Some thousands of years ago there lived in Asia a king whose name was Crœsus. The country over which he ruled was not very large, but its people were prosperous and famed for their wealth. Crœsus himself was said to be the richest man in the world; and so well known is his name that, to this day, it is not uncommon to say of a very wealthy person that he is "as rich as Crœsus."
King Crœsus had everything that could make him happy—lands and houses and slaves, fine clothing to wear, and beautiful things to look at. He could not think of anything that he needed to make him more comfortable or contented. "I am the happiest man in the world," he said.
It happened one summer that a great man from across the sea was traveling in Asia. The name of this man was Solon, and he was the lawmaker of Athens in Greece. He was noted for his wisdom; and, centuries after his death, the highest praise that could be given to a learned man was to say, "He is as wise as Solon."
Solon had heard of Crœsus, and so one day he visited him in his beautiful palace. Crœsus was now happier and prouder than ever before, for the wisest man in the world was his guest. He led Solon through his palace and showed him the grand rooms, the fine carpets, the soft couches, the rich furniture, the pictures, the books. Then he invited him out to see his gardens and his orchards and his stables; and he showed him thousands of rare and beautiful things that he had collected from all parts of the world.
In the evening as the wisest of men and the richest of men were dining together, the king said to his guest, "Tell me now, O Solon, who do you think is the happiest of all men?" He expected that Solon would say, "Crœsus."
The wise man was silent for a minute, and then he said, "I have in mind a poor man who once lived in Athens and whose name was Tellus. He, I doubt not, is the happiest of all men."
This was not the answer that Crœsus wanted; but he hid his disappointment and asked, "Why do you think so?"
"Because," answered his guest, "Tellus was an honest man who labored hard for many years to bring up his children and to give them a good education; and when they were grown and able to do for themselves, he joined the Athenian army and gave his life bravely in the defense of his country. Can you think of any one who is more deserving of happiness?"
"Perhaps not," answered Crœsus, half choking with disappointment. "But who do you think ranks next to Tellus in happiness?" He was quite sure now that Solon would say "Crœsus."
"I have in mind," said Solon, "two young men whom I knew in Greece. Their father died when they were mere children, and they were very poor. But they worked manfully to keep the house together and to support their mother, who was in feeble health. Year after year they toiled, nor thought of anything but their mother's comfort. When at length she died, they gave all their love to Athens, their native city, and nobly served her as long as they lived."
Then Crœsus was angry. "Why is it," he asked, "that you make me of no account and think that my wealth and power are nothing? Why is it that you place these poor working people above the richest king in the world?"
"O king," said Solon, "no man can say whether you are happy or not until you die. For no man knows what misfortunes may overtake you, or what misery may be yours in place of all this splendor."
Many years after this there arose in Asia a powerful king whose name was Cyrus. At the head of a great army he marched from one country to another, overthrowing many a kingdom and attaching it to his great empire of Babylon. King Crœsus with all his wealth was not able to stand against this mighty warrior. He resisted as long as he could. Then his city was taken, his beautiful palace was burned, his orchards and gardens were destroyed, his treasures were carried away, and he himself was made prisoner.
"The stubbornness of this man Crœsus," said King Cyrus, "has caused us much trouble and the loss of many good soldiers. Take him and make an example of him for other petty kings who may dare to stand in our way."
Thereupon the soldiers seized Crœsus and dragged him to the market place, handling him pretty roughly all the time. Then they built up a great pile of dry sticks and timber taken from the ruins of his once beautiful palace. When this was finished they tied the unhappy king in the midst of it, and one ran for a torch to set it on fire.
"Now we shall have a merry blaze," said the savage fellows. "What good can all his wealth do him now?"
As poor Crœsus, bruised and bleeding, lay upon the pyre without a friend to soothe his misery, he thought of the words which Solon had spoken to him years before: "No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die," and he moaned, "O Solon! O Solon! Solon!"
It so happened that Cyrus was riding by at that very moment and heard his moans. "What does he say?" he asked of the soldiers.
"He says, 'Solon, Solon, Solon!' " answered one.
Then the king rode nearer and asked Crœsus, "Why do you call on the name of Solon?"
Crœsus was silent at first; but after Cyrus had repeated his question kindly, he told all about Solon's visit at his palace and what he had said.
The story affected Cyrus deeply. He thought of the words, "No man knows what misfortunes may overtake you, or what misery may be yours in place of all this splendor." And he wondered if some time he, too, would lose all his power and be helpless in the hands of his enemies.
"After all," said he, "ought not men to be merciful and kind to those who are in distress? I will do to Crœsus as I would have others do to me." And he caused Crœsus to be given his freedom; and ever afterwards treated him as one of his most honored friends.