Solon of Athens: The Man, the Myth, the Tyrant?

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Ancient History
Agrarian Reform
Archaic Greece
Ancient History, Greek and Roman through Late Antiquity
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I argue that, despite Solon's reputation as an enemy of tyranny, his approach to solving the political discord in Athens in 594 B.C. very closely resembles the way that archaic Greek tyrants succeeded at dealing with similar problems in other city-states. Because tyrants were often popular figures with widespread support, I suggest that Solon's anxiety to avoid the label of tyrant stemmed from the political unrest and bloodshed that arose from the attempted tyranny of Cylon in 632 BC, followed by the harsh and unsuccessful legislation of Drakon in 621. In the dissertation, I first establish that there are two traditions about Solon's motives and actions, indicated by many contradictions in our sources. In one version, Solon appears as a moderate politician who paved the way for the rise of democracy, in part because of his refusal to become a tyrant. In the other, Solon's actions were at times indistinguishable from those of contemporary tyrants, which later sources explain by referring to Solon's assertions in his own poetry to "prove" that these stories were false. I then analyze Solon's poetry, noting that Solon both linguistically distances himself from the concept of tyranny and emphasizes that he does, in fact, possess autocratic powers. The result is a kind of verbal dance, wherein he reminds people: "I am not, nor do1 I wish to be a tyrant; but I could be, and if I were...." Finally, I examine various tyrants who, like Solon, had reputations as legislators. I consider Solon's agricultural reforms, known as the seisachtheia, concentrating in particular on the abolition of debt-slavery, the cancellation of debt, and Solon's refusal to redistribute land. I find that debt cancellation in particular is one of the most common measures used by tyrants as a means of gathering political support from the demos. I also proffer the notion that doing away with debt-slavery may have done more damage than good, concluding that, despite his protests to the contrary, Solon was a tyrant in all but name.

Jeremy McInerney
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