Home » Atlantis: the debrief » Dating Solon


Written by Graham | Created: Saturday 19th September 2020 @ 2328hrs

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Requesting information of the date of the career of the Athenian lawgiver Solon and its implications for the identity of the Critias who narrates the Atlantis tale.

Present: Interrogator (Second Class) Корень, interrogating, and Agent Г.


It seems from our previous session that you are of the opinion that the Critias who speaks in the dialogues concerning Atlantis is to be identified with the man who led the government of Athens in 404 and 403 BC...
That is correct.
... and also that this is in opposition to the theory which holds that the narrator was that man's grandfather.
I also note that, as you present it, the major factor in favour of the latter hypothesis is the dating of Solon to the 590s.
What do you base this assumption on?
In the main, it is based on the work of the German Classicist Detlev Fehling. Fehling, in his work on the "Seven Wise Men" of ancient Greece, suggests that the early date for Solon is mainly based on the Athenian Constitution, a work written by Aristotle (or one of his followers) towards the end of the 4th century BC.
The Athenian Constitution places lawgiving 31 years before Pisistratus became tyrant (note that Solon was still apparently active at this time according to the Athenian Constitution). Pisistratus was in and out of power for a period of 33 years, being succeeded after his death by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. They held power for another 16 or so years, meaning the family of Pisistratus was active during 49 years. Three years after the overthrow of the tyrrany, Cleisthenes began his reforms, some 18 years before the battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
Some fine-tuning of these data and we arrive at T.J. Cadoux's date of 594/3 for the date of Solon's supposed archonship (with Dropides succeeding him in office in 593/2).
While Fehling concludes that the earlier dating originated with Aristotle and his followers, this dating range is (according to modern scholars) apparently backed up by an official archon list, published in around 425 BC, of which several fragments remain, and which is considered a major source for the chronology of the Athenian Constitution.
This seems pretty solid to me.
Indeed, given the authority of Aristotle and the publication of an official list, it seems clear cut. But there is a big problem.
And what might that be?
Well, our earliest major source for Solon's career dates from about the same time as the official list of archons. This source is Herodotus' Histories.
Ah yes, Herodotus. The "father of lies."
I'm not here to assess Herodotus' work as a historian (and though people who believe in Atlantis ought to remember that Herodotus was setting out to write history, not philosophy like Plato). I merely wish to recount what he has to say about Solon...
... and what he says about Solon doesn't tally with him living quite so early as Aristotle and his modern debtors would have us believe.
Please continue.
All right. The major part of Solon's career covered by Herodotus is his lawgiving and subsequent decade-long voluntary exile from Athens, during which he is said to have travelled to a number of places, including Egypt, Cyprus and the kingdom of Lydia in what is now western Turkey.
During the course of these journeys, Solon was entertained at the courts of the pharaoh Amasis, the wealthy Lydian king Croesus and the Cypriot Philocyprus.
Of these men, Amasis seized power in about 570 BC, with Croesus' reign beginning about a decade later. As for Philocyprus, his son Aristocyprus was active during the Ionian Revolt, during which he fell in battle in about 497 BC, suggesting his salad days were in the middle of the 5th century or thereabouts.
At this point, it is well worth noting what Plutarch - who more than anyone contributed to the negative opinion of Herodotus you have - had to say about the association between Solon and Croesus: -

As for his interview with Croesus, some think to prove by chronology that it is fictitious. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, and is so worthy of his magnanimity and wisdom, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement.
- Plutarch, Parallel Lives, s.v. "The Life of Solon" [27.1].

