[This is a project I’ve been working on and off for several years now, a collection of ancient short stories (mostly adapted from Herodotus and Livy), under the working title The Happiest of Men. These are grouped into four chapters: Fate, Law, Sacrifice, and Love. Every week for the next few months I will be posting a new story until the epilogue and then the afterword. Without further ado, enjoy!]
King Croesus ruled the land of the Lydians, and he was the richest king of all. His city of Sardis gleamed with shining gold and white marble, and his palaces and temples were the envy of the world. Even the wisemen of Athens, who loved wisdom more than gold, came to see his city.
One day the greatest wiseman of them all, Solon, came to visit King Croesus. Croesus was very flattered, and now he wanted to be praised. So he showed Solon the wonders of his kingdom, and then asked him, “My friend, who do you think is the happiest man you have ever seen?” He was expecting to hear, “You, o King.”
But Solon did not flatter. He answered, “O King, the happiest man I have ever seen is a man from Athens, named Tellus. For he was neither too rich nor too poor, his children were good, and he lived to see his grandchildren. He died fighting bravely against the enemies of Athens, and was buried with honour. That is why Tellus is the happiest man I have ever seen.”
And so Croesus asked, “Who then is the second happiest?” Surely Solon would name him second, at least!
“Two brothers, Cleobis and Biton, from the city of Argos,” Solon replied. “For they were also neither too rich nor too poor, and their bodies were strong. Once, when their mother had to get to town in a great hurry and the family mule was nowhere to be seen, they put their mother in a cart and dragged it to town by themselves. That night their mother gave thanks for such good sons, and asked heaven to give Cleobis and Biton the best thing in the world. The next morning the two brothers were found asleep in the temple. But no one could wake them up. You see, heaven had taken them away in their sleep, away from the troubles of the world.”
Then King Croesus grew angry. “So you think nothing of my wealth and riches? Am I less happy than the common people you have named?”
Solon replied, “O King, you must look to the end in all things before you can think of happiness. Look – there are perhaps seventy years in a man’s life, and not a single one of them will be the same as the next. You say your wealth makes you happy – how do you know it will stay with you always? What would you do should heaven take it away? So always look to the end, o King. Only a man who dies happily is truly happy!”
But Croesus hated Solon’s advice and sent him away. In his own eyes, Croesus was indeed the happiest man in the world. From then on, pride filled his heart, and heaven prepared to destroy him.