The Seven Sages of Ancient Greece: Wisdom & Impact

The Seven Sages of ancient Greece were a set of extraordinary and infamous men. We remember their wisdom and its impact on the ancient world.

Nov 26, 2022By Aiden Nel, BA Classical History and Psychology, MA Classical History
blondel solon moreelse periander painting

 

The Seven Sages of ancient Greece were a collective of influential philosophers, and lawmakers, active in the Greek archaic period (6th-5th BCE). It is likely that the concept of the seven sages first developed in ancient Mesopotamia, where they were called the Apkallū, a group that existed before the great deluge. The Seven Sages were revered for their practical wisdom, which has survived to this day in the form of popular maxims such as “nothing in excess” and “know thyself”.

 

The Foundation of the Seven Sages in Ancient Greece

seven sages mosaic of baalbek 3rd bce
Seven Sages Mosaic of Baalbek dating to the 3rd Century CE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Throughout ancient history, the Seven were noted by the likes of Herodotus, Plato, and numerous other writers such as Diogenes Laertius. However, there is some dispute over who should be a sage. There is a canonical set of seven sages, but more than 23 individuals at one time or another were included in different versions of the list of seven.

 

Despite such fluctuations, four of the seven persist in almost every version: Thales of Miletus, Solon of Athens, Pittacus of Mytilene, and Bias of Priene. The remaining three are usually Chilon of Sparta, Cleobulus of Lindos, and Periander of Corinth. These three figures are often taken out and replaced because all three were considered tyrants and oppressive political rulers. Their infamous reputations are why they were often switched out from more pleasant figures such as Anacharsis, Myson of Chenae, or Pythagoras.

 

As is often the case with the ancient past, myth and reality began to blur together and stories of the Seven Sages should be taken with a healthy grain of salt. The introduction of the Seven Sages marked a turning point in ancient Greece’s culture and identity. It illustrates a point where stories about ancient heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles no longer seemed convincing or meaningful to members of the political assembly. Therefore, academics like Plato and Herodotus turned to new heroes plucked from their recent past.

 

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They were far enough away in history to be reinvented as semi-mythical yet were still recent enough to be grounded in contemporary thought. Thus, the Seven Sages became a new way of introducing practical and abstract wisdom through maxims while maintaining Homer’s traditional oral narrative format.

 

1. Thales of Miletus (624 BCE – c. 546 BCE): “To Bring Surety Brings Ruin”

jacques de gheyn thales seven sages
Thales Milesius, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

According to Herodotus, Thales was the son of influential Phaeacian parents. They were Examyas and Cleobulina, who claimed to be the descendants of the mythical king Cadmus. Although most believed Thales was a native of Miletus, Diogenes suggests that he became a citizen in his adulthood. Thales was considered the first Wiseman of the seven sages, receiving the title from the Archon of Athens, Damasias.

 

After spending time involved in politics, Thales dedicated himself to understanding the natural world. Many say Thales never wrote anything down, while others argue that he wrote at least three now lost works, titled Nautical Astronomy, On the Solstice, and Equinoxes. Eudemus claims that Thales was the first Greek to study astronomy and  Thales is credited with discovering Ursa minor, the interval between the solstices, and with working out the ratio of the sun’s size to the lunar orbit.

 

Many believe Thales was the first to divide the seasons and divide the year into 365 days.  Pamphile claims that Thales studied geometry in Egypt and discovered how to inscribe a right angle in a circle. Although Thales is celebrated by some for his work on scalene triangles, most authors argue that Pythagoras discovered these fundamentals.

 

Thales was one of the first Greek thinkers to believe that the soul is immortal, and he even claimed that inanimate objects possessed a soul based on his experiments with magnets. He posited that water is the principle behind everything and that the world is littered with thousands of divinities both big and small.

 

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Thales, by Wilhelm Fredrik Meyer, Illustration from Illustrerad verldshistoria utgifven av E. Wallis. volume I, 1875, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Thales proved to be a capable political advisor who helped Miletus avoid an alliance with the Lydian king, Croesus. A move that would later save the city-state when Cyrus gained control of the kingdom. Thales also helped Croesus’s army cross the river Halys without a bridge by diverting the course of the river upstream.

 

Scholars disagree concerning Thales’s personal life. Some say he married and had a son named Cubisthus. However, most believe that Thales never married and when asked why by his mother he said “because I like children”.

 

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Scene from Greek history: Thales causing the river to flow on both sides of the Lydian army, by Salvator Rosa, 1663-64, via Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation, Adelaide, South Australia

 

Thales was the first of the seven sages; he was the forerunner of Greek astronomy and possibly mathematics. Timon celebrated Thales’s achievements in his Lampoons, “Thales of the seven wise men, wise at [starwatching]”.

