The Rise of Athens (Part I--Theseus to Solon)

From mythology to history

The story I have to tell today, the story of the emergence of Athens, is a strange one for a historian.  What I'll be giving you is a mixture of myth and history, and there is a dagner that the myth will sound to you like history and that the history will sound to you like myth. 

The Greek historians themselves had difficulty with this material.  One writer, Hecataueus of Miletus, noted that the Greeks told many tales--and foolish ones at that.  Hecataue himself tried to separate the whate from the chaff, doing pioneering work in chronology, genealogy, and geography.  In many ways, he laid the foundation for the great work of Herodotus a generation later.  But Hecateus work is still filled with mythical and lgendary material.  He traces historical figures back to legendary figures, and even back to the gods themselves.

Plutarch, centuries later (c. AD 70) talked about the difficulty of separating truth from legend when it comes to the earliest days of Greek history.  Here are the opening paragraphs of his Life of Theseus:

Just as geographers, O Sossius Senecio,1 crowd on to the outer edges of their maps the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that "What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts," or "blind marsh," or "Scythian cold," or "frozen sea," so in the writing of my Parallel Lives, now that I have traversed those periods of time which are accessible to probable reasoning and which afford basis for a history dealing with facts, I might well say of the earlier periods: "What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity."  But after publishing my account of Lycurgus the lawgiver and Numa the king, I thought I might not unreasonably go back still farther to Romulus, now that my history had brought me near his times. And as I asked myself,

"With such a warrior" (as Aeschylus says) "who will dare to fight?"
"Whom shall I set against him? Who is competent?"

It seemed to me that I must make the founder of lovely and famous Athens the counterpart and parallel to the father of invincible and glorious Rome. 3 May I therefore succeed in purifying Fable, making her submit to reason and take on the semblance of History. But where she obstinately disdains to make herself credible, and refuses to admit any element of probability, I shall pray for kindly readers, and such as receive with indulgence the tales of antiquity.

Plutarch is right in thinking that the story of Theseus is probably the place to start the story of Athens, although the men who laid the foundation of Athenian greatness in historic times (Solon, Pisistratos, and Cleisthenes) were, if anything, greater heroes than legend makes the semi-mythical founder of Athens.

Theseus: founder of Athens?

While Theseus is traditionally called the founder of Athens, that's not quite what the legends make him.  There were kings in Athens well before his time: Theseus father was one of them.  But Athens was no great city under its earlier kings, and legend makes Theseus the one who starts Athens on the path to greatness.

According to the story, Theseus' father Aegeus was for a long time childless: a real problem, especially since Aegeus' brother had 50 kids, all of whom wanted the throne.  Aegeus goes to the Pythian oracle (Apollo's  oracle at Delphi) for advice, getting only the cryptic message, "Loose not the jutting neck of the wineskin till you have come to Athens."

On the way home, Aegeus stops at Troezen and tells the ruler (Pittheus) about the oracles strange advice.  Apparently, Pittheus somehow sees an opporunity here and aranges it so that Aegeus sleeps with his daughter Aethra and gets her pregnant.  Aegeus then continues on his journey, leaving a sword and a pair of sandles under a rock.  Should Aethra's child be able to lift the rock, he'll then be ready to make his way to Athens and take the adventure that awaits him. 

Pittheus gave out the story that Aethra's baby had been fathered on her by Poseidon, but, when Theseus grows up, he proves able to move the rock and his mother tells him the true story: time to head to Athens.

Theseus can take the easy route by see, but, wanting to emulate Heracles (his cousin), he takes the harder land route, overcoming a whole series of obstacles.  He defeats a club-wielding giant, he defeats Procrustes, he defeats a wild sow, and he defeats a highway robber who had pushed his victims off a cliff into the sea.

When he arrives at Athens, he doesn't immediately let his identify be known.  But Medea guesses who the stranger is, and convinces the paranoid Aegeus to poison the stranger.  But, as Theseus is at dinner, he pulls out his sword to cut his meat--a secret tip-off to his dad about his real identify.  The poison plot is abandoned, and Aegeus delightedly recognizes Theseus as his son and heir.

But the Athenians were in some trouble.  They had run afoul of King Minos, and had to pay a tribute: 7 young men and 7 youg women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.  Theseus volunteered to be one of the young men.  Minos daughter Aridadne falls in love with Theseus and helps him, giving him a sword and a thread.  With the sword, Theseus kills the Minotaur, and with the thread he finds his way out of the Labyrinth.  He and the captives make their way back to Athens, with Ariadne coming along for the ride.

Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and continues the voyage home.  His dad, though, had arranged a signal: white sail if Theseus is ok, black sail if Theseus is dead.  Theseus forgets to change the sail, and his despondant father commits suicide.  So Theseus arrives back home and, low and behold, he's now king.

