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  • By David B. Gosselin

The Legislation of Lycurgus and Solon by Friedrich Schiller

Mosaic of the Seven Sages, Baalbeck, Lebanon, century A.D., National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon.

To truly appreciate the nature of the Lycurgian plan, we must understand Sparta’s political situation at the time, and the conditions under which Lycurgus found Lacedaemon when he unveiled his new plan. Two kings held the same authority and simultaneously served as the heads of state; each was jealous of the other, and each was concerned with building his own following, to thus limit the authority of his rival. Their jealously had been inherited from the two previous kings, Prokles and Eurysthes, and their lineages down to Lycurgus, such that Sparta was constantly plagued by factional struggles. Each king sought to bestow more freedoms on the people to win their favor, and these gifts inspired insolence within the population, leading to insurrection. The state was rocked by chaos and vacillated between monarchy and democracy. Boundaries between the rights of people and the authority of kings had not yet been properly defined, and wealth remained in the hands of a few families. The rich tyrannized the poor, and the latter’s misery resulted in revolt.

Plagued by internal discord, the weakened state predictably fell victim to hostile neighbors, or dissolved into various smaller tyrannies. And this is how Lycurgus found Sparta: no clear distinction between the authority of kings and the people, an unequal distribution of goods and wealth, a lack of public harmony and spirit of cooperation, and complete political bankruptcy—all these were symptoms confronting the legislator, which he had to take into consideration when framing his new laws.

When the day arrived and Lycurgus planned to announce his new legislation, he had thirty of the most prominent citizens, whom he had recruited to his plan, appear in the marketplace with arms, to frighten anyone who might wish to resist. King Charilaus, fearful of these measures, sought refuge in the Temple of Minerva, since he believed Lycurgus’ plan was aimed against him. But he was prevailed upon, and finally became an active supporter of Lycurgus’ program.

The first decrees pertained to the government itself. To prevent the republic from ever being beset by similar strife between monarchical tyranny and democratic anarchy, Lycurgus created a third power between the two; he established a senate. The senators were 28 in number, or 30 together with the two kings, but should side with the people if the kings abused their power, and if, on the other hand, the power of the populace became unmoored, the senate would come to the defense of the kings. It was an excellent arrangement, whereby Sparta could avoid the previously known domestic chaos in all future ages. For, it became impossible for either party to take advantage of the other: the kings lacked the power to oppose the people and the senate, and it was impossible for the people to lash out if the senate came to the defense of the kings.

However, there was a third case which Lycurgus failed to consider: the senate abusing its own power. For, the senate could take whichever side it pleased, whether with the people or the kings, without creating a threat to the public order, but there was no way for the kings to join the people against the senate, without creating a danger to the state. So, the senate quickly began exploiting its newly established power, given the small number of people made it easy to conspire and reach agreement. As a result, Lycurgus’ successor filled this legal void by introducing the ephors, who were to keep the senate’s power in check.

But even more dangerous and daring was Lycurgus’ second innovation: to eliminate the distinction between the rich and the poor, he distributed the republic’s land in equal parts among all citizens. Laconia was divided into 30,000 fields, with the area around Sparta itself being divided into 9,000 fields, each large enough for a single family to sustain itself. Sparta became beautiful to behold, delighting Lycurgus by its sight as he travelled the country. “All of Laconia,” he declared, “is one great farm divided among brothers.”

Lycurgus would have also happily distributed the other earthly goods of the nation, just like the farmland, but insurmountable obstacles stood in his way. Therefore, he sought to attain his goal by other means, and what he couldn’t resolve by decree, he took into his own hands.

He started by outlawing all gold and silver coins. He introduced iron ones instead. Further, he gave the large and heavy iron coins a small value, which meant one needed a large place to store even a modest sum, and many horses to transport them. Lo and behold, he went even further: to dissuade anyone from placing too much value on the novel currency, and to prevent hording, on account of the iron in it, he had the smelted iron from which the coins were made tempered in vinegar, making them useless for other purposes.

Who could now wish or afford to steal, or let himself be corrupted, or even hoard wealth, given any ill-gotten gains could be neither hidden nor used for anything else?

But Lycurgus didn’t stop there. Beyond depriving citizens of the means of luxury—he removed those things which might inspire the desire for them in the first place. Sparta’s coins were useless to foreigners, and Spartans had no others to offer. Artists employed for luxury disappeared from Laconia; foreign ships no longer ventured to its ports; no wanderer sought his fortune there; merchants saw no reward in trying to exploit the population’s worldly desires, for it had nothing to offer other than giant iron coins, which were despised by all other countries. Luxury itself became extinct, for its means were eliminated.

Lycurgus also pursued his war on luxury across other fields. He decreed that all citizens had to eat together in public spaces, and that they all eat the same meals. Delicacies were outlawed in the home, nor were cooks allowed to make them. Everyone was required to contribute a portion of their funds towards communal meals. Citizens were forbidden from excusing themselves from these meals without a valid reason; the latter being so strictly enforced, that Aegis himself, one of the later kings who had returned from war victorious, had his request to dine with his wife alone denied by the ephors. One among the Spartan meals was the black soup, which became famous, that is, praised for exacting the kind of Spartan courage which seemed hardly greater than that required for war. They spiced their meals with merriment and humor. Apparently, Lycurgus himself was so fond of social humor that he placed an altar to the god of laughter in his house.

Thanks to Lycurgus’ edicts, luxurious delicacies at the dinner table disappeared, since they could not be eaten at communal meals. Gluttony vanished; vital and powerful bodies became the norm. Healthy fathers begat healthy sons. Social meals caused citizens to learn to co-exist more peacefully and see themselves as part of the same state institution, a perception that was strongly aided by an enforced equality among all citizens.

Another law decreed that the roofs of all houses had to be made using the same kind of axe, and no doors could be created other than the ones made by aid of a saw. In houses so constructed, expensive furniture became unthinkable, and required a uniformity among all households.

Lycurgus also recognized that fashioning laws for citizens was not enough. The souls of the Spartans had to be properly ordered to guarantee his constitution in perpetuity. His ultimate goal, therefore, would be to eliminate all susceptibility to foreign influences.

