Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 15

Ten years passed.  Baby Cyrus grew up into Young Cyrus, a typically typical Persian village boy whose only claim to fame was that whenever all the kids in his village got together to play King & Spearmen & Laborers & Etc, Young Cyrus always insisted on playing the part of the King.  One day one of Young Cyrus’s little friends, the son of Artembares (just some guy, don’t worry about it) refused to obey Young Cyrus.

“I wanna be king!” he said.

Young Cyrus’s response came quickly.  “Usurper!  Guards, seize this would-be regicide and hold him down while I horsewhip him!”

And for whatever reason, the other boys played along.  The whipped boy then ran home and cried and complained to his parents about Young Cyrus.  “The slaveboy whose parents belong to King Astyages was mean to me!”

“Well, clearly the thing to do is to march down to the palace with Young Cyrus, holding him by the ear like you see people do, and complain to Astyages about how one of his slaves’ sons is a little shit!” cried Artembares, because that makes sense.

And of course that happened, just like so.  Herodotus observes that it would make no sense for people to be calling Young Cyrus by his official royal name, Cyrus, and so surely he had some lame slave name, but Herodotus doesn’t know what it was.

When Astyages found out that one of his (hundreds if not thousands of) slaves’ sons had arranged for the brutal whipping of another boy, naturally he dropped everything to form a special committee to investigate.  He summoned Young Cyrus’s alleged father, Mitradates, and chewed him out for having such an unruly boy who didn’t instinctively defer to his social betters the way a good slave should.

“But I was kiiiiing!” insisted Young Cyrus, who refused to accept that he’d done anything wrong.

Something about Young Cyrus’s sense of entitlement struck a chord with Astyages.  After getting rid of Artembares with some empty words, Astyages sits Mitradates down.  “This isn’t your boy, is he?”

Mitradates insisted he was, and held to that story right to the point where Astyages signaled to the Royal Torturer to bring in the Royal Torture Pliers.  Then he broke down sobbing and confessed everything.

“There, there,” said Astyages.  “You’re right to feel so bad, yes, you’re a bad slave.  But if I execute you for your sins, will you truly have learned anything?  No, for as a slave you’re incapable of learning anything.  I’m wasting my time talking to you.  Harpagos!”

Thus Astyages turned his attention abruptly to Harpagos, who admitted it was true: rather than kill Baby Cyrus as he’d promised, he turned the baby over to Mitradates and accepted an in-retrospect suspiciously fetal corpse.

“Hmm, I think I’ll have one of my trademark sudden changes of heart,” said Astyages.  “It’s good that my grandson is alive, because my daughter hasn’t spoken to me in ten years and I’ve been starting to feel a little guilty about it.”  He clapped his hands together.  “Celebratory disco party!  Young Cyrus and your son, Harpagos, shall be guests of honor!”

However Astyages was still scheming.  When Harpagos’s son showed up for his disco cake, Astyages smiled and led him back to the kitchen and then came out a little later with a big platter of meat and some clothes Harpagos’s son wasn’t going to be needing any longer.  Astyages served Harpagos a slice of this meat, and then just to make sure literally everyone understood what was happening, he also proffered Harpagos’s son’s severed head and hands and feet.  (CANNIBALISM COUNT: 2)

Because Harpagos was some kind of sociopath, when he saw his son’s severed head and looked down and realized he’d been eating a piece of his son, Harpagos didn’t scream or retch or anything.  Instead he sat quietly, thanked Astyages for the meal, said that it was all so delicious, and then he quietly gathered up all the uneaten portions of his son and carried them home.  Herodotus theorizes that Harpagos wanted to bury his son, or as much of him as he could, but for all Herodotus actually knows, Harpagos took a doggie bag and ate leftovers for days.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 14

At this point things get a little weird.  Kyaxares’s son Astyages becomes king of the Medes.  He has no son, but instead a daughter named Mandane, about whom he dreamed a dreadfully prophetic dream.  In the dream, Mandane peed and the pee flooded the capital and then flooded all Media and then all of Asia!  I said it gets weird.  Astyages was thus extremely reluctant to allow Mandane to marry and have children, in case the children should turn out to be horrible pee-elementals who would rampage across the world.  However he couldn’t stop her from marrying forever, so he turned her over to a nice quiet Persian who wouldn’t make any trouble, Cambyses.

