A Story From Herodotus

retold by Jon Corelis

Way back when, there lived a King in the East, in the country called Lydia, whose name was Croesus, and he was real, real, rich. This Croesus was so rich, he could hardly count up how rich he was. He had twelve palaces, and each palace had twelve treasure chambers, and each of those treasure chambers held a dozen chests of gold, and a dozen chests of silver, and a dozen chests of pearls (every one perfect and none smaller than a cherry), and a dozen chests of diamonds glittering like icy stars, and a dozen chests of fine weavings (the smallest of which had taken a dozen maidens a dozen years to weave), and a dozen chests of sapphires blue as the sky, and a dozen chests of rare aromatics (each chest holding twelve gold boxes of incense made from frankincense, and from stacte, and from onycha, and from galbanum, and twelve alabaster vases of ointment of spikenard and of sweet calamus and of cassia and of flowing myrrh and of sweet cinnamon, and twelve silver caskets holding unguents compounded from storax and from tragacanth, and twelve crystal phials of oil of saffron), and also a dozen chests of multicolored onyx shimmering like polished fragments of rainbow, and a dozen chests of emeralds (none smaller than a large acorn), and a dozen chests of amber from the far frozen north, and a dozen chests of amethysts purple as wine, and a dozen chests of rubies that would smolder like a cold glowing coal if you held them in your hand, which of course you couldn’t because Croesus wouldn’t let anyone else do that.

Every palace also had a dozen kitchens, each staffed day and night by a dozen chefs who had trained for a dozen years before being allowed to cook for the King. One of these kitchens was devoted solely to baking the King’s breads, another produced nothing but sweet cakes spiced with rare flavors from the corners of the world, another prepared only fish and other creatures of the deep (delivered daily by the palace’s private fleet of a dozen fishing boats), another was kept busy frying, grilling, and roasting rabbit, venison, pheasant, and other game of the season caught by the palace’s team of twelve huntsmen, another skillfully arranged succulent displays of fruits culled at the acme of their ripeness from the palace’s dozen orchards, another was fully occupied cooking chicken, duck, turkey, goose, and pigeon according to the One Hundred and Forty Four Canonical Recipes for Fowl, with next to it another kitchen for making almost as many sorts of egg dishes as there are eggs in the world, and there was yet another kitchen with huge fireplaces and spits on which revolved whole steers, lambs, goats, and suckling pigs, and another to produce salads alone, and another for the construction of dessert confections so cunningly devised that they were as astonishing to behold as they were luscious to taste, and another just for the cooling, mixing, and decantation of the King’s wines, and a special banquet kitchen which Croesus called upon when he wanted to stage a meal which would impress someone.

Each of these twelve palaces was surrounded by twelve pleasure gardens adorned with trees as rich in their variety as the sumptuous offerings of the kitchens, and in their boughs twittered and cheeped and trilled and cooed pairs of exotic birds as wondrous in the diversity of their beauty as were the precious goods in the treasure chambers. And, Croesus being after all a man like other men, each palace also had a dozen harems, hedged, walled, and guarded in their own secluded wing, and in each harem resided a dozen concubines recruited from the loveliest girls of all the nations of the earth with which the wide ranging Lydian traders had commerce, each so stunning you would swear she was the most beautiful woman in the world until you saw the next one. So numerous indeed were these pleasant companions that Croesus found it impossible to remember all their names, though he never forgot his encounters with them: when strolling through a harem, he would come upon one of these fair ones and say, “I remember you – you were March 23rd two years ago at ten o’clock in the morning! Do you still have that mole?”

To defend all this property, Croesus had an army of warriors in number beyond counting. This is not a mere manner of speaking: if you had mustered this host all together in a plain, their massed ranks would extend beyond the horizon, so that it would be impossible for an observer to enumerate them all. Each common soldier bore a helmet, corselet, sword, spear, greaves, and shield as resplendent as those which in other armies only generals would wear, and all this equipage was burnished to such a brilliant sheen that any enemy troops, when confronted with these imperial battalions, would first stop and stand stark still, dazzled by the endless glare of their foe’s armor in the sun, and then, as their vision cleared so they could perceive the magnitude and might of Croesus’s forces, they would cry to themselves, “Now indeed, O my feet, show forth your nimbleness!” and would turn around and scamper away without having joined battle.