Thus, the most important part of his legislation became the provisions for education, which would fix the center around which all Spartan life revolved. Education was, therefore, the chief aim of the state, given the state was ultimately the product of the education.

Lycurgus’ care for children extended to their very reproduction. The bodies of virgins were hardened by exercise, ensuring that they would bear strong and healthy brood. They were made to go naked, thereby accustoming them to even the unfriendliest weather conditions. The groom would have to kidnap his wife, and he was only permitted to see her at night, if he succeeded in kidnapping her. This meant that the two remained largely strangers for the first years of marriage, keeping their love new and vital.

Jealously was banned from the very institution of marriage. Everything, including modesty, was brought under the legislator’s sphere of influence. A wife’s loyalty was sacrificed in the interest of healthy children for the state.

When the child was born, it became the state’s property. It was examined by an elder; if it were strong and healthy, it was placed in the care of a nurse; if it was weak and malformed, it was thrown into a chasm within the Taygetus mountain range.

Spartan nurses were famous throughout Greece for the tough education they gave the children. Even foreign countries made requests for them. Once a boy was seven years of age, he was taken from his nurse, and then fed, educated, and cared for in communal environments with others his age. He was trained to overcome all challenges and achieve physical mastery of all his limbs through exercise. Once they became young men, they would have hopes of making friends among adults, who were bound to them through love. The elders would attend their games, observe the development of their genius, and kindle their thirst for glory through both praise and criticism. If they wanted to eat to their fill, they had to learn to steal, and strict punishments were doled out to anyone who was caught. Lycurgus’ design was to accustom the young men to the art of deceit and intrigue, which he believed were important qualities in the art of war for which they were reared, just like physical prowess and courage. We’ve already seen how meticulous Lycurgus was about moral considerations, when it came to achieving his political aims. And one must remember that neither the profaning of marriage, nor the enticements to theft could inflict the same political damage in Sparta as it did in other states. For, since the state controlled the education of children, it was indifferent to the happiness and purity of a marriage; since Sparta placed little value on property, and virtually all earthly goods were shared in common, so the security of one’s property was not highly regarded, and an attack on it—especially when the state itself controlled it and achieved its own purposes with it—was not considered a civil offense.

Young Spartans were forbidden from adorning themselves except when they ventured into battle or undertook some other great enterprise. Then they were permitted to style their hair, adorn their garbs, and decorate their weapons. Hair, said Lycurgus, made the beautiful more beautiful, and the ugly more fearsome. Of course, it was a fine touch to associate something festive and humorous with dangerous enterprises, and to remove the sense of fear traditionally associated with them. Lycurgus went even further. Strict discipline was relaxed in war, Spartan lifestyle became freer, and transgressions were dealt with more leniently. So, war was seen as the ideal recreation for Spartans, and it was festively approached. When enemies neared, the Spartan king ordered the Catorian chant sung; soldiers formed in closed ranks, accompanied by flutes, and marched joyfully and fearlessly into battle to the sound of music.

Lycurgus’ designs also had the effect of causing attachments to property to be supplanted by attachment to the fatherland, and that emotions, no longer roused by private interests, were invested in the state. Thus, he thought it important to relieve Spartans from the business of mundane life, and to let all such affairs be handled by foreigners, so that not even work duties, nor the joys of domestic life, would draw their attention away from their service to the fatherland. Farmland and households were overseen by slaves, who garnered as much respect as cattle. They were called helots, because the first generation of slaves were originally inhabitants of Helo in Laconia, whom the Spartans had conquered and made prisoners. It was from these helots that all later slaves, whom the Spartans exploited, drew their names.

The use of these slaves by Spartans was an abomination. They were seen as mere tools, instruments used in the interest of one’s political aims. Their humanity was degraded in unthinkable ways. To dissuade Spartan youth from intemperance in drinking, the helots were forced to get drunk and humiliatingly displayed in public. They were made to sing obscene songs and dance outrageous dances; they were forbidden from dancing as free men danced. They were exploited in even more inhumane ways. The state wished to put the youth’s courage to the test, for the sake of preparing them for war through bloody games. So, the senate would periodically send a number of youths to the country; they were only allowed to take a knife and some food with them on their trip. They had to remain hidden in daytime; but at night they emerged in the streets and bludgeoned any helots they found. The practice was called cryptia, or ambush, but it’s not clear whether Lycurgus was the one to conceive of this shocking tradition. However, it was at least consistent with his approach. As Sparta became more successful in warfare, the size of the helot population significantly increased, such that they became a threat to the republic itself, and, indeed, made savagely desperate by their plights, revolted. The senate responded by passing a ghastly resolution, which it felt was sanctioned by necessity. One day, during the Peloponnesian War, two thousand of the bravest helots were summoned under the pretext of granting them freedom. They were gathered and adorned with wreathes, then ceremoniously led into the temple. They disappeared and no one ever learned of their fate. The Spartan slaves were without doubt the most unfortunate of all slaves, just as free men of Sparta were the freest of all citizens.

Released from the yoke of daily labor by the helots, Spartans spent much of their lives in indolence; the youth played wargames and the elders watched, serving as judges and distinguished audiences. It was frowned upon for older Spartan men to absent themselves from the places where youth trained. Thus, the Spartans were wed with the state and all their deeds were public deeds. Sparta’s youth ripened in public view and then matured into old age. The state was constantly on the Spartan’s mind, and he was constantly in sight of the state. He was witness to all, and all witnessed him. The lust for glory was an insatiable drive, endlessly feeding a national frenzy; the idea of the fatherland and its interests were inextricably wed with each individual’s most inner life. Other occasions spurring the Spartan frenzy were public festivals, which were numerous in spiritually and morally slothful Sparta. Warlike folksongs were sung, recounting stories of those fallen in battle for the glory of the fatherland, or they were exhortations to courageous acts. The festivals featured three choruses, which were divided by age. The elders’ chorus sang first: “Before time began, we were heroes.” The adults sang: “We are heroes today! Let him come, who would test us!” The third chorus of youth would respond: “Heroes we shall become, and our deeds shall cast yours in the shadows.”

