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Solon, ainos, and Herodotus

Alexander J. Hollmann

This paper re-examines the figure of Solon in the Histories of Herodotus. It suggests that we do so by looking first at the Herodotean Solon and the Solon known to us from poetry and traditions associated with him. Second, the connection between the Herodotean Solon and Herodotus as narrator and author needs to be evaluated. Finally, we should consider the idea of a Solonian Herodotus, a Herodotus who himself is a performer of wisdom.

Solon famously passes over Croesus as a candidate for the most olbios man he has seen and names Tellos the Athenian as winner, and then Kleobis and Biton of Argos as runners up. At increasing length he explains his reasons for doing so and ends with an exposition of his ideas about the fragility of the human condition, the envy and turbulent nature of the gods, evaluating the relationship of material wealth and good luck to being olbios, and concluding that until a man is dead one should refrain from calling him olbios. What exactly is Solon's message behind his ainos? Even after Solon's own explanation, Croesus and modern scholars are still left puzzled (Pelling 2006). Is it really that it is better to be dead than to be alive (cf. Lloyd 1987)? It is clear that Solon uses the term olbios in a very particular and sacral way to refer to a blessed and fortunate existence in the afterlife (Nagy 1990), while Croesus understands it in a more conventional sense of "prosperous, wealthy." Some have seen the Herodotean Solon's special understanding of the term as a Herodotean manipulation and claim that in Solon's poetry only the conventional sense is found (e.g. Crane 1996). But it is worth taking another look at e.g. fr. 1 G.-P.1-4 (= 13 W), the poet's prayer to the Muses for olbos and agathê doxa from the gods, where olbos might have sacral overtones and even intimations of hero cult. In this sense the Herodotean Solon may even help us understand the Solon of the poetry.

After his downfall and capture, Croesus on the pyre channels Solon's wisdom and performance, which he expresses in a cryptic sign, the name of Solon, which he calls out three times in ritual fashion. Behind this name lies the experience of τὸ τοῦ Σόλωνος (1.86.3), an encapsulation of everything Solon has told him. This is expanded to the expression μηδένα εἶναι τῶν ζωόντων ὄλβιον, which has a metrical shape (DSSSD). Kurke 1999 points out that this is described as "coming upon" Croesus, an expression elsewhere used of epiphany and dream visitation. She also points out how this wisdom runs parallel to the oracular signs Apollo gives to Croesus. One could say further that Solon is no longer present as a person but exists now as a kind of oracular heroic figure. His talk of the olbos    o dfdf  attached to Tellos and Kleobis and Biton may prefigure his own olbos, in the way that Sophocles' Oedipus refers obliquely to his own hero status at Kolonos after death.

Martin 1993 has helped us to see wisdom as something performed by sophoi in a competitive environment. As both Nagy 1990 and he have pointed out, many of the canonical wise men of Greece make appearances in the Histories and perform their wisdom, and chief among them is Solon. Herodotus with the apodexis of his historie, explaining signs and causes, also engages in such performances. His relationship to Solon and the other andres sophoi works in a number of ways: he incorporates them into his work and makes them speak, but not simply as his mouthpieces. He performs his own demonstrations of sophie, capping and improving on those of the other sophoi. In the case of Solon, Herodotus engages in a competitive dialogue with both the external Solon and the Herodotean Solon.

Word count: 632, excluding bibliography

Session/Panel Title

Historical Poetics and the Intertext

Session/Paper Number

17.1

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