Works and days of a horrible classical Athenian millionaire

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it may be found in the bottom of a pit, at which point the family fortunes change overnight and all sorts of previously unthinkable possibilities become routine. It is a period of happiness and prosperity that will last until the proverbial bad apple gets a hold of all that money and invests them in a life of dissipation, malevolence, and degeneracy that flouts all that the society holds as holy and dear.

Sophrosyne (moderation or self-restraint) was an ancient Greek concept much extolled by philosophers and politicians. It was a valued civic virtue and intimately associated with individual worthiness and good character. No important quality was too foreign to be connected to sophrosyne, including excellence of character (arete), heroic courage (andreia), and obedience to prescribed order (eukosmia). Plato dedicated a whole dialogue (Charmides) to the subject, while Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides used the theme prominently in their plays. Even Apollo endorsed it; the inscription “Meden Agan” (μηδὲν ἄγαν – Nothing in excess) was carved in a prominent spot in Delphi, a perennial reminder to all supplicants that temperance is a cardinal virtue. And yet, for all its prominence among the intellectual elite of ancient Athens, sophrosyne seems to have been in short supply in the household of Callias.

How not to pay your debts

The story of Callias is, in reality, the story of an entire period in Athenian history. His family and its fortunes attracted popular attention and became the stuff of legend, for better and for worse. His family demonstrated an exasperating lack of imagination when it took to naming the first-born son, who was called either Hipponicus or Callias alternately. This pattern became proverbial and was immortalized as a joke in the Birds by Aristophanes where Hoopoe is the son of Philocles, who is the son of Hoopoe. In any case, the family belonged to the genos Kerykes and was important enough to share with the Eleusinian family of Eumolpidai control of the cult of Demeter and Kore, one of the most prestigious religious offices in the land.

The first Hipponicus made the family fortune in an “extremely distressing” manner. He was a trusted friend of Solon, the great Athenian statesman who was working tirelessly to reform the constitution of Athens in 594 BCE. Hipponicus became aware that Solon was planning to abolish all debts, but he would not confiscate and redivide big estates. He borrowed a large sum of money and purchased as much land as he could. When Solon proclaimed his popular abolition of debts (Seisachtheia), Hipponicus kept the estates and did not have to repay the money he had borrowed. To add a touch of delectable malice to the proceedings, it was soon revealed that he had actually borrowed five (or fifteen) talents from Solon himself to acquire the land.

Persian gold

Callias I inherited his father’s fortune and increased it by daring to purchase the property of the tyrant Pisistratus each time the latter was forced into exile (which happened with alarming frequency). But he had big dreams for all this money and invested heavily on horses, winning victories at the Olympic and Pythian Games. He was also a caring and liberal father. Each of his three daughters was allowed to select a husband of their liking (unthinkable in classical Athens) and received a most generous dowry.

The next Hipponicus, son of Callias I, was the subject of incredibly malevolent and imaginative stories. When the Persians were defeated in Marathon in 490 BCE, a Persian general entrusted a number of valuables to a man from Eretria. Ten years later, the heirs of this man donated the Persian’s treasure to Hipponicus. What seems incontestable is that this Hipponicus did his part to increase the family fortune.

Not surprisingly, the next head of the family was a Callias. Now, he was known as Lakkoploutos, a word derived from λάκκος (pit). The obvious explanation is that Callias found buried treasure, but it seems far more likely that he derived his vast wealth from prospecting for silver mines at Laurium. Much like his father, this Callias was the subject of malicious gossip. Legend had it that he was present at the battle of Marathon dressed in the attire of the torch bearer in the great procession of the Eleusinian Mysteries. When the Persians were defeated, a man appealed to him for a quarter and told him about a pit where he had buried a treasure. Callias then killed the Persians and kept the money.

The Bold and The Beautiful

Another Hipponicus (the third) comes on stage. He was rather conservative in his tastes and managed to hand his fortune intact (but not increased) to his son. This Hipponicus was a military man and lived a famously frugal life during his campaigns. The comic poet Eupolis claimed that he only ate a few sprats (a small fish) before the war and a tiny amount of meat during his service abroad. This frugality did not extend to his daughters, for in the true spirit of the family tradition he gave them impressive dowries. Hipparete married the (in)famous Alcibiades and received the largest dowry ever given: ten talents. The other daughter married a rich manufacturer of musical instruments and gave birth to Isocrates, the famous rhetorician.

