Chapter 5. BIAS (c. 570 B.C.)
Bias, the son of Teutames, was born at Priene, and
by Satyrus is placed at the head of the Seven Sages.
Some make him of a wealthy family, but Duris
says he was a labourer living in the house. Phanodicus relates that he ransomed certain Messenian
maidens captured in war and brought them up as his
daughters, gave them dowries, and restored them to
their fathers in Messenia. In course of time, as has
been already related, the bronze tripod with the
inscription "To him that is wise" having been found
at Athens by the fishermen, the maidens according
to Satyrus, or their father according to other
accounts, including that of Phanodicus, came forward into the assembly and, after the recital of their
own adventures, pronounced Bias to be wise. And
thereupon the tripod was dispatched to him; but
Bias, on seeing it, declared that Apollo was wise,
and refused to take the tripod.
But others say that
he dedicated it to Heracles in Thebes, since he was
a descendant of the Thebans who had founded a
colony at Priene; and this is the version of Phanodieus.
A story is told that, while Alyattes was besieging
Priene, Bias fattened two mules and drove them into
the camp, and that the king, when he saw them, was
amazed at the good condition of the citizens actually
extending to their beasts of burden. And he decided
to make terms and sent a messenger. But Bias piled
up heaps of sand with a layer of corn on the top,
and showed them to the man, and finally, on being
informed of this, Alyattes made a treaty of peace
with the people of Priene. Soon afterwards, when
Alyattes sent to invite Bias to his court, he replied,
"Tell Alyattes, from me, to make his diet of onions,"
that is, to weep.
It is also stated that he was a
very effective pleader; but he was accustomed to
use his powers of speech to a good end. Hence it
is to this that Demodicus of Leros makes reference
in the line:
If you happen to be prosecuting a suit, plead as they do
and Hipponax thus: "More powerful in pleading
causes than Bias of Priene."1
This was the manner of his death. He had been
pleading in defence of some client in spite of his
great age. When he had finished speaking, he reclined his head on his grandson's bosom. The opposing counsel made a speech, the judges voted and
gave their verdict in favour of the client of Bias,
who, when the court rose, was found dead in his
The city gave him a magnificent
funeral and inscribed on his tomb2
Here Bias of Priene lies, whose name
Brought to his home and all Ionia fame.
My own epitaph is3
Here Bias rests. A quiet death laid low
The aged head which years had strewn with snow.
His pleading done, his friend preserved from harms,
A long sleep took him in his grandson's arms.
He wrote a poem of 2000 lines on Ionia and the
manner of rendering it prosperous. Of his songs the
most popular is the following:
Find favour with all the citizens . . .
. . . in whatever state you dwell.
For this earns most gratitude;
the headstrong spirit often flashes forth with harmful bane.
The growth of strength in man is nature's work;
but to set forth in speech the interests of one's
country is the gift of soul and reason. Even chance
brings abundance of wealth to many. He also
said that he who could not bear misfortune was
truly unfortunate; that it is a disease of the soul to
be enamoured of things impossible of attainment;
and that we ought not to dwell upon the woes of
others. Being asked what is difficult, he replied,
"Nobly to endure a change for the worse." He
was once on a voyage with some impious men; and,
when a storm was encountered, even they began to
call upon the gods for help. "Peace!" said he,
"lest they hear and become aware that you are here
in the ship." When an impious man asked him to
define piety, he was silent; and when the other
inquired the reason, "I am silent," he replied,
"because you are asking questions about what does
not concern you."
Being asked "What is sweet to men," he
answered, "Hope." He said he would rather
decide a dispute between two of his enemies than
between two of his friends; for in the latter case
he would be certain to make one of his friends
his enemy, but in the former case he would make
one of his enemies his friend. Asked what occupation gives a man most pleasure, he replied, "Making
money." He advised men to measure life as if they
had both a short and a long time to live; to love
their friends as if they would some day hate them,
the majority of mankind being bad. Further, he
gave this advice: Be slow to set about an enterprise, but persevere in it steadfastly when once it is
undertaken. Do not be hasty of speech, for that
is a sign of madness.
Cherish wisdom. Admit the
existence of the gods. If a man is unworthy, do not
praise him because of his wealth. Gain your point
by persuasion, not by force. Ascribe your good
actions to the gods. Make wisdom your provision
for the journey from youth to old age; for it is a
more certain support than all other possessions.
Bias is mentioned by Hipponax as stated above,
and Heraclitus, who is hard to please, bestows upon
him especial praise in these words4
lived Bias, son of Teutames, a man of more consideration than any." And the people of Priene dedicated
a precinct to him, which is called the Teutameum.
His apophthegm is: Most men are bad.