Surveying Sparta’s legislative feats, one is left quite amazed. Among all similar institutions of the ancient world, Lycurgus’ legislation is undoubtedly the most accomplished, aside from Mosaic law, which it resembles in many ways, particularly in the principles upon which it was founded. Lycurgus’ legislation is a self-containing whole, all-encompassing, with each aspect of the law intimately wed with the others. Lycurgus could not have availed himself of better tools for his task, creating a state which stood isolated from all others, completely self-sufficient, thriving on its own internal metabolic systems and vitality. No legislator had ever so unified a state as one organic whole, with such harmony of interest, and national spirit, as Lycurgus. How did he achieve this? Through his insight into how best to direct the individual activities of the citizens, and deny them other possibilities, which may have distracted or dissuaded them.

Everything which might have kindled the passions or roused the human soul, other than the ones in service of national interest, were outlawed. Wealth and desire, science and art, had no ability to exert their charms over Sparta’s citizens. The comparison between one’s lot and fortune with others, which might have provoked envy, was dissolved and replaced by common poverty; the desire for property vanished as the means to flaunt it disappeared. As a result of a lack of knowledge concerning the arts and sciences, which clouded the Spartan mind, he spared the nation of those discerning powers which animate the constitution; this dearth of knowledge, enflamed by national pride, which all Spartans embodied, prevented Spartans from being able to discourse with other Greek people. They were branded as Spartans in the cradle, and the more they were pressured by neighboring peoples, the more they dug into their own. The fatherland was the Spartan boy’s formative theatre from the very beginning. He emerged from the Spartan womb, and was surrounded by a nation, state, and fatherland. It was the first thing impressed upon his mind, and his entire life only served to enforce this initial impression daily.

At home in Sparta, there was nothing that might arouse curiosity; his eyes had been liberated from all charms and enticements by the legislator. He only found employment, amusement, honor, and reward within the confines of the state; all his passions and desires were fixed on this unmoving centre. The state monopolized the energies and spirits of the citizens, and the spirit of each individual was reliant on the state spirit. Thus, it was no surprise that the national virtue of Sparta ultimately grew tremendously, which seems strange to us. So it was, for there could be no doubts about the republic by its citizens when faced with the question of self-preservation and the fatherland.

We can understand, therefore, how the Spartan king Leonidas, with his 300 heroes, earned the inscription on his tombstone, one of the most compelling of its kind, and a sublime monument to political virtue. “Tell, you travellers, when you are come to Sparta, that we obeyed its laws, and here are fallen.”

One is forced to concede that nothing was more pre-meditated, more meticulous in its designs, representing an accomplished art of its own kind, with its purpose fully executed, and animated by its own vital spirit. But were I to end my description of the constitution here, I would be committing a grave error. This singular and notable constitution is truly contemptible, and nothing sadder could befall humanity, than that all states be founded on this model. It will not be difficult for us to convince ourselves of this claim.

Regarding the constitution’s purpose and Lycurgus’ intent, the legislation is undoubtedly a masterpiece of both statecraft and human ingenuity. Lycurgus wanted to create a powerful state, which was founded upon itself and virtually indestructible; he strove for lasting power and longevity in the political realm, and he achieved them to the greatest extent possible based on the conditions of the day. But if we compare Lycurgus’ aims with the general aims of humanity, then a profound disappointment must supplant the enthusiasm kindled by an initial glance. Everything may be potentially sacrificed in the interest of the state, except that for which the state itself serves only as instrument. The state as such is never the purpose, but only important as the condition under which humanity’s true purpose can be allowed to fully flourish. And this purpose is none other than the full cultivation of the entirety of our human capacities. If the state’s constitution inhibits the mind’s flourishing, it becomes an object of disgust and righteous contempt, however intricate and well-executed its intention might be. Its lasting power becomes a cause for reproach, rather than celebration—it becomes merely a prolonged evil; the longer it persists, the greater the damage inflicted on humanity.

We can as a rule judge political institutions as being good and praiseworthy to the degree that they allow for the full flourishing of human beings, to the degree that they promote cultural progress and the general welfare, or at least not inhibit it. This rule applies to religious law as well as to political ones: both are detrimental to the degree that they stifle the human spirit or impose arbitrary limits and stagnation. For example, laws at one time imposed on a nation for practical purposes, which are then arbitrarily upheld, are an assault against mankind, and righteous reasons of whatever kind do not justify its continuation. They become obstacles to the Good and society’s greater purpose.

Equipped with this basic standard of judgement, we need not tarry long in our assessment of Lycurgus’ legislative plans.

A single virtue was practiced at the cost of all others: love of the fatherland.

Man’s most natural and beautiful emotions were sacrificed for one contrived sentiment.

Political merit was attained at the expense of all moral sentiments. There was no marital love in Sparta, no mother’s love, no child’s love, no friendship—there were only citizens, and only the virtue of citizenship. Spartan mothers were admired for shunning their own sons who returned from battle, mothers who rushed off to the temple to thank the gods for the fallen ones. Such unnatural strength is hardly something to wish for. A tender, loving mother is a far more beautiful phenomenon in the moral world than the heroic hermaphrodite, which rejects natural emotions to perform artificial duties.

What more beautiful spectacle could there be, than to see a hardened warrior like Gaius Marcius in his camp outside Rome, sacrificing revenge and victory to prevent his mother’s tears from flowing!

Because the state became the father of all children, the natural father disappeared. The child never learned to love his mother and father because it was torn from them at a tender age, and he never came to know his parents by their care, only through hearsay.

In an even more outrageous way, universal humanity was killed in Sparta, and the soul of all duties, respect for the species, was irretrievably lost. A state law made it compulsory for the Spartans to act inhumanely towards their slaves; in these unfortunate sacrifices, humanity was insulted and mistreated. The Spartan code itself preached the dangerous principle of viewing people as means and not as ends—thereby lawfully tearing down the foundations of Natural Law and morality. All morality was sacrificed to preserve something that only remains valuable to the extent that it serves as a means to morality.

Can anything be more contradictory, and can a contradiction have more terrible consequences than these? It was not enough that Lycurgus founded his state on the abolition of morality, he also worked against humanity’s highest purpose in another way, in that, through his finely thought-out system of governance, he kept the spirit of the Spartans at the level at which he found it and forever inhibited all change or development.

All artistic industriousness was banned from Sparta, all sciences were neglected, all trade with foreign peoples was forbidden, everything outside was excluded. This closed all channels through which more illuminated concepts might arise out of a nation; in an eternal monotony, in a sad egoism, the Spartan state forever revolved around itself.

The business of all its citizens was to preserve what they had and to remain what they were, not to promote anything new, not to rise to a higher level. Inexorable laws had to ensure that no innovation affected the clockwork of the state, and that even the progress of time did not change the form of the laws. To make this local, temporary constitution permanent, the spirit of the people had to be held firmly in the place where it stood when it was founded.

But we have seen that the development of the mind should be the goal of the state.

The state of Lycurgus could only continue on the condition that the spirit of the people stood still; it survived only to the degree that it failed to achieve the highest and only purpose of a state. What has been said in praise of Lycurgus, that Sparta would only flourish as long as it followed the letter of its law, is the worst thing that could be said of him. Precisely because it was not allowed to leave the old form of government that Lycurgus had given it without exposing itself to complete destruction, that it had to remain what it was, that it had to stand where a single man had thrown it, that was precisely why Sparta was one unhappy state—and no sadder gift could its legislator have given it than this vaunted eternal duration of a constitution which stood so much in the way of its true greatness and happiness.

If we take all this together, the superficial shine disappears, and the one outstanding aspect of the Spartan state only dazzles an inexperienced eye. We see nothing more than a ham-fisted beginner’s attempt—a first try in the youthful age of the world, which still lacked experience and clear insights to recognize the true state of things. As flawed as this first attempt was, it will and must always remain a curious case for the philosophical researcher of human history. It has always been a giant leap of the human mind to treat as a work of art what had until now been left to chance and passion. The first attempt in the most difficult of all arts was bound to be imperfect, but it will always remain valuable because it was made in the most important of all artistic domains. The sculptors began with columns of Hermes before rising to the perfect form of an Antinous, a Vatican Apollo; the legislators will continue to practice crude experiments for a long time until the happy balance of social forces finally presents itself.

The stone suffers patiently from the shaping chisel, and the strings struck by the musician respond without resistance.

The legislator alone deals with an independent, resisting substance—human freedom. He can only imperfectly fulfill the ideal that he has so clearly laid out in his imagination; but here the attempt alone is worth all praise if it is undertaken with disinterested goodwill and executed with genuine purpose.


Lycurgus’ legislation in Sparta was almost entirely the opposite of Solon’s legislation in Athens—and since the republics of Sparta and Athens are the two most prominent in Greek history, contrasting their constitutions side by side and weighing their weaknesses and advantages against each other offers us an invaluable case study.

After the death of Codrus, the royal dignity in Athens was abolished and supreme power was transferred for life to an authority who bore the name archon. In a period of more than three hundred years, thirteen such archons ruled Athens, and from this period history has left us nothing remarkable about the new republic. But the spirit of democracy, which was already characteristic of the Athenians in Homer’s time, was stirring again at the end of this period. A lifetime of archonship was to them an all too vivid image of royal dignity, and the previous archons had abused their great and lasting power. The duration of the archons was therefore set at ten years. It was a crucial step towards future freedom; for by electing a new ruler every ten years, the people renewed the act of their sovereignty; every ten years it reassumed its power in order to once again give it away as it pleased. This kept fresh in the mind what the subjects of hereditary monarchies ultimately completely forget: that it is itself the source of supreme power, that the prince is only a creature of the nation.

The Athenian people had tolerated a lifelong archon over them for 300 years, but they were already tired of ten-year archons in their seventieth year. This was natural; for during this time, it had renewed the election of archons seven times, such that it had been reminded of its sovereignty seven times. As a result, the spirit of freedom became much more active and developed much more quickly in the second period than in the first.

The seventh of the ten-year archons was also the last of this genus. The people wanted to enjoy their supreme power every year; they saw that power granted for ten years was still long enough to tempt people to abuse it. In the future, the archonship was limited to a single year, after which a new election was held. Things were taken one step further: because even short-term power in the hands of one person comes very close to monarchy, it weakened this power by dividing it among nine archons who ruled at the same time.

Three of these nine archons had advantages over the remaining six. The first, called the Eponymous Archon, presided over the assembly; his name was on the public record; the year was named after him. The second, called Basileus or King, oversaw religion and took care of worship; this had been retained from earlier times, when supervision of church services was an essential part of royal dignity. The third, Polemarch, was a leader in the war. The six remaining were called the Thesmothetes because they had to preserve the constitution and the laws, and interpret them.

The archons were elected from the most distinguished families, and it was only in later times that people from the general population also achieved this dignity. The constitution was therefore much closer to an aristocracy than to a popular government, and the latter had not gained very much from it.

The worst thing about it was that the authority’s power was broken more than ever by its distribution among several people and by its short duration. There was, therefore, a lack of a strong hand to tame the factions and keep rebellious minds in check. Powerful and daring citizens plunged the state into confusion and sought independence.

To control this unrest, they finally turned their attention to a blameless and generally feared citizen, to whom the task of improving the laws, which until now had only existed in defective traditions, was entrusted. Drako was the name of this feared citizen—a man with no feeling for humanity, who believed that human nature had no good, saw all actions only in the dark mirror of his own gloomy soul and had no mercy for the weaknesses of humanity; a bad philosopher and an even worse connoisseur of people, with a cold heart, narrow mind and inflexible in his prejudices. Such a man was excellent at executing laws; but in giving them one couldn’t make a worse choice.

Little remains of Drako’s laws, but this little describes the man and the spirit of his legislation. He punished all crimes indiscriminately with death, idleness as murder, the theft of a cabbage or a sheep as high treason and murder. When he was asked why he punished minor offenses as severely as he punished the most serious crimes, his answer was: “The smallest crimes are worthy of death; for the bigger ones I know of no other punishment than death—that’s why I have to treat both of them equally.”

Drako’s laws were a beginner’s attempt at the art of governing people. Terror was the only instrument through which they worked. He only punished evil that was committed, he did not prevent it, he did not concern himself with stopping the sources of it and improving people. To kill a man because he has committed an evil act is akin to cutting down a tree because it bore a foul fruit.

