESTINY to “kill enemies”, would we have CORRECT USE OF LANGUAGE, if we would continue to a formulation similar to: “He killed everybody, which was in the span of his DESTINY and he did so INSPITE of FATE whatever – and such SUCCDED?” So to say: With such usage of language I would NOT FEEL QUITE AT EASE, because there  suddenly is something in the word “sucess”, that is near to TRAGEDY – instead of happy laughter!


9. I do not know, where I once found it, but I seem to remeber a dictum from Oscar Wilde, saying something, that there are exactly TWO DESASTERS: The first desaster is, if you do not get, what you want. The second desaster however is, if you GET, WAHT YOU WANT! And frankly, this is not meant as JOKING in STYLE, but this MAY have a “certain bearing” on our little problem at hand.


10. And by the way: I remember from the BHAGAVADGITA – it`s such a short book, so that the memory experienced no  overload -, that the DUTY OF A KASHATRIYA IS THE YOGA OF KARMA – or the YOGA OF DOING – and the MOST APPROPRIATE approach to execute this duty FLAWLESSLY the Bhagavadgita sees in NOT BEING CONCERNED about REWARDS or PUNISHMENT. (This might lead to the terrible consequence, that IN SOME ODD SENSE the FATAL EVENTS OF HISTORY MAY BE NECESSARY – and be it out of the “reason”, that “an ACTION has to BE DONE” otherwise there never would be any ACTIONS!)


11. However if topic 10 given in, I may now close with the PRINCIPLE from STOIC Philosophy of later epoches from Greek history, which reads (in Latin):
“NEC LAUDIBUS, NEC TIMORE!” – a PRAPHRASEAL and “interpreting” translation of which would be: IF YOU ONCE HAD FOUND YOUR PROPOSAL OF LIFE, NEVER DEVIATE FROM THAT, BE IT BY PRAISE AND APPLAUSE OF OTHERS OR BY CRITICS OF OTHERS! My LAST QUESTION now is: WAS SOLON SUCH STOIC IN MIND AND LIFE AND ACTION – so that he might even not become overly impressed by little students like us, who cannot quite grasp him, especially when it comes to success and failure?

-xxx- THE END -xxx-


About bbuike

- *1953 in Bremen / Germany - since decennia in Neuss / Germany - classical composer (registered since 2005) - scientific freelance writer - registered to German National Library "Deutsche Bibliothek", search "Bruno Buike", with 246 items in 2013 1996-97 - 5000 qm Rekultivierung Obstwiese mit Kleintierhaltung 2004/05 - 3 Wochen Gartenpflege in einem orthodoxen Kloster in Deutschland 2009 - 3 Wochen Katastrophenhilfe Einsturz des Kölner Stadtarchivs 2011 - journey to Przemysl/Poland - and learning of basic Polish vocabulary and reading/pronounciation 2013 University of Tokyo - Conditions of war and peace - Coursera - Certificate 2013, December - after 15 years in mainly Russian-orthodox and Greek-orthodox affairs return to Roman-Catholic church 2014 National University of Singapur, Conservatory - Write like Mozart. Introduction to classical composition - Coursera Certifikate "with distinction"
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