Once upon a time, there was a king named Croesus. He ruled over a very prosperous Lydia in Asia Minor (nowadays they call it Turkey). He was so wealthy, in fact, that his very name became a metonym for the rich man. A “Croesus” people would say—and still do, if you talk to the right people.
Actually, now that I mention it, I seem to recall reading somewhere, when I was working on some ancient coins, that one of the earliest, or perhaps the earliest coinages was from Lydia.
Croesus once hosted a visitor (who had quite an interesting background of his own—and one which falls outside the scope of the present theme), Solon, an Athenian. Now all this took place in the 6th century BC, when the Greeks were still settling for themselves which ones of a great mass of publicly performed songs and stories would get to be the best, and therefore preserved, the paragon—in the old sense of that word—of each genre, tale, or theme.
Solon later became known as one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, along with about ten other fine chaps. For now, though, in his lifetime, so the story goes, he busied himself with being wise. As a guest, then, in Croesus’s palace, Solon found an incredulous host for the sentiment with which I titled this post: count not man happy until he is dead. “No,” he dared to say to the wealthiest man in the world, “not even you.”
Later on, when Croesus’s kingdom had been overrun by the Persians, and Croesus himself was standing tied to a stake watching the fires climb up the piled kindling to lick his bare feet and singe his tattered rags, the Great King himself looking on impassively, the old and tired man could only muster up the strength to groan long and low: “Solon.”
King heard this and, intrigued, he ordered Croesus to be untied, the fires put out.
A good story, no? We get it from perhaps the greatest storyteller who ever lived, Herodotus of Halicarnassus. At any rate, the wisdom, “Count no man happy until he is dead,” became ubiquitous in the ancient Greek world, and the best thing I read today is a reiteration of that.
It is the opening of the Trachiniae of Sophocles, the play in which Heracles’ slighted wife, in an attempt to apply a love-philtre to her unfaithful husband, inadvertently executes his enemy’s plan, years-in-the-making, to poison him to death:
“λόγος μὲν ἔστ’ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανεὶς
ὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν’ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶν, πρὶν ἂν
θάνῃ τις, οὔτ’ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ’ εἴ τῳ κακός·
“There has long been a saying among men
That you could not be sure about the life of mortals, until
One dies, whether he had a good one or a bad one;”
she begins. And then:
“But I, even before I go to Hades,
Know mine to be unhappy and grave…”
Did you catch her? She didn’t quite say, exactly, “Count no man happy until he is dead.” And she didn’t just say, either, “Don’t count me happy.” The difference between χρηστός and κακός is by no means the difference between “happy” and “unhappy” (δυστυχής—her word).
Who is the hero of this play anyway?