After Mandane married Cambyses, Astyages had another bad dream.  In this one, Mandane gave birth to kudzu, which soon covered all of Asia.  Astyages thought this a pretty bad sign, and when Mandane and Cambyses’s son Cyrus was born, he ordered his cousin and chief henchman, Harpagos, to steal his grandson and kill it and bury it somewhere.

“Seems like a terrible idea to me,” said Harpagos.  “But you’re the boss, boss.”

Cut to Harpagos and his wife sitting down for dinner, with little Baby Cyrus in a baby-caddy on the kitchen table.

“I can’t help but notice you’re sobbing,” Harpagos’s wife said.  “Is something the matter?”

“This is just a shitty situation.”  Harpagos puts his head in his hands.  “Astyages ordered me to murder his grandson, but he doesn’t have a son and so this baby is his heir and also I’m his cousin and I’d be next in line for the throne if not for this baby and if I murder the baby then it’s going to come out eventually and people will be like, he can’t be king, he murdered the heir!”

“Hmm.”  Harpagos’s wife considered.  “That does sound shitty.”

Rather than kill Baby Cyrus, Harpagos and his wife decided to mail him out to the boonies.  They sent him to a slave-shepherd they knew, Mitradates, and his slave-wife, whose name Herodotus is very apologetic to say is Spaca, because she was a slave and somebody thought that was funny.  And yes, “Spaca” translates to an extremely derogatory name for a woman which was just as offensive twenty-five hundred years ago as it is now, but Herodotus is trying to give it to us straight.

Harpagos turned Baby Cyrus over to Mitradates without explaining that he was the heir.  “King Astyages commands you to murder this baby,” he told Mitradates.  “If anybody comes along and this baby is alive, then you’ll be punished!  Don’t think you won’t!”

Mitradates took Baby Cyrus away to Spaca, who, Herodotus didn’t mention this before but it’s about to become plot-relevant, she was barren and had just miscarried and also she really wanted a baby.  (Maybe you can see where this is going.)  “Check it out,” Mitradates told Spaca.  “I was given this baby and told to murder it, but I’m not sure if I should, since it’s the heir.”

“It’s the heir?”

“Yeah, you can tell because it’s dressed in finery and also because back in town everybody’s talking about how the heir was stolen and is presumed dead.  And Harpagos, who gave me this baby, told me that Astyages demanded it be murdered.  So, yeah.  Putting two and two together, it’s pretty plainly the heir.”

Spaca of course fell in love with Baby Cyrus immediately.  “We are not murdering this baby!”  She got an idea, which she cajoled Mitradates into carrying out, which involved swapping her recently-miscarried dead fetus for Baby Cyrus, and telling people that Mitradates had killed the heir as ordered, and Spaca raising Baby Cyrus as their own.  The dead child will obtain a royal burial and the surviving one will not lose his life,” she said.  “It’s a compelling argument!”

So that happened, says Herodotus.  No way was all this made up after the fact to justify the son of two slaves (one of whom was given the worst name) later becoming ruler of the Persian Empire.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 13

Herodotus warns us that he’s done his best to reconstruct Cyrus’s origin story from contemporary accounts, but that most of those accounts were pretty clearly written with the goal of flattering the Persians, so, who knows?  Also for some reason he feels he needs to start a few centuries before Cyrus’s birth.  Flashback to the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, which apparently spanned much of the Middle East out towards India and Ukraine for centuries!  Eventually the Medes revolted, triggering the empire’s fall.  When the Medes successfully kicked out the Assyrians, all their other subjugated peoples were like, hey, we can do that, and next thing you know the Assyrian Empire was over and the region was a sprawl of squabbling successor countries, failed states, and anarchic war zones.  But then Deïokes son of Phraortes, a Mede, had the idea of getting himself named king!  Which he accomplished through the novel method of being really good at ruling his farm, until his admiring neighbors starting coming to him with problems and recruiting him to rule their farms too, and then his village was so well-ruled that nearby villages wanted to be ruled by him also, and next thing you knew he was king of the Medes!  Herodotus tsk-tsks this dastardly plot to seize power.