Darko’s laws were contemptible for a two-fold reason: they not only contradicted the sacred feelings and rights of humanity, but they were also not designed for the people to whom he gave them. If there were any people in the world unable to prosper through such laws, it was the Athenian people. The slaves of the Pharaohs or the King of Kings might finally have found themselves in it—but how could Athenians submit to such a yoke!

Nor did they remain in force for barely half a century, even though he gave them the immodest title of immutable laws.

Thus, Drako had fulfilled his mission very poorly, and instead of being beneficial, his laws were harmful. Because they could not be obeyed and yet no one else was immediately available to take their place, it was as if Athens had no law at all, and the saddest anarchy broke out.

The Athenian people’s condition was extremely deplorable at that time. One class of people owned everything, while the other owned nothing at all; the rich oppressed and mercilessly plundered the poorest. An unbridgeable gulf emerged between the two. Necessity forced the poorer citizens to take refuge in the rich; to the very blood hedgehogs that had sucked them dry; but they found only cruel help from them. They had to pay enormous interest on the sums they borrowed and, if they didn’t keep the deadline, had to hand over their lands to the creditors themselves. After they had nothing left to give and yet had to live, they were forced to sell their own children as slaves, and finally, when this refuge was exhausted, they borrowed against their own bodies and had to put up with their creditors to be sold as slaves. There was still no law in Attica against this abominable human trafficking, and nothing stopped the cruel greed of the rich citizens. Athens was in a dire state. If it wasn’t to collapse, the awful imbalance of goods had to be forcefully redressed.

To this end, three factions arose among the people. One, which the poor citizens particularly supported, demanded democracy, an equal distribution of land, as Lycurgus had introduced in Sparta; the other, who made up the rich, fought for the aristocracy.

The third wanted both forms of government to be linked to one another and opposed the other two, so that neither could dominate.

There was no hope of settling the dispute in a calm manner unless a man could be found to whom all three parties would equally submit to and acknowledge as universal arbiter.

Luckily, such a man was found, whose services to the Republic, his gentle, humble character and the reputation of his wisdom had long since drawn the nation’s attention. This man was Solon, of royal descent like Lycurgus, for he counted Codrus among his ancestors. Solon’s father had been a very rich man, but through charity he had weakened his fortune, and the young Solon had to take up business in his early years. Through travel, which this way of life made necessary for him, and through contact with foreign peoples, his mind was enriched, and his genius developed in his dealings with foreign sages. He devoted himself to poetry at an early age, and the skill he acquired served him very well to clothe moral truths and political rules in pleasing garbs. His heart was sensitive to joy and love; some of the weaknesses of his youth made him all the more lenient towards humanity and gave his laws the character of gentleness and mildness that so beautifully distinguishes them from the statutes of Draco and Lycurgus. He had also been a brave military leader, had acquired the Republic’s possession of the island of Salamis and had performed other important military services. At that time, the study of wisdom was not yet separated from political and military activity as it is now; the wise man was the best statesman, the most experienced general, the bravest soldier; his wisdom flowed into all the affairs of his civil life. Solon’s reputation had spread throughout Greece, and he exerted a great influence in the general affairs of the Peloponnese.

Solon was the man who was equally respected and beloved by all parties in Athens. The rich had high hopes for him because he was a wealthy man himself. The poor trusted him because he was a righteous man. The intelligent part of the Athenians wanted him to be their ruler, because monarchy seemed the surest means of suppressing factions; his relatives also wanted this, but for selfish reasons, in order to share the power with him. Solon spurned this advice: “The monarchy,” he said, “is a beautiful palace to live, but it has no exit.”

He contented himself with being appointed archon and Lawgiver, and accepted this great office reluctantly, and only out of respect for the welfare of the citizens.

His work started with the famous edict called Seisachtheia, or the Settlement, by which all debts were canceled and at the same time it would be forbidden to borrow on his own person. This edict was, of course, a violent attack on property, but the supreme need of the state made a violent step necessary. It was the lesser of two evils, for the class of people which suffered from it was far smaller than that which benefited from it.

By this benevolent edict Solon suddenly shifted the heavy burdens that had weighed down the poor middle class for centuries; but he did not make the rich miserable because he gave them what they had; he only deprived them of the means to be unjust. Nevertheless, he received as little thanks from the poor as from the rich. The poor had counted on a completely equal division of land, of which Sparta was the example, and therefore grumbled against him for having betrayed their expectations. They forgot that the legislator owes justice to the rich as well as to the poor, and that Lycurgus’ decree was not worthy of imitation precisely because it was based on an unfairness that could have been avoided.

The ingratitude of the people forced a modest complaint out of the legislator. “Once upon a time,” he said, “my praise rushed to me from all sides; now everyone is staring at me with hostile eyes.” But the beneficial consequences of his decree soon became apparent in Attica. The country that had previously been serviced by slaves was now free; the citizen now worked the field as his own property, which he had previously worked as a day laborer for his creditor. Many citizens who were sold abroad and had already begun to forget their native language saw their fatherland again as free people.

Confidence in the legislator returned. He was tasked with the reformation of the entire state and given unlimited power to dispose of the property and rights of the citizens. The first use he made of it was to abolish all the laws of Drako—except those directed against murder and adultery.

Now he took on the great work of giving the republic a new constitution.

All Athenian citizens had to submit to a census of their wealth, and according to this assessment they were divided into four classes or guilds.

The first comprised those who had an annual income of 500 measures of dry and liquid things.

The second comprised those who had 300 measures of income and could keep a horse.

The third comprised those who only had half of it, and where two people had to combine their wealth to reach this sum. For this reason, they were called the double horsed.

The fourth was made up of all those who had no land and lived solely from their manual labor, that is, craftsmen, day laborers and artists.

The first three classes could hold public offices, those from the last were excluded; but they had a vote in the National Assembly like the others, and because of this alone they enjoyed a large share in the government. All major matters were brought before the National Assembly, called the Ecclesia, and decided by it: the election of authorities, the appointment of offices, important legal matters, financial matters, and war and peace. Furthermore, since the Solonian laws were afflicted with a certain degree of obscurity, in every case where the judge had doubts about the proper interpretation of a given law, an appeal had to be made to the Ecclesia, which then decided in the final instance how the law should be interpreted. From all tribunals one could appeal to the people. Before the thirtieth year no one had access to the National Assembly; but as soon as someone was of the required age, he could no longer stay away with impunity, for Solon hated and fought against nothing so much as lukewarmness against the common nature.

