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“Croesus, king of Lydia, asked him as follows: ‘Athenian guest, much report of thee has come to us, both in regard to thy wisdom and thy wanderings… a desire has come upon me to ask whether thou hast seen any whom thou deem to be of all men the most happy.’ This he asked supposing that he himself was the happiest of men; but Solon, using no flattery but the truth only, said: ‘Yes, O king, Tellos the Athenian.’

Croesus, marveling at that which he said, asked him earnestly, ‘In what respect dost thou judge Tellos to be the most happy?’ And he said: ‘Tellos, in the first place, living while his native State was prosperous, had sons fair and good and saw from all of them children begotten and living to grow up; and secondly he had what with us is accounted wealth, and after his life a most glorious end. For when a battle was fought by the Athenians at Eleusis against the neighbouring people, he brought up supports and routed the foe and there died by a most fair death; and his people buried him publicly where he fell, and honoured him greatly.’ […]

Croesus was moved to anger and said: ‘Athenian guest, hast thou then so cast aside our prosperous state as worth nothing, that thou dost prefer to us even men of private station?’ And he said: ‘Croesus, thou art inquiring about human fortunes of one who well knows that fate is apt to disturb our lot. For in the course of long time a man may see many things which he would not desire to see, and suffer also many things which he would not desire to suffer… As for thee, I perceive that thou art both great in wealth and king of many men, but that of which thou didst ask me I cannot call thee yet, until I learn that thou hast brought thy life to a fair ending: for the very rich man is not at all to be accounted more happy than he who has but his subsistence from day-to-day, unless also the fortune go with him to possess things of value. For many very wealthy men are not happy, while many who have but a moderate living are fortunate… But we must of every thing examine the end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many fate shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.'”


Excerpted from the opening third of Herodtus’s The Histories, the only surviving work of the earliest known historian. (The excerpt is from the at-times haughtier G.C. Macauley version, which lends some gravity to sections like the one above. I haven’t read Tom Holland’s translation, but I assume it’s the best vernacular version out there.)

In The Histories, Herodotus notes that Croesus is a “Lydian by race,” a “ruler of the nations between the Syrians and the Paphlagonians,” and the “first Barbarian of whom we have knowledge.”

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