Modern knowledge of Solon is limited by the fact that his works only survive in fragments and appear to feature interpolations by later authors and by the general paucity of documentary and archaeological evidence covering Athens in the early 6th century BC. Ancient authors such as Herodotus and Plutarch are the main source of information, yet they wrote about Solon long after his death, at a time when history was by no means an academic discipline. 4th-century orators, such as Aeschines, tended to attribute to Solon all the laws of their own, much later times.
Solon was born in Athens around 638 B.C. His family was distinguished in Attica as they belonged to a noble or Eupatrid clan, although they possessed only moderate wealth. Solon's father was probably Execestides. If so, Solon's lineage could be traced back to Codrus, the last King of Athens. According to Diogenes Laërtius, he had a brother named Dropides who was an ancestor (six generations removed) of Plato. According to Plutarch, Solon was related to the tyrant Peisistratos, for their mothers were cousins. Solon was eventually drawn into the unaristocratic pursuit of commerce.
When Athens and Megara were contesting for the possession of the Salamis Island, Solon was given leadership of the Athenian forces. After repeated disasters, Solon was able to increase the morale and spirits of his body of troops on the strength of a poem he wrote about the islands. Supported by Peisistratos, he defeated the Megarians either by means of a cunning trick or more directly through heroic battle around 595 BC. The Megarians, however, refused to give up their claim to the island. The dispute was referred to the Spartans, who eventually awarded possession of the island to Athens on the strength of the case that Solon put to them.
According to Diogenes Laertius, in 594 BC, Solon was chosen archon, or chief magistrate. As archon, Solon discussed his intended reforms with some friends. Knowing that he was about to cancel all debts, these friends took out loans and promptly bought some land. Suspected of complicity, Solon complied with his own law and released his own debtors, amounting to 5 talents (or 15 according to some sources). His friends never repaid their debts.
After he had finished his reforms, he travelled abroad for ten years, so that the Athenians could not induce him to repeal any of his laws. His first stop was Egypt. There, according to Herodotus, he visited the Pharaoh of Egypt, Amasis II. According to Plutarch, he spent some time and discussed philosophy with two Egyptian priests, Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Sais. According to Plato's dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, he visited Neith's temple at Sais and received from the priests there an account of the history of Atlantis. Next, Solon sailed to Cyprus, where he oversaw the construction of a new capital for a local king, in gratitude for which the king named it Soloi.
Solon's travels finally brought him to Sardis, capital of Lydia. According to Herodotus and Plutarch, he met with Croesus and gave the Lydian king advice, which Croesus failed to appreciate until it was too late. Croesus had considered himself to be the happiest man alive and Solon had advised him, "Count no man happy until he be dead." The reasoning was that at any minute, fortune might turn on even the happiest man and make his life miserable. It was only after he had lost his kingdom to the Persian king Cyrus, while awaiting execution, that Croesus acknowledged the wisdom of Solon's advice.
After his return to Athens, Solon became a staunch opponent of Peisistratos. In protest, and as an example to others, Solon stood outside his own home in full armour, urging all who passed to resist the machinations of the would-be tyrant. His efforts were in vain. Solon died shortly after Peisistratos usurped by force the autocratic power that Athens had once freely bestowed upon him. Solon died in Cyprus at the age of 80 and, in accordance with his will, his ashes were scattered around Salamis, the island where he was born.