Deïokes had the Medes build him a palace and a small army, and then around the palace he had them construct a walled city, his capital Agbatana.  Agbatana’s walls were really cool, Herodotus has to admit: there were seven concentric walls, with each wall slightly higher than the next wall out, making a sort of cone.  Inside the central wall was Agbatana’s rich district, the palace and the treasuries and such, and the real estate value went down as you went further out.  Each wall was painted a different color: from outermost in, they were white, black, crimson, blue, red (not the same as crimson apparently), silver, and gold.

Deïokes was also the first king to pronounce that it was illegal to laugh at him or bug him; he wanted all his business done through a small cadre of stone faced messengers.  His thinking, Herodotus speculates, was that if the Medes never saw him, they would forget that he was just a regular guy and ascribe holy and/or magical powers to him, such that they wouldn’t dare rebel against him.  After fifty-three years of this (plus there was a whole secret police thing that Herodotus doesn’t have time to get into detail about) Deïokes passed away, and the throne went to his son Phraortes, named after his grandfather.  Phraortes set about conquering the old Assyrian Empire, but after twenty-two years of inconclusive campaigning fell in battle.  His son Kyaxares, another war-king, invented the idea of organizing troops into battalions and platoons and you guys train with horses and you other guys with bows; before him armies were more sort of unruly mobs than anything else.  Kyaxares conquered the bulk of the old Assyrian Empire, but when his forces were scattered and exhausted after the long campaign, the Scythians came in from the north and conquered them, and the Scythians obtained rule over all Asia.

The Scythians almost invaded Egypt, but then Pharaoh bribed them to not invade instead, so they didn’t.  Instead they looted the city of Ascalon, in Syria, and plundered the temple to Aphrodite there.  Herodotus is given to understand that this particular temple to Aphrodite was the oldest in the world, and so it’s only natural that the Scythians who looted it were struck by a divine curse, transforming them and all their descendants into women.  This was just typical Scythian behavior: they pretty much ran the Middle East into the ground, in the relatively short time they ruled it.  After almost thirty years of increasingly erratic behavior from their Scythian overlords, the Medes decided they’d had enough, and poisoned them all at a feast.  Kyaxares took over as king again, and everything was hunky-dory.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 12

Croesus shouted exhortations at the heavens, reminding the gods that he wasn’t the worst guy ever, and begging them to save him.  Apollo or someone took pity on him, and sent a freak rainstorm that allowed the Persians to extinguish the fire.

“So, Croesus, got anything to say for yourself?” Cyrus asked him afterwards.

“Just one question.  What are your soldiers doing in Sardis, right now?”

Cyrus let out a booming laugh.  “They’re looting your city and plundering your treasure!  Duh!”

“A heh, sire, well…”  Croesus snickered.  “I’m standing here in manacles.  I don’t have a city and I don’t have any treasure.”

“…I don’t follow you.”

“They’re looting your city and plundering your treasure.”

“Crap,” said Cyrus.  “That makes sense.”  He ordered his troops to stand down and cease with the pillaging, which they weren’t thrilled about.  On Croesus’s advice, he stationed guards at the exit of Sardis, whose job it was to examine Persian troops as they left the city, determine how much loot they were taking out, and seize some so that while the soldiers would get the loot they deserved, no one would end up with enough loot to fund a rebellion against Cyrus.  The pretext Croesus suggested was claiming it was a tithe for Zeus, since “Croesus demands the loot you looted” was a hard sell.

In exchange Croesus requests, and receives, permission to write an angry letter to the Oracle of Delphi, complaining about a bum prophecy that cost him his empire.  However the Pythia had a whole counterargument ready, which she laid out to rebut his assertions that her prophecy had been flawed.

1) Croesus is a descendent of Gyges, who was cursed, as related earlier.

2) If the gods hadn’t intervened, Croesus’s empire would have fallen, like, three whole years earlier.

3) And Croesus would have been killed then, instead of having his life spared by a freak rainstorm.

4) So he should be happy to just be alive!

5) Croesus asked what would happen if he invaded Syria; the Pythia said that he would destroy an empire.  He destroyed his own empire.  Prophecy complete!

6) If he’d thought about it Croesus should have sent more bribes and a follow-up question about which empire, but instead Croesus decided to be chintzy.

7) Don’t blame the Pythia for the choices Croesus chose to choose.

8) Cyrus was a mule, which is to say, a half-breed; his mother was a Median princess, and his father a Persian.  So that checked out, too.

Pretty audacious to claim Croesus was being a cheapskate, the guy who sent so many bribes to so many temples (Herodotus could just go on listing them all day, there’s a tripod of gold and golden cows and a golden shield and on and on).  And that wraps up the first big story in the Histories, all about the riches of Croesus!  But before Herodotus moves on to another topic, he wants to lay down some QUICK LYDIA FACTOIDS for us.

QUICK LYDIA FACTOIDS!  Information about Croesus’s homeland!

1) They got a little gold dust down from Tmolos but otherwise weren’t any great shakes, natural resources wise. No telling where Croesus got all his celebrated riches.

2) Croesus’s father, Atyattes, had a huge tomb rivaling the Pyramids of Eygpt in size and scope.

3) The tomb was built of stones donated by various craft guilds; the largest contribution came from the guild of prostitutes.

4) Lydian girls were super slutty, is what Herodotus is saying.

5) Lydians invented coinage as a concept, little slugs of precious metal you trade and use as a currency. Before that, people settled debts by shouting.

6) They also invented dice, to amuse themselves during a famine.  Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they played dice, and Tuesdays and Thursdays they ate food.

7) That famine wasn’t resolved until half of the Lydians got on boats and relocated to central Italy.

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I’m the listener sponsor of this week’s War Rocket Ajax

Woo! As the title of this post says, I’m the listener sponsor of this week’s War Rocket Ajax, or, more properly, Arthur Dies at the End is.  I really should have come up with some better ad copy, but Matt and Chris do yeoman’s work in attempting to describe the books.  You know B to the F, Ryan North’s book about the novelization of Back to the Future?  No?  Well, it’s a lot like that, only instead of being a detailed and chatty review of a confusingly-written novelization of an all-time great movie, it’s a detailed and chatty review of one of the foundational books of the Western fantasy canon: Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.  If you’re reading this, of course, you very probably knew that already, but if not, let me invite you to click on the handsome link up on the header there!

Also Matt and Chris got one thing wrong; the first volume of Arthur Dies at the End is on sale for $0.99, but the other four are not.  I invite you to read Something about a Sword and a Stone? which covers King Arthur’s secret origin and a lot of Merlin being a jackass, at a price so low it should probably be raised!  Up in that header you can get a link to the first few sections of Something About a Sword and a Stone? as a page here, to try before you buy.  Or heck, here’s the link right now!

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 11

So let me remind you where we are in the narrative: Croesus, king of Lydia, had decided to invade Syria with the aid of his allies the Lacedemonians, better known to us as the Spartans.  Syria or maybe southern Turkey, actually; it’s hard to say without consulting sources more obscure than are worth delving into.  The modern city of Kayseri, in Turkey, is where I’d guess we’re talking, if I had to guess.  Herodotus knows the area as Pteria.  Croesus entered Syria at Pteria, where he lit the whole place on fire.  He rounded up all the citizens and stole everything they had, then sold them into slavery.

Cyrus the Persian, emperor of the land Croesus had invaded, launched a counterattack, which was inconclusive but bloody. Croesus, feeling overextended, retreated to Sardis to wait for Spartan reinforcements.  He figured it would take almost half a year to get everything together, so he disbanded the bulk of his army for the winter.  Then a plague of serpents befell Sardis.

“That’s probably not a good sign,” said Croesus.

Then Cyrus arrived!  Rather than turn around and go home, like Croesus had expected him to, Cyrus pulled the totally cheaty move of following him to Sardis!

“Whoops!” said Croesus.

“Guess who’s conquered?” asked Cyrus.  “Hint: it’s you!”  Cyrus easily defeated Croesus’s cavalry by taking advantage of a little-known fact that Herodotus is willing to clue us in on: Camels scare the living bejeezus out of horses.  Cyrus had all his camels go up to the front of the army, and all Croesus’s horsemen were totally, immediately neutralized.  This crippling defect in the capacity of horses to wage war is why cavalry hasn’t been fielded by any nation on Earth since 300 BC.

Croesus, behind Sardis’s city walls, figured he could maybe wait out a siege, so he went word to the Spartans asking for rescue and settled in to wait.  The Spartans never showed, for reasons that we’ll get to in a bit, and Sardis fell.

Sardis fell because one of Cyrus’s troops, Hyroidaes, wanted the cash bonus Cyrus had promised to the first man inside the city.  Incentivized by the power of market forces, Hyroidaes noticed that while most of Sardis’s walls were well-patrolled, there was a whole section that was abandoned, because the popular perception was that part of the wall was unscalable.  However Hyroidaes saw a Lydian soldier drop his helmet there, and after it rolled all the way to the bottom of the wall, the soldier had hopped down, scurried along a secret path, retrieved his helmet, and scurried back up.  Hyrodiaes investigated, found hidden handholds, and next thing you knew, no more Croesus.

They almost killed Croesus when they got into the city, but then Croesus’s other son (the deaf-mute one) miraculously gained the power of speech and begged for his father’s life, so they enslaved him instead.  Then they decided to burn him alive anyway, along with a dozen Lydian boys and a lot of fruit, as an offering to the gods, but while he was about to be lit on fire, Croesus started complaining about Solon’s warning at such length and with such vehemence that Cyrus put the execution/sacrifice on hold to ask what the deal was.

Croesus told Cyrus all about his exchange with Solon, about how he’d claimed to be the happiest man alive and Solon had been all “call no man happy until he is dead,” and Cyrus found this story so hilarious he cancelled Croesus’s execution altogether.  But then!  Croesus, though spared by Cyrus, was still in the middle of a big pile of flammable materials which were in the midst of self-converting into a bonfire.  Cyrus shouted for the execution to be cancelled, but none of his soldiers could get the fire out in time!  Was this the untimely end of Croesus?

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 10

And now the Spartans!  A while back, they’d had just a terrible code of laws, total bull, but then Lycurgos (no relation to the Lycurgos who was Peisistratos’s political enemy) visited the Oracle of Delphi and they proclaimed him to just be tops, loved by Zeus.  Lycurgos, thus inspired, rewrote all of Sparta’s laws, which he could do because he was the uncle of the underage king and brother of the late king. His legal reforms were so popular that after he died, the Spartans erected a temple to him and worshipped him as a god. This part of the story isn’t connected to anything; Herodotus just thinks it’s neat.

In the generation before Croesus, the Spartans had been feeling their oats and they cast about looking for some other city to fight.  They went to Delphi and asked the Oracle there whether they should conquer Tegea, and the Oracle gave them the run-around and told them to dance in Tegea and measure its fields into plots.

Naturally the Spartans assumed this meant they would defeat Tegea easily.  But then, spoiler alert, they didn’t!  Instead the bulk of their army was captured and enslaved and Herodotus claims that the bit about dancing and the dividing of the land into plots were poetic references to the field-work they did as slaves.  The refugees from this abortive invasion returned to Delphi and demanded better advice!  The Oracles told them to find the bones of Orestes, the classical hero, which was just more runaround as they had no idea where to even start looking.  So they pestered the Pythia some more, and finally she sent them to a smooth placewhere there do blow two blasts by strong compulsion together.  The Spartans threw up their hands in frustration and scattered, vowing to regroup.