Athens’s constitution was thus transformed into a complete democracy; in the strictest sense, the people were sovereign, and they ruled not merely through representatives, but in their own person and through themselves.

But the disadvantageous consequences of this arrangement soon became apparent. The people had become powerful too quickly to use this privilege with moderation; passion mingled with the public assembly, and the tumult caused by such a large crowd did not always permit mature reflections and wise decisions. To counteract this evil, Solon created a senate, to which a hundred members were taken from each of the four guilds. This senate had to discuss beforehand the points that were to be presented to the Ecclesia. Nothing that had not been previously considered by the senate could be brought before the people, but the people alone retained the decision. If a matter was brought before the people by the senate, the speakers acted to direct the election. This class of people acquired a great deal of importance in Athens and, through the abuse it made of its art and the malleable minds of the Athenians, it caused much harm to the Republic due to purely self-serving motives, which would have equally yielded great benefits had they operated in the true interest of the state and people. The orator used all the devices of eloquence to make the people accept that side of a matter to which he would like to persuade them; and if he understood his art, all hearts were in his hands. Through these speakers a gentle and permissive bondage was placed on the people. They ruled by persuasion, and their rule was no less great because it left something to free choice. The people retained complete freedom to elect or reject; but this freedom was subverted by virtue of the crafty ways in which choices were presented. It would have been an excellent institution if the function of the speakers had always remained in pure and faithful hands. But these orators soon became sophists who made their fame by making the bad good and the good bad. In the middle of Athens was a large public square, surrounded by statues of gods and heroes, called the prytaneum. The senate assembled in this place, so senators were called prytanes. A prytane was required to have a flawless character and stainless reputation. No spendthrift, no one who disrespected his father, no one who had ever been drunk even once, should consider applying for this office.

As the population in Athens subsequently increased, the initial four guilds introduced by Solon grew to ten guilds. Consequently, the number of prytanes grew from 400 to a 1000. But of these 1000 prytanes, only 500 were active annually, and even these 500 never all at once. 50 of them always ruled for five weeks, so that only ten were in office each week. So, it was completely impossible to act arbitrarily, because everyone had as many witnesses and guardians of his actions as he had colleagues in office, and the next person could always scrutinize the administration of his predecessor. Four popular assemblies were held every five weeks, not counting the extraordinary ones—an arrangement which made it quite impossible for a matter to remain undecided for long and for the progress of business to be delayed.

In addition to re-creating the senate of prytanes, Solon also restored the Areopagus to prominence, which Drako had degraded because he thought it too humane. He made it the supreme keeper and guardian of the laws, and bound the Republic to these two courts, as Plutarch says, the senate and the Areopagus, like two anchors.

The two courts were established to oversee the preservation of the state and its laws. Other tribunals handled the application of the law and the administration of justice. Four courts, the Palladium, the Delphinium, the Phreattys and Heliaea, judged murderous deeds. Solon only confirmed that the first two were already established among the kings. Unintentional acts of murder were judged in front of the Palladium. Those who confessed to murder, which was considered permissible, stood in front of the Delphinium. The Phreattys court was set up to try those who were charged with premeditated murder after they had already fled the country for voluntary manslaughter. The defendant appeared on a ship, and his judges stood on the shore. If he was innocent, he returned quietly to his place of exile, in the happy hope of being able to return home again. If he was found guilty, he returned unharmed, but he had lost his fatherland forever.

The fourth criminal court was the Heliaea, which took its name from the sun because it used to assemble immediately after sunrise and in the place where it directly shone. The Heliaea was an extraordinary commission of the other great tribunals; its members were both judges and magistrates. They not only had to apply and enforce laws, but also improve them and determine their meaning. Their assembly was solemn, and a strict oath bound them to the truth.

As soon as a death sentence had been passed, and the defendant had not evaded it through voluntary exile, he was handed over to the eleven men; this name was given to the commission, to which each of the ten guilds gave a man, which, together with the executioner, made eleven. These eleven men oversaw the prisons and carried out death sentences. The types of death for criminals in Athens were threefold: either he was thrown into a chasm, even into the sea, or he was executed with the sword, or he was given hemlock to drink.

First, the death penalty came with expulsion. This punishment is terrible in blessed lands; there are states from which it is no misfortune to be expelled. That it equated the reprimand first with the death penalty and, if it was eternal, with the latter, is a beautiful self-awareness of the Athenian people. The Athenian, who had lost his fatherland, could no longer find Athens in the rest of the world.

Banishment was associated with a confiscation of all goods, except for ostracism.

Citizens who, either through exceptional merit or luck, had achieved greater influence and prestige than was compatible with republican equality, and who therefore began to pose a threat to civil freedom, were sometimes banished before they deserved this banishment. An individual citizen was treated unfairly in the interest of the state. The idea behind this practice may have seemed praiseworthy at face value, but the practice itself demonstrated a childish policy. This type of banishment was called ostracism because the votes were written on broken pieces. Six thousand votes were necessary to inflict this punishment on a citizen. Ostracism, by its nature, was bound to affect the most deserving citizen, and so honored him more than it dishonored—but that didn’t make it any less unjust and cruel, for it took away what was dearest from the worthiest. A fourth type of punishment for criminal crimes was the punishment of the pillar. The criminal’s guilt was written on a pillar, and this made him dishonorable along with the entirety of his family.

Six tribunals were set up to decide minor civil offenses, but they never became important because the convicted person was free to appeal to the higher courts and the Ecclesia. Everyone represented his own case, with the exception of women, children and slaves. A water clock determined the duration of the accused and accuser’s arguments. The most important civil matters were decided within 24 hours.

So much for Solon’s civil and political institutions; but the legislator did not limit himself to that alone. The old legislators had an advantage over the new ones, given their laws were framed with the people which they were fashioned for in mind, taking into account the nature of social relations, customs and morality, such that the citizen was never abstracted from the human being, as he often is by us. In our country, the laws are often in direct contradiction to the customs. Among the ancients, laws and customs were in much more beautiful harmony. As a result, their political bodies have a lively warmth that ours completely lacks; the state was etched into the souls of its citizens with indestructible features.