He unifies Attica (the region around Athens), encouraging a centralization of the population in Athens itself.  He finds particular support from the poorer people of Athens. After making the changes he thinks necessary, he sets aside his kingly authority, and, from his Athenian base, he goes off on a series of adventures.  He fights with the Amazons and acquires an Amazon for his wife.  At age 50, he carries off an underage girl--Helen of Troy--who (somehow) manages to escape his clutches.  His last wife (Phaedra) falls in love with Theseus' son Hippolytus who refuses to have anything to do with his step-mother.  Phaedra then accuses Hippolytus of trying to rape her, and the furious Theseus calls up a favor from Poseidon: destroy my son.  Theseus learns the truth, but too late.

The stories suggest that Theseus toward the end of his life tried unsuccessfully to gain back the position he had relinquished, and, amid party strife, he's forced into exile and assassinated.  But his story isn't quite done.  Eventually, his bones are brought back to Athens where he is honored as a demigod.  And at the Battle of Marathon--well, supposedly Theseus in full armour could be seen in the heavens, fighting for the Athenian people. 

All of this, of course, sounds pretty much like legend, but there's probably some historical truth here.  There probably was a real Theseus.  Attica was unified at roughly the time the legends would indicate.  The stories of factional strife sound right, as does the idea of Theseus as a champion of the poor.  And likewise the story of Theseus laying down his kingly authority would explain the fact that there isn't any evidence of important kings after Theseus, nothing like the series of kings the Romans believed followed Romulus. 

As Greece goes into its dark age, kingly authority in Athens seems to have disppeared with the king's various spheres of authority divided.  Priestly authority goes to the "basileus."  Leadership in war goes to the "polemarch."  And exectuive authority goes to the "archon."  But real power is in the hands of an aristocratic council, the council of the Areopagus. 

Agricultural revolution and its consequences

During the dark ages, the Athenian economy was almost entirely based on local agriculture and the growing of grains for domestic consumption.  Wealthy families controlled much of the land.  They in turn rented it out with tenants paying 1/6 of the harvest each year to those who actually owned the land: not too bad a system.  There were some smaller farms as well where less wealthy folk might eke out an independent living.

This began to change with an agricultural revolution.  Land owners in hilly country throughout the Mediterranean found that they could make more money be getting rid of their tenants and converting the land to olive orchards and vinyards.  Small farmers began getting squeezed out too, and so the poorer people were in trouble: going into debt, losing land if they had any, and, often, sold into slavery when they couldn't pay their debts.  Also unhappy, rising families who made their money through trade.  Political power was in the hands of the old landed aristocracy--not so good for these up-and-coming businessmen.

This led to party strife in Athens, factions that came to called the parties of the hill, coast, and plain.  The hill: the poorer people.  The coast: the newly wealthy merchants:.  The plain: the old landed aristocracy.

Taking advantage of this turmoil, a man named Cylon (c. 632 BC), with the help of his father-in-law, the tyrant of Megara (one of Athens' main rivals), tried to make himself tyrant.  This attempt was thwarted largley by Meglacles and his Alcaemondid family, leaders of the "coast" party.  But Megacles went too far, executing some of Cylon's followers who, having taken refuge in a temple, should have been left alone.  Ultimately, public outrage meant exile for Megacles and the Alcmaeonids.

Further strife led to a conservative crackdown and the appointment of a "thesmothetae," a law-giver: Draco (c. 622 BC).  We still use the term draconian to describe harsh laws, and certainly Draco's laws were harsh.  One could be sold into slavery for failure to pay one's debts.  One could be sentenced to death for stealing a cabbage.  Draco did establish the Council of 400 which (later expanded) would play an important role.  He also gives the Athenians written laws which, harsh or not, tend to be better than oral laws, and poorer Athenians could appeal to the Council of the Areopagus if they felt they had been treated unjustly.  But Draco's measures are, at best, only a temporary solution to factional strife.  Athens needed more fundamental changes.

Solon (see also Plutarch's Life of Solon)

Particularly important in resolving factional strife in Athens, a man named Solon (c. 640-560 BC). 

Solon first became prominent in Athenian political affairs because of his role in the capture of Salamis.  For many years, Athens and Megara had struggled for control of this very strategically located island, with Megara maintaining the upper hand.  Athens had lost so many men fighting to control Megara that, finally, it had become illegal even to talk about another attempt to capture the island.

Solon wanted the debate to begin again, and cooked up a clever strategem.  He had his friends spread the rumor he had gone crazy--and, as proof of his craziness, he began reciting poetry.  But, when people listened, this madman's poetry turned out not to be so made.  It was a reminder of the beauty of Salamis and of the advantages contorl of this island would bring.  And, sure enough, talk about the capture of Salamis resumed again. 