Lichas, one of the Spartans, was hanging out by a forge just staring at the smooth anvil and the way the two bellows pumped the fire in two blasts, like you do, when he got to talking to the smith there, who for whatever reason told him about this one time the smith found a coffin about ten feet long, which he’d assumed to be some kind of novelty prank coffin, until he’d opened it up and discovered a giant skeleton inside.

“Orestes!” thought Lichas, because apparently Orestes was a giant?  I do not recall that from the Libation Bearers.  Neither had the other Spartans, since when he went to tell them about it they’d laughed in his face and then exiled him when he pressed the point.  Bitter, he returned to to the smith and demanded the giant skeleton.  The smith didn’t want to hand it over, but Lichas beat it out of him.  Then Lichas took the skeleton back to Sparta, and everyone apologized, and then they invaded Tegea again, this time defeating them handily.  They were just resting from this victory when they received word Croesus wanted to ally with them.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 9

Once upon a time, Croesus said (Herodotus says), a group of Scythian refugees came to the land of Medes, at the time ruled by Kyaxares son of Phraortes son of Deïokes.  Kyaxares initially was a great host to these refugees: he offered them asylum and sanctuary in his household, and all they had to do was teach some of the Median boys how to speak Scythian and use a bow properly.  Scythians were renowned for their archery.

Things went on pretty well for a while, until one day the Scythian group went out hunting and returned empty-handed.  This was totally unusual; the Scythians normally hauled in a big pile of boar or mammoths or saber-toothed tigers or whatever.  Kyaxares thought the Scythians were holding out on him, and chewed them out for their ingratitude.

“How dare he talk to us like that!” the Scythians said to one another, and vowed to get revenge, prank war style.  Prank number one: murder one of the boys they were teaching archery, skin him, cut him up, prepare him as if he were a boar, and give the basket of meat to Kyaxares!  Then before Kyaxares could figure out why his sausages tasted a little off, the Scythians relocated to Sardis in Lydia, where they sought all-new asylum with the local king, Alyattes (Croesus’s father, you may recall).  (CANNIBALISM COUNT: 1)

For whatever reason, Atyattes went to war to protect his Scythian guests, even after he found out that they’d tricked Kyaxares into cannibalism.  The Lydians and the Medians fought inconclusively for six years, until in the middle of a battle they experienced a total solar eclipse, which freaked both sides the hell out and led to peace talks post-haste.  Herodotus has some names to go with these peace talks: Syennesis the Kilikian and his comrade-in-diplomacy Labynetus the Babylonian.  They arranged for Aryenis, Croesus’s sister and Atyattes’s daughter and I think the second named female character so far, to marry Kyaxares’s son Astyages, drawing the two nations together.

Croesus’s brother-in-law Astyages eventually became the king of Medes, and eventually Cyrus conquered Medes and imprisoned him, which is a story that Herodotus thinks should wait for another time.

Instead I’m going to rewind and give you a quick blow-by-blow as to that story about the Athenians that I mentioned before.  If I put it off any longer I’m going to forget about it.

In Croesus’s day, the despot of Athens was Peisistratos son of Hippocrates, whose birth was marked by ill omens Hippocrates chose to ignore.  Peisistratos became despot during a time of political upheaval in Athens: the beach-dwelling Athenians, led by Megacles son of Alcmaion, were locked in mortal combat with the plains-dwelling Athenians, led by Lycurgus son of Aristolaïdes.  Peisistratos, a minor war hero, declared himself the leader of the hitherto-unknown mountain-dwelling Athenians.  He faked an attack on his life, and used public sympathy to incite a riot that led to his seizing power in the Acropolis.  As a brutal dictator who seized power by force, he was actually pretty okay, though: he didn’t upset the apple-cart, leaving existing laws and judges and so on in place.

Megacles and Lycurgus teamed up to kick him out of Athens, but then they fell back into their internecine fighting.  Megacles recruited Peisistratos over to his side, by swearing fealty provided Peisisatros married Megacles’s daughter.  He was amenable, but they still needed to disenfranchise Lycurgus.  Their solution: Megacles and Peisistratos threw a parade!  They recruited Phya, an exceptionally lovely Athenian giantess, to dress up like Athena and lead a pro-Peisistratos parade through the streets of the city. She shouted that she was Athena, come to deliver the rightful ruler of Athens to his throne.