And if you added all these things together, they would barely make up a twelfth part of everything Croesus had. So as you can see, Croesus was so rich that he made other rich men seem poor. In fact, Croesus was so rich that even today, when people want to say that someone is real, real, rich, they say, “He’s as rich as Croesus.”

Now, at this same time there lived in the city of Athens a man called Solon, who was very wise. In fact, Solon was as wise as Croesus was rich, so much so that he was universally known as “the wisest of the Greeks,” and even today, when people want to say that someone is very, very wise, they say, “He’s as wise as Solon.” Solon was so wise that his fellow Athenians asked him to write them a new constitution. Solon did this, and then announced he was going on a long vacation. He told people he just needed some rest and recreation after the constitution project, but the true reason was so the Athenians, who were an argumentative lot, wouldn’t immediately start hassling him to change the constitution he’d given them if he hung around Athens. So he decided to make himself scarce to give his new constitution a chance to get established without being tampered with. Though in fact seeing a bit of the world was also one of his motives.

Solon in the course of his travels came to the land of Lydia, where Croesus welcomed him royally and gave him the grand tour. He took Solon to the most magnificent of his twelve magnificent palaces, showed him the riches in the treasure chambers, strolled with him through the gardens, had him review his endless ranks of troops, and even found an excuse to leave Solon standing at the gate of the avenue leading to the harem wing, Croesus himself claiming to have been called away briefly on urgent matters of state, so that a servant could give Solon a hushed and glowing description of the delights that lay behind that gate, a stratagem Croesus employed because he didn’t consider it seemly to boast about such matters himself. All the while Croesus was showing Solon his riches, his special banquet kitchen, with the assistance of his other eleven kitchens, was busily responding to the order Croesus had sent them that they were to prepare a banquet of banquets, one which would make all previous banquets seem meager as a peasant’s bread crust.

To describe the luxury of that banquet, the variety and excellence of its innumerable courses, the opulence of the dining chamber and the serving dishes, the exquisite quality of the wines and sherbets, would take longer than it took for Croesus and his company of retainers and Solon to be served and consume it. Suffice it to say that Croesus believed it had driven home the point he was making to Solon. And when the banquet had finally ended, Croesus leaned back with a satisfied belch in his personal dining chair (a chair that was more impressively ornate with wrought gold and carven ivory set with lapis lazuli than the actual throne of any other king), where he sat with his currently most favorite concubine in his lap feeding him one by one an after dinner fillip of violet-candied nightingales’ tongues, and his currently second favorite concubine standing on his left spraying his hands and beard with a refreshing spritz of rosewater very faintly scented with ambergris, and his third favorite concubine standing behind him massaging his neck and shoulders with hands adorned with ten different rings set with ten different jewels, and turning to Solon, whom he had seated in the place of honor on his right, said to him, “My dear Athenian guest: your reputation as the wisest of the Greeks has preceded you to our court, and moreover, you have traveled the world over. Accordingly, I believe there can be nobody better qualified than you of whom to ask the following question: who, in your opinion, is the most successful person you have ever seen?” The point of the question being that Croesus figured he himself could be the only candidate.

But Solon surprised him by immediately replying: “Your Majesty, I’d have to say it was a guy I knew back in Athens, name of Tellus.” Croesus did a frowning double take and asked, “Say which?” “Yes, Sire,” said Solon, “because this Tellus was born a free citizen of a prosperous nation; he had fine children and lived to see them grow up to have fine children themselves; he was respected and had friends and was never in want; he lived a long life but not long enough to have to suffer the pains of old age; and finally, he had a good death: when Athens was attacked by an enemy army, he went out to fight for his country, and though he died in combat, it was only after he had fought so bravely that he was personally responsible for turning the tide of battle in favor of the Athenians. As a result, we gave him a public funeral right there on the spot where he had fallen, which is something we Athenians do only in cases where a citizen soldier has displayed the most outstanding conceivable valor.” Croesus was a little put out by this, but he said to himself, “Well, OK, this Solon’s an Athenian, he wants to give first prize to a home boy, I can dig that. I’ll just have to ask him again to get the real answer.” So he said: “And who would you put in second place, after him?”

