Theories on the Birthplace of Solon
Diogenes Laertius and Diodorus Siculus present evidence that Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, was actually from Salamis.
Solon's Salaminian Descent
by Michael Bakaoukas M.Sc., Ph.D. University of Piraeus, Greece
"I am herald come from Salamis the fair,
My news from thence my verses shall declare"
It is not widely known that, according to reliable ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), as well as according to anecdotist Diogenes Laertius (3rd century AD), "Solon's homeland is Salamis" (Diogenes Laertius, 46). The philological research (given the lack of archaeological findings) has not thoroughly examined this issue, and as a result there is no exact appreciation of the extent to which Solon's Salaminian descent has a historical basis. Indicative of this situation is the fact that from 1924 to at least 1996 no specific study on Solon's potential Salaminian descent was carried out. Nevertheless, as Solon is not present to defend his descent, it is only fair not to consider his Athenian origin as a fact and let the earliest and most reliable sources reveal his Athenian or Salaminian descent.
The earliest of the testimonies supportive of Solon's Athenian descent is that of Herodotus (5th century BC), who seems to consider Solon an Athenian, because he legislated for the Athenians (I 29) and was a fellow-citizen of Tellus the Athenian in the 6th century BC (I 30). Herodotus' source was Hecataeus of Miletus (6th century BC), who wrote a non-extant book about the earliest history of Greece. This book (called Genealogiai or Historiai) was a mythical heroic genealogy, where Hecataeus treated the myths of Hercules, Deucalion and their offspring, as well as the heroic divine clans. It can be logically assumed that it is possible that, in a mythical heroic genealogy like that of Hecataeus, only the mythical heroic descent of Solon -- and not his real birthplace -- would be stated. In other words, according to the mythical heroic genealogy, Solon simply belongs to the heroic Athenian clan of the Codrides. So, it is possible that Herodotus contented him self with the mythical genealogical information provided by Hecataeus, according to which Solon was an Athenian. In this case, Herodotus refers to the mythical, not the historical descent of Solon. This is underpinned by the fact that Herodotus collected in general oral Athenian traditions, which are far from being the most reliable and safe information source. Therefore, we must be cautious about Herodotus' testimony.
The par excellence biographer of Solon, Plutarch, who intends to provide us with such details, does not categorically call Solon Athenian. Genealogising Solon at the beginning of his biography (Solon, I 7), he mentions that his father was Execestides and that he belonged to the lineage of the last king of Athens, Codrus. In other words, Plutarch, just like Herodotus, depends on oral Athenian tradition. He implicitly --and not explicitly -- calls Solon Athenian, for the sole reason that he was a fellow-citizen of Tellus and belonged to the Athenian clan of the Codrides (I 7, 27-28). In any case, it must be noted that an ancient Greek belonging to the clan of the Codrides could very well have been born in Salamis, which, after all, is located close to Athens. This possibility cannot in any way be ruled out. Moreover, there is a historical precedent. Tragic dramatist Euripides was born in Salamis, although his parents belonged -- as is known -- to the ancient Athenian municipality of Flia (modern-day Chalandri) and he was an Athenian citizen himself, just like Solon.
The above-mentioned testimonies and sources can lead us to the logical conclusion that Solon's genealogy, even though Athenian by tradition, cannot exclude, once and for all, the possibility of Solon having been born in Salamis. Actually, this possibility is further reinforced by the fact that there are ancient testimonies certifying such descent.
As maintained by historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) (Historical Library, IX, 1, 1) "Solon is a Salaminian" (Historical Library, IX, 1, 1). It is logically possible that Solon had been born in Salamis, and had lived and been active in Athens, just like Euripides. Under this logic, Solon is, as Diogenes Laertius calls him (Solon, 47), "Atticos," i.e. an Athenian citizen speaking the Attic dialect but coming from (or living in) the countryside, unlike the Athenians. Consequently, Solon could be Athenian and Salaminian. Nonetheless, besides Diodorus Siculus, the Salaminian tradition that wants Solon to be a Salaminian is also corroborated by Diogenes Laertius (Á 45) according to whom "Solon was from Salamis and his father was Execestides."
