Cleobis and Biton

The story of the Argive youths Cleobis and Biton gives an idea of how different the ancient Greek world view was from our own.

Written by Josho Brouwers on 4 January 2018

The Historiai of Herodotus is a fantastic book filled with interesting stories. While the title is often translated simply as Histories, the Greek historia is acually better understood as meaning “inquiry”. The Historiai take as their subject the Persian Wars, but Herodotus devotes much time to researching, visiting, and reporting back stories about the Greeks, as well as their enemies, the Persians, including tales about and from the people the Achaemenid Empire had conquered.

As such, Herodotus isn’t really the “father of history” so much as he’s the world’s first investigative reporter. He wasn’t contend to just write about events that happened: he wanted to understand the motives behind people’s actions and to get an idea of the culture and worldviews of people who weren’t Greek. As a result, large parts of his work are devoted to studies of the ancient Egyptians, the Scythians, and the Lydians, who had all been conquered by the Persian behemoth.

At King Croesus’ court

According to Herodotus, the great Athenian statesman and poet, Solon, once visited Croesus, the king of Lydia. Croesus boasted about his wealth and power and asked Solon to confirm that he, indeed, was the most fortunate of men. Solon disagreed, however. He instead named other people whom he thought were more fortunate. Among the people he listed were two young Argives called Cleobis and Biton.

The story, as purportedly told by Solon to Croesus, is fairly short, so I will cite the passage from Herodotus directly, using the translation from Perseus (1.31):

Cleobis and Biton. They were of Argive stock, had enough to live on, and on top of this had great bodily strength. Both had won prizes in the athletic contests, and this story is told about them: there was a festival of Hera in Argos, and their mother absolutely had to be conveyed to the temple by a team of oxen. But their oxen had not come back from the fields in time, so the youths took the yoke upon their own shoulders under constraint of time. They drew the wagon, with their mother