By Delfim F. Leão & P.J. Rhodes
I.B. Tauris (2015) h/b 210pp £70.00 (ISBN 9781780768533)
Readers of this review will need little by way of introduction to Solon of Athens. Herodotus’ work communicates stories (probably spurious) about him as a wise adviser to Kroisos the king of Lydia, and later Greeks held him in high esteem as one of the ‘Seven Sages’. The Athenians of the classical period believed that, during the late sixth century, he enacted a series of laws which had a long-lasting impact upon their politics and lifestyle. The difficulty faced by the modern historian trying to understand Solon’s laws is that there is, strictly speaking, no contemporary evidence for them. Some verses which may have been Solon’s own were quoted by later writers, but their discussions of his laws concentrated on the motivations behind his legislation rather than details of their substance.
This book is a comprehensive collection of the ancient Greek testimonia for Solon’s laws. As the first edition to translate them into English, it performs a valuable service both for scholars and a wider audience of all those interested in the laws of archaic and classical Athens. The laws are organised according to their subject as follows: laws concerning judicial matters, relations between neighbours, economic matters, sumptuary laws, Athenian constitutional institutions, and religion; a final section collects doubtful and spurious attestations. Concise commentaries offer valuable interpretation (see pp. 124-5, suggesting that the restrictions on slaves taking free boys as lovers reflected a concern to preserve status distinctions). Careful organisation makes the book useful for the historian; however, it lacks a subject index which would have been made its diverse content more easily accessible.
R & L. take the view that physical versions of Solon’s laws, in the shape of the inscribed wooden beams, set in rectangular frames (known as axones), were important in their dissemination during the classical period; they note, however, that as early as the fourth century, knowledge about the laws was based probably upon the circulation of transcriptions or books about them. The editors acknowledge that fourth-century Athenians made exaggerated claims about their knowledge of Solonian law, attributing even those which were ‘clearly more recent’ (p. 8) to Solon. While R. & L.’s interpretation of legislation is informed by the possibility that distortions were introduced by the source-texts, their primary interest concerns what it is possible to know about the substance of Solon’s laws.
Their helpful commentaries mention but do not have the space to probe every issue relating to the authenticity of laws preserved only in problematic sources (such as those on the perfume trade attested by Athenaios, collected on pp. 121-2) or in the ‘documents’ (themselves in need of scholarly analysis) which appear in some manuscripts of the 43rd and 46th speeches of the Demosthenic corpus. Regardless, this book will now become, for the foreseeable future, the standard work of reference for both those who wish to know about Solonian laws and those with an interest in what the Greeks thought about Solon and his legislation.
Peter Liddel—University of Manchester