The question is whether this ancient tradition has a logical historical basis. It is most probable that it does have a historical basis, for only if it had been his homeland, would Solon have risked his life for Salamis. Indeed, according to Diogenes Laertius, that is exactly what he did, when like a Salaminian messenger encouraged the Athenians to fight for his homeland, Salamis, which in the 6th century BC was under Megarian rule (Diogenes Laertius, 46). As is known, the Athenians had been so devastated by the war that they had voted a law under which anyone who would talk of war against the Megarians would be sentenced to death. However, Solon, feigning madness, dared to encourage them to wage war against the Megarians one more time with some elegiac lines (Diogenes Laertius, 47)
These elegiac lines are revealing of Solon's native land. Solon says that, as the Athenians will relinquish Salamis, he would rather have been born in Folegandros or Sicinos. The choice of islands as hypothetical birthplaces is not accidental. It means that Solon, as an Athenian citizen (Atticos, Diogenes Laertius, 47), does not come from the islands of Folegandros or Sicinos, but from another island, namely Salamis. Otherwise, he would not have chosen an island as a hypothetical homeland. The meaning of his words is that he did not want to be called a traitor of his native land, Salamis (Salaminaphetes Diogenes Laertius, 47). For patriotic reasons, therefore, he risks his own life. Any other interpretation equates Solon with infamous belligerent demagogue Cleon, who had no hesitation in drenching Athens in blood for his own political interests.
In addition, there are other indirect testimonies that point towards Solon's Salaminian descent by connecting him with the island. Diogenes Laertius' testimony says that Solon died in Cyprus and then, following his wishes, his family transferred his bones to Salamis; there they were incinerated and his ashes were dispersed across Ajax's island (Diogenes Laertius, 62, 63). The fact that Solon had told his family that he wished to be buried in Salamis bears outs his Salaminian origin. This is clear, since most Greeks, even nowadays, wish to be buried at their homelands.
The dispersal of Solon's ashes in Salamis, according to Plutarch (XXXII, 16-20), is mentioned by other remarkable men like Aristotle. The most important amongst them is the Athenian comedian Cratinus (5th century BC). In his non-extant comedy Cheirones, he has Solon say the following: "I live in this island, scattered, according to tradition, across Ajax's country" (Diogenes Laertius 62). Cratinus' testimony is one of the most reliable, for it is one of the earliest. Cratinus was a carrier of Athenian tradition, therefore his testimony, which directly links Solon to Salamis, cannot easily be called into question. All the more so because we know that Cratinus had specifically dealt with Solon (Plutarch, ××V 6-8).
Furthermore, the genuineness of the aforementioned Salaminian tradition is supported by the famous hellenist G. Grote as follows:
"There prevailed a story that his [sc Solon's] ashes were collected and scattered around the island of Salamis, which Plutarch treats as absurd -- though he tells us at the same time that it was believed both by Aristotle and many others considerable men. It is at least as ancient as the poet Kratinus, who alluded to it in one of his comedies, and I do not feel inclined to reject it. The inscription on the statue of Solon at Athens described him as Salaminian" (G. Grote, A History of Greece from the time of Solon to 403 BC, London, 1907, 44)
The genuineness of the Salaminian tradition shows us that Solon's genealogy is Salaminian. That is, as shown, there is not any strong evidence that this tradition should not be accepted. Gross departures from the historical tradition must only be accepted when the evidence for them is extremely strong. This, in fact, is a universal principle of historiography. Without it history would be impossible.
University of Peiraeus, Greece
This article is an abridgement of the following papers:
- Michael Bakaoukas, "SOLON EXECESTIDOU SALAMINIOS", Archaeological-Philological Journal Eptakyklos, Athens (www.eptakyklos.gr), 4 (1996), 7-19 (in Greek),
- Michael Bakaoukas, "Was Solon, the Athenian Legislator Salaminian?", Istoria Illustrated, Athens (www.istoria.gr), 374 (1999), 46-53 (in Greek),
- Michael Bakaoukas, "Understanding Ancient Greek Biographies, or Solon's Forgotten Descent," POMOERIUM Studia et commentarii ad orbem classicum spectantia, Bochum (www.pomoerium.com), VOLS. 4-5, 2002, and
- "Solon's Forgotten" Genealogy Electronic Antiquity Vol. 6, Number 1.
The URL for this page is http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/uc_bakaoukas1a.htm