The Athenians loved street theater, so they ate this up with a spoon.  Next thing you knew,  Peisistratos was back in power!  Until his new wife, Megacles’s daughter, got tired of how he refused to have sex with her, and complained to her mother about him.  Megacles found out, and next thing you knew, another insurrection in the streets and Peisistratos deposed. Moral of the story: have sex with your wife.

Peisistratos fled to Eretria, and then ten years later returned at the head of a mercenary army.  Third time was the charm: this time Peisistratos kept a bunch of mercenaries around, paid with city funds, and also he sent the sons of some of his political enemies out of Athens to live as hostages in Naxos.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 8

Croesus’s question for the Oracle of Delphi was actually a two-parter:

A) Should Croesus attack the Persians?

B) If so, whom should he ally himself with?

The Oracles (suddenly they are plural) accepted the gifts and heard Croesus’s questions, delivered by his treasure-laden envoys.  They considered, and gave a two-part answer.

A) If Croesus attacks the Persians he’ll destroy a great empire.

B) Croesus should make friends with the most powerful people.

Hilariously, these answers are pretty clearly the Oracles trying to wring more bribes out of Croesus.  I mean, come on — destroy an empire?  Which one?  His own, or the Persian?  Befriend the most powerful?  Well duh, but who are they?  “Answer like that, you may as well flip a coin!” said Croesus when he got the results back, according to Larry Gonick (who did everything I’m doing here, but better because he did it in comic-book form; look it up).

However the king of Lydia was apparently more credulous than that, for his response was to send still more cash, as a tip. In exchange for which, Croesus was made an honorary Delphian, including free Oracle consults and the right to front seats at the games.  He asked the Oracles one last question, about how long his reign would endure.

The Oracles answered with some nonsense verse about until a mule of the Medes was king, Croesus had nothing to worry about, but as soon as a mule became an autocrat, he should hit the ground running.  Naturally Croesus assumed this meant his line would continue forever, a single long dynasty surviving until the heat death of the universe.  As to the question of whom to ally with, he considered several Greek peoples, triggering a whole brief essay by Herodotus on the different lineages of the Lacedemonians, Athenians, Dorians, Ionians, Pelasgians, Hellenes, and how the groups interrelated and overlapped and man, it’s pretty dull so let’s skip it.  There’s a story about the Athenians and another one about the Lacedemonians which are kind of okay; I’ll cover those in a bit.

He ends up picking the Lacedemonians, known to us in the modern day as the Spartans, as his best bet for strong allies.  He sent an envoy to Sparta laden with still more bribes and a very complimentary message.  The Lacedemonians had heard about the Oracles’ declaration with regards to Croesus needing to pick the strongest Greeks, and of course they were quite flattered Croesus had thought of them.

As the Lacedemonians cast about for a nice gift to send Croesus in exchange, Croesus mobilized his forces to invade Syria.  One of his advisors, Sandanis, took Croesus aside on the eve of the invasion.

“Listen, boss.  You know how you’re the wealthiest king in human history, famed for his ability to send cartloads and cartloads of gold out of his seemingly inexhaustible treasury?”

“What about it?”

“So, Syria.  You know what they have in Syria?  They have pants.  Breeches made of leather.”

Croesus shrugged.  “I’m not seeing where you’re going with this.”

Sandanis sighed.  “Okay, let me try again.  Let’s imagine you do conquer Syria.”

“I’m totally going to conquer Syria!”

“Sure.  Okay.  You’ve occupied Syria.  Then what?  They don’t have any gold.  They don’t have any stores of wine.  They don’t even have any figs!  Why should a rich country invade a poor one?  It just doesn’t make sense!  This is a fight we’re not going to get any profit from.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” replied Croesus.  “But I have three counterarguments.  First, the map of Lydia has this concavity on the bottom that is unpleasant to the eye, all asymmetrical.  We add Syria to it, concavity filled, it looks great, we all get some tacos.  Second, I don’t know if you heard about this, but the Oracle of Delphi said my dynasty will endure forever pretty much, so this is a no-risk proposition.  And third, Cyrus the Persian is a jackass and I’ll tell you why, in a story I’ll deliver in the next blog entry.”