 

2. Pittacus of Mitylene (BCE. 640–568 BCE): “Know Thine Opportunity”

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Pittacus Mitylenaeus, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

The son of Hyrrhadius of Mytilene, Pittacus was an infamous statesman, lawmaker, and poet from the island of Lesbos. He worked with the Alcaeus brothers to overthrow Melanchrus, the tyrant of Lesbos.

 

Pittacus led the Mitylene army against the Athenians over Achilles’s Tomb. Pittacus suggested that he and the Athenian commander Phrynon fight in single combat to determine the victor. Phrynon was an Olympic wrestling champion and confidently accepted the challenge. However, Pittacus fought smart and hid a net behind his shield, which he used to ensnare and defeat Phrynon. As a result, Pittacus returned to Mitylene as a hero, and the citizens made him their leader.

 

Pittacus ruled the city for ten years before choosing to step down. During his tenure, Pittacus brought order and new laws to the city, such as doubling the penalty for any offense committed while intoxicated.

 

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Portrait of Pittacus, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, roman copy of a Greek original, Late Classical Period, via quotepark.com

 

After stepping away from politics, the city of Mytilene awarded his service with a parcel of land outside the city. Pittacus decided to establish the land as a sanctuary, which was called the shrine of Pittacus. He is remembered for his humility and commitment to the laws he helped establish. When he was offered gifts from the Lydian king Croesus, he sent them back, writing that he already had double what he wanted. According to another story, after his son died in a freak barbershop accident, Pittacus freed his son’s killer saying “Forgiveness is better than remorse.”

 

Pittacus spent his later life writing; he composed over 600 lines of poetic verse and wrote a law book called On Laws. He was remembered as a hero, who encouraged humility and peace in all endeavors. The people of Mitylene inscribe his monument with the following “Shedding tears, this land that bore him, sacred Lesbos, Weeps aloud for Pittacus now passed away.”

 

3. Bias of Priene (6th century BCE): “Too Many Workers Spoil the Work”

jacques de gheyn bias of priene
Bias Prieneus, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

Ranked first among the Seven Sages by Satyrus, Bias of Priene was a famous lawmaker, poet, and politician. According to Phanodicus, Bias paid the ransom of some captive girls from Messenia. He raised the girls as his daughters and once they were adults he gave them dowries and sent them back to their families in Messenia.

 

Bias also wrote a 2000-line poem called On Ionia. He was a gifted speaker and spent the majority of his time working as a lawyer in the assembly. Diogenes says he devoted these skills to speaking on behalf of the good. Although according to legend, this is in fact how Bias died.

 

After speaking in defense of someone in court, the elderly Bias sat down and rested his head on his grandson’s shoulder. After the opposition had rested their case, the judges sided with Bias’s client, and as the court adjourned, his grandson discovered that Bias had died resting on his lap.

 

bust bias of priene marble seven sages
Bust of Bias bearing the inscription “Bias of Priene”, a Roman copy after a Greek original, from the villa of Cassius near Tivoli, 1774, via the Vatican Museums

 

Bias also proved himself a capable military and tactical advisor. When Alyattes lay siege to Priene, Bias had two mules fatted up with the little remaining food the city had and sent them out of the city gates. Alyattes fell for Bias’s gambit and believed that the fat mules implied that the city of Priene still had enough food to feed their livestock well. Alyattes sent an envoy to negotiate a truce and Bias organized a large pile of sand to be covered with grain. When the envoy saw this, he reported back to Alyattes, who quickly made peace with Priene. Thanks to Bias’s clever thinking a siege that would have starved and killed hundreds of people was avoided.

 

Bias of Priene endorsed the power of words over strength and force. He was a skeptic that coined the maxim “Most men are bad” and lived a peaceful life speaking on behalf of those who needed help. The citizens of Priene established a sanctuary for him called the Teutameon. The poet Hipponax only has praise for him writing that “in Priene there was Bias son of Teutamos, who had more sense than the rest.”

 

4. Solon of Athens (BCE 638-558 BCE):  “Nothing in Excess”

jacques de gheyn solon of salaminius
Solon Salaminius, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

Originally Solon of Salamis, Solon of Athens was arguably one of the most influential figures in the history of Athens. Solon was a historic poet, politician, and lawmaker who helped introduce a new law in Athens called the “great unburdening”, which forgave all citizens’s debts. Born and raised on the island of Salamis, Solon initially made his way to Athens as a successful trader, and his abilities as a public speaker and poet began to gain him recognition.

