The Histories of Herodotus are a lively, varied, and highly readable work, a rather lighter experience than the gloomy, disgruntled Thucydides. However, that is not to say his work does not contain moral lessons or relevant messages. He has plenty to say and shall be considering one of them in this article. He wrote around the middle of the fifth century BCE, composing a history, which comprised nine books which detail history from the earliest interactions between the Greeks and their Eastern neighbours to the end of the Persian Wars, which saw the Athenians, Spartans, and allies victorious in 479 BCE. It is possible that the work was based on lectures he delivered.
The first half of book I deals primarily with the initially successful Lydian kingdom and its fall during the reign of King Croesus. He was fabulously wealthy, thus spawning the phrase ‘rich as/richer than Croesus’, still used nowadays to denote great riches. Croesus rather arrogantly exulted in his abundant wealth, rarely missing an opportunity to show it off to visitors. Later in the Histories, Herodotus reports the rather amusing story of Alcmaeon’s visit to Sardis, capital of the Lydian kingdom (Book 6, section 125). Proudly showing off his great opulence, he invited Alcmaeon to keep as much gold as he could possibly carry. Alcmaeon made quite a spectacle of himself, cramming gold into his clothes, boots, mouth, and even his hair. Croesus was apparently so amused by Alcmaeon’s effort, that he allowed him to take away double the amount that he had managed to amass about his person. A clear implication of the story is that this ‘gift’ made little impact on Croesus’ savings.
Croesus’ glories in his wealth and it is this that forms the basis for his altercation with Athenian lawgiver and philosopher Solon. Croesus is convince that he must be the ‘most fortunate’ of men due to his great wealth, and having given Solon a tour of his treasuries, he asks him who he considers to be the ‘most fortunate’ of men.
The term Croesus uses is ὀλβιος (olbios, or in the superlative form ‘olbiotatos’) and it is worth pausing a moment to think about the term’s meanings and nuances. I have translated the term as ‘most fortunate’. Essentially, the word means ‘happy’, ‘fortunate’, or even ‘blessed’. However, Solon and Croesus take this term in quite different ways. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon notes that the word can refer both to happiness ‘with regards to worldly goods’, and also to a blessing ‘beyond mere outward prosperity’. Croesus speaks with the first meaning in mind, Solon the second. Solon awards first place to Tellus the Athenian. Croesus asks the question again, expecting at least that he would receive second place. But no, Solon gives second place to Cleobis and Biton, brothers who were from Argos.
Croesus is visibly miffed and asks Solon directly why he has not been mentioned and whether Solon counts him as lesser than ‘common men’, as translated by A. D. Godley, which captures well the condescending tone of Croesus’ remark. Solon’s reply essentially delivers the following message:
· Being rich is not the same as being fortunate.
· Rich men can be deeply unfortunate, since wealth often does not last.
· Nor does being lucky qualify a man to be fortunate.
· To be judged as fortunate, one’s whole life must be taken into account, not a mere snapshot.
This last might seem somewhat extreme to us nowadays, but what Solon is saying about what should be valued when judging life should and does still resonate today:
· Money, or worldly goods, do not buy true happiness. Being fortunate does not lie in possessions.
· These do not guarantee one being counted as good or noble.
· These do not equal a fulfilled life.
These three tenets of Solon’s view are borne out particularly by his first choice, Tellus of Athens, which we shall now examine more closely. Tellus was from a prosperous city, Athens. He bore good and noble children, who also bore their own children and all survived. Solon then says that he was ‘well-off in life’ (τοῦτο δὲ τοῦ βίου εὖ ἥκοντι). However, this does not mean that he was wealthy, rather his life was fulfilled. He was lucky in coming from a rich city. Solon is not saying that Tellus was as ‘rich as Croesus’, but lived in a place where his life could be comfortable. He was blessed with fine children and grandchildren who all survived him. Tellus’ fortune lay ‘beyond worldly goods’, which as shown above is part of o0lbioj’ scope of meaning. Solon then describes the glorious death Tellus died in serving his country. Solon is not saying we must all die serving our country. The point is that Tellus left behind a reputation as a good, noble man, esteemed and honoured by his countrymen that day. Your fortune in matters such as health, both of yourself and your family, and the reputation for goodness that you leave behind earn you the title of 0olbioj, not mere riches, and the same old adage rings in our minds, ‘money cannot buy happiness’, not at least in the sense that Solon means.
His message for how to judge a ‘wealthy life’ is still very important, and perhaps the current circumstances of COVID do (or certainly should) bring home the truth of this message even more: luck in our health and well-being, our needs met without excess, and hopefully creating a lasting reputation for being ‘good’, perhaps even making the world a better place.