Histories 1.30-1.32: Solon at the Court of Croesus Part 2 – Cleobis and Biton

The Cleobis and Biton passage, like the Tellos passage, encapsulates the archaic Greek values of familial piety and of death over life. This passage, however, is somewhat more revolutionary than the Tellos passage, since Tellos was by Herodotus’ admission “prosperous to us” in addition to having healthy children and grandchildren, which was at the time more or less universally regarded as a blessing. Cleobis and Biton, on the other hand, had materially only “enough to live” and died while still youths. Remarkably, Solon and implicitly Herodotus see this— to have virtually nothing more than a virtuous life and an early death, honored by one’s people— as “what fortune happens to be best for humans.”

Joshua Anthony

When Solon thus moved Croesus through speaking of Tellos’ many blessings, [Croesus] asked whom he had seen second most happy, entirely expecting himself to take at least second place.  But he said:
“Cleobis and Biton.  They were of the Argive nation and had enough to live, and had such bodily strength: they were both equally prize-winners, and moreover this story is told:
As there was a feast of Hera for the Argives, it was by all means necessary that their mother be taken by a yoke of oxen to the temple.  Their own oxen had not returned from the field in time: the youths, restricted by lack of time, submitted themselves to the yoke, and pulled the wagon, with their mother on top.  When they had carried her over forty-five stades, they arrived at the temple.  After they did this and were seen by the crowd, an excellent end of life came upon them, and the god showed plainly in them how it is better for a man to die than to live. For the Argive men were standing and blessing the strength of the youths, and the Argive women  were blessing their mother, she who chanced to be the mother of such sons.  And the mother, being exceedingly gladdened, both by the deed and by the praise, standing opposite the statue, prayed that the god would give what fortune happens to be best for humans to Cleobis and Biton, her own children, who had greatly honored her.  After this prayer, when they had sacrificed and been entertained sumptuously, the youths, having lain down in that temple, never rose but were constrained in that end.  And the Argives, having made images of them, set them up in Delphi as having become excellent.

Solon dispensed the second place of happiness to these; but Croesus, having been vexed, said “Athenian guest, has our prosperity been cast aside as nothing, so that you make private men more worthy than us?”  And he said: “Croesus, you are asking about human deeds to one who knows that the god is in every way jealous and given to troubling.  For in a long time one may see and suffer many things that he does not want.
I establish the limit of life to man as seventy years……Of all these days in seventy years, being fifty and two hundred and six thousand and twenty thousand, no day brings forth anything similar to another.  So then, Croesus, man is entirely of circumstance. And you seem to me to be greatly wealthy, and king of many men: but what you ask of me, I cannot yet say, before I learn that life has ended well.  For a very wealthy person is not happier than one who has daily subsistence, unless fortune plies that he end his life well, having all things well. 

Translation by Joshua Anthony

31. [1] ὣς δὲ τὰ κατὰ τὸν Τέλλον προετρέψατο ὁ Σόλων τὸν Κροῖσον εἴπας πολλά τε καὶ ὀλβία, ἐπειρώτα τίνα δεύτερον μετ᾽ ἐκεῖνον ἴδοι, δοκέων πάγχυ δευτερεῖα γῶν οἴσεσθαι. ὃ δ᾽ εἶπε «Κλέοβίν τε καὶ Βίτωνα. [2] τούτοισι γὰρ ἐοῦσι γένος Ἀργείοισι βίος τε ἀρκέων ὑπῆν, καὶ πρὸς τούτῳ ῥώμη σώματος τοιήδε· ἀεθλοφόροι τε ἀμφότεροι ὁμοίως ἦσαν, καὶ δὴ καὶ λέγεται ὅδε ὁ λόγος.
ἐούσης ὁρτῆς τῇ Ἥρῃ τοῖσι Ἀργείοισι ἔδεε πάντως τὴν μητέρα αὐτῶν ζεύγεϊ κομισθῆναι ἐς τὸ ἱρόν, οἱ δέ σφι βόες ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ οὐ παρεγίνοντο ἐν ὥρῃ· ἐκκληιόμενοι δὲ τῇ ὥρῃ οἱ νεηνίαι ὑποδύντες αὐτοὶ ὑπὸ τὴν ζεύγλην εἷλκον τὴν ἅμαξαν, ἐπὶ τῆς ἁμάξης δέ σφι ὠχέετο ἡ μήτηρ· σταδίους δὲ πέντε καὶ τεσσεράκοντα διακομίσαντες ἀπίκοντο ἐς τὸ ἱρόν. [3] ταῦτα δέ σφι ποιήσασι καὶ ὀφθεῖσι ὑπὸ τῆς πανηγύριος τελευτὴ τοῦ βίου ἀρίστη ἐπεγένετο, διέδεξέ τε ἐν τούτοισι ὁ θεὸς ὡς ἄμεινον εἴη ἀνθρώπῳ τεθνάναι μᾶλλον ἢ ζώειν. Ἀργεῖοι μὲν γὰρ περιστάντες ἐμακάριζον τῶν νεηνιέων τὴν ῥώμην, αἱ δὲ Ἀργεῖαι τὴν μητέρα αὐτῶν, οἵων τέκνων ἐκύρησε· [4] ἡ δὲ μήτηρ περιχαρής ἐοῦσα τῷ τε ἔργῳ καὶ τῇ φήμῃ, στᾶσα ἀντίον τοῦ ἀγάλματος εὔχετο Κλεόβι τε καὶ Βίτωνι τοῖσι ἑωυτῆς τέκνοισι, οἵ μιν ἐτίμησαν μεγάλως, τὴν θεὸν δοῦναι τὸ ἀνθρώπῳ τυχεῖν ἄριστον ἐστί. [5] μετὰ ταύτην δὲ τὴν εὐχὴν ὡς ἔθυσάν τε καὶ εὐωχήθησαν, κατακοιμηθέντες ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ ἱρῷ οἱ νεηνίαι οὐκέτι ἀνέστησαν ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τέλεϊ τούτῳ ἔσχοντο. Ἀργεῖοι δὲ σφέων εἰκόνας ποιησάμενοι ἀνέθεσαν ἐς Δελφοὺς ὡς ἀριστῶν γενομένων.» 

32. [1] Σόλων μὲν δὴ εὐδαιμονίης δευτερεῖα ἔνεμε τούτοισι, Κροῖσος δὲ σπερχθεὶς εἶπε «ὦ ξεῖνε Ἀθηναῖε, ἡ δ᾽ ἡμετέρη εὐδαιμονίη οὕτω τοι ἀπέρριπται ἐς τὸ μηδὲν ὥστε οὐδὲ ἰδιωτέων ἀνδρῶν ἀξίους ἡμέας ἐποίησας;» ὁ δὲ εἶπε «ὦ Κροῖσε, ἐπιστάμενόν με τὸ θεῖον πᾶν ἐὸν φθονερόν τε καὶ ταραχῶδες ἐπειρωτᾷς ἀνθρωπηίων πρηγμάτων πέρι. [2] ἐν γὰρ τῷ μακρῷ χρόνῳ πολλὰ μὲν ἐστὶ ἰδεῖν τὰ μή τις ἐθέλει, πολλὰ δὲ καὶ παθεῖν. ἐς γὰρ ἑβδομήκοντα ἔτεα οὖρον τῆς ζόης ἀνθρώπῳ προτίθημι. [3] 4] τουτέων τῶν ἁπασέων ἡμερέων τῶν ἐς τὰ ἑβδομήκοντα ἔτεα, ἐουσέων πεντήκοντα καὶ διηκοσιέων καὶ ἑξακισχιλιέων καὶ δισμυριέων, ἡ ἑτέρη αὐτέων τῇ ἑτέρῃ ἡμέρῃ τὸ παράπαν οὐδὲν ὅμοιον προσάγει πρῆγμα. οὕτω ὦν Κροῖσε πᾶν ἐστὶ ἄνθρωπος συμφορή. [5] ἐμοὶ δὲ σὺ καὶ πλουτέειν μέγα φαίνεαι καὶ βασιλεὺς πολλῶν εἶναι ἀνθρώπων· ἐκεῖνο δὲ τὸ εἴρεό με, οὔκω σε ἐγὼ λέγω, πρὶν τελευτήσαντα καλῶς τὸν αἰῶνα πύθωμαι. οὐ γάρ τι ὁ μέγα πλούσιος μᾶλλον τοῦ ἐπ᾽ ἡμέρην ἔχοντος ὀλβιώτερος ἐστί, εἰ μή οἱ τύχη ἐπίσποιτο πάντα καλὰ ἔχοντα εὖ τελευτῆσαὶ τὸν βίον

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