 

In 595 BCE Athens and Megara were in dispute over the possession of Solon’s home island Salamis. Initially, the Athenians faced constant defeat and began to consider relinquishing ownership. When Solon learned of his new city’s decision, he ran into the marketplaces feigning madness and had a herald read out his poetry bolstering the Athenians’ confidence. With Solon’s help, the Athenians recommitted to the war and defeated Megara. A year later Solon was made the Archon or chief magistrate of Attica, where he would proceed to fundamentally change the laws that defined the freedoms and rights of the citizens of Athens.

 

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Ancient Roman busts of Solon from the Farnese Collection, via the University of Oslo

 

In the late 7th and early 6th centuries, many Greek city-states observed the emergence of a new type of leader: the tyrant. These tyrants were almost exclusively wealthy noblemen who established dictatorships within their cities. Both the cities of Megara and Sicyon had recently succumbed to the rule of tyrants and before Solon became Archon, a nobleman called Cylon had unsuccessfully tried to take control of Athens as well.

 

According to Plutarch, the Athenian citizens gave Solon temporary autocratic powers, trusting that he was wise enough to create a new set of laws that would protect the city from coming into the hands of an opportunistic tyrant. This meant Solon had a difficult task ahead of him, as he had to find a balance between economic and ideological rivalries and relieve tension between the various social classes within the city of Athens and the greater region of Attica.

 

merry joseph blondel solon seven sages
Solon Legislator and Poet of Athenes, by Merry Joseph Blondel, 1828, via newyorksocialdiary

 

Solon first introduced a set of ordinances called the seisachtheia. These new laws helped reduce widespread serfdom and slavery through debt relief. In one move Solon cleared hundreds of Athenians’ debts releasing them from indentured servitude.

 

His first reforms were so successful that the Athenians asked him to reform their entire constitution. Solon began by abolishing and revising almost all of the harsh and brutal Draconian Laws in the city. They had been established a few decades earlier and were considered particularly harsh, with many minor offenses receiving the death penalty. The only Draconian Laws Solon kept were the ones concerning murder.

 

Solon also introduced a new political system called a Timocracy. This reform reduced the power of the nobility by making wealth rather than birth the qualification for holding political office. Solon also divided the citizens of Attica into four groups based on their land production: the pentakoosiomedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitae, and thetes. Each division had different rights based on how much they contributed, for example, a pentakoosiomedimnoi could become Archon but a thetes could only ever attend the assembly.

 

Although Solon’s new system still relegated the poor to a less powerful position compared to the wealthy, the Timocracy gave all citizens the power to elect their officials laying the foundations of what would later become Greek democracy. Solon also established the Boule or council of 400, which elected 100 members from each group annually and acted as an advisory committee for the Athenian assembly.

 

Solon’s new reforms also introduced trial by jury, remodeled the calendar, and created new regulations for weights and measures. He also made laws that protected children from sexual abuse and that protected the elderly.

 

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Croesus und Solon, by Johann Georg Platzer, 18th century, via the Open University

 

After Solon established his new laws, he left the country for ten years. Some argue he did so to ensure that his new laws could not be challenged, as that would only be possible if he was there to defend them.

 

Whatever his reasons, Solon began to travel the Mediterranean, going to Egypt, Cyprus, and Lydia. According to Herodotus, Solon met with the Lydian king Croesus who asked Solon “Who is the happiest man you have ever seen?” Instead of taking the clear opportunity to complement the king, Solon replied “I can speak of no one as happy until they are dead.” Herodotus tells us that Solon’s words saved the king from execution when Cyrus the Great invaded.

 

Although Solon did his best to ensure Athens’s political freedoms, within four years of his departure old tensions began rising to the surface. Many elected officials refused to give up their powers or refused to take up their office when elected. The political tension led to a relative of Solon called Pisistratus seizing control and establishing himself as a tyrant of Athens.

 

After his ten years were up, Solon returned to Athens and became Pisistratus’ loudest critic. He wrote thousands of lines of poetry ridiculing his relative and trying to encourage the Athenians to revolt against his dictatorship. Despite trying his best, Solon failed to rid the city of tyrannical rule. Not long after returning to Athens, Solon left for Cyprus where he spent the remainder of his life.  He died at the age of 80 and as requested, had his ashes spread over the island of Salamis. On his statue is the epitaph: “Salamis, isle that halted the arrogant Persian assault, Bred this man Solon, holy founder of laws.”

 

5. Chilon of Sparta (6th century BCE): “Know Thyself”

jacques de gheyn seven sages chilon
Chilo Lacedæmonius, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

Son of Damagetus, Chilon of Sparta was an influential politician and poet.  In 556/5 BCE Chilion was elected an ephor (a senior Spartan magistrate) and, according to Pamphile, he was the first ephor. Chilon is credited with changing the Spartans’ foreign policy, a move that would later allow for the establishment of the Peloponnesian League years later. He helped overthrow the tyrants in Sicyon and ensured that they would become an ally of Sparta. According to Diogenes, Chilon introduced the custom of joining the ephors to the kings as their counselors.