However, one must be very wary when praising antiquity. It can be said almost universally that the intentions of the ancient legislators were wise and praiseworthy, but they lacked the means. The means often reflected incorrect concepts and a one-sided way of thinking. Where we lag too far behind, they rushed too far ahead. If our legislators were wrong in that they completely neglected moral duties and customs, the Greek legislators were wrong in that they enforced moral duties through coercive laws. Freedom of the will is the first condition for the moral beauty of actions, and this freedom is lost as soon as one tries to enforce moral virtue through legal punishments. The noblest prerogative of human nature is to determine oneself and to do good for the sake of good. No civil law may compulsorily command loyalty to one’s friend, generosity to one’s enemy, gratitude to one’s father and mother; for as soon as it does this, a free moral feeling is transformed into a work of fear, into a slavish impulse.

But to come back to our Solon.

One of Solon’s laws decreed that every citizen should regard an insult against another as an attack on his own person and should not rest until the insult was avenged. The law is excellent when one considers its intention. The intention was to instill in every citizen a compassionate warmth for all others and to accustom everyone to seeing one another as members of a coherent whole. How pleasantly surprised we would be if we came to a country where every passerby, of his own volition, protected us against insults hurled at us by strangers. But how quickly would our pleasure vanish if we were told that he had to act so beautifully.

Another of Solon’s laws declared that anyone who remained neutral in civil uprisings was dishonorable. This law was also based on an unmistakably noble intention. The legislator’s aim was to instill in its citizens the deepest interest in the state’s welfare. To him, coldness towards the fatherland was the most hateful thing in a citizen. Neutrality is often a result of this coldness; but he forgot that the most fervent interest in the fatherland often dictates this neutrality, namely, when both parties are wrong, and when the fatherland would be at an equal loss from either.

Another law outlawed speaking ill of the dead; it was another thing to speak evil to a living person in public places, such as in court, in the temple or in the theater. He absolved a bastard from filial duties, because the father, he said, had already been paid off through the sensual pleasure he enjoyed; in the same way he absolved his son from the duty of supporting his father if his father had not let him learn art. He allowed people to make wills and give away their wealth as they pleased, because the friends they choose, he said, are worth more than mere relatives. He abolished the dowry because he wanted love, and not self-interest, to create marriages. Another beautiful trait of gentleness in his character was that he gave hateful things milder names. Taxes were called contributions, crews were called guards of the city, prisons were called chambers, and the destruction of debts were called relief. The expenditure to which the Athenian spirit was so inclined, he moderated by wise decrees; strict laws guarded the customs of women, the intercourse of both sexes and the sanctity of marriage.

These laws, he decreed, should only be valid for a hundred years—how much further he saw than Lycurgus. He understood that laws are only servants of education, that nations in their adulthood require a different leadership than in their childhood. Lycurgus immortalized the infancy of the Spartans in order to perpetuate his laws among them, but his state disappeared with its laws. Solon, on the other hand, promised only a hundred-year period for his laws, yet many of them are still in force in the Roman legal code today. Time is a fair judge of all merits.

Solon has been accused of giving the people too much power, and this accusation is not unfounded. By avoiding one cliff, oligarchy, he came too close to another, anarchy—but only came close, because the senate of the prytanes and the court of the Areopagus were strong restraints on democratic power. The evils which are inseparable from a democracy, tumultuous and passionate decisions and the spirit of faction, could of course not be avoided in Athens—but these evils are due far more to the form chosen than to the essence of democracy. It was a significant mistake to allow the people to make decisions without representatives but in person directly, which, due to the size of crowds, could not take place without confusion and tumult and, because of the superior number of poor citizens, not always without bribery. Ostracism, where six thousand votes were at minimum required, allows us to imagine how stormy things may have been at such popular assemblies. But if, on the other hand, you consider how well even the meanest Athenian was familiar with the common nature, how powerful the national spirit worked in him, how much the legislator ensured that the citizen put the fatherland above all else, then you will get a better idea of ​​the political understanding of the Athenian rabble and at least be careful not to jump to conclusions about the common people here. All large assemblies always have a certain lawlessness in their wake—but all smaller ones have difficulty keeping themselves completely clean of aristocratic despotism. Finding a happy medium between the two is the most difficult problem that the coming centuries will have to solve. I always admire the spirit that inspired Solon in his legislation, the spirit of healthy and genuine statesmanship, which never lost sight of the basic principle on which all states must rest: to give oneself the laws that one should obey, and to fulfill the duties of the citizen guided by insight and love for the fatherland, not out of slavish fear of punishment, nor out of blind and weak submission to a superior will.

Exemplary of Solon’s beautiful and excellent character was his respect for human nature and the refusal to sacrifice man to the state, never sacrificing the end for the means, but letting the state serve man. Its laws were loose ribbons along which the minds of the citizens moved freely and easily in all directions and never felt that they were directing it; the laws of Lycurgus were iron shackles against which bold courage rubbed painfully, dragging the spirit down with their oppressive weight. The Athenian legislator opened all possible avenues for the genius and industry of its citizens; the Spartan legislator walled up all but one of his own—political merit. Lycurgus commanded idleness through laws; Solon punished it severely. That is why in Athens all virtues matured, all trades and arts flourished, all sinews of industry stirred; that’s why all fields of knowledge were worked on there. Where in Sparta do you find a Socrates, a Thucydides, a Sophocles and Plato? Sparta could only produce rulers and warriors—no artists, no poets, no thinkers, no cosmopolitans. Both Solon and Lycurgus were great men, both were righteous men, but how different were their effects because they started from opposite principles. Around the Athenian lawgiver stands freedom and joy, industry and abundance—all the arts and virtues, all the graces and muses assembled, looking up to him gratefully and calling him their father and creator. Around Lycurgus one sees nothing but tyranny and its terrible opposite, slavery, shaking its chains and cursing the author of its misery.