Solon however gave another surprising reply: “That would have to be,” he said, “two young fellows from Argos, brothers they were, named Cleobis and Biton. They came from a respectable, somewhat well off family, and though they were some of the best athletes in their city, no one realized how strong they really were until a certain incident took place which, with your permission, Sire, I’ll tell you about.

“The most important day of the year in Argos is the day of the festival of the goddess Hera, who is that city’s tutelary deity. The people of Argos believe it’s absolutely essential to the well being of their city that on the day of that festival, the high priestess of Hera should be carried up to the goddess’s temple by a huge ceremonial ox cart (the ox, as Your Majesty may know, being an animal especially associated with Hera, whom our great poet Homer indeed often refers to as “the Goddess of the Ox Eyes.”) Well, it so happened that the high priestess of Hera at this time was the mother of Cleobis and Biton, and she and all the people were greatly distressed because, as the moment approached when she was to be carried to the temple in the ox cart, the oxen for some reason were unexpectedly late in returning from the fields. It looked like the people of Argos were, all unwillingly, about to perpetrate a dreadful sacrilege. But Cleobis and Biton saved the day: they actually hitched themselves to the ox cart and pulled their mother in it to the temple, a distance of six miles, with the whole population of Argos following along. When they had reached the temple, their mother descended from the ox cart and standing on the temple steps in the midst of the crowd of admiring citizens, she spread her arms and raised her face to the heavens and prayed, ‘O Lady Hera, Goddess of the Ox Eyes, Queen of Olympus, Consort of Zeus, in as much as my two sons have on behalf of thy city’s people shown such conspicuous reverence to thee, therefore do I pray that thou wilt grant unto them the finest gift which it is within the power of the deathless gods to confer upon mortal men.’ That’s how she prayed, and then, after the rituals and sacrifices and feasting in honor of the goddess had been accomplished, her two sons went into the temple, and lay down and went to sleep, and they never got up again, because there, in the sacred precinct, while still in the high bloom of health and strength and youth, and at the moment of their greatest honor and glory, peacefully and with no pain or fear, they had died. The people of Argos then wondered at them even more, and they authorized the commission at public expense of a pair of statues of the two brothers to be dedicated at the god Apollo’s shrine at Delphi.”

Such was the story Solon told the King, and as a footnote to it, if you go to Delphi even today, you can see those statues of Cleobis and Biton.

But Croesus didn’t care about that. In fact, Croesus was doing the slow burn: he had wisps of smoke curling up from the tips of his moustache. He leapt to his feet in irritation, tumbling his currently most favorite concubine from his lap to fall to the polished banquet room floor flat on her dignity, and said to Solon, “Now looky here: I’ve just spent the whole day showing you palaces and treasure chambers and gardens and armies the like of which I’m sure you’ve never seen before in all your travels over the world, and I’ve just held a banquet the like of which you’ve never seen either, and you can tell from these girls here that I’ve got women whose beauty is as exceeding as my wealth and power. And then when I ask you who the most successful person you’ve ever seen is, you tell me about some Athenian I’ve never heard of named Tellus. And when I ask who you’d put in second place, you start telling me about a couple of young kids from Argos I’ve never heard of either. So what I want to know is, what am I, chopped liver?”

“Your Majesty,” answered Solon, “we human beings get basically seventy years to walk around in the sunlight. Since there are three hundred and sixty five days in a year, that makes – let’s see, times seven and carry the three ... but wait a minute, you have to add in for leap years ... well, let’s just round it off and say we get a total of twenty six thousand days. And you can’t count on it that your luck on any given one of those twenty six thousand days is going to be the same as it was on the day before, or as it will be on the day after. You can see from this what a dicey proposition human life is. So it seems to me that if you want to decide how successful someone is, you can’t just look at how successful they happen to be on any random one of those days: you have to look at how successful they’ve been through the total sum of their days. This being the case, I myself, in my personal opinion, am not willing to call anyone successful until they’re dead, since it’s only after a person dies and you can look at all of their days together that you’re in a position to make a judgment like that.”

Well, Croesus dismissed Solon politely enough, but inside he said to himself, “If this guy is the wisest of the Greeks then the rest of them must be real bimbos, since this guy don’t know his keister from a kazoo.” But later, Croesus found out that Solon was right, and if you want to know the rest of his story, you can find it in the book of Herodotus.

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