Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 3a Solon

Gerard van Honthorst (1592–1656), Solon and Croesus (1624), media and dimensions not known, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch’s third pair of biographies are a good example of the influence that they had over art: dealing with Solon and Publicola, unless you are a classical scholar, you are unlikely to have ever come across their subjects. Yet there are significant numbers of surviving paintings which are based on these accounts in Plutarch’s Lives, demonstrating their influence in the history of art.

Solon was a key figure in the development of classical Greek civilisation, most significant for laying down the tables of law for Athens, and most famous for his perhaps legendary involvement with Croesus, the fabulously rich king whose name endures in English and other languages in the phrase as rich as Croesus.

Solon did not set out to be a statesman, but began his career in commerce, which brought him to travel. In the course of this, he started to write poetry and to take a more philosophical view on life. He met and banqueted with other influential figures of the day, including Periander, Thales of Miletus, and Anacharsis.

When the Athenians had become disenchanted with a war they had been fighting against Megaria over the island of Salamis, they made a law prohibiting future claims over the island. But this did not put a stop to younger Athenians wanting to resume the war. Solon wrote an elegiac poem about this, which he sang in the marketplace. This brought about repeal of the law, and Solon was put in command of Athenian forces which resumed the war over Salamis.

Solon then used ingenuity and deception to capture Salamis: he sent an agent who pretended to be an Athenian deserter to the island, to invite the Megarians to sail to Colias immediately to capture the principal women of Athens. He then dressed his soldiers up as women, to await the Megarians. When they arrived, the Athenians drew their weapons and killed all the Megarians, so allowing the Athenians to capture Salamis unopposed.

With this and other acts, Solon grew famous and powerful. He then became the senior statesman of Athens when the city was divided between three factions, which disputed the very form of government, and all the common people were trapped in debt to the rich, driving many into slavery, to sell their own children, or go into exile. Only Solon was sufficiently independent of the factions to be trusted to lead the government, but he refused to become its dictator.

Solon’s first public act was to discharge all existing debts, and to ban all future loans from being made against the person of the borrower. He also reformed the currency by devaluing it, but stopped short of redistributing property in the way that Lycurgus had in Sparta.

This proved successful, and Solon was asked to reform the constitution and the city-state’s laws and institutions.

He next repealed many of the more severe laws which had been made by Draco (‘draconian laws’), which had assigned the penalty of death to almost every crime, including common theft.

Solon established a system of taxation and representation according to wealth. Although this gave the richest access to office as magistrates, he gave the common people the right to be members of the assembly, and most importantly to act as jurors in popular courts. This ensured their access to what they considered justice, and provided the city with two councils, the Areiopagus consisting of those who had held office as archons, and a second council chosen from the four tribes making up the ordinary citizens.

Plutarch provides many insights into the details of Solon’s tables of law. These included an elaborate marriage code, laws on wills and mourning, and much else. They forbade speaking ill of the dead, and prevented women from wearing more than three garments or carrying more than “an obol’s worth” of food or drink.

Some of Solon’s laws were, though, plainly absurd. They allowed an adulterer who was caught in the act to be killed, but the penalty for rape of a free woman was a fine of only a hundred drachmas, reduced to twenty if he used persuasion. While the selling of a daughter or sister was banned, it was still permitted if she was no longer a virgin.

Master of the al-Mubashshir Manuscripts, Solon and Pupils (c 1200-1250), in the al-Mubashshir Manuscripts, colour on paper, 10.2 x 17.8 cm, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey. Wikimedia Commons.

Solon’s reputation may now have vanished, but for many centuries he was known well beyond the shores of Greece. This painting of Solon and Pupils, made in around 1200-1250, appears in the al-Mubashshir Manuscripts, which reflect thought in the Arab-Muslim world in around 1050.

Justus van Gent (fl 1460–1480) and Pedro Berruguete (1450–1504), Solon (c 1476), oil on panel, 95 x 58 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

He was also known well in the Renaissance, being ‘modernised’ in this portrait by Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete from about 1476.

Solon’s tables of law were inscribed on revolving wooden tablets, and set to last for a period of a hundred years. He then left Athens to travel for ten years, and visited Egypt, Cyprus, and Sardis (in what is now Turkey). When he was in that last city he is claimed to have met King Croesus of Lydia, which Plutarch accepts may be contradicted on chronological grounds, but stories of that meeting are so well-known that he doesn’t deny them.

By this time, Solon himself lived in luxury. But as he met a succession of the king’s court, he mistook each in turn for the king himself, until finally he saw Croesus wearing many precious stones in a spectacularly extravagant manner. At this, Solon made it clear that he despised such a vulgar display of riches. Croesus responded by throwing open his treasure chambers. When Solon had been taken around those, Croesus asked him if he had ever known a happier man than he. Solon replied that a friend of his, Tellus, had been happier, living an honest life and serving his country well.

Croesus thought Solon strange and uncouth, for not considering his riches to be a measure of his happiness, and asked Solon if he knew of any man more fortunate than he. When Solon responded with another example of modesty, Croesus became angry, and asked whether Solon thought that he was happy at all.

Solon did not want to deliberately flatter the king, so replied by extolling the virtues of moderation, and condemning becoming puffed up by one’s possessions. Plutarch’s account ends with the warning: “to pronounce any one happy, however, while he is still living and running the risks of life, is like proclaiming an athlete victorious and crowning him while he is still contending for the prize; the verdict is insecure and without authority.”

This story has proved popular in paintings, mostly during the seventeenth century.

Gerard van Honthorst (1592–1656), Solon and Croesus (1624), media and dimensions not known, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Gerard van Honthorst’s painting of Solon and Croesus from 1624 shows the elderly Greek statesman getting a hostile reception from Croesus, with his court laughing at his responses. Included are two slaves supplicating themselves before the king, in an interesting condemnation of slavery for its time.

Gaspar van den Hoecke (fl 1603–1641), Croesus Showing his Treasures to Solon (c 1635), oil on canvas, 131.5 × 191 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Gaspar van den Hoecke’s Croesus Showing his Treasures to Solon is one of several very similar paintings made in about 1635, presumably from a common source; others attributed to Cornelis de Vos and Frans Francken II survive. Here Croesus is showing Solon one of his treasure chambers. Troops in the background may refer to Croesus’ imminent fate at the hands of Cyrus and his Persian forces.

Claude Vignon (1593–1670) and workshop, Croesus Showing Solon his Treasures (c 1635), oil on canvas, 143.8 x 100.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Vignon’s Croesus Showing Solon his Treasures from about 1635 shows a similar scene.

Nikolaus Knüpfer (1609–??), Solon Before Croesus (c 1650-52), oil on panel, dimensions not known, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Image by Wmpearl, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nikolaus Knüpfer’s Solon Before Croesus of 1650-52 places less emphasis on the riches of the king, instead showing the two men locked in debate.

As a result of their meeting, Croesus lost his respect for Solon. But later, when Croesus had lost his kingdom to Cyrus and his Persians in battle, the tables were turned. As the former king was about to be burned to death, he apparently called out for Solon, finally accepting his wisdom. For this, Cyrus not only spared the life of Croesus, but held him in honour.

While Solon had been away from Athens, the citizens had again become divided into factions. Although they still observed Solon’s tables of law, they wanted revolution and a change of government. With his advancing years, Solon no longer had the strength to lead in public, but tried to bring harmony among the leaders of the factions in private meetings.

The leader of one of the factions, Peisistratus, inflicted a wound on himself and claimed that it had been caused by his enemies. Solon exposed his deception, and opposed granting that leader a personal bodyguard. When that was permitted by decree, it allowed Peisistratus to use those men to seize the Acropolis, bring chaos to the city, and make Peisistratus its dictator.

Solon remained openly critical of Peisistratus, and his friends warned him that his life was in danger. Peisistratus then showed respect to Solon, who gave counsel to the new leader and ensured that his tables of law were maintained. Some years later, Solon died, but his laws lived on.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Solon, the Wise Lawgiver of Athens (1914), plate in ‘The Story of Greece’ by Mary Macgregor, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

It is less than a century since the story of Solon was taught extensively in schools across the West. Walter Crane’s admittedly generic illustration of Solon, the Wise Lawgiver of Athens was published in 1914, in a book which was popular for the learning of Classics – a subject which has disappeared from most modern educational systems.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.