The character of an entire people is the truest imprint of its laws and therefore also the surest judge of their value or unworthiness. The Spartan’s head was narrow and his heart insensitive. He was proud and haughty towards his allies, harsh towards those he had conquered, inhumane towards his slaves and servile towards his superiors; in his negotiations he was unscrupulous and faithless, in his decisions despotic, and his greatness, his virtue itself, lacked the pleasing grace which alone wins hearts. The Athenian, on the other hand, was soft-hearted and gentle in his dealings, polite, bright in conversation, affable towards the lesser, hospitable and obliging towards the stranger. Although he loved softness and prettiness, this did not prevent him from fighting like a lion in a meeting. Clothed in purple and anointed with perfumes, he made the millions of Xerxes and the harsh Spartans tremble alike. He loved the pleasures of the table and found it difficult to resist the charms of lust; but gluttony and shameless behavior brought dishonor in Athens. Delicacy and propriety were not practiced so much by any ancient people as by this one; during a war with Philip of Macedon, the Athenians had intercepted some of the king’s letters, including one to his wife; all the rest were opened, but they sent this one back unbroken. The Athenian was generous in fortune and steadfast in adversity; – then it cost him nothing to risk everything for the fatherland. He treated his slaves humanely, and the mistreated servant was allowed to sue his tyrant. Even the animals experienced the generosity of this people. For instance, after the construction of the temple of Hekatonpedon was completed, it was decreed that all the beasts of burden used in the construction should be released and fed free of charge on the best pastures for their entire future life. One of these animals later came to work of its own free will and automatically ran ahead of the others, who were pulling loads. This sight moved the Athenians so much that they decreed that this animal should be specially maintained in the future at the expense of the state.

However, I owe it to justice not to ignore the mistakes of the Athenians, because history should not be a panegyric. This people, whom we admired for their fine morals, their gentleness, and their wisdom, not infrequently stained themselves with the most shameful ingratitude towards their greatest men, with cruelty towards their conquered enemies. Corrupted by the flattery of its orators, abusive of its freedom and made vain by so many brilliant advantages, it often oppressed its allies and neighbors with intolerable pride, and allowed itself to be guided in public deliberations by con artists, which often frustrated the efforts of its wisest statesmen and brought the state to the brink of ruin. Every single Athenian was tractable and gentle; but in public meetings he was no longer the former man. This is why Aristophanes described his countrymen as sensible old people at home and fools in meetings. The love of fame and the thirst for novelty controlled them to the point of debauchery; the Athenian often staked his fortune, his life and, not infrequently, his virtue on fame. A crown of olive branches, an inscription on a pillar proclaiming his merit, was to him a more ardent spur to great deeds than all the treasures of the great king were to the Persian. As much as the Athenian people exaggerated their ingratitude, they were also excessive in their gratitude. To be escorted home from the assembly in triumph by such a people, to entertain them for even a day, was a higher pleasure for the Athenian’s thirst for glory, and also a truer delight than a monarch could offer to his most beloved slaves; for it is quite different to move an entire proud, sensitive people than to please a single person. The Athenian had to be in constant motion; his mind was constantly searching for new impressions and new pleasures. This addiction to novelty needed new fuel every day if it was not to turn against the state itself. That is why a spectacle, organized at the right time, often preserved the public peace which was otherwise threatened by riot—that is why a usurper often won the game if he satisfied the people’s desire for amusements. But, for this very reason, woe betide the most deserving citizen if he did not understand the art of remaking himself anew each and every day, and demonstrating his merits all over again!

The evening of Solon’s life was not as cheerful as his life deserved. To avoid the intrusiveness of the Athenians, who harassed him daily with questions and suggestions, as soon as his laws were in progress, he made a journey through Asia Minor, to the islands and to Egypt, where he consulted with the wisest of his time, visited the royal court of Croesus in Lydia and that of Sais in Egypt. What is told of his meeting with Thales of Miletus and with Croesus is too well known to be repeated here. On his return to Athens, he found the state torn apart by three parties, which had as their leaders two dangerous men, Megacles and Pisistratus. Megacles made himself powerful and formidable through his wealth, Pisistratus through his political wisdom and his genius. This Pisistratus, Solon’s former favorite and the Julius Caesar of Athens, once appeared before the people’s assembly, pale, stretched out on his chariot, and spattered with the blood of a wound which he had made in his own arm. Thus, he said, my enemies have mistreated me for your sake. My life is in eternal danger unless you take action to protect it. Soon his friends, as he himself had informed them, suggested that a bodyguard should be provided for him to accompany him whenever he went out in public. Solon guessed the fraudulent nature of this proposal and opposed it zealously but fruitlessly. The proposal went through, Pisistratus was given a bodyguard, and no sooner did he find himself at its head when he took possession of the citadel of Athens. Now the blanket fell from the eyes of the people, but too late. Terror seized Athens; Megacles and his followers fled the city and left it to the usurper. Solon, who alone had not allowed himself to be deceived, was now the only one who did not lose courage; as much as he had expended his energy to restrain his fellow citizens from their haste when there was still time, he now had to fight as equally hard to revive their dwindling courage. When he found no entrance, he went home, laid his weapons in front of his front door and shouted: “Now I have done what I could, for the good of the fatherland.” When his friends asked him what gave him the courage to defy those more powerful than him, he answered: “My age gives me the courage.” He died, closing his eyes without ever seeing his fatherland free.

But Athens had not fallen into the hands of a barbarian. Pisistratus was a noble person and honored Solon’s laws. When he was subsequently twice driven out by his rival and twice became master of the city again, until he finally remained in quiet possession of his rule, he made his usurpation forgotten through true services to the state and brilliant virtues. Nobody noticed under him that Athens was no longer free, so gentle and quiet was its government, and not he, but Solon’s laws ruled. Pisistratus opened the golden age of Athens; the beautiful morning of the Greek arts dawned beneath him. When he passed away, he was mourned like father.

The work he began was continued by his sons Hipparchus and Hippias. Both brothers ruled with unity, and the same love for science inspired them. Simonides and Anacreon were already flourishing among them, and the academy was founded. Everything was rushing towards the golden age of Pericles.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

David Gosselin is a poet, researcher, and translator in Montreal, Canada. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Chain​ed Muse. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.


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