Anyway, considering that Solon was supposedly back in Athens from about 584 onwards, something is clearly awry with the chronology.
Plutarch appears to lay the blame for this at the hands of the "thousands" who participated in the development and revision of the chronology, a process which started around the same time Herodotus was writing, as seen in the works of man like Hippias of Elis (who produced a list of Olympic victors) and Hellanicus of Lesbos (who made use of a list of priestesses of Hera at Argos as a basis for reckoning relative dates), as well as the anonymous compilers of the Athenian list of archons.
I should also note that Herodotus also suggests that some of Solon's legislation was adapted from Egyptian law which he learned about during his time in that country, which would place the lawgiving after 570!
Surely only if this had anything to do with this Amasis fellow.
Well, according to Herodotus [2.177], the Egyptian original was an edict of Amasis.
Well, that's awkward. Herodotus doesn't seem to know whether Solon's trip to Egypt was before or after the lawgiving. Perhaps it was merely an invention, and Solon never set foot in that country.
Perhaps it was. After all, Egypt remained an object of fascination to the ancient Greeks, who would be keen to have important Greeks of days gone by visit the land of the pharaohs, following in the footsteps of the likes of Perseus, Heracles and Menelaus.
But... if there's no trip to Egypt, there's no opportunity for Solon to learn about Atlantis.
Very true. But how can we tell if Plato thought that Solon was a figure from the 590s or some decades later?
We can't. There's very little in Plato to suggest a concrete dating for Solon, or indeed any special interest in exact chronologies. But we can make an educated guess based on the work of one of Plato's students.
Really? And who might this be?
This student was a man from Pontus in Anatolia, of Greek stock, named Heraclides. Heraclides left such an impression during his time at Plato's school, the Academy, that, according to the much later Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda, Plato left him in charge while he left for Sicily at about the time when he was writing the Timaeus and Critias.
Slightly later, the earlier date for Solon was bolstered by one Phaenias of Eresus on the island of Lesbos, a man with close ties to Aristotle's school, the Lycaeum, who placed Solon's death during the archonship of Hegesias, the year after Pisistratus first assumed power.
Heraclides, on the other hand, dated Solon considerably later.
Your evidence?
Well, Molly Miller, who worked on trying to find a solution to these discrepancies, highlighted a number of statements from later authors about Solon's career which she traced back (with varying degrees of confidence) to Heraclides: -
  • The mothers of Solon and Pisistratus were cousins and Solon was Pisistratus' erastês (an ancient Greek term which means an older man who was both lover and mentor of an adolescent). Pisistratus may have played a role in Solon's famous campaign on the island of Salamis (and the Athenian Constitution confirms that Pisistratus, like Solon, campaigned against Megara, who were Athens' opponents on Salamis).

  • Pisistratus used Solon as an example during the earlier part of his rule (which was actually something of a golden age in Athens, belying the later characterisation of the tyrants of the period). Heraclides may also have said that Solon advised Pisistratus when he was asked to do so.

  • Solon did not die a year after Pisistratus took power as Phaenias would have us believe, but lived for a considerable period afterwards. Heraclides may even have suggested that Solon survived to meet Thespis, whose akmê (most productive period) was between 536 and 532 BC.

