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The Story of Glaucus

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Herodotus, The Histories 6.86

The story of Glaucus illustrates Herodotus' use of the digressions. The main line of his account is about the Spartan king Leotychidas, who demands back several prisoners from the Athenians, but Herodotus makes the king tell a story to make his point. In this way, Herodotus can insert another good tale in his Histories.

When Leotychidas came to Athens and asked for the deposit back, the Athenians, not being willing to give up the hostages, produced pretexts for refusing, and alleged that two kings had deposited them and they did not think it right to give them back to the one without the other. Since the Athenians said that they would not give them back, Leotychidas spoke to them as follows:

"Athenians, do whatever you like, for you know that if you give them up, you do that what religion commands, and if you refuse to give them up, you do the opposite. I only desire to tell you what kind of a thing came to pass once in Sparta about a deposit.

We Spartans tell that there was in Lacedemon about two generations before my time [1] one Glaucus, the son of Epicydes. This man, we say, attained the highest merit in all things, and especially he was well known for his honesty. Now we tell that once, the following happened to him.

A man from Miletus came to Sparta and wanted to speak with him. 'I am a Milesian,' he explained, 'and I am here because I want to benefit from your honesty, Glaucus. For all over Greece and Ionia, many speak of your honesty, and I thought that if Ionia is ever in danger, the Peloponnese is safe; and I thought that we never see wealth continue in the possession of the same persons long;  - reflecting, I say, on these things and taking counsel with myself, I decided to convert half of my possessions into money, and to place it with you, being certain that it is safe when it is placed with you. Accept therefore, I say, the money, and keep these tallies. Whosoever shall ask for the money back, having the tokens answering to these, to him you can restore it.'

The stranger who had come from Miletus said so much; and Glaucus accepted the deposit on the terms proposed.

After a long time had gone by, the sons of the man who had deposited the money with Glaucus arrived in Sparta. They came to speech with Glaucus, produced the tokens, and asked for the money to be given back. But he repulsed them, saying: 'I do not remember the matter, nor does my mind bring back to me any knowledge of those things of which you speak. But I want to think about it and do all that is just. For if I received it, I want to restore it honestly; and if on the other hand I did not receive it at all, I will act towards you in accordance with the customs of the Greeks:[2] therefore I defer the settling of the matter with you for three months from now.'

The Milesians went away grieved, for they supposed that they had been robbed of the money. Glaucus sent a messenger to Delphi to consult the Oracle whether he should rob them of the money by an oath. The Pythian prophetess rebuked him with these lines:

Glaucus, thou, Epicydes' son, yea, this for the moment,
This, to conquer their word by an oath and to rob,
is more gainful.
Swear, since the lot of death waits also for him who swears truly.
But know thou that Oath has a son,
one nameless and handless and footless,
Yet without feet he pursues, without hands he seizes, and wholly
He shall destroy the race and the house
of the man who offendeth.
But for the man who swears truly his race is the better hereafter.
When Glaucus heard this, he begged the god to pardon him for what he had said, but the prophetess said that to make trial of the god and to do the deed were things equivalent. Glaucus sent for the Milesians and gave back to them the money.

The reason for which, Athenians, I told you this story, shall now be told. At the present time there is no descendant of Glaucus alive, nor is there any hearth which is called that of Glaucus. He has been utterly destroyed and rooted up out of Sparta. Thus it is good not even to entertain a thought about a deposit other than that of restoring it, when they who made it ask for it again."

After Leotychidas had said this he discovered that the Athenians were not willing to listen to him, and he departed.
 

Notes

[1]
This would place the story in c.540 BCE, at the time of the Persian conquest of Ionia.

[2]
I.e., start a lawsuit.

 
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