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.”