On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Solon

Solon was a native of Salamis located off the coast of Athens (midway between Megara and Athens) in the Aegean. He was the first to introduce the “shaking off of burdens” (seisachtheia) debt reduction program when he came to Athens, a political policy which aided the many landless serfs to have their debts forgiven and gain a measure of security. It was a progressive program by today’s standards which sought to bring unity to a bitterly civil war-ridden polis.

Diogenes Laertius does not enumerate Solon’s many laws because there were simply too many and they were all inscribed on revolving wooden tablets (called “axones by Plutarch in his biography of Solon). However some of them concerned support for parents, customs against idleness, though there are some disputes about which laws were crafted by Draco or Solon (Draco was a much earlier Athenian legislator known for his “draconian” legal reforms which composed the first written code of laws for Athens. Many of his laws commanded the death penalty).

Solon was a great rouser of the demos during an ongoing Athenian conflict with the Megarians over the territory of Salamis. When victory was won Solon was offered the chance to rule as the tyrant of Athens but he declined only for Pisistratus to take command of Athens and undo many of Solon’s noble reforms. Solon tried to warn his fellow countrymen of Pisistratus’s ambitions but it was too late.

Solon died at the age of eighty on Cyprus and has his cremated remains scattered across the island of Salamis. Some say he was originator of the phrase: “Nothing in excess, to all good things their proper season” (1.24 and 1.63). In the Lives Diogenes Laertius relays several letters attributed to Solon.


For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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