As a character, Hipponicus was probably less than totally pleasant. There is a story about him refusing to employ Polykleitos as a sculptor to do his statue because he didn’t want people to admire the artist more than the subject. His wife seems to have had enough of him at some point, for she divorced him and went on to marry the great statesman Periclean, by whom she became the mother of Xanthippus and Paralus (both sons, as well as Pericles, died of the plague).

Greek love

His son, Callias III, is the last hero of our little tale. He inherited the vast family fortune and enjoyed a life of pleasure, luxury, and extravagance. He was born around 450 BCE and was still alive in 371 BCE when he made an arduous journey to Sparta. His youth left the worst impression on his contemporaries, with Andocides claiming that Hipponicus was raising a monster of wickedness. He kept the best company though. His friends and companions included Alcibiades (his brother-in-law) and Socrates. At the age of 19 or 20, he hosted a great banquet for the famous sophist Protagoras at his own house. The story of that memorable evening is narrated by Plato in Protagoras.

Xenophon, gives us another sketch about a dinner at Callias’ house. This one was held a few years later; Callias was returning home from the races with the beautiful youth Autolycus, when he met Socrates, Charmides, and other acquaintances. They all ended up at the house in the upscale suburb of Melite, just south of the ancient Agora. Callias looked his best in an effort to impress Autolycus, whose beauty and modesty attracted countless admirers. The evening included jesters, female flutists, and dancers, a hoop stuck full of erect swords. Socrates refused an offer of perfume as something only fit for women; men needed only oil. There is a spirited discussion on the topic of what is most worth knowing, as well as a discourse by Socrates on love, inspired by Callias’ love for Autolycus. The great philosopher compliments Callias on his selection of the young boy and notes that political power was open to him since he was a noble, a priest of the goddess Demeter, and was among the most handsome men in Athens.

Callias soon made a name for himself as a self-indulgent and ostentatious host, who allowed himself to be fleeced by all sorts of parasites. Aristophanes made a character in his play Ecclesiazusae to say that someone was “throwing away his money faster than Callias”. This may have made the audience laugh but when this play was taught, Callias was probably 60 years old, which means that even after a lifetime of profligacy he had money to spend. He had invested a fortune on the education of his two sons but Plato seemed to think that all that money was wasted on incompetent teachers.

Mother and daughter

And then we have the nastiest story of them all, presented to an audience of Athenian judges by the speechwriter Andocides. Callias had accused him of participating in the mutilation of the Hermae in 415 BCE. To make matters worse, Callias claimed that Andocides had placed a suppliant bough on the altar of Demeter outside of the festival period. Today this may seem like a ridiculous accusation, but in classical Athens, it carried the death penalty. The speechwriter defended himself vigorously and had no difficulty coming up with an incredible list of scandals and accusations against Callias. He claimed that the root of the problem was the competition for the hand of a wealthy heiress whom Callias wanted for his son.

A good chunk of his fortune was spent on women. Andocides, once more, serves us with a generous portion of scandalous gossip. For it seems that Callias married the daughter of Ischomachus, but less than a year after the wedding ceremony, he took her mother as a mistress. The daughter tried to commit suicide by drowning but she failed and was thrown out of the house by her own mother. Later, Callias abandoned the mother as well, even though she was pregnant. Callias refused to recognize the boy as his legitimate son, but then he had a change of heart and took the old woman back. He even recognized the child as his own, despite his earlier official protestations and oaths before the gods.

Every cock crows loudest on his own dunghill

By the time Callias reached his old age, he was said to have become a pauper. A fortune of 200 talents left by Callias Lakkoploutos had been reduced to two talents, and the populous household was replaced by the services of a single old woman. And yet he seems to have had no difficulty securing the post of an ambassador to Sparta in 371 BCE, where he claimed the privilege of speaking first. He was still the Torchbearer of Demeter after all, and a man “to whom self-praise was no less agreeable than the praise of others”. By now he was 80 years old and his days were numbered. But he reminded the Spartans of the generations of guests-friendship (the equivalent of consulship) that connected his family to their city-state, and his successful procurement of peace on two occasions in the past. Now he was there for the third time, again laboring to secure peace. His coffers may have been depleted, but his ambition and zest for life were certainly still there.   

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