 

Legend says he died of happiness when he saw his son win the gold in boxing at the Olympics. Everyone at the festival honored him by joining in his funeral procession. He wrote over 200 lines of poetry and the people of Sparta remembered him by the inscription they left on his statue: “this man the spear-crowned town of Sparta sired, Chilon, He who was first of the seven sages in wisdom.”

 

6. Cleobulus of Lindos (6th century BCE): “Moderation Is the Chief Good”

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Cleobulus Lindius, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

Son of Evagoras, Cleobulus of Lindos was a renowned poet and philosopher, who claimed to be a descendant of Hercules. Plutarch remembers him as a tyrant and it is reported that he reigned as the tyrant of Lindos for nearly 40 years.

 

Cleobulus traveled to Egypt where he learned philosophy and he applied his critical thinking to his poetry. He was remembered fondly for the complex word puzzles he created. Cleobulus was considered somewhat controversial in his time as he encouraged and supported his daughter Cleobulina’s poetic career. Like her father, Cleobulina composed complex poetic riddles and puzzles. He advocated for the education of women and implied that only educated women should be eligible for marriage.  Cleobulus wrote thousands of lines of poetry and is credited with restoring the temple of Athena which was initially built by Danaus.

 

7. A Controversial Member of the Seven Sages, Periander of Corinth (627-585 BCE): “Forethought in All Things”

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Periander Corinthius, by Jacques de Gheyn III, 1616, via the British Museum

 

Periander of Corinth was the son of Cypselus, the first tyrant of Corinth. As such, Periander inherited his father’s role as Corinth’s undisputed leader, and he led the city to become one of the major centers of trade in ancient Greece.

 

Periander is remembered for establishing Corinth as an economic power, however, his life was littered with controversy. It was rumored that his mother Crateia began a sexual relationship with him while he was still an adolescent and although he appeared to enjoy this, once word got out, he became aggressive to almost everyone.

 

He married a noble named Lysida or Melissa, and they had two sons; the weak-minded Cypselus, and the intelligent Lycophron. Unfortunately, while pregnant with their third child, Periander kicked Lyside down some stairs killing her. One of his concubines fed him lies about her and paid for it when he had her burned alive. Periander regretted his actions, but this did not stop his son Lycophron from leaving Corinth for Corcyra as he no longer wished to look upon his mother’s murderer.

 

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Bust of Periander bearing the inscription “Periander, son of Cypselus, Corinthian”, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century, via The Vatican Museums

 

Under his leadership, Periander expanded Corinth’s borders by conquering Epidaurus, annexing Corcyra, and extending the city’s influences by establishing new colonies at Potidaea in Chalcidice and Apollonia in Illyria. He is credited with inventing a new transport system over the isthmus of Corinth called the Diolkos. This new system created a paved track that carried ships over land on wheeled carts from the eastern port of Cenchreae to the western port of Lechaeon.

 

Periander used the revenue from Corinth’s expanding trade to further improve the city through building new public works and funding the arts. Under his leadership, the city gained new temples, an improved drainage system, and better public access to clean water. He organized for poets and writers, such as Arion and Aesop, to come and perform at city festivals. Periander also ensured that artists would have the support and freedom to experiment and expand their skills, under his leadership the Corinthian style of pottery was created. According to Diogenes, Periander also composed a 3000-line poem called Precepts.

 

Nearing the end of his life, Periander sent word to his son Lycophron in Corcyra to take his place as a tyrant of Corinth. Lycophron would only agree if Periander agreed to leave Corinth and take his place in Corcyra. When the people of Corcyra heard of this compromise, they decided to kill Lycophron rather than have father and son switch places. Periander retaliated and had 50 Corcyreans executed and ordered 300 of their children to be taken to Lydia to become eunuchs. However, the children were given sanctuary on the island of Samos. The death of his son was too much, and Periander died not long afterwards and was succeeded by his nephew Psammetichus.

 

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Periander, The Tyrant of Corinth, by Paulus Moreelse, via the Princely Collections, Vienna

 

Periander is not remembered fondly, as his personal life was controversial and his role as one of the Seven Sages has been debated by both modern and ancient scholars. However, it was through his leadership that Corinth became a center of both political and economic power.  His epitaph reads: “Chief in wealth and wisdom, here lies Periander, held in his homeland’s bosom, Corinth by the sea.”



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By Aiden NelBA Classical History and Psychology, MA Classical HistoryAiden is a contributing writer and researcher with a passion for ancient literature and mythology. He holds a BA in Classical history and a MA in classical history, writing his dissertation on the Greek god Hermes.