As for his interview with Croesus, some think to prove by chronology that it is fictitious. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, and is so worthy of his magnanimity and wisdom, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement.
So then, they say that Solon, on visiting Sardis at the invitation of Croesus,1
had much the same experience as an inland man who goes down for the first time to the sea. For just as such a man thinks each successive river that he sees to be the sea, so Solon, as he passed through the court and beheld many of the king's retainers in costly apparel and moving proudly amid a throng of couriers and armed guards, thought each in turn to be Croesus, until he was brought to the king himself, who was decked out with everything in the way of precious stones, dyed raiment, and wrought gold that men deem remarkable, or extravagant, or enviable, in order that he might present a most august and gorgeous spectacle.
But when Solon, in this presence, neither showed any astonishment at what he saw, nor made any such comments upon it as Croesus had expected, but actually made it clear to all discerning eyes that he despised such vulgarity and pettiness, the king ordered his treasure chambers thrown open for the guest, and that he should be led about to behold the rest of his sumptuous equipments. Of this there was no need, for the man himself sufficed to give Solon an understanding of his character. However, when Solon had seen everything and had been conducted back again, Croesus asked him if he had ever known a happier man than he.
Solon said he had, and that the man was Tellus, a fellow-citizen of his own; Tellus, he went on to say, had proved himself an honest man, had left reputable sons behind him, and had closed a life which knew no serious want with a glorious display of valor in behalf of his country. Croesus at once judged Solon to be a strange and uncouth fellow, since he did not make an abundance of gold and silver his measure of happiness, but admired the life and death of an ordinary private man more than all this display of power and sovereignty.
Notwithstanding, he asked him again whether, next to Tellus, he knew any other man more fortunate than he. Again Solon said he did naming Cleobis and Bito, men surpassing all others in brotherly love and in dutiful affection towards their mother; for once, he said, when the car in which she was riding was delayed by the oxen, they took the yoke upon their own shoulders and brought their mother to the temple of Hera, where her countrymen called her a happy woman and her heart was rejoiced; then, after sacrifice and feasting, they laid themselves to rest, and never rose again, but were found to have died a painless and tranquil death with so great honor fresh upon them.
‘What!’ said Croesus, who by this time was angered,
‘dost thou not count us among happy men at all?’ Then Solon, who was unwilling to flatter him and did not wish to exasperate him further, said:
‘O king of Lydia, as the Deity has given us Greeks all other blessings in moderation, so our moderation gives us a kind of wisdom which is timid, in all likelihood, and fit for common people, not one which is kingly and splendid. This wisdom, such as it is, observing that human life is ever subject to all sorts of vicissitudes, forbids us to be puffed up by the good things we have, or to admire a man's felicity while there is still time for it to change.
For the future which is advancing upon every one is varied and uncertain, but when the Deity bestows prosperity on a man up to the end, that man we consider happy; to pronounce any one happy, however, while he is still living and running the risks of life, is like proclaiming an athlete victorious and crowning him while lie is still contending for the prize; the verdict is insecure and without authority.’ When he had said this, Solon departed, leaving Croesus vexed, but none the wiser for it.