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, CLIO part 7

Adrastos, Atys, and a picked crew of young men with dogs went out boar-hunting.  They circled Mount Olympus (which is where the boar was), found the boar, cornered it, and readied to kill.  And then, as I’m sure you totally didn’t anticipate, Adrastos accidentally misses the boar with a spear and instead kills Atys!  Who could have foreseen, etc, etc.  The surviving members of the hunting party very dolefully returned to Sardis and told Croesus what had happened.  Croesus went on a long monologue about how much Zeus sucked for letting this happen.

Adrastos was extremely apologetic, offering to exile himself, or stand still while Croesus hammered spikes into him, or whatever Croesus wanted.  But Croesus was merciful, and told Adrastos that he knew it had been an accident; Croesus didn’t blame Adrastos.

Then at the funeral Adrastos leaped onto Atys’s coffin and slit his own throat.

A couple of years went by, during which everyone in Sardis was very quiet.  Then Cyrus the Persian, son of Cambyses, deposed his own grandfather and one of Croesus’s neighbors, King Astyages son of Kyaxares.  The Persians were an ascendant power, looming on Croesus’s eastern border.  Should Croesus attack them, and snuff out their power before they became too strong?

To answer this question Croesus consulted a whole set of oracles.  The Oracle at Delphi, the Oracle at Abi of the Phokians, the Oracle at Dodona, the Oracle of Amphiaraos and the Oracle of Trophonios.  He sent messengers to the Oracle at Branchidai in the land of Miletos and to the Oracle of the shrine of Ammon in Libya.  For each Oracle he had a splendid bribe (this is the origin, by the way, of the idiom the riches of Croesus if you happened to have been unaware; dude had so much gold and silver to lavish on oracles!) and a single question.

Croesus had a calendrical scheme whereby he sent all his messengers out to ask their question on the same day, once they were all in place, one hundred days after he conceived this plan.  The question: what was Croesus king of Lydia doing right that second while the question was being asked?  Herodotus doesn’t know what all the other Oracles said, but he knows that the Oracle at Delphi had this answer:

“But the number of sand I know, and the measure of drops in the ocean; the dumb man I understand, and I hear the speech of the speechless.  And there hath come to my soul the smell of a strong-shelled tortoise boiling in a bronze cauldron, and the flesh of a lamb mingled with it.  Under the bronze it is laid; it hath bronze as a clothing upon it.”

Which, when Croesus heard it, he was very pleased, on account of that was exactly what he’d been doing: cooking up some tortoise-and-lamb stew in a bronze pot with a bronze lid.  So he decided that Delphi was the Oracle for him, and sent them more bribes and another question, this time about whether he should attack the Persians, which was what he wanted to know anyway.  Herodotus once again provides an inventory of the oracle-bribe Croesus sent: three thousand of each of all the animals that are fit for sacrifice, whole bedroom sets covered with gold and silver, golden goblets, the ashes of a bonfire fueled wholly by purple silks and linens, two gold bricks weighing about 350 lbs each, and one hundred fifteen gold-silver amalgam bricks (roughly 50% each, by mass) weighing 280 lbs. each.  Also a giant golden statue of a lion, and a big gold bowl and a big silver bowl, five silver bottles and one gold bottle, a golden statue of a hot lady and Croesus’s wife’s jewelry.  Funny story: that gold bottle is still on display in Delphi in Herodotus’s time.  It has From the Lacedemonians inscribed on it, but Herodotus knows for a fact that’s a Lydian bottle and the inscription was added afterwards by a jerk who wanted to get in good with the Lacedemonians.  The best punishment Herodotus can come up with for this jackass — who was a real piece of work, he says — is willfully not writing down his name, because while all these other ancient Greeks get to have their names preserved through the ages, Herodotus is making sure this one dude gets forgotten.  Screw you, guy!

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