previous next

Chapter 3. CHILON (c. 560B.C.)

[68] Chilon, son of Damagetas, was a Lacedaemonian. He wrote a poem in elegiac metre some 200 lines in length; and he declared that the excellence of a man is to divine the future so far as it can be grasped by reason. When his brother grumbled that he was not made ephor as Chilon was, the latter replied, "I know how to submit to injustice and you do not." He was made ephor in the 55th Olympiad; Pamphila, however, says the 56th. He first became ephor, according to Sosicrates, in the archonship of Euthy- demus. He first proposed the appointment of ephors as auxiliaries to the kings, though Satyrus says this was done by Lycurgus.1

As Herodotus relates in his first Book, when Hippocrates was sacrificing at Olympia and his cauldrons boiled of their own accord, it was Chilon who advised him not to marry, or, if he had a wife, to divorce her and disown his children. [69] The tale is also told that he inquired of Aesop what Zeus was doing and received the answer: "He is humbling the proud and exalting the humble." Being asked wherein lies the difference between the educated and the uneducated, Chilon answered, "In good hope." What is hard? "To keep a secret, to employ leisure well, to be able to bear an injury." These again are some of his precepts: To control the tongue, especially at a banquet. [70] Not to abuse our neighbours, for if you do, things will be said about you which you will regret. Do not use threats to any one; for that is womanish. Be more ready to visit friends in adversity than in prosperity. Do not make an extravagant marriage. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Honour old age. Consult your own safety. Prefer a loss to a dishonest gain: the one brings pain at the moment, the other for all time. Do not laugh at another's misfortune. When strong, be merciful, if you would have the respect, not the fear, of your neighbours. Learn to be a wise master in your own house. Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger. Do not hate divina- tion. Do not aim at impossibilities. Let no one see you in a hurry. Gesticulation in speaking should be avoided as a mark of insanity. Obey the laws. Be restful.

[71] Of his songs the most popular is the following: "By the whetstone gold is tried, giving manifest proof; and by gold is the mind of good and evil men brought to the test." He is reported to have said in his old age that he was not aware of having ever broken the law throughout his life; but on one point he was not quite clear. In a suit in which a friend of his was concerned he himself pronounced sentence according to the law, but he persuaded his colleague who was his friend to acquit the accused, in order at once to maintain the law and yet not to lose his friend.

He became very famous in Greece by his warning about the island of Cythera off the Laconian coast. For, becoming acquainted with the nature of the island, he exclaimed: "Would it had never been placed there, or else had been sunk in the depths of the sea." [72] And this was a wise warning; for Demaratus, when an exile from Sparta, advised Xerxes to anchor his fleet off the island; and if Xerxes had taken the advice Greece would have been conquered. Later, in the Peloponnesian war, Nicias reduced the island and placed an Athenian garrison there, and did the Lacedaemonians much mischief.

He was a man of few words; hence Aristagoras of Miletus calls this style of speaking Chilonean. . . . is of Branchus, founder of the temple at Branchidae. Chilon was an old man about the 52nd Olympiad, when Aesop the fabulist was flourishing. According to Hermippus, his death took place at Pisa, just after he had congratulated his son on an Olympic victory in boxing. It was due to excess of joy coupled with the weakness of a man stricken in years. And all present joined in the funeral procession.

I have written an epitaph on him also, which runs as follows2:

[73] I praise thee, Pollux, for that Chilon's son

By boxing feats the olive chaplet won.

Nor at the father's fate should we repine;

He died of joy; may such a death be mine.

The inscription on his statue runs thus3:

Here Chilon stands, of Sparta's warrior race,

Who of the Sages Seven holds highest place.

His apophthegm is: "Give a pledge, and suffer for it." A short letter is also ascribed to him.

Chilon to Periander

"You tell me of an expedition against foreign enemies, in which you yourself will take the field. In my opinion affairs at home are not too safe for an absolute ruler; and I deem the tyrant happy who dies a natural death in his own house."

1 There seems to be some confusion in these extracts. Possibly Diogenes Laertius found among his materials some such note as this: Χίλων τῶν ἑπτὰ σοφῶν πρῶτος ἔφορος, and connected it with the date as given by Sosicrates, namely, the archonship of Euthydemus, meticulously correcting this date from Pamphila. But he seems to have mislaken the meaning of πρῶτος ἔφορος and to have rashly inferred from it that it was Chilon who introduced the ephorate.

2 Anth. Pal. vii. 88.

3 Anth. Pal. ix. 596.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Greek (R.D. Hicks, 1972)
hide References (3 total)
  • Commentary references to this page (1):
    • Sir Richard C. Jebb, Commentary on Sophocles: Antigone, 613
  • Cross-references to this page (2):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), LUSTRA´TIO
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), ORA´CULUM
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: