Monday, June 27, 2011
Herodotus’ “Histories” of the Persian Wars (very liberally ‘translaparaphrased’): Book I sections 26 -31
26. (Wherein we are finally introduced to Croesus, and Solon the Athenian as well.)
Alyattes was followed by his son Croesus, who was thirty-five years of age at the time of succession. The first Greek city he attacked was Ephesus. When he laid siege to them, the Ephesians ran a cord from their city walls to the temple of Artemis, believing that, by this means they were putting their city under the protection of the goddess. The distance between the temple and the older part of the city, the part then under siege, was just under a mile. Attack upon the Ephesians was but the opening stage of his ambition. Croesus went on to attack all of the Ionian and Aeolian cities, one after another, on pretexts of varying degrees of plausibility, basing the grounds of his actions upon any matters he might find.
Croesus eventually forced all of Asiatic Greece to render tribute. He then turned his attention to building a naval force in order to take battle to the islanders. However, when all was prepared to begin construction of his fleet, something happened that persuaded him to cease. It was either Bias of Priene, or, as some suggest, Pittacus a Mytilenean, who was visiting and had been queried by Croesus for news from greater Greece. He told Croesus that the Greeks of the islands were raising ten-thousand horse to attack Sardis.
Croesus took the report seriously, and exclaimed: ‘What are you saying? The islanders intend to attack the Lydians with cavalry. If only they would!”
‘Sire,’ he replied, ‘I infer you would like to catch those islanders on land and on horseback. You are completely warranted in that wish. But, they also know of your intention to build a fleet to attack them. What do you suppose they want more than a chance to take you Lydians on in a naval engagement? It would allow them to exact revenge for their brothers on the mainland, whom you have managed to enslave.’
This way of looking at his strategy piqued Croesus’ interest, and indeed, seemed imminently prudent and to the point. He abandoned the idea of a fleet and went so far as to form treaties of friendship with the Ionian islanders.
In due course he subdued all the peoples west of the river Halys, except the Cilicians and Lycians. The remainder, however, he kept subject to his rule. These included the Lydians, Phrygians, Mysians, Mariandynians, Chalybians, Paphlagonians, Thracians (that is, both the Thynians and Bithynians), Carians, Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians as well as the Pamphylians.
When all of these peoples had been added to the Lydian empire and Sardis was at the height of her wealth and influence, all the great Greek teachers of the day made pilgrimage and paid visit to the capital. The most distinguished of the lot was Solon of Athens. This, as you know, was the man who had been elected by his people to craft a body of laws, a constitution, for the city. He was on a self-imposed period of travel, intending to be away for ten years, avoiding the possibility of having to repeal any of his laws. That was the true intent although he would have it believed that he merely intended to see the world. The Athenians could not alter any of his laws so long as he was not present, because they had sworn to give the entire body of laws a ten year trial run.
For this reason, then, and secondarily for the pleasures of tourism, Solon left Athens, and after having first traveled to the court of Amasis in Egypt, he trekked to Sardis to pay a visit to Croesus.
Croesus entertained him with great hospitality. Three or four days after his arrival, servants were ordered to give Solon a tour of the royal treasuries, taking pains to point out the great riches and magnificence of everything. When Croesus had made as thorough an inspection as the occasion allowed Croesus said: “Well, my Athenian friend, I have heard much about your wisdom, and your wide travels in its pursuit. I cannot resist asking you a question: who is the man of greatest well being you have ever known?”
The point of the question was clearly that Croesus supposed himself to be that man of greatest well being. Solon however did not choose to flatter and answered strictly in accord with what he thought was the truth of the matter.
‘An Athenian is your man,’ he answered, ‘his name is Tellus.’
Croesus was surprised. His retort: ‘And what, pray tell, is your justification for this choice Solon?’
‘There are several good reasons,’ Solon replied. ‘First, his city was prosperous. Second, He had fine sons and he lived to see grandchildren by each of them. All these children survived. Thirdly, he had enough wealth by Athenian standards, and had an honorable death. In battle with our neighbor Eleusis, he fought stoutly for his countrymen, routed the enemy, and died courageously. The Athenians paid him the highest honor of a funeral at public expense on the very spot he fell.’
All of this specificity about the life of Tellus was no doubt intended as a moral lesson for the King, but was lost upon him. Croesus thinking that he would certainly merit the second place therefore asked Solon who the next happiest person would be.
‘Two young men from Argos,’ came the reply, ‘Cleobis and Biton.’ They had enough possessions to live comfortably, and had physical prowess, attested to not only by their success in athletic competition, but also by this incident: The Argives were celebrating a festival for the goddess Hera, and it was important for a particular part of the ceremony that the mother of these two young men be driven to the temple in her ox-cart. Now, for some reason, the oxen had not made the trip from the fields to the staging area in time. Her two sons, therefore took up the cart, harnessed themselves and pulled it the full six miles to the temple. After this event, witnessed by the assembled crowd, they died in the most enviable fashion – a divine sign that it is better to have passed on than to live. Men were crowded around them congratulating them on their feat. Women crowded their mother, congratulating her for her luck in having such devoted sons. Swept away by overwhelming gratification at such public praise for her son’s act, she prayed on the spot to Hera, before whose temple she was standing, asking the goddess to grant Cleobis and Biton the greatest blessing that can be bestowed to mortal men.
After she prayed, sacrificial ceremonies were held, and then feasting. Her two sons, once the festivities had completed, rested contentedly, and fell asleep within the temple itself. That was the end of them, for they never awoke from the slumber.
The Argives consider these two the best of men, had statues of them crafted, and sent them off to Delphi.