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Cleobis and Biton

6001: Archaic statues representing the brothers Cleobis and Biton. Made by an Argive artist (Polymedes?), c. 600 BC. Archaeological Museum, Delphi.

Cleobis and Biton (also called Cleops and Bitias 2), who are said to have surpassed all men in brotherly love and in affection towards their mother, are remembered for having performed a noble deed, which justified the pious prayer that caused their death.

Precious life

In the view of most mortals nothing is more precious than life. For their senses tell them that it is sweet to look upon the light, while their judgement teaches them that without life the sun is gone, as well as the pleasures of love in all its forms, and the fiery visions of wine, and the delightful song of the MUSES, and many other wonderful things, depending on taste and inclination.

The cause of deprivation

The same judgement clearly perceives that Death is the cause of such deprivation; and although Death is well known for never accepting bribes and never failing in bringing destruction, most men and women are prepared to do whatever it takes to delay the arrival of this dreadful god, for as short an instant as it might be, so that they may be fetched not now but later. But since Death cannot be soothed with prayers nor overcome by force nor mislead by cunning, mortals hate him, calling him black, evil, grievous, and many other names.

No one knows

Yet, as it has been remarked, no one knows for certain what Death might bring, and he who knows little about Death (it has been also suggested), must needs know little about life too, being perhaps confused about the nature of both:

"Who knows if to live is to be dead, and to be dead, to live? (Socrates. Plato, Gorgias 492e).

This issue, however, can neither be investigated by any high council of sages, nor unveiled through clever devices, and whereas some might find and answer for themselves in their corner of the universe, others go about making proclamations, and claiming to know what the rest ignore.

Approach to life and death

Yet others do not reason about the nature of life and death, but on how they stand in relation to each other. Firstly they seem to think that in order to pay, as they call it, the debt to Death, it suffices with dying, which, despite its being painful on occasion, is a much simpler procedure than the act of living. Secondly, seeing that dying is not yet death but rather a part of that same act of living, they concern themselves not so much with the world beyond them, but instead with the world before them. Being then primarily concerned with life (and necessarily with a good life; not a bad one, for then death could be preferred), they conclude that a good or happy life is achieved when also death is good, meaning by good what is honourable, or courageous, or dignified in any other way.

Solon's view

For example the Athenian poet and statesman Solon (c. 640 - c. 560 BC) is remembered (among other things) for having advised King Croesus of Lydia, who entertained him in his palace, acquainting him with the treasures, greatness and prosperity of his country, to refrain from calling a man fortunate before he dies. And when Croesus, hoping that his guest would acknowledge him as the most blessed, asked him to declare who was the happiest man in the world, Solon mentioned others instead, making every effort to let the king feel miserable, despite all his riches. For even sage men have a share in cruelty behind the mirror, and not seldom they allow truth to stir up their own perversity. But these things are matter of opinion; and whereas some may think that the king received a well deserved lesson, others have thought that a man should associate with rulers "either as little as possible, or with the best grace possible".

Solon's first prize

In any case, Solon refused to call Croesus the happiest man, listing others as if he were not aware of the king's desire. First he declared that at certain Athenian called Tellus was most happy. For, to begin with, he came from a prosperous city; then his children, who were good and noble, gave him grandchildren, all of which survived. Also, besides leading a most prosperous life, Tellus met a glorious death during the war between Athens and Eleusis, perishing finely in battle. And finally, he was buried at public expense on the spot where he had fallen, being honoured in many ways.

Solon's second prize

When Croesus heard the story of Tellus, he hoped to be awarded Solon's second prize of happiness. But Solon, finding pleasure in provocation, said that the Argive brothers Cleobis and Biton came next after Tellus. For, he argued, they had well enough to live on, and besides great bodily strength, having both won prizes in athletic contests.

Cleobis and Biton

Solon added that once—on the occasion of a festival of Hera in Argos—their mother needed to be transported to the temple. And since the oxen that would draw her wagon had not yet returned from the fields, Cleobis and Biton took the yoke upon their own shoulders, and running against time, drew the wagon with their mother riding atop it, covering a long distance until they came to the sanctuary of Hera, where the whole gathering praised their strength. Better to die

Being exhausted after performing such a huge effort, Cleobis and Biton lay down in the temple and went to sleep, while their mother Cydippe 2, whom many had congratulated for having borne such children, prayed to Hera to grant her children whatever was the best thing a man could receive. And since after this prayer the youths never rose again, but went, as some say, from one sleep to the next, it was concluded that for human beings it is a better thing to die than to live.

Divergent details

Such is the story that Herodotus affirms that Solon told Croesus. Others have said that the oxen were not found because they were dead, and that the whole issue was a matter of life and death for Cydippe 2, priestess of Hera. For if the sacrifices to the goddess were not performed at a certain time, she had to be killed. This is why, they say, her children, took upon their shoulders both task and yoke. It is added, however, that they died, after the aforementioned prayer, on their return to Argos, and that Cydippe 2, realizing that there was nothing better for mortals than to die, died herself a willing death.

Dedication at Delphi

Herodotus says that Solon told Croesus that the Argives made and dedicated at Delphi statues of Cleobis and Biton as being the best of men; and those statues (or their remains) should be the same that can be seen above in this page.




unknown & Cydippe 2


Cydippe 2 was a priestess of Hera.

Related sections Croesus, Death  

Hdt.1.31.1; Hyg.Fab.254; Pau.2.20.3; Plu.Sol. 27.5.