June 09, 2017
He is remembered today for his Histories, a sprawling account of the origins and outcome of the clash between the Greek city-states and the mighty Persian Empire in the fifth-century B.C.
It’s also stuffed with moral instruction, folklore, palace gossip, wild speculations and incredible tales of floating islands, giant gold-digging ants and flying serpents.
It also has some dark wisdom about happiness and the changeability of human fortunes.
One story involves two people whose names have become words, Solon and Croesus. Solon was an Athenian lawgiver who laid the foundation for that city’s democracy, while Croesus was the wealthy king of Lydia, in what is now Turkey.
A solon is a wise legislator, although you don’t hear the term around West Virginia much these days for some reason. Someone who is fabulously wealthy can be said to be “as rich as Croesus.”
The story goes that after Solon reformed Athenian laws, he left the city for 10 years after making the citizens swear an oath to abide by his measures for that period of time.
He visited Lydia, said to be the first country to mint coins, and stayed with Croesus. Eager to impress his guest, who was reputed to be wise, Croesus showed Solon his many treasures and asked him who he thought was the happiest man.
As my wife would say, he was fishing for a compliment.
He didn’t get one.
To Croesus’ surprise, Solon’s answer was someone he’d never heard of, an apparent Athenian nobody named Tellus, who had a decent life, a good family and who died fighting for his city and was honored with a funeral at public expense.
Croesus then asked who was next happiest. Once again, the answer wasn’t what he was looking for. Solon gave the names of two brothers from Argos named Kleobus and Biton.
They were the sons of a priestess of the goddess Hera. When the time came for her to go to the temple, the oxen who drew the cart had wandered off. Her sons put the yoke around themselves and pulled her several miles to the temple, where they were praised for their devotion to their mother and the gods who protected their city.
When the exhausted boys fell asleep, their proud mother prayed that they would receive whatever was best.
They never woke up. Let’s just say they went out on a high note.
Solon went on to explain to an angry Croesus that, since human life is subject to major reversals, he made it a practice not to say a person had a happy one until he saw how it ended. He said, “Until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky.”
Croesus wasn’t having it. Solon soon left, while he continued to pursue wealth and power. He sent fabulous gifts to the major temples and oracles, including the famous oracle of the god Apollo, at Delphi.
As if you could buy the favor of the gods.
Croesus became concerned about the rise to power on his eastern frontier of the Medo- Persians under Cyrus. He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war with Cyrus.
He was told that, if he did, a mighty empire would fall. Another oracle told him that he had nothing to fear until a mule, a cross between a donkey and a horse, ruled over the Medes and Persians empire.
He did go to war with Cyrus, but the empire that fell was his own. The mule, it turned out, was Cyrus himself, whose mother was a Mede and father was a Persian.
Apollo’s oracle was pretty funny that way, but the blame for the disaster belonged to Croesus and not the god.
After losing everything, Croesus was about to be burned alive as Cyrus watched. He cried out “Solon, Solon, Solon” as the flames burned higher. Cyrus, who was a pretty nice guy as world conquerors go, asked through an interpreter what he was saying and spared his life when Croesus told the story.
As he put it later, “Human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same man to continue long in prosperity.”
The point Herodotus and the Greek tragic poets were trying to make was that power, wealth and pride can lead to arrogance (Hubris) and moral blindness (Ate), which, in turn, can invite disaster, often personified as the vengeance of Nemesis, goddess of justice and retribution, who renders that which is due.
The biblical Book of Proverbs makes a similar point, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Meanwhile, the wheel still turns.
(This appeared as an op-ed in today's Gazette-Mail.)