Solon himself led the attempts to capture Salamis.  Plutarch gives us two versions of how he did this.  The more interesting version of the story is this:

Having sailed to Cape Colias with Peisistratus, he found all the women of the city there, performing the customary sacrifice to Demeter. He therefore sent a trusty man to Salamis, who pretended to be a deserter, and bade the Megarians, if they wished to capture the principal women of Athens, to sail to Colias with him as fast as they could. The Megarians were persuaded by him, and sent off some men in his ship.  But when Solon saw the vessel sailing back from the island, he ordered the women to withdraw, and directed those of the younger men who were still beardless, arraying themselves in the garments, head-bands, and sandals which the women had worn, and carrying concealed daggers, to sport and dance on the sea shore until the enemy had disembarked and the vessel was in their power. This being done as he directed, the Megarians were lured on by what they saw, beached their vessel, and leapt out to attack women, as they supposed, vying with one another in speed. The result was that not a man of them escaped, but all were slain, and the Athenians at once set sail and took possession of the island.

The capture of Salamis led to Solon being chosen one of the archons, and now he was in a position to initiate some fundamental changes. He made legal reforms, getting rid of the harsh penalties of Draco.  No more death for stealing a cabbage!  No more debt slavery. Those sold into slavery earlier were brought back, as were polical exiles.

Solon also made political reforms.  He divided the Athenians into groups, not based on birth, but based on income.  Each group would have appropriate rights and responsibilities.  Four groups: pentakosiomedinae, hippeis, zeugetai, and thetes.  The Wikipedia summary:

While some offices were reserved for members of the top groups, the thetes were included both in the ecclesia (the assembly) and in the helliaea (law courts).  We get the beginning her of a true (if not complete) democracy.

Solon also made economic reforms, enouraging "techne," the development of marketable skills.  Pottery-making, shield-making, etc. ended up providing thetes with an alternative to the farm jobs of ealier generations.

Some of the above (e.g., the story of the capture of Salamis) is perhaps more legend the history.  We are on much safer ground looking at Solon's poems, poems that often express his own view of what he had been able to achieve:

Poems of Solon ca. 590 B.C.

Poem 4

Athens' own people, for the sake of money, are determined to ruin this great city by their foolishness. The leaders of the common people have an unjust mind. They are bound to suffer terribly because of their outrageous behavior. For they do not know how to restrain excess or to behave properly when people are having a good time at a feast. . . .

They grow wealthy because they put their trust in unjust deeds.
. . .

They steal right and left with no respect for possessions sacred or profane. They have no respect for the awesome foundations of Justice, who is perfectly aware in her silence of what is and what has been, and who someday comes to pay back injustices.

This is a wound that inevitably comes to every city. And when it comes, the city falls into slavery. And that rouses strife and awakens slumbering War, which destroys the lovely prime of so many men. The meetings which the unrighteous love quickly destroy a fine city through the acts of the people who hate her.

These are the kind of terrible things that are occurring among the plain people. Many of the poor are being sent off to foreign lands as slaves. And there, in shameful chains they are forced to do the work of slaves.

Wrongs like this are forcing their way into every house. Doors don't lock calamity out. It jumps the wall and finds a man even if he locks himself in his bedroom.

This is what my heart tells me to tell the people of Athens: that just as bad government produces trouble for a city, good government makes things orderly and right, and lots of time it chains up the unjust. Good government makes the rough smooth. It stops excess. It stymies outrageous behavior. It kills the weeds of ruin even as they grow. It corrects corrupt judgments. It tames arrogant behavior. It puts a stop to rebellions and to the bitterness of destructive strife. Good government makes things appropriate and right in human affairs.

Fragments #5,6

I gave the ordinary people a prize that is adequate for them, neither too much nor too little.

And as for those who had power and were admired for their wealth, I made sure that nothing ugly would happen to them.

I defended both groups with a strong shield. I allowed neither group to bully the other unjustly.

The people would follow their leaders best if they were neither let completely loose nor brutally compelled. Excess gives birth to outrageous behavior when people who have no understanding get too wealthy.

 Fragments 36,37

Why did I stop before I had gotten that for which I organized the ordinary people? The Great Mother of the Olympian Gods, the dark Earth, will testify for me.

      I removed all the fixed landmarks from her; I set her free from her former slavery.
      I brought many people back to their homeland. They had been sold some justly, some unjustly. Others had gone into exile because of the demands of poverty. These people no longer spoke the Attic dialect because they had wandered so far.
      Those who suffered the shames of slavery at home in Athens, living in terror of their masters' whims I set them free, too.
      I combined might and right and carried out these policies just as I said I would.
      I also wrote laws that make justice fair for everybody successful and unsuccessful alike.

If someone other than I had gotten this power, a foolish man, a greedy man, he would not have kept the ordinary people under control.

If I had been willing to do some things to please one group and others to please another, there would have been a lot of men killed in this city. ...

As for the ordinary people, if it is right to criticize them openly, I say that they have more now than they ever dreamed of.

And as for the successful people, they should praise me and consider me their friend. For if anyone else had gotten such an office as this, he would not have controlled the ordinary people until he had churned all the milk and skimmed all the cream.

But I stood dead center in between those two hostile groups.
Later Greeks used to draw up list of the "Seven Sages" of Greece.  Different lists include different names, but Solon seems to make every one of those lists. And, much later in history, "Solon" became a nickname for a wise politician.  Sacramento, for instance, used to have a baseball teams called the Solons!

Plutarch has a long section commenting on individual laws.  Wise or not?  Well, I will leave you to discuss and decide.

Amongst his other laws, one is very peculiar and surprising, which disfranchises all who stand neuter in a sedition; for it seems he would not have any one remain insensible and regardless of the public good, and securing his private affairs, glory that he has no feeling of the distempers of his country; but at once join with the good party and those that have the right upon their side, assist and venture with them, rather than keep out of harm's way and watch who would get the better. It seems an absurd and foolish law which permits an heiress, if her lawful husband fail her, to take his nearest kinsman; yet some say this law was well contrived against those who, conscious of their own unfitness, yet, for the sake of the portion, would match with heiresses, and make use of law to put a violence upon nature; for now, since she can quit him for whom she pleases, they would either abstain from such marriages, or continue them with disgrace, and suffer for their covetousness and designed affront; it is well done, moreover, to confine her to her husband's nearest kinsman, that the children may be of the same family. Agreeable to this is the law that the bride and bridegroom shall be shut into a chamber, and eat a quince together; and that the husband of an heiress shall consort with her thrice a month; for though there be no children, yet it is an honour and due affection which an husband ought to pay to a virtuous, chaste wife; it takes off all petty differences, and will not permit their little quarrels to proceed to a rupture.

In all other marriages he forbade dowries to be given; the wife was to have three suits of clothes, a little inconsiderable household stuff, and that was all; for he would not have marriages contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children. When the mother of Dionysius desired him to marry her to one of his citizens, "Indeed," said he, "by my tyranny I have broken my country's laws, but cannot put a violence upon those of nature by an unseasonable marriage." Such disorder is never to be suffered in a commonwealth, nor such unseasonable and unloving and unperforming marriages, which attain no due end or fruit; any provident governor or lawgiver might say to an old man that takes a young wife what is said to Philoctetes in the tragedy-

"Truly, in a fit state thou to marry! and if he find a young man, with a rich and elderly wife, growing fat in his place, like the partridges, remove him to a young woman of proper age. And of this enough.

Another commendable law of Solon's is that which forbids men to speak evil of the dead; for it is pious to think the deceased sacred, and just, not to meddle with those that are gone, and politic, to prevent the perpetuity of discord. He likewise forbade them to speak evil of the living in the temples, the courts of justice, the public offices, or at the games, or else to pay three drachmas to the person, and two to the public. For never to be able to control passion shows a weak nature and ill-breeding; and always to moderate it is very hard, and to some impossible. And laws must look to possibilities, if the maker designs to punish few in order to their amendment, and not many to no purpose.

He is likewise much commended for his law concerning wills; before him none could be made, but all the wealth and estate of the deceased belonged to his family; but he by permitting them, if they had no children to bestow it on whom they pleased, showed that he esteemed friendship a stronger tie than kindred, affection than necessity; and made every man's estate truly his own. Yet he allowed not all sorts of legacies, but those only which were not extorted by the frenzy of a disease, charms, imprisonment, force, or the persuasions of a wife; with good reason thinking that being seduced into wrong was as bad as being forced, and that between deceit and necessity, flattery and compulsion, there was little difference, since both may equally suspend the exercise of reason.

He regulated the walks, feasts, and mourning of the women and took away everything that was either unbecoming or immodest; when they walked abroad, no more than three articles of dress were allowed them; an obol's worth of meat and drink; and no basket above a cubit high; and at night they were not to go about unless in a chariot with a torch before them. Mourners tearing themselves to raise pity, and set wailings, and at one man's funeral to lament for another, he forbade. To offer an ox at the grave was not permitted, nor to bury above three pieces of dress with the body, or visit the tombs of any besides their own family, unless at the very funeral; most of which are likewise forbidden by our laws, but this is further added in ours, that those that are convicted of extravagance in their mournings are to be punished as soft and effeminate by the censors of women.