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Abstract: "Solon" and his people: afterlife of archaic political personage in late democratic Athens


This paper aims to contribute to the understanding of popular politics reflected in political discourses of fourth-century Athens. It does so by exploring two literary patterns of “Solon” and “the people”: Solon the sage and poet criticizing citizens for moral corruption within the polis, as opposed to Solon the lawgiver’s self-exile from the polis after the installation of constitution.

The criticism of greed as source of civil turmoil is a common theme for Solon and the Greek wisdom tradition (Balot, 2001). The self-banishment is also shared by the lives of other archaic lawgivers (Nagy and Noussia-Fantuzzi, 2015). This paper articulates in these patterns the vigilance against both the lawgivers and the citizens: lawgivers may interfere with constitution by abuse of power; the citizens’ greed corrupts the polis. The citizens and the lawgiver are both perceived as threat to the polis and its constitution, creating a dichotomy between the polis and its populace.

Next, this paper argues that such dichotomy is behind the ambivalent reception of archaic tyrants. Solon suffers from suspicion of tyranny for his power as lawgiver (Morgan eds., 2003). This paper demonstrates fourth-century authors’ attempts to resolve such dichotomy in two approaches: orators omit the negative elements of Solon’s presentation from Panhellenic wisdom tradition, adopting Solon solely as the utopian lawgiver of archaic Athens (Westwood, 2013); the other approach is to reinvent such dichotomy to be between the polis and the unjust tyrant. The hostility between Solon and Pisistratus in Athenaion Politeia affirms the infamous tyrant as scapegoat for all threat and corruption within the polis. Therefore, fourth-century political discourses oversimplified the relations between Solon and his people for the utopian democratic mirage of Solon the lawgiver, to serve a more fitting democratic narrative of the past.


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Issue 2 - Sherry Huang