Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

13. Solon

Solon confronts the performance of epic with a brief but sharp criticism: πολλὰ ψεύδονται ἀοιδοί “poets tell many lies” (fr. 25 G.-P.). As had Xenophanes before him, Solon too calls attention in particular to the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, which was known in the sixth century, as it had been in the seventh, primarily through rhapsodic performances. We do not know if the source of this critique is personal or political, since it maybe related to the story that Solon had once approached Thespis to learn tragedy but was appalled at his ψευδολογία ‘falsehood’. [1] On the other hand, Solon’s own political struggle against Peisistratus offered many occasions for him to admonish the Athenians against the deceptive speeches that had disguised the latter’s tyrannical aims. [2]

What we do find rather forcefully articulated in Solon is the direct link between unjust political rule and disorder in the aristocratic banquet. From an elegy reported to us by Demosthenes (19.254f.), Solon first chastises his countrymen that (fr. 3.5–6 G.-P.):

αὐτοὶ δὲ φθείρειν μεγάλην πόλιν ἀφραδίῃσιν
     ἀστοὶ βούλονται χρήμασι πειθόμενοι.

The citizens themselves, persuaded by money, wish to
     destroy the great city through folly.

Then he attacks their leaders, and the institution of the symposium through which their power is expressed (fr. 3.7–10 G.-P.):

Solon may be less overtly critical of Homeric performance than Xenophanes and Heraclitus, but he registers an acute awareness that the symposium is functionally a microcosm of the polis. Anything that threatens the quiet order (ἡσυχία) of the symposium threatens to leach more generally into the social order. [
4] And Solon’s own experience in rousing the Athenians to resume their war with Megara over Salamis demonstrates how well he understood the mobilizing force of poetry: he is said to have feigned madness in the marketplace, mounted the herald’s stone, and sang his own elegy berating the Athenians for resigning their claims before Megara. [5] Thus if epic poets, by means of their performative vehicle, rhapsodes, are deceptive—and I believe that like Xenophanes Solon must surely have had Homer’s and Hesiod’s claims about divine misadventure in mind—they deserve as much censure as unjust leaders since both can be politically dangerous. I find it amusing that, according to one report, [6] the only use that Solon ever had for pure hexameters, as opposed to elegy, was for his own laws—another rebuke to rhapsodes and epic tradition.


[ back ] 1. Diogenes Laertius 1.59 and Plutarch, Solon 29.6.

[ back ] 2. E.g. Solon fr. 15.6–7 G.-P.

[ back ] 3. For more on the relationship between κόρος ‘satiety’ and ὕβρις ‘insolence’ in elegy, see further Solon fr. 8 G.-P. and Theognis 153–4 West, with Nagy 1990b:281.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Pindar, Nemean 9.48: ἡσυχία δὲ φιλεῖ μὲν συμπόσιον “quiet order loves the symposium.”

[ back ] 5. Plutarch, Solon 8.1. Diogenes Laertius 1.46, probably as a result of confusion with Solon fr. 2.1–2 G.-P., reports that a herald read Solon’s elegy to the Athenians.

[ back ] 6. Plutarch, Solon 3.