Tales From Herodotus IX. Solon and Croesus

Translated from Tales From Herodotus

a) Solon, the Athenian statesman and philosopher, visits Croesus, the rich king of Lydia. He does not regard his wealth as a criterion for happiness.

After Solon went abroad, he arrived at Sardis, at the house of Croesus. When he arrived, he was entertained at the palace by Croesus. And then on the third or fourth day, servants, as  Croesus ordered, led Solon around, all through the treasures, and they showed off that everything was great and blessed. And once he saw everything, Croesus asked him this, “My Athenian guest, much word has reached us about you, on account of both your wisdom and your travels. And so now a desire has come upon me to ask who of all those you’ve seen is the most blessed.” He asked this hoping to be [named] the most blessed of men. Solon, however, as he flattered no-one, offering the truth instead, said, “Good king, Tellos the Athenian.” Croesus was surprised by what had been said, and he asked eagerly, “And how do you determine that Tellos is the most blessed?” And he said, “For one, the children of Tellos were noble and good, and he saw all of them have children of their own, all of whom survived [childhood]; and further, he had a most illustrious end to his life. For there came a battle for the Athenians against their neighbours in Eleusis, and after he gave them aid and brought about a route of their opponents, he died the noblest [of deaths]. And the Athenians buried him at public expense just where he fell, and they honoured him highly.”

b) Story of Cleobis and Biton; the gods’ best reward.

When Solon had gone through the story of Tellos, Croesus asked him whom he saw as second after that man, for he thought that he would surely win the second-place, at any rate. But he said, “Cleobis and Biton; for although they were Argives by birth*, they had a sufficient livelihood at hand and in addition to that, such bodily might as follows: they were both of them similarly prize-winners, and moreover the following story is told. There was a festival to Hera and it was altogether necessary to convey their mother in an oxen-yoked wagon to the temple. But the oxen were not at hand from the field in time. So the young men put their own shoulders under the yoke and they pulled the wagon, and their mother was borne upon the wagon. They carried her five stades and forty (a little more than 5 miles) and arrived at the temple. After they did this, and they were seen by the whole assembly of the people, they obtained the very best end to their lives. In them, the gods showed that it was better for a person to die than to live. The Argive men milling about congratulated the strength of the young men, and the women their mother that she had gotten such children. Because their mother was so pleased by the deed and by the reputation, she stood in the presence of the idol and beseeched the god to give Cleobis and Biton that which was best for a person to obtain. After this prayer, and after they sacrificed and were sumptuously feasted, they went to sleep in the temple itself, and the young men never again arose, but were instead kept in that end. And the Argives had their likenesses made and put up at Delphi, for being the best of men.

c) Solon’s criterion for happiness, which Croesus finds unacceptable.

And so Solon allotted the second-rank of good fortune to these [young men]; but Croesus hastily said, “My Athenian guest, is our own good fortune thus cast aside to nothing?” He said, “Good Croesus, I know well that the divine power is envious and trouble-making, and yet you would inquire about human affairs. You seem to me to have great wealth and to be king of many people; but I will not yet say that you are fortunate, not until I have learned that your life ended nobly. The way that the end of the entire affair turns out must be considered. For there are many whom god, after showing them a glimpse of happiness, overthrew utterly.” Solon did not in any way please Croesus by telling him this. Croesus dismissed him and considered his word worthless, and thought him very ignorant who cast away the present good and demanded to see the end of the whole affair.

d) Subsequent misfortunes of Croesus, who at length acknowledges the wisdom of Solon’s words.

After Solon went away, a great retribution from god took Croesus because, so far as one can guess, he believed himself to be the most blessed of all men. For the Persians captured Sardis and they took Croesus himself prisoner after he had ruled for fourteen years. And they took him, and piling up a great pyre, made Croesus ascend upon it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of Lydia at his side. And although he was in such great misfortune the words of Solon came to Croesus, as though spoken with god, “No one of the living is blessed.” And caught up, he groaned aloud, breaking a long silence, and he named Solon three times. Cyrus heard this and he ordered his interpreters to ask Croesus whom he had called upon, so they went to him and asked. Croesus kept silent for a while, but finally he said that Solon had come and after he had seen every blessed thing of his, he had made light [of it]. And everything had turned out for him just as that man said, speaking no more with regard to himself than to all humanity, and the worst are those who consider themselves blessed.

e) Cyrus relents, and with the assistance of Apollo, Croesus is saved from the flames.

As Croesus related this, the edges of the pyre, already lit, caught fire. When Cyrus heard from his interpreters what Croesus said, he considered that he himself being a man, was giving to the pyre another man who lived, being no lesser [than he] with respect to his good fortune, and so he changed his mind, and gave an order to quench the kindled pyre as quickly as possible, and to take down Croesus and those with Croesus. But those who tried this were no longer able to control the pyre. Thereupon Croesus understood the change in the mind of Cyrus, and he beseeched Apollo, calling upon him to be at hand and to deliver him from the present misfortune. Weeping, he called upon the god. And from a clear sky and calm [weather], the clouds suddenly ran together and a storm burst forth and rained a torrential downpour of water, quenching the fire.

* The phrase here is a circumstantial participle, οὔσι γένος Ἀργείοις, “they being Argive by birth”. The translator has a lot of freedom to choose how to relate such phrases to the main body of the sentence (e.g. by using when, since, although, etc.) There’s no special reason here to translate it concessively except my own perverse amusement at making Solon appear a smidgen provincial, but I freely concede that this seems a bit out of character for Solon.  

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2 Responses to Tales From Herodotus IX. Solon and Croesus

  1. Jonathan says:

    I wonder if I might use your translation in a novel that I am writing, in which I would like to relate this story. I would cite you, but it is awkward to provide a citation in a novel.

    Best,
    Jonathan

    • Mark Mueller says:

      Hi,

      That’s fine, but mind a couple of caveats: 1) This is translated from an abridged version of the story, and 2) There are many other translations available, including translations old enough to have expired copyrights, and probably better than mine.

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