Given these data, transmitted as they were from Heraclides, a close associate of Plato, I would aver that it is not too great a stretch to suppose that these were well known at the Academy, perhaps even something like an "official position" on the matter.
Thus, the identification of the Critias of the dialogues with the late-5th century figure seems reasonable.
You make a very good case. It is a shame that Plato didn't explicitly say as much.
That is true. Plato, as I said before, gives no precise chronology for Solon.
There is, however, an interesting reference in the Charmides to the family of Critias the son of Dropides being praised by Solon and Anacreon [157e], the latter being a poet who was in Athens during the last part of the 6th and early part of the 5th century, with Socrates flatteringly adding that the family's abilities marked them out as heirs to Solon [155a]. A scholar's note on Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound adds that Anacreon went to Athens out of love for a certain Critias, and a poem attributed to a man by the same name extols the virtues of Anacreon.
Ah, but was this Critias II or Critias III?
Good question. Now, if Critias IV was winning at the Isthmian and Nemean Games in 438 BC, one can imagine that he was born about 465-460. Given that, in the Timaeus, he makes himself about eighty years younger than his grandfather and namesake, this grandfather would have been born between, say, 545 and 540 BC.
Now, Heracleides has Solon meeting the actor Thespis, probably in the late 530s, thus Solon possibly survived into Critias' adolescence.
As for Anacreon, Plato has him brought to Athens by Hipparchus, the "eldest and wisest of Pisistratus' sons" and a noted patron of the arts [Hipparchus 228c]. This could easily have occurred around the same time as Thespis was working, affording Anacreon the opportunity to cultivate a romantic relationship with the young Critias, say, during the 520s.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to point out that other possibilities are available: Anacreon is also associated with Xanthippus, the father of the famous Athenian statesman Pericles. Pericles' mother was Agariste, daughter of Cleisthenes' brother and Megacles' older son Hippocrates, which would place him during the early 5th century, which is the preferred date for those who suggest Anacreon's lover was Critias III. However, that is not what Plato says. And Megacles' daughter, Hippocrates' sister, was briefly married to Pisistratus during his second tyranny.
I must ask. Does the chronological discrepancy between Herodotus and Aristotle you note apply only to Solon or are other figures also dated earlier by the latter authority?
Yes indeed. Firstly, I should state that, while the Athenian Constitution, as outlined above, has the family of Pisistratus govern over a 49-year period, Herodotus states quite clearly that they ruled the Athenians for only 38 years [5.65].
The writer of the Athenian Constitution seems to explain the amendment by stating that, of the 33 years he was in and out of power, Pisistratus held the reigns of government for only 19, with his sons' rule lasting "about seventeen years" [19].
Plato states that Solon had to cut short the writing of his poem on Atlantis due to factional infighting, and the most likely such contention is that which led to Pisistratus' tyranny. He led the party of the Highlanders, with Lycurgus leading the Plainsmen and a certain Megacles son of Alcmaeon the men of the Shore.
Megacles - the father of the great reformer Cleisthenes - was instrumental in ousting Pisistratus after his first brief tyranny, though the pair would later ally, with Megacles (as noted above) giving Pisistratus his daughter in marriage, bringing an end to an eleven-year exile [Athenian Constitution 14], a figure which would explain the discrepancy between Aristotle's 49 and Herodotus' 38 years. The alliance, however, did not last and Pisistratus once again took to his heels.
What is most interesting is that Herodotus also associates Megacles - and even his father Alcmaeon - with the time of Croesus. Fehling, alluded to above, adds a number of other figures to the list of Croesus' supposed contemporaries now dated to the earlier part of the 6th century.
All this in spite of the fact that, for example Solon's archonship date of 594/3, would fall within the reign of Croesus' father and predecessor Alyattes, who is credited with a 57-year reign, providing an ample opportunity for Herodotus, if unsure of his chronology, to play it safe and date these Greeks "correctly" to Alyattes' time.
Obviously, I'm not saying that Herodotus' chronology is unassailable: it is not. His dating of Alcmaeon to the time of Croesus is certainly dubious, not to mention the presence of a son of the great Argive ruler Pheidon among the suitors for Agariste (Alcmaeon's son Megacles was successful). And don't get me started on the hash he makes of Egyptian history. I merely believe that the chronology of the period is far less certain than the writers of history books, with their neat tables of dates, would have us believe.
Okay. Do you have anything more to add?
The 5th century archon list also raises a number of issues. Firstly, Donald Bradeen suggests that a reading "Phor-" on the list may be identified with Phormion, a name which is associated by a scholar with the archon after Solon, whom he dates to 546/5 BC. His predecessor is identified as Thespieus, who in turn succeeded Erxiclides, during whose term the temple at Delphi was burnt.
The reconstruction of the names of the archons for the period 526/5 and 522/1 also raises some issues: -
  • 526/5: Hippias

    This is Hippias, the son and successor of Pisistratus, in the year after the death of his father.

  • 525/4: Cleisthenes

    The great democratic reformer of 508 is afforded the archonship, though Herodotus says that his family, the Alcmaeonids, were then exiled from Athens by the sons of Pisistratus.

  • 524/3: Miltiades

    Most probably the general who won the great victory at Marathon in 490 BC, who therefore enjoyed a lengthy career, with the archonship being an office he held early on. Why can the same logic not be applied to Solon?

  • 523/2: Calliades?

    A Calliades also appears as the archon of the year of Salamis (480 BC), with no indication that he had an earlier forebear by the same name. Cadoux supposes that this was due to the latter Calliades' archonship being so famous.

  • 522/1: Pisistratus

    The son of Hippias, who is assumed to have been made archon as soon as he came of age. The implications of this are important, as this would mean that Hippias would have been married by about 556/5 (according to Cadoux), placing his birth at around 580, meaning he would have been at the very least approaching the age of ninety when he was present on the Persian side at Marathon.

What are the implications for the identity and dating of Critias I, whose archonship was associated with Sappho and placed in about 600 BC?
Well, the reference in the Parian Marble has Sappho going into exile on Sicily. This is generally associated with the career of Pittacus in Lesbos. Pittacus (like Solon counted as one of the "Seven Sages") is made another contemporary of Croesus by Herodotus [1.26.2], while Sappho is given a date contemporary with Amasis [2.135.1]. Thus, Critias I would also be downdated to the 570s or 560s.
Moreover, Pittacus seems to have gained the ascendancy due to his valour in war with Athens, a war which continued into Pisistratus' time.
However, any further discussion of anomalies is beyond the scope of this interview, as it would require a more thoroughgoing analysis of all material pertaining the 6th century Greek world.
Agreed. We reconvene at... *looks at wrist*... oh, I forgot I don't have a watch. We reconvene at... whenever. I'll await instructions from the important comrades on the top floor.