Chapter 4. PITTACUS (c. 600B.C.)
Pittacus was the son of Hyrrhadius and a native
of Mitylene. Duris calls his father a Thracian.
Aided by the brothers of Alcaeus he overthrew
Melanchrus, tyrant of Lesbos; and in the war
between Mitylene and Athens for the territory of
Achileis he himself had the chief command on the
one side, and Phrynon, who had won an Olympic
victory in the pancratium, commanded the Athenians.
Pittacus agreed to meet him in single combat; with
a net which he concealed beneath his shield he entangled Phrynon, killed him, and recovered the
territory. Subsequently, as Apollodorus states in
Athens and Mitylene referred their
claims to arbitration. Periander heard the appeal
and gave judgement in favour of Athens.
At the time, however, the people of Mitylene
honoured Pittacus extravagantly and entrusted him
with the government. He ruled for ten years
and brought the constitution into order, and then
laid down his office. He lived another ten years
after his abdication and received from the people
of Mitylene a grant of land, which he dedicated
as sacred domain; and it bears his name to this
day Sosicrates relates that he cut off a small
portion for himself and pronounced the half to be
more than the whole. Furthermore, he declined
an offer of money made him by Croesus, saying
that he had twice as much as he wanted; for his
brother had died without issue and he had inherited
Pamphila in the second book of her
narrates that, as his son Tyrraeus sat in a barber's
shop in Cyme, a smith killed him with a blow from
an axe. When the people of Cyme sent the murderer
to Pittacus, he, on learning the story, set him at
liberty and declared that "It is better to pardon
now than to repent later." Heraclitus, however, says
that it was Alcaeus whom he set at liberty when he
had got him in his power, and that what he said
was: "Mercy is better than vengeance."
Among the laws which he made is one providing
that for any offence committed in a state of intoxication the penalty should be doubled; his object was
to discourage drunkenness, wine being abundant in
the island. One of his sayings is, "It is hard to be
good," which is cited by Simonides in this form:
"Pittacus's maxim, `Truly to become a virtuous man
Plato also cites him in the
"Even the gods do not fight against necessity."
Again, "Office shows the man." Once, when asked
what is the best thing, he replied, "To do well
the work in hand." And, when Croesus inquired
what is the best rule, he answered, "The rule of the
shifting wood," by which he meant the law. He
also urged men to win bloodless victories. When
the Phocaean said that we must search for a good
man, Pittacus rejoined, "If you seek too carefully,
you will never find him." He answered various
inquiries thus: "What is agreeable?" "Time."
"Obscure?" "The future." "Trustworthy?"
"The earth." "Untrustworthy?" "The sea."
"It is the part of prudent men," he said, "before
difficulties arise, to provide against their arising;
and of courageous men to deal with them when they
have arisen." Do not announce your plans beforehand; for, if they fail, you will be laughed at. Never
reproach any one with a misfortune, for fear of
Nemesis. Duly restore what has been entrusted to
you. Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy.
Practise piety. Love temperance. Cherish truth,
fidelity, skill, cleverness, sociability, carefulness.
Of his songs the most popular is this:
With bow and well-stored quiver
We must march against our foe,
Words of his tongue can no man trust,
For in his heart there is a deceitful thought.
He also wrote poems in elegiac metre, some 600
lines, and a prose work
for the use of the
He was flourishing about the 42nd Olympiad. He
died in the archonship of Aristomenes, in the third
year of the 52nd Olympiad,2
having lived more
seventy years, to a good old age. The inscription
on his monument runs thus3
Here holy Lesbos, with a mother's woe,
Bewails her Pittacus whom death laid low.
To him belongs the apophthegm, "Know thine opportunity."
There was another Pittacus, a legislator, as is
stated by Favorinus in the first book of his
, and by Demetrius in his work on
Men of the
He was called the Less.
To return to the Sage: the story goes that a
young man took counsel with him about marriage,
and received this answer, as given by Callimachus
in his Epigrams4
A stranger of Atarneus thus inquired of Pittacus, the son
Old sire, two offers of marriage are made to me; the one
bride is in wealth and birth my equal;
The other is my superior. Which is the better? Come now
and advise me which of the two I shall wed.
So spake he. But Pittacus, raising his staff, an old man's
weapon, said, "See there, yonder boys will tell you the
The boys were whipping their tops to make them go fast
and spinning them in a wide open space.
"Follow in their track," said he. So he approached near,
and the boys were saying, "Keep to your own sphere."
When he heard this, the stranger desisted from aiming at
the lordlier match, assenting to the warning of the boys.
And, even as he led home the humble bride, so do you,
Dion, keep to your own sphere.
The advice seems to have been prompted by his
situation. For he had married a wife superior in
birth to himself: she was the sister of Draco, the
son of Penthilus, and she treated him with great
Alcaeus nicknamed him
because he had flat feet and dragged them in walking; also "Chilblains," because he had chapped feet,
for which their word was
because he was always swaggering; Paunch and
Potbelly, because he was stout; a Diner-in-the-Dark,
because he dispensed with a lamp; and the Sloven,
because he was untidy and dirty. The exercise he
took was grinding corn, as related by Clearchus the
The following short letter is ascribed to him:
Pittacus to Croesus
"You bid me come to Lydia in order to see your
prosperity: but without seeing it I can well believe
that the son of Alyattes is the most opulent of kings.
There will be no advantage to me in a journey to
Sardis, for I am not in want of money, and my
possessions are sufficient for my friends as well as
myself. Nevertheless, I will come, to be entertained